Up-and-Coming Superstars
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 7: (Aug/Sept 2011)

Up-and-Coming Superstars

Green Party

Green Lantern, one of six movies based on comic books that fought for audience share in movie theaters this summer, landed in the unenviable calendar slot between X-Men: First Class (June 3) and Disney/Pixar’s Cars 2 (June 24). The question was: Could Hal Jordon, the first human recruited into the elite Green Lantern Corps, power people into a ticket line? That might depend on actor Ryan Reynolds, who plays Jordon—or, at least, his head does when he’s wearing his superpower-granting green ring. His body becomes a special energized suit, and that suit is digital; the suit is, in effect, a character. To move it, a team of animators at Sony Pictures Imageworks matched and extended Reynolds’ performance; a team of visual effects artists fastened the CG suit to footage of Reynolds’ head.

“The suit is digital because of the internal illumination and external energy that licks off the surface,” says David Schaub, animation supervisor. “The suit also has a semi-translucent quality that is similar to the material properties found in the rocks and buildings on the planet Oa. That unique and otherworldly quality was best achieved by making the suit all-CG. The suit itself was designed by costume designer Ngila Dickson, with all the muscles sculpted specifically in the right places.” Further, by animating a digital suit, the postproduction crew could push Reynolds’ live-action performance into superhero territory.

Jordon is one of three Green Lanterns that have their bodies replaced with CG suits. Imageworks
artists also did a body replacement for Mark Strong, who plays Sinestro, and for Temuera Morrison, who plays Abin Sur and appears at the beginning of the film. “The bulk of our  technical work was on these hybrid humans,” Schaub says. “This is a tricky registration problem because the suit needs to blend seamlessly with the photographic element at the neckline, without any obvious sliding between the two.”

On set, the actors wore gray suits with optical markers that tracking teams used to match the CG suit with the actor’s body in the filmed footage, and positioned it in 3D space as seen from the view of the live-action camera. The track gave animators a character’s position from the hips through the spine and into the head, with the neck locked into place.

“The artistry comes into how the muscles move,” Schaub says. “The animators manipulate the muscles and tendons with great attention to anatomical detail to make the characters feel organic. When people talk about motion capture or rotomation looking stiff, it’s that lack
of micro detail, the bounce, the jiggle…what you see in slow motion if you were to analyze it.
We needed to get all that musculature working so the suit didn’t feel rigid.”

 Sony Pictures Imageworks played a major role in bringing the Green Lantern’s characters and worlds to life, and recent grad Matthew Tovar was able to contribute on a fight sequence.

Animated Characters

In addition to the three hybrid characters with animated bodies attached to liveaction heads, Imageworks animators performed several fully CG characters. “All the other characters in the Green Lantern Corps are animated,” Schaub says. “There are weird alien critters, some bipedal, some quadrupeds, and, of course, they fly as well. They all needed a unique quality to the way they move. Also, there are a group of guardians that are stoic digital humans. And then there’s Parallax, a
huge amorphous cloud of tortured souls. Parallax is basically a huge effect, but the foundation
for the effect is an underlying animation system to give the character intelligence and intent.”

To produce these performances, Schaub oversaw a team of 80 animators, a majority of whom worked in Imageworks’ Albuquerque, New Mexico, studio. Three leads in each location supervised the work of smaller teams.

“A typical approach would be to have specialists, with one team working on the hybrids, and another group the animated characters,” Schaub explains, “but, instead, we made a strong effort to give everyone a taste of everything. This was the first time out for many of the animators, and it was a good show for people who wanted to get their feet wet. Some of them were mostly doing hybrid characters, but as soon as they got through that challenge and showed capability, we tried them on more animation-heavy shots.”

One of those animators working on his first feature film was Matthew Tovar, a 2008 Animation
Mentor graduate. “I was working at Sony Computer Entertainment in San Diego and was on a break when I got an e-mail from Becca Romeo at Animation Mentor saying that Imageworks was looking for animators and that she had forwarded my reel to them,” Tovar says. “When Imageworks contacted me, I told them I was interested. They reviewed my work and offered me a short-term job for
the run of the show.”

