Home is Where the Art is
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 10 (Oct. 2008)

Home is Where the Art is

The last time we saw the wacky zoosters in DreamWorks’ feature animation Madagascar, they were still looking for a way back to their cushy life in the Central Park Zoo after an accidental trip to the island of Madagascar. In the sequel, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, also created at PDI/DreamWorks, Alex the lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), Gloria the hippopotamus (Jada Pinkett Smith), and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) do return home in a way, but not to the home they expect.

The film opens with the penguins, who caused so much trouble in the first film, flying the zoosters off the island. Of course, with the penguins flying, everything goes wrong. The plane is rickety. The engine catches fire. Melman flies down the aisle. The plane crash-lands spectacularly, barrels straight at the camera, and the zoosters’ new adventure begins.

“The main through line is that Alex meets his parents and gets in touch with his roots,” says Eric Darnell, who co-­directed this film and the first one with Tom McGrath. Alex’s father, Zuba (played by the late Bernie Mac), is king of the lions. When he learns that Alex’s stage name is ‘King of New York,’ he believes his son has followed in his paw steps. “The truth comes out, though,” Darnell says. All the other characters have stories as well. Marty, who had dreamed of returning to the wild, joins a million-zebra herd. “He gets along swimmingly until he has an identity crisis,” McGrath says.

Melman, the hypochondriac, discovers other giraffes that are even more preoccupied with medical conditions. They ask if he’d be their witch doctor, which leads to hilarious and scary consequences.

And, Gloria the hippo meets Moto Moto (Will.i.am). “He’s the Fabio of hippos,” McGrath says. But, to complicate things, Gloria discovers she has a secret admirer, too.

Meanwhile, Zuba has an ongoing turf battle with Makunga (Alec Baldwin), another lion. “And, we have about 45 other stories,” Darnell says. “Everyone is back. We have new characters. And, they all tell stories, all kind of on the same theme, crisscrossing each other, and then it all comes together at the end.”

The theme? “To thine own self be true,” McGrath says.

In addition to the directors, characters, and voice talent, many people from Madagascar joined the Madagascar 2 crew, including head of character animation Rex Grignon, production designer Kendal Cronkhite, and visual effects supervisor Philippe Gluckman. Nol L. Meyer, who had been a layout artist for The Prince of Egypt and other traditional animated features at DreamWorks, became head of layout, and Scott Peterson, most recently an effects animator and lighting lead for Shrek the Third, joined the crew as head of effects.

Mapping the Drama
All the key leads traveled to Africa, but the trip probably had the greatest effect on Cronkhite. “I didn’t go to Manhattan or Madagascar for the first show, and I thought I didn’t need to go to Africa,” she says. “But I looked at the photos I took every day. It helped to understand the scope, the quality of the light, the size of the skies.”

Much of the film takes place at a watering hole within a game reserve, and Cronkhite centered the designs there. To create the production designs, the artists worked in Autodesk’s Maya, Adobe’s Photoshop, foam core, clay, paint, paper, and pencil.

Artists used a new tree-growing tool to quickly plant the forest behind Melman, who looks like a witch doctor, and his new friends.
In addition to the watering-hole set, the artists designed a grassy savannah that lies west of the watering hole, a volcano to the north, the plane crash site to the southeast, and a jungle, the beach, and Madagascar to the east. “We built rough 3D models for the locations and linked them in space so we knew how they related,” Cronkhite says.

This film is more emotional and dramatic than the first, so the landscape and the color palette created by the production design team reflect that drama. The first area we see is the crash site. “We kept it scrubby,” Cronkhite says. “We wanted to reveal Africa as the characters discover it. So, in the beginning we have an overcast day, monochromatic, and everything has hard edges and right angles.”
When the characters leave the crash site, they follow a safari jeep to the watering hole. “They come up to an overlook that reveals Africa,” Cronkhite says. “You can see all the way to the horizon. It’s lush, soft; a warm, beautiful time of day.”

It’s there that Alex discovers his parents, the other characters meet the African members of their species, and the zoosters become happily ensconced within their new tribes. But then, the watering hole dries up and the wild animals become scared. Zuba steps down, and Makunga takes charge. Crazy King Julien, the ring-tailed lemur (Sacha Baron Cohen) proposes a volcano sacrifice. And, things get out of control.

When the watering hole dries up, the color palette changes into a dusty, flat, monochromatic space, and the landscape turns into cracked mud and bare trees. Alex, the former city dweller, walks off into the jungle to look for a clogged pipe, and in doing so, crosses the game-reserve boundary. “We wanted to keep the same, monochrome, flat look for the jungle, so rather than dust, we used mist and cyan and gray colors,” Cronkhite explains.

As for the animals, the style of the returning characters remained the same, but the character designers gave the new actors a little less edge. “Our African animals are more rounded,” Cronkhite says. “They have more curves than straights.”

