A New Focus
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 2 (Feb. 2008)

A New Focus

Tales of the Riverbank is a feature film remake, directed by Spitting Image’s John Henderson, of the much-loved 1960s British television series. This time, its animal characters undergo a 21st century makeover through a combination of puppeteering and 3D animation, the latter of which was completed by postproduction company Prime Focus London.

The film tells the story of three friends—Hammy Hamster, Roderick Rat, and GP the Guinea Pig—who, having been swept downriver in a violent storm, embark on an epic journey in search of their lost homes. The animals’ adventures include encountering the evil Fat Cats and their WMD (waffle, marmalade, and doughnut) factory.
Prime Focus London created visual effects across 1500 shots. This work mainly entailed building 3D characters and environments, 2D compositing into bluescreen, and an end-to-end digital intermediate, which required a three-month conform and a 20-day grade. The project’s immense scale gave Prime Focus London an opportunity to work with its India postproduction partners in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Parel, which was crucial to delivering the work on schedule and within a competitive budget.
The majority of the 2D work involved multiple rig and puppeteer removal on more than 1500 bluescreen shots. These keyed-out elements were then tracked with 2d3’s Boujou and composited into real riverbank backgrounds using a combination of Autodesk’s Smoke and Inferno, along with Eyeon’s Digital Fusion. But each composite was complicated by the fact that characters had furry edges and  often had to interact with water. 
Tales of the Riverbank received a digital makeover recently, as the furry characters were crafted using a combination of CG and puppeteering. At top, fluid simulation created the boiling marmalade, and CG was used to help build the scene at bottom.
The modeling, says head of 3D John Harvey, was done in Autodesk’s Maya and Softimage’s XSI, and animation in XSI. Pixologic’s Zbrush, Adobe’s Photoshop, and XSI were used for texturing. The artists later rendered the 3D imagery using Mental Images’ Mental Ray.Nearly 1200 shots were finished in India using Prime Focus London’s pipeline. Indian producers in each of the region’s four facilities regularly reported to London’s main production department with shot status updates. Additionally, London VFX artist Ben Murray was stationed in India to supervise the compositing and to help ease communication with the London VFX team leader, Derek Moore. 
The remaining 300-plus shots were the most complex and were handled in London so that the client could have direct access to work in progress. These often involved extensive CG set builds and fluid simulations—for example, constructing the entire WMD factory, including aerial shots and boiling, flowing marmalade.
The fluid sim was handled using RealFlow from Next Limit Technologies.Prime Focus London’s CG department built and animated the owl, voiced by Stephen Fry. The bird was anatomically correct, built up from a skeleton, with muscle groups added first, and then feathers later. In fact, the result was so realistic that it didn’t sit coherently with the more stylized puppets, so the owl’s build had to be tweaked to give it a slightly more cartoon feel.
“We used our Indian partners for smaller elements, such as the balloon, but we needed to centralize creative control for the owl, so it was worked on exclusively by our small London team,” explains  Harvey. “It was the first time we’ve ever been asked to pull back on realism.”
The DI was completed entirely in London because it could not be isolated into elements for India. Every shot contained visual effects, so the conform was, in effect, built up in layers over three months as the VFX developed.
Simon Bourne led the intensive three-week grade, which required a further week for additional shots and final tweaks. The goal was to create a warm and inviting look that would make young viewers feel like they were in a happy place. Much emphasis was focused on the puppets’ eyes and fur (simulated within XSI) to maintain crucial detail while retaining the richness and subtle contrast of the overall look. “When combining the tricky brief with technical tasks like grading background plates and the composited shots, it was a huge challenge to bed-in all the elements in order to achieve the final result,” he explains.