Tovar had been studying computer graphics at the University of the Incarnate Word, a Catholic liberal arts college in San Antonio, Texas, when he discovered Animation Mentor.“I had always drawn as a kid and was a big fan of Disney and Pixar movies,” he says. “Bringing characters to life sounded like fun, but I didn’t know you could make a career out of it.  I wanted to receive more training on character animation, so I decided to give Animation Mentor a shot, and I got hooked.”

Tovar’s first job was animating dinosaurs for a television series at 1080 Entertainment in San Antonio; he was studying at Animation Mentor at the same time. “I was learning on the job and learning more after hours,” he says. “I improved a lot.”

From that job, Tovar bounced to Sony in San Diego, where he animated cartoony characters for the PlayStation game Mod Nation Racers and worked as a cinematic animator for other video games, including the 2009 game of the year, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Green Lantern gave him the opportunity to stretch his skills into feature films.

“I had never dealt with Linux, so that was new,” Tovar says. “The tools they use are a little different. And, when I worked in cinematics, we didn’t deal with the lighting or rigging departments. At Imageworks, we went back and forth. Approved shots go to lighting and sometimes come back to animation. There’s a lot of back and forth because, in the end, it looks better. I enjoyed getting into the fine details to polish a shot and make the animation really shine.”

Tovar worked primarily on a long fight sequence between Jordan and Sinestro, two of the hybrid characters. “I learned a lot from my lead, my supervisors, and the other animators,” he says. “My lead, Rahul Dabholkar, was like an Animation Mentor mentor. We would get down to fine  details from one keyframe to the next.” Tovar learned, for example, when favoring one keyframe over another would help a shot, and how lighting, effects, and rendering could affect animation.

“Rahul let me know that we needed to take motion blur into consideration,” Tovar says. “We might create a gap in the animation so it wouldn’t feel so smooth once motion blur was added on; it would make the action pop more. I enjoyed getting that detail into the shots.”

Once he finished work on Green Lantern, Tovar returned to San Diego and his former job at Sony Computer Entertainment to work in video game animation. “I definitely would like to get more feature experience,” Tovar says. “But, right now, I’m doing cinematic animation, and that’s great, too. It’s kind of like movies, but for video games, and it’s fun.”

He adds, “It’s definitely a good time to be an animator.”

HERO Animation

The Mighty Thor, Norse God of Thunder, has a problem. Just before his father, Odin, planned to
crown him king, Frost Giants from the ice planet Jotunheim disrupted the coronation. So, an angry and arrogant Thor sped through a portal to Jotunheim, where he led an unauthorized attack on the inhabitants. This did not please Odin, and he banished his son to live among humans on Earth. The audience watching the feature Thor learns this back-story only after the superhero lands in New Mexico and smashes into Natalie Portman’s RV. Portman plays Jane Foster, an astrophysicist. Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, and Anthony Hopkins plays Odin. The production, directed by Kenneth Branagh, was a box-office hit.

In postproduction, the story centers on Digital Domain, the studio responsible for creating visual effects for the sci-fi action-adventure, with BUF, Fuel VFX, Luma Pictures, The Base Studio, CEG Media, and Evil Eye Pictures also contributing. Kelly Port led the work at Digital Domain, where Eric Petey, working out of Digital Domain’s Vancouver studio, supervised the animation team. “The bulk of the animation on the show took place on the ice planet,” Petey says. “We created most of the creatures and characters in that location.”

When Thor shows up on Jotunheim with his posse of gods and demigods looking for trouble, they find it—a planet’s worth of trouble from enormous, muscular bad guys. “The Frost Giants are slightly exaggerated humans, monster-y types, large, creepy men. Kenneth [Branagh] always talked about how they needed to be vicious and menacing.”

Some shots have more than 200 of these Frost Giants. “We can manage the crowds with in-house
tools, but the shots were mostly done by animators, to be honest, using generic motion cycles,” Petey says.

Animators keyframed Frost Giants in the foreground, and started with motion-captured data for background characters. The animated warriors don’t have dialog: If they spoke in close-up shots, they were actors in makeup.

“We had large guys for the motion capture, but we couldn’t use the motion directly,” Petey says. The Frost Giants are 10 to 12 feet tall. We needed to process the data on a different skeleton.”
For the rig, Digital Domain leveraged technology it had developed for TRON: Legacy that incorporates correct human skeletal dynamics (see “Inside Job,” December 2010). “We did our best to translate that onto an exaggerated human form,” Petey says.