The wild animals are also more animal-like than the city slickers. “They still express with their faces, though,” says Grig­non, who organized the animators into five teams led by supervisors, all of whom worked on Madagascar.

For Madagascar, PDI/DreamWorks made it possible for animators to create the animals’ extreme cartoony poses by devising an innovative rigging system that made it possible to do squash and stretch without having the rigs come apart. Software code in that rigging system used instructions provided by animation controls to build the exterior of a creature. Animators, in other words, sculpted the characters as they created the performances (see “Born to be Wild,” May 2005).

“We learned what it takes to do snappy animation, smear poses, squash and stretch,” says Grignon. “But this story gets more deeply involved. The characters are still zany, but we have a chance to see their hearts.”

The two major additions to the rigs included a new generation of facial animation tools that provided refined controls without changing the familiar faces, and a new bi-quad rigging system that was especially important for Marty and Alex. “In the first film, Marty was on all fours only three or four times,” Gluckman points out. “Now, he can do that anytime.”

For Madagascar, animators used two different rigs for each character: one when they walked on two legs and another when they were on all fours. Now, the new bi-quad rig made those transitions easier.

“This film feels a lot more balanced,” says Grignon. “It’s goofy, but it’s not Tex Avery all the time. We wanted to take advantage of the skills of the actors, so we settled it down. If it’s too slapstick, you don’t buy the real moments.”

…And Action
To help plan character blocking and camera moves, the directors brought in director of photography Guillermo Navarro, who won an Oscar for his cinematography in Pan’s Labyrinth. “Once a month, we’d act out scenes to find a way to tell the story,” McGrath says. “We put wigs on the layout artists. The animators got involved. We did 60 percent of the film in this high-school play type of video. In the first movie, we locked off the camera to reduce rendering time. It felt a lot like postcard shots. With this one, we had more processors.” And that gave the directors more flexibility.

For example, when they were planning the plane-crash sequence, the directors turned a couch in the art department on its back, put a lion’s mane wig on an artist playing Alex, and had Mireille Soria, the producer, play Gloria. McGrath took the role of Melman. As Navarro filmed, the crew acted out the scene. The footage he shot then moved to an editor, who cut the video into a story reel.

The wild African animals in Madagascar 2 have more rounded shapes than their zooster cousins. Animators at PDI/DreamWorks could pluck any character from a crowd and treat it like a hero.
“Normally, we’d use storyboards and then do a first pass in 3D,” Meyer says. “It would take a week. But with live action, it takes a couple of hours. And like live action, we got a lot of coverage. Unlike traditional animation, where we’d have a story and an alternate, we had eight, 12, 15 takes. Reverse, side, wide angle. The editor would ask, ‘Did you shoot a close-up of Marty?’ We’d have close, tight, wide, fast, and a high angle.”

Some of the shots in the final film look like a camera operator filmed them with a handheld camera. Others have smoother camera moves.

“The first time we see the watering hole, the camera starts over the shoulder,” Meyer says. “Then we boom up to see the huge landscape. Later, when Alex finds his parents, we have a tight, long lens and a static camera. But, when the animals are escaping from the tourists, the camera is handheld. I think the cinematography pushes the envelope for 3D animation.”

Fields of Grass
Also pushing the envelope in this film are the effects. In Madagascar, the effects crew concentrated on the jungle and on giving natural phenomena cartoony twists by creating curlicue clouds and funny dust that spiraled into artful shapes. Madagascar 2’s spacious landscapes focused the effects effort in broader directions. “The first film was all about the jungle and how hard that was,” Gluckman says. “Little did we know the savannah would be harder. Now when we have a jungle shot, the lighters breathe a sigh of relief.”

For the dense jungle in Madagascar, the effects crew baked background trees onto cards, a technique that didn’t work for the grass in Madagascar 2’s vast savannah. “The grass was extremely painful,” Gluckman says. “There was no silver bullet.”

To create the grass, the effects crew developed a new set-dressing tool that gave the layout and surfacing artists an efficient way to plant the grass on a 3D ground plane. “Layout artists have a library of curves that they select, place into a scene, and loft to create patches,” Peterson explains. “Then, they pass those curves to the surfacing department.” Artists in the surfacing department place geometric stand-ins that look like little boxes of various sizes and heights on the curves. The stand-ins conform to the undulating ground and extend far into the distance. The new tool then converts the little boxes into displacement maps that the effects artists plug into the fur shader. And, the fur shader fills the boxes with grass.

“The fur shader talks to a shader instancer,” Peterson explains, “and instances geometry along the curves.” The shader also randomly adds accents, such as seedpods and flowers created in the modeling department.

Effects artists at PDI/DreamWorks typically use commercial software for particle dynamics (at top), proprietary rendering software to add such effects as clustering to the particles (middle), and proprietary lighting tools to produce reflections for the final image (at bottom).

