CG Animation - Digital artists push the boundaries of computer graphics to give the animals in The Wild a unique soft-edged style that is part cartoon, part photoreal, and totally appealing.
By Jenny Donelan
Disney creates a unique world and richly textured CG characters for The Wild
At first glance, The Wild, the latest full-length CG film from Walt Disney Pictures, looks like just another addition to the burgeoning herd of animated movies featuring wisecracking animals. And, superficially at least, its plot bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of another recent CG animal film, DreamWorks’ Madagascar—a circumstance that earned The Wild some public criticism before it even hit the theaters.
No matter, according to the film's producer, Clint Goldman, who says The Wild"stands on its own four legs" with a distinctly different message and sense of humor. Certainly no one can argue that the film has a unique look—a visually rich, soft-edged style that somehow straddles the line between photoreal and cartoonesque. From a production standpoint, The Wild also stands out as the first major full length feature to be made almost entirely using Side Effects Software’s Houdini, until this point used more for visual effects than for modeling and animation.
The film's director, Steve "Spaz"Williams, is a visual effects veteran whose credits include work on The Mask, The Abyss, Jurassic Park, and Terminator2: Judgment Day. Williams also directed the popular Blockbuster commercials starring the CG rabbit and guinea pig Carl and Ray, a background that helped prepare him for The Wild. Goldman, who also worked with Williams on The Mask and the Blockbuster commercials, produced The Wild along with BeauFlynn. Chris Farmer, yet another Carland Ray veteran, was the film's production designer and art director. The Wild, a Hoytyboy Pictures and Sir Zip Studios Production of a Contra Films Picture, was animated by the Toronto-based Core Feature Animation, with an opening sequence created by Reel FX, a facility based in Dallas.
The film's action takes place in New York City and, later, on a volcanic locale in "thewild." A group of animals from the New York Zoo sets out to find the son of Samson, their leader, a lion voiced by Kiefer Sutherland. Ryan, the cub (voiced by Greg Cipes),has been mistakenly shipped to the wild. As they seek Ryan, the animals have many adventures, including meeting up with a couple of alligators in the sewers beneath the city. The heroes include Samson’s best friend, Benny, the squirrel (Jim Belushi),quick-witted Bridget, the giraffe (Janeane Garofalo), Larry, an anaconda somewhat slow on the uptake (Richard Kind), and Nigel, a koala with a dry delivery and an English rather than Australian accent(Eddie Izzard). Actor William Shatner voices Kazar, a fanatical wildebeest ruler. Shatner is also the CEO of Core Feature Animation's parent company, Core Digital Pictures.
Shatner is only one of many Canadians, including Williams, involved in the picture. Both Core and Side Effects are Canadian companies, as well. And Canadian references are frequent throughout the movie. A zooversion of curling—a sport popular in Canada—takes place using turtles instead of stones, for instance. The penguin master of ceremony for the game is voiced by well-known Canadian sports announcer Don Cherry. And there are Canada geese who share a joke about border crossings.
Canadian connections aside, if the plot otherwise reminds you of that other CG movie in which New York City zoo animals return to "the wild," you’re not alone. "We knew about Madagascar—it’s something we lived with for a long, long time—but it didn’t change anything we were doing," says Goldman."Both movies stand on their own. There are plot similarities, no doubt. But they are dramatically, emotionally, and comedically different. And our style of animation couldn’t be any more differentfrom Madagascar. Their look was zany and cartoony, andreally fun. Our movie is maybe a little lusher and richer."
In the film, a curling match sequence (with turtles used as stones) required animators to work with the frictional properties of ice albeit on a digital level.
That lush style was a goal fromthe beginning for the team atCore. "The mandate from productionwas to try to make it not photoreal,but as richly complicated apicture as we possibly could," saysCore’s Brian Smeets, VFX supervisorfor the picture. "The charactershave millions of hairs, and the environmentshave millions of blades ofgrass, and there are very rich junglescenes with all sorts of trees andbushes. The complexity of our picturereally makes it stand out."