A team of 16 animators, four of whom were interns, performed the background and foreground giants. Among the animators in Petey’s group were two Animation Mentor graduates, Agata Matuszak, who keyframed foreground characters, and Magnolia Ku Lea, initially an intern but ultimately credited as an animator, who worked on shots with background  characters.

Breaking the Ice

Matuszak graduated from Animation Mentor in July 2010 and started at Digital Domain in Vancouver in December 2010. The Polish-born Canadian hadn’t considered animation as a career possibility until a friend told her about VanArts, the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts. “I was studying pre-med,” she says. “Since I was little I always watched and drew cartoons. A friend told me about this local art school, so I thought this was my chance to follow my interests and take a path that was familiar to me. I completely fell in love with animation, and I can’t see myself doing anything  other than character animation and being a part of the filmmaking process.”

Even before she graduated, Matuszak had received two job offers: one from Rainmaker VFX to work on the film Garfield, and another to work for Veda Games, an animation studio in India. She went to India. “A lot of people thought I was crazy, but the head of the studio at Rainmaker understood and said to call when I was done there.” And, she did.

“India was an amazing opportunity, and it’s a beautiful place, but the way they see things
is different,” Matuszak says. “There are many talented people, but the animation industry [there] still needs time to get to the animation quality of our North American standards.”

Back in Vancouver, Matuszak joined Rainmaker VFX, where she worked on Night at the Museum, Case 39, and Blades of Glory. Then, the company transferred her to another division. “I was feeling like I needed something more; that there were holes in my animation knowledge,” she says.

That’s when she discovered Animation Mentor.“I wanted to take every opportunity to strengthen my skills and learn from animators who are working in studios that I dream of working at,” Matuszak says. “Going back to school was such a wonderful experience for me, and I am glad I took time off from work to focus 100 percent on school.”

For Thor, Matuszak keyframed the Frost Giants fighting Thor and his warriors. “I had never animated characters fighting, and that was a big challenge because I am not familiar with the body mechanics of fighting,” she says. “I took a lot of reference, reference of myself, from martial arts movies. This helped me get familiar with certain fighting dynamics, like punching and stabbing. When you’re doing realistic  characters, you can’t do a lot of squash and stretch. The principles are still there, but you use them in a different way—for anticipation, not shape stretching. At Animation Mentor, I did a lot of cartoony animation, so coming back to visual effects, I had to transition my mind-set from cartoony to realistic movements. The principles are still there, but you use them in slightly different ways.”

Motivated with Mocap

Also working on the Frost Giants was Ku Lea, who began her internship in October 2010. “Digital Domain first familiarized me with the tools, then how they used motion-captured data, and then how to approach that within a shot,” she explains. “I didn’t get thrown in cold, which was nice. By the time my internship ended, they had assigned me a few shots from start to finish, which was a thrill. I had no idea that I would get full shots by the end.”

Ku Lea had studied traditional animation at Concordia University in Montreal, but after working as a traditional animator for a short time, became a character designer. “I have loved films and storytelling since I was a child,” she relays. “The entire world of film was my passion as a child, and I drew a lot. When I saw there was a program where I could draw and make a film, I thought, ‘Wow, I want to try this.’”

After several years as a character designer for TV series and games, Ku Lea wanted to return to her roots, “to bring things to life,” she says. In the middle of Class Four, she was presented an offer to work on a visual effects broadcast movie. A game cinematic followed. And then, Digital Domain offered an internship.

“I had touched motion capture when I was doing the cinematic, but this was completely different,” Ku Lea says of her work on Thor. “The quality is hugely different. Definitely finer detail. The shots I worked on involved the Frost Giants, the henchmen for the main bad guy. So, they’re often surrounding him, and these characters reacted pretty menacingly.”

For many of the shots, Ku Lea started with motion-captured data. “You’re always changing it,” she says. “You never use it as is. Basically, on top of fixing things that don’t align and making movements more dynamic or smoother, often you’d have to throw out a whole section and hand-key a new animation because that’s what is needed in the shot. Also, a huge part was that the Frost Giants had to have facial performance added, and that was entirely keyframe animation. All the emotions and facials were completely keyframed. Additionally, one of the unique things on Thor was the size of the shots with the Frost Giants