A Walk on The Wild Side
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 5 (May 2006)

A Walk on The Wild Side

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.

Canadian Connections

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 zoo version 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 different from Madagascar. Their look was zany and cartoony, and really 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.

Lush Life

That lush style was a goal from the beginning for the team at Core. "The mandate from production was to try to make it not photoreal, but as richly complicated a picture as we possibly could," says Core’s Brian Smeets, VFX supervisor for the picture. "The characters have millions of hairs, and the environments have millions of blades of grass, and there are very rich jungle scenes with all sorts of trees and bushes. The complexity of our picture really makes it stand out."

The Wild’s characters have realistic-looking fur, feathers, and scales.But their faces are more expressive than those of photoreal animals, and their features are just slightly exaggerated.In a way, they resemble very high quality stuffed animals—albeit ones that can move and talk. "It’s an interesting kind of look," says Core’s Warren Leathem, supervising animation lead on the project. "You’re not doing a National Geographic kind of thing, and you’re not completely cartoony either."

Wild Numbers
Number of hairs on Samson, the lion,
that had to be individually rendered:
6 million

Number of hairs on the hairiest
animal in the film (a poodle):

Number of work hours it took to
make The Wild: 1.5 million

Core Feature Animation staff
The Wild:
Approximately 30

Core Feature Animation staff during
the making of The Wild:
Approximately 300

Total staff members who worked on
the picture:

The team followed a similar tack for character movement. "We wanted the characters to move as animals would," says Leathem,"but not be too restricted." As Goldman puts it, "We did allow certain 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 might use 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-film production, but most often for visual effects. Core built its own production pipeline based on Houdini, the program’s new DigitalAssets feature, and some proprietary Core tools,as well. The decision to use Houdini for animations well as effects might seem risky, but it was prompted by several factors, not the least of them geography. Both Core and SideEffects, as Toronto-based companies, already enjoyed a good working relationship.

Side Effects programmers worked closely with the team throughout production, and helped solve problems as they occurred."We had their programmers on-site here,"says Leathem. "For a lot of the things that we wanted to build into Houdini animation-wise, they were right here and we could actually just bring them over to our desks and show them what we wanted, rather than trying to 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’s unheard of, especially for a shop like Core that only had about 30people when we started out."

By the same token, Side Effects enjoyed the benefits of software development in a real-world scenario. "It was a good symbiosis between the two of us," says Leathem.

Side Effects concurs. "While helping Core work on The Wild,our on-site developers gained in-depth production experience that has helped make Houdini a better product," says Cristin Barghiel, director of product development at Side Effects. "Key Houdini features such as Digital Assets, Flipbook Blocking,Attribute Transfer, and UV Pelting were developed as a direct result of our partnership with Core."

Goldman says that Houdini turned out to be a good choice for a start-up production group that was trying to keep costs reasonable. Another plus, he notes, was that using one package made it unnecessary to spend a lot of time and energy making different brands of software packages work together, a process he describes as a nightmare. "We needed to have a software package that gave us the gamut of solutions and wasn’t going to be so cumbersome in terms of blocking and piecing together various components," he notes.

Work on The Wild Side

After Core received the initial sketches and maquettes of the characters, the modelers began their work. In the early stages of making the movie, says Smeets, a few modelers used Houdini,but the majority used Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s Maya, because that was what they were most comfortable with."But that is probably about where it stopped," he adds. The rest of the picture, for the most part, was made in Houdini. All the UV texturing, rigging, animation,finaling (including fur),visual effects, and lighting were done in that program.Most of the departments also used Houdini’s Halo procedural compositor to create"slap comps" (rough composites)that could be used to approve content before it moved from one department to the next. Final compositing was accomplished in Apple’s Shake, and rendering with Pixar’s RenderMan.

Once the models had been created and their UV textures applied, they went to the rigging department. Although the animals in The Wild were made to look and behave somewhat realistically in terms of their basic structure, they weren’t designed to match real-world animals bone for bone, according to Leathem.

The basic rigging kept evolving, however. "As we went along in production and the animators kept pushing the characters and their performances, more controls were added," explains Leathem. A tricky aspect of this, he adds, was making sure that the new controls didn’t destroy animation that was already final or in progress. "So most new controls were additive—to enhance what was already there," he says.

There was some trepidation on the part of animators when it came to using Houdini, known as a rather technical package,notes Leathem. "So, for animation, we stripped out anything that animators didn’t need to see," he adds. "They didn’t need to know how the bones were hooked together or anything like that." To do this, the team used Houdini’s OTL (Operator TypeLibrary) feature, which allowed them to promote all channels and parameters that were animatable to an upper level, where they were all an animator could see.

"We wanted to make it as clean as possible so they could jump in and start animating without worrying about anything else," says Leathem. "It was strictly the keys that you wanted to touch, which still came out to quite a lot because I think we probably had at least 1000 channels for the main characters that you could animate if you wanted to." Both IK and FK were built into the one OTL, so that animators could use one or the other,or a blend of the two.

Wild Things

In terms of animation, the most difficult character was definitely Larry, the anaconda. Says Leathem, "I know he was easier for the finaling guys, because he had no fur, but animating a snake is a tricky thing." The task might, at first glance, seem easier because snakes have no arms or legs, but a snake’s center of gravity keeps shifting. Larry’s locomotion also presented a challenge. He couldn’t be made to slither as quickly as his four-legged counterparts could walk or run and would have, in fact, been left behind more often than not. The solution was for the snake to ride on Bridget’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 this story 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, theatrical 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 certain extent in the movie, his face is far more expressive than areal snake’s. "One of the things we did with Larry was make his eyes bigger, make them bulge out a bit more," explains Leathem."We wanted to have some personality in these characters." To that end, getting the characters’ eyes to look right, to convey life, was vital. "The director was very specific about this," says Leathem,"because, as they say, the eyes are the windows of the soul. You communicate through the characters’ eyes. So at the tail end of the pipeline, the lighting people spent a lot of time getting the eyes 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 film with furry beasts is going to present hair challenges,and Samson’s impressive mane was one of the biggest because it involved getting six million hairs to look and move realistically."If he turns his head to look over his shoulder, just getting the hair not 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 accordingly without hairs passing through or intersecting was tough.Animators helped a little, says Smeets, by moving the shoulder a bit 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 a climactic volcanic eruption scene. "I think we were one of the first companies 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 the characters; the rocks fall, split apart, and roll, then come to a stop right in the camera’s field of view." All this would’ve been very difficult to do without this aspect of Houdini, he notes. "That was cutting-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 regulation variety jungles, were a vital part of the overall film. Says Farmer," Spaz, the director, is a big fan of soft-focused backgrounds. We had talked about how CG has a very crisp quality to it—a lot of hard surfaces. We wanted to soften up everything a little bit. We put 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 realism and fantasy for the backgrounds as for the characters."You’re not sure whether you’re looking at a real back ground or a CG background," says Farmer. "We tried not to overpower the frame, but rather just set you in the world that you needed to 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 in many of the same shots was one of the
technical achievements.

A Visual-Effects Vision

The creation of that world is one of the filmmakers’ primary achievements. "Our background is in visual effects, and there is a part of that that’s a part of this movie," says Farmer. "It’s like a visual-effects animated film. It’s got a quality about it that leans a little more toward the visual reality side of things versus the animated side of things. And yet, we’ve blended those two worlds 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 film, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a visual-effects film, either. We’re kind of combining the best of both those worlds to make its own medium."

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