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Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 10 (Oct 2006)

Painting a Picture


Out of left field, so to speak, at SIGGRAPH this past summer, came Everyone’s Hero, a full-length CG film that caught many people’s attention with its unique look—described by nearly everyone as “Norman Rockwell-esque.” The film, about a boy who travels across the US to return Babe Ruth’s bat to him, uses a bright color palette that is softened to create warm, painterly scenes that convey the sense of bygone days.

“It was nice at SIGGRAPH to have people tell us, ‘Hey, I really like the look.’ We had run as a stealth operation until then and hadn’t talked about what we were trying to do,” says Nick Foster, CTO of IDT Entertainment/Starz Media. “It was a good way of establishing ourselves as a new animation company.”

That new animation company was IDT Entertainment, spun off from telecom company IDT Corp. in 2004. In that same year, IDT acquired the Canadian animation and visual effects company DKP Studios, where Everyone’s Hero was eventually made. (Starz Media has since acquired IDT Entertainment.) Although DKP was nearly 20 years old, with a solid history of creating visual effects and animation for television and film, it had never been set up to create a theatrically released full-length CG film of this complexity.



Yankee Irving’s parents
react to the action at
the game. The creators
of the fi lm focused a
good deal of effort on
facial animation, as well
as on an overall Norman
Rockwell-type look.


“Consequently, we had to change the pipeline, making it more robust than it was when DKP was a contract studio doing simpler work, and work that was generally of shorter duration,” says Frank Gladstone, vice president in charge of artistic development at IDT. While doing so, the film’s creators worked hard to imbue the movie with the look and feel envisioned by those behind it from the start.

Everyone’s Hero began as a story that Howard Jonas, founder of IDT Corp., used to tell his children at bedtime. Somewhere along the line, he shared the tale with Rob Kurtz, also at IDT, who eventually wrote the screenplay, along with Jeff Hand. Jonas decided he wanted Christopher Reeve to direct. According to Ron Tippe, co-producer of Hero, along with Igor Khait, Jonas wanted Reeve because, “this movie’s about heroes, and there’s no hero like Christopher Reeve.” Reeve reportedly loved the story and was at work on the film when he died. Directors Dan St. Pierre and Colin Brady then stepped up to the plate. The film is being distributed by 20th Century Fox.

The movie’s main character is young Yankee Irving, voiced by Jake T. Austin, who determines to rescue Babe Ruth’s bat, which has been stolen, and return it to him in time for the deciding game of the 1932 World Series. His companions along the way include Marti, a girl voiced by Raven; Screwie, a baseball voiced by Rob Reiner; and Darlin’, the bat, voiced by Whoopi Goldberg. The movie was intentionally made without the usual topical references and double entendres familiar to CG filmgoers. “There was a sense that a lot of the more successful CG films had a sort of cynical feel to them,” says Foster. ”They were typically animals or fairy-tale creatures who felt like they’d just stepped off an LA casting couch and into a medieval or suburban set, yet still felt hip. The idea, and this really came from Christopher Reeve, he adds, was to take a step away from that and do a story that was both gentle and not cynical in terms of the characters and told a different story that, hopefully, would resonate with American families. Underscoring that tone would be the movie’s warm, nostalgic look.

Planning a Pipeline
The makers of the film faced a daunting combination of high ambition and limited budget. They approached it through prioritization and planning. According to Foster, they decided to focus on two key areas: facial and performance animation, and the overall visual appearance of the film. For the latter, “we were going for a distinct look, where the colors had a bright, crisp feel to them while also being slightly washed out—in a sense, creating the nostalgic sense you get from Norman Rockwell’s paintings,” says Foster.

The main modeling and animation tool was Autodesk’s Maya. Mental Ray from Mental Images was used for rendering, and Fusion from Eyeon served as the compositor. The pipeline and production tools—workflow and file management software, etc.—were proprietary to IDT. But achieving the desired look had more to do with processes than tools, notes Foster. It meant attention to the rendering pipeline. “And the difficulty there was how to achieve that sort of artistic control within the budget that we had,” he says. “We wanted it to look like a film with a higher budget from an artistic point of view, but not feel that way from a pipeline/personnel point of view.”


Lefty (center), one of the fi lm’s villains, grips a nervous Screwie. Many shots included
facial animation of humans and nonhumans side by side, which was done in Maya.


The answer, Foster explains, was in setting up a rendering pipeline that didn’t force computer graphics techniques onto the artists. The team tried very hard to think about what tools the artists would need, and set up the tools accordingly, rather than putting the tools in place and making artists work with them as best they could. “When you spend more of your effort creating a pipeline that supports that workflow, it gives the artist a lot more control,” he says. “You get a more artistic look on every object, on every texture in that scene, and much more lighting control.”

Another factor contributing to the soft look, says Foster, was a decision to render the frames at three-quarter, rather than full, HD resolution, then up-res them to full frame. Practically speaking, he notes, this approach “halved the size of the renderfarm.” But an additional, desired side effect was to help convey that soft look.

Play Ball
The biggest animation challenge, according to Foster, was Darlin’, the bat. The character’s face was in an awkward position for dialog when a character was holding her. “She’s also so long, relative to the size of her face,” he says, “that it’s hard to have her move around when talking. It looks unnatural, this large baseball bat swinging around in the air—not that a speaking bat isn’t unnatural to begin with.”

Animators overcame this difficulty by putting lots of expression into Darlin’s face, while minimizing the swinging and wiggling movements. The ball, Screwie, on the other hand, was lots of fun for the animators. “No arms, no legs, but there’s something about that spherical shape that lends itself really nicely to a lot of expression,” says Foster. “I was surprised at that.”

The end result is a film that’s funny, sweet, and uniquely soft and retro in both content and tone. It’s also a film that its creators believe stands up to higher budget counterparts. And, getting there didn’t take technical magic so much as it did careful planning. “It’s being clear about how you want the film to look,” says Foster. “Our goal from the beginning was not to fall into the trap of letting creative decisions early on pile up later and cause huge investments in [additional] people. Ironically, it just means we ran a production how you should run a production.”


 

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at jdonelan@adelphia.net.

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