When characters walk through the grass, the grass bends and moves aside because of a tool called Smoosh, written to manage the interaction between Puss In Boots’ fur and his costume in Shrek the Third (see “Merry Tales,” April 2007) and updated for Madagascar 2. The tool uses collision detection to determine how the grass should move; that is, in which direction, how much, how fast, and whether it oscillates. “We also kick in wind from the characters,” Peterson says. “We have simple animations that provide the collision response based on the length of the grass.”

As the grass recedes into the distance, the blades become wider and farther apart to shorten rendering time. To render the fields, the crew used a technique by the studio’s researchers, Feng Xie, Eric Tabellion, and Andrew Pearce, titled “Soft Shadows by Ray Tracing Multilayer Transparent Shadow Maps” that they published for the Eurographics Symposium on Rendering (2007). As the title implies, the technique uses transparency to achieve anti-aliasing for the grass blades and eliminate buzzing. By using shadow maps, the technique keeps the rendering cost lower than with stochastic raytracing.

To fill the big skies over the capacious plains with clouds, the effects team began by creating 3D volumetric clouds and then later moved to matte paintings. “There was so much complexity on the ground, we lowered the contrast and detail in the sky,” Peterson says. The 3D clouds provided a starting point for the painters.

“We could get amazing visual results and behaviors with the 3D clouds,” Gluckman says. “And, the clouds are objects, so set dressers could place them in the set like they do with trees. But it was an extraordinary effort to light the clouds all the way. So, we’d put light through the volumes, but not take it to 100 percent.”

The effects artists created the clouds using volumes inside volumes. Peterson explains by drawing one cloud circle. Then, he draws little circles of clouds on the edges of that large circle, and draws more circles inside. “We rendered the clouds as spheres of density,” he notes. “We had millions in a single cloud to provide detail.” A new lighting tool gathered light from the environment and transmitted it into the clouds.

Keeping It Simple
In addition to the grass and clouds, the effects department handled crowds, trees, fluids, cracked earth, smoke, mist, and dust.

The studio’s crowd system distributes and plays pre-baked animation cycles, but in the past, animators could change little more than eye direction in the simulated crowds. With this film, the animators gained the ability to use the data assigned to each character by the system, which gave them, in effect, a quick start for working with individual characters in small groups. “Toward the end of the movie, we have 20 tourists close to the camera,” Gluckman says. “We used the crowd system to rough-in the animation, and then we handed it to animators to refine.”

For the trees, Peterson and the effects team completely changed the procedural system they had developed and used on previous films. Instead, using tools inside Maya, the artists interactively modeled the trees.

“The modelers created the trunks for the procedural system anyway,” Peterson says. “And, when we were trying to decide on the look for the new trees, we realized that they would model a branch, duplicate it, resize it, and stick it on itself.” So, rather than using parameters and rules as before, they built a tool they call Bonsai that makes the modelers’ techniques for growing trees even easier. “We just click on a branch and add more,” Peterson says. All told, the crew created close to 60 species of trees and five or six varieties within a species. “There was a lot of copying and pasting going on,” he says.

Peterson also devised a simpler method for working with fluids, to splash lava from a volcano, pour water from a dam, and so forth. Working within Maya, the effects team used smooth-particle hydrodynamics to put fluid forces onto particles. And, they also used a new tool that Peterson created.

“A lot of people do fluid research to simulate fluid dynamics using physics,” Peter­son explains. “But, I know how I want a splash to look. So, I thought, ‘Let’s build a force that puts particles into a fluid-like shape without regard to physics.’ Because I’m not concerned about proper [physical] forces, it works very fast.”

To do that, Peterson wrote a field in Maya that creates chains, that is, strings of particles. “It looks at the particles and tries to find local patterns,” he says, “and then nudges the particles into chains to enforce that grouping. It looks very natural.”

For the parched earth, however, the crew brought texture maps into Side Effects’ Houdini to crack the ground geometry. They created volcano steam with wispy curves rendered as tubes of density. And, a new tool written by effects artists Greg Hart and Nick Pavlov automatically rotated particles in a dust cloud created by the plane crash to create a vortex.

“We use our own tools for rendering, but for particle simulation, we use third-party tools,” Peterson says. “We do a lot with particles in the render stage, though. We have filtering tools for clustering. We drive normals off particles and project particles. And, we light all the geometry in proprietary software.”

The Madagascar 2 crew at PDI/DreamWorks, many of whom also worked on the first film, could have relied on tools and techniques that helped Madagascar score nine Annie nominations. Instead, they pushed the state of the art with new characters, a more demanding location, and a multilayered, emotional story. By incorporating live-action camera techniques and the expertise of an Oscar-winning cinematographer, they enlivened the visual quality of the film while simultaneously giving the layout artists a method for quick experiments. And the technical crew, while appreciating the need for realistic landscapes, found ways to accomplish the realism without using compute-intensive physical simulation.

The movie may be wacky, but the homespun production was definitely smart.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net .