The Wild’s characters have realistic-looking fur, feathers, and scales.But their faces are more expressivethan those of photoreal animals, andtheir features are just slightly exaggerated.In a way, they resemble very highqualitystuffed animals—albeit onesthat can move and talk. "It’s an interestingkind of look," says Core’s WarrenLeathem, supervising animation lead on the project. "You’renot doing a National Geographic kind of thing, and you’re notcompletely cartoony either."
Number of hairs on Samson, the lion,
that had to be individually rendered:
Number of hairs on the hairiest
animal in the fi lm (a poodle):
Number of work hours it took to
make The Wild: 1.5 million
Core Feature Animation staff
before The Wild:
Core Feature Animation staff during
the making of The Wild:
Total staff members who worked on
The team followed a similar tack for character movement. "Wewanted the characters to move as animals would," says Leathem,"but not be too restricted." As Goldman puts it, "We did allowcertain types of exaggerated expression while keeping with our‘pseudo-photorealistic’ fantasy world." Characters can, for example,stand on their hind legs and use their paws as humans mightuse their hands to, say, slide a curling stone (or turtle)along the ice. But (with the exception of Larry,the anaconda) they can’t twist their bodies into360-degree knots and the like.
New Kind of Pipeline
In order to achieve that "pseudo-photorealistic"look, Core used Houdini, a tool common to feature-fi lm production, but most often for visualeffects. Core built its own production pipelinebased on Houdini, the program’s new DigitalAssets feature, and some proprietary Core tools,as well. The decision to use Houdini for animationas well as effects might seem risky, butit was prompted by several factors, not theleast of them geography. Both Core and SideEffects, as Toronto-based companies, alreadyenjoyed a good working relationship.
Side Effects programmers worked closelywith the team throughout production, andhelped solve problems as they occurred."We had their programmers on-site here,"says Leathem. "For a lot of the things thatwe wanted to build into Houdini animation-wise, they were right here and wecould actually just bring them over to our desks and show them what we wanted, rather than tryingto explain it through e-mails." Adds Smeets, "We could say, okay,we’re having a problem with this. And they could turn around afi x within an hour or by the next day. To my knowledge, that’sunheard of, especially for a shop like Core that only had about 30people when we started out."
By the same token, Side Effects enjoyed the benefi ts of softwaredevelopment in a real-world scenario. "It was a good symbiosisbetween the two of us," says Leathem.
Side Effects concurs. "While helping Core work on The Wild,our on-site developers gained in-depth production experiencethat has helped make Houdini a better product," says CristinBarghiel, director of product development at Side Effects. "KeyHoudini features such as Digital Assets, Flipbook Blocking,Attribute Transfer, and UV Pelting were developed as a directresult of our partnership with Core."
Goldman says that Houdini turned out to be a good choicefor a start-up production group that was trying to keep costsreasonable. Another plus, he notes, was that using one packagemade it unnecessary to spend a lot of time and energy makingdifferent brands of software packages work together, a processhe describes as a nightmare. "We needed to have a softwarepackage that gave us the gamut of solutions and wasn’t goingto be so cumbersome in terms of blocking and piecing togethervarious components," he notes.
Work on The Wild Side
After Core received the initial sketches and maquettes of thecharacters, the modelers began their work. In the early stages ofmaking the movie, says Smeets, a few modelers used Houdini,but the majority used Autodesk Media and Entertainment’sMaya, because that was what they were most comfortable with."But that is probably about where it stopped," he adds. The restof the picture, for the most part, was made in Houdini. All theUV texturing, rigging, animation,fi naling (including fur),visual effects, and lightingwere done in that program.Most of the departments alsoused Houdini’s Halo proceduralcompositor to create"slapcomps" (rough composites)that could be usedto approve content before itmoved from one departmentto the next. Final compositingwas accomplished in Apple’sShake, and rendering withPixar’s RenderMan.
