Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 9 (Sept 2006)

Faces in the Crowd


By Jenny Donelan
Crowd animation software brings life to background characters in The Ant Bully
By Jenny Donelan
 
The Ant Bully animated feature offers an ant’s-eye-view of the world: A common frog (right) is a huge menace, and grass towers like a jungle above the ant wizard Zoc. Shortly after finishing his film Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, director John Davis received a copy of the book The Ant Bully from Tom Hanks. Though Davis and Hanks had never met, the actor/producer thought that Davis would be a good choice to develop the story, which he’d been reading to his son, into a CG film. Davis liked The Ant Bully, and devised a potential take on it within a few days.
 
There was a possible drawback: “To be honest, when I first looked at it, I thought, Oh, why did it have to be ants again?” says Davis, referring not only to the 1998 movie Antz, but to rival CG “insect movie” A Bug’s Life, which came out the same year. “But the more I thought about it, I said, ‘So what? It’s got as much to do with The Incredible Shrinking Man as it does the other bug movies.’ It’s a completely different story. I looked at it as a challenge.”

An Ant’s Life
 
In any case, ants and their way of life turn out to be central rather than incidental to the film’s plot, which pivots around issues of teamwork, cooperation, and helping others. The Ant Bully is based on the book of the same name by John Nickle. Its main character, 10-year-old Lucas Nickle (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen), is a new kid in town with no friends and a mostly unsupportive family. The one peer who does pay attention to Lucas is the neighborhood bully, who only makes his life more miserable. Lucas begins taking out his anger on the ants in his backyard, stomping out their hills and blasting them with a hose.

Meanwhile, members of the tiny community under his feet are making plans to protect themselves. Eventually the ant wizard Zoc (voiced by Nicolas Cage) uses a magic potion to shrink Lucas to ant size. The now-tiny Lucas must learn to cope in the ant community, where he experiences the incredible complexity of their society, and also their concepts of teamwork and loyalty.

The Ant Bully was directed and produced by Davis, who, with Keith Alcorn, owns the Texas-based DNA Productions, which created the movie. The film, produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman of Playtone, was presented by Warner Bros. Pictures in association with DNA Productions and Legendary Pictures, a Playtone Production. The Ant Bully also came out simultaneously in IMAX 3D.

Cleaning Out the Pipes

Before work on the film could begin, Davis and the animation team took on the production pipeline, which was completely overhauled for this project. “Our old pipeline with Neutron was pretty much everything in [NewTek’s] LightWave, using [PMG’s] Messiah plug-in,” says Davis. “That changed substantially for Ant Bully, when we switched to [Pixar’s] RenderMan for rendering output, and then started using [Autodesk’s] Maya for animation and [Side Effects Software’s] Houdini for lighting.”

 

Lucas (the ant bully) torments a colony of ants in his backyard, little knowing that he is about to be cut down to ant size.  
Images courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.
 

Prompting the changes was Davis’s desire to provide each team with its tools of choice. Lighting wanted to go with Houdini and RenderMan, and compositing wanted to go with D2 Software’s Nuke. The modelers wanted to use whatever program they were comfortable with, he notes. (The modelers eventually chose Maya, LightWave, and Luxology’s Modo.) “So we said, ‘OK, that’s what we’re going to use—now how do we stitch it together?’”

It took programmers more than a year to develop ways to get data from one place to another in an intact format, so that files could be transportable not only between departments but also off-site. “The new tools were so completely new to us that it wasn’t until halfway through the production that we got all of our file structure worked out and were using the tools properly,” says Davis. Even though The Ant Bully was four years in the making, he notes, with a laugh, “I think most of the film was really made in the last six months of production.”

Crowd Reactions

Among the vital new tools used in The Ant Bully was Massive Software’s 3D crowd animation program, seemingly a natural fit for a film involving ants. The software uses artificial intelligence to enable characters to react to stimuli, including one another, in random but rational ways. One character in a crowd might yell out something, for example, which will start all the other members of the crowd muttering, shaking their heads, and stamping their feet, but in different ways, with different timing. Since the software’s “Brain” uses fuzzy logic, each character reacts, or can react, to the same stimulus in a slightly different manner. One might look left, whereas another might look right, for instance. Massive was first developed and used in conjunction with Weta Digital’s The Lord of the Rings movies.

Mark Thielen was the crowd animation supervisor for The Ant Bully, responsible, as he says, for “getting all the masses of ants doing their things in the background.” Early on, his team and the film’s animation director, David Tart, looked over the script and the animatic to see where Massive could be used most effectively.

An added twist, explains Thielen, was that much of the earlier Massive crowd animation for The Lord of the Rings had been done with motion capture. “You can’t motion-capture ants,” he says. So Massive had to work with keyframe-animated cycles, and what’s more, the production team wanted that animation to include facial expressions, since the film was very character-oriented. “So we requested [and got] facial animation support from Massive,” which involved transferring facial animation blends from Maya into Massive. “That was a huge thing for us,” says Thielen. 

And the special orders kept coming. Originally, explains Thielen, there were three layers of characters in the film: hero and hero crowd, both hand-animated, and then a crowd that would be animated in Massive. At some point, the team discovered that the hero crowd layer was slowing down animation. It wasn’t possible to hand-animate so many ants in so little time. Thielen’s team was asked to bring some of its Massive characters closer to the screen, but at only 4000 polygons apiece, the Massive characters didn’t hold up next to the heroes. Since the hero characters were being subdivided through RenderMan, the next step was to request subdivison support from Massive.

 

Facial expression, as demonstrated here by the ants (left to right) Kreela, Hova, and Fugax, were key to telling the film’s story.
 
 
“About a week later, Steve Regelous [Massive’s founder and product manager] called to say there was a solution,” says Thielen. “We tested it, and a month later we were building shots with sub-D characters.” These characters held their own alongside the heroes; in fact, during dailies, there were times when the group couldn’t remember if a character was a Massive agent or a hero animation, notes Davis. Using Massive in this way ultimately freed up the core animation team to spend more time on the hero character work.

 

Crowd software from Massive helped created convincingly animated swarms of insects, both airborne and otherwise.
 

The View from the Ant Hill

The end result is an ant’s-eye view of the world and the story of a boy who is literally forced to look at that world from a different vantage point. Because of this unique perspective, the film is especially effective in IMAX 3D. “It looks wild,” Davis says. Filming in stereoscopic 3D, he adds, enhanced the non-IMAX version as well, because the team couldn’t use the kinds of time- and labor-saving “cheats” they had previously used for other projects. Where they would have used 2D effects, such as sprites for creating dust, smoke, and the like, they couldn’t because “if you tried to do that in 3D IMAX, it would just flatten out,” he adds. “So all of our effects, everything, had to be done in real, physical, 3D space. It kept us honest.”

As for those ants? No regrets, says Davis. “There’s a boy and a lesson he needs to learn, and ants are sort of the quintessential model of community and cooperation.” 

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

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