Once the models had beencreated and their UV texturesapplied, they went to the riggingdepartment. Although the animals in The Wild were madeto look and behave somewhat realistically in terms of theirbasic structure, they weren’t designed to match real-world animalsbone for bone, according to Leathem.
The basic rigging kept evolving, however. "As we went alongin production and the animators kept pushing the charactersand their performances, more controls were added," explainsLeathem. A tricky aspect of this, he adds, was making surethat the new controls didn’t destroy animation that was alreadyfi nal or in progress. "So most new controls were additive—toenhance what was already there," he says.
There was some trepidation on the part of animators whenit came to using Houdini, known as a rather technical package,notes Leathem. "So, for animation, we stripped out anythingthat animators didn’t need to see," he adds. "They didn’t needto know how the bones were hooked together or anything likethat." To do this, the team used Houdini’s OTL (Operator TypeLibrary) feature, which allowed them to promote all channelsand parameters that were animatable to an upper level, wherethey were all an animator could see.
"We wanted to make it as clean as possible so they couldjump in and start animating without worrying about anythingelse," says Leathem. "It was strictly the keys that you wantedto touch, which still came out to quite a lot because I think weprobably had at least 1000 channels for the main characters thatyou could animate if you wanted to." Both IK and FK were builtinto the one OTL, so that animators could use one or the other,or a blend of the two.
In terms of animation, the most diffi cult character was defi nitelyLarry, the anaconda. Says Leathem, "I know he was easier for thefi naling guys, because he had no fur, but animating a snake is atricky thing." The task might, at fi rst glance, seem easier because snakes have no arms or legs, but a snake’s center of gravitykeeps shifting. Larry’s locomotion also presented a challenge. Hecouldn’t be made to slither as quickly as his four-legged counterpartscould walk or run and would have, in fact, been left behindmore often than not. The solution was for the snake to ride onBridget’s back when the group was on the move.
Unreal Effects Illustrate a Lion's Particularly Tall Tale Central to the story of The Wild is the lion Samson's secret—he's not quite what he seems. As the movie begins, we hear Samson describe his exploits back in “the wild” to his son, Ryan. We see his story unfold on screen in a fantastical, collage-like setting, in which Samson chases some wildebeests, and then literally blows them away with his awesome roar. Later he meets the biggest wildebeest of them all, which grows from 14feet to 1400, to 1401.... As viewers, we're meant to understand that thisstory may not be exactly true—a message conveyed in large part by the CG action sequences that illustrate it.
The movie's creators wanted something very different from the rest of the movie for this opening segment, according to executive producer Dale Carman. A sequence was needed to accentuate the tall tale, and set the stage for what was to come.
The group used 2D, 3D, hand-painted textures, dramatic, the atrical style lighting, and “our brains,” says Carman of Reel FX Creative Studios in Dallas, which created this vibrantly arresting two-and-a-half-minute opening sequence for the fi film.
To achieve that look, the team used Adobe's Photoshop and Core's Painter to develop a basic style. “We even cut some elements out of balsa wood and hand-painted them,” explains Carman. “The characters have a lot of 2D animation sensibilities to them. We took cues from the likes of Fantasia, some fantastic 2D qualities.”
But the painting and texturing is unlike that of a traditional 2D cartoon, adds Reel FX's Augusto Schillaci, digital/look supervisor for the sequence. “You can see that these characters are painted—they have a hand-painted, detailed look.”
“The sequence has a very theatrical approach to it,” says Carman,“almost as if everything were built out of plywood.” He describes the piece as “heavily designed and art-directed.” Lighting, done in Mental Images' Mental Ray, was modeled after theatrical lighting, so that colors could change or intensify along with the mood and action of the story.
In order to create the spot, the team built an animatic with storyboards in Adobe After Effects, then used Autodesk Media and Entertainment's Maya for modeling and animation. Each shot has approximately 20 layers, and some have hundreds. Every element was rendered separately for maximum artistic control, notes Schillaci.
The end result is a magical sequence that “sort of defi es explanation,”says Carman. “It's a new look,” adds Schillaci. “I don't think I've ever seen this on screen before.” –Jenny Donelan
Even though Larry obeys the laws of "snake physics" to a certainextent in the movie, his face is far more expressive than areal snake’s. "One of the things we did with Larry was make hiseyes bigger, make them bulge out a bit more," explains Leathem."We wanted to have some personality in these characters." To thatend, getting the characters’ eyes to look right, to convey life, wasvital. "The director was very specifi c about this," says Leathem,"because, as they say, the eyes are the windows of the soul. Youcommunicate through the characters’ eyes. So at the tail end ofthe pipeline, the lighting people spent a lot of time getting theeyes to sparkle and have a nice look to them."
Samson, the lion, has realistic-looking fur but beyond-realistic facial expressions. He can also perform some human-type tasks, such as steering a tugboat.
Any fi lm with furry beasts is going to present hair challenges,and Samson’s impressive mane was one of the biggest because itinvolved getting six million hairs to look and move realistically."If he turns his head to look over his shoulder, just getting the hairnot to intersect at that point becomes a big problem," says Smeets.The volume between the shoulder and the neck is compressed asthe lion turns his head, and getting the mane to compress accordinglywithout hairs passing through or intersecting was tough.Animators helped a little, says Smeets, by moving the shoulder abit when the lion turned his head, to widen the space and, thus,provide a slightly bigger volume for all that hair.
Effects and Backgrounds
Visual effects in the fi lm included open water, smoke, dust, and aclimactic volcanic eruption scene. "I think we were one of the fi rstcompanies to use Houdini’s dynamics operators," says Smeets."This allowed us to do real-world rigid-body simulations for when the volcano is erupting and all the rocks are falling around thecharacters; the rocks fall, split apart, and roll, then come to a stopright in the camera’s fi eld of view." All this would’ve been verydiffi cult to do without this aspect of Houdini, he notes. "That wascutting-edge stuff that we were doing at the time."
A film about zoo animals obviously required a lot of work on hair and fur. Though Samson, the lion, and Nigel, the koala (above) haverichly textured pelts, the poodle (below), which appears only briefly, had the most hairs—14 million.
The backgrounds, which included both urban and regulationvarietyjungles, were a vital part of the overall fi lm. Says Farmer,"Spaz, the director, is a big fan of soft-focused backgrounds. Wehad talked about how CG has a very crisp quality to it—a lot ofhard surfaces. We wanted to soften up everything a little bit. Weput every building we made into a slight soft-focus background."The trees, which began as 3D models based on actual varieties,were defocused in compositing to appear softer. In other words,the movie’s creators sought the same balance between realismand fantasy for the backgrounds as for the characters."You’re not sure whether you’re looking at a real backgroundor a CG background," says Farmer. "We tried not to overpowerthe frame, but rather just set you in the world that you neededto be in to believe that these characters could exist."
The creators modeled the buildings, then defocused them slightly. Lights and colors (top left) and details such as the sky (top right) gave the setting a special vibrancy that had its roots in visual effects. (Below) Having the uniquely textured characters appear inmany of the same shots was one of the technical achievements.
A Visual-Effects Vision
The creation of that world is one of the fi lmmakers’ primaryachievements. "Our background is in visual effects, and thereis a part of that that’s a part of this movie," says Farmer. "It’slike a visual-effects animated fi lm. It’s got a quality about it thatleans a little more toward the visual reality side of things versusthe animated side of things. And yet, we’ve blended those twoworlds together by making it very much a fantasy."
Farmer continues: "We’ve found a new line in the continuum,where it’s not feeling like an animated fi lm, but it certainly doesn’tfeel like a visual-effects fi lm, either. We’re kind of combining thebest of both those worlds to make its own medium."
Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer GraphicsWorld. She can be reached at email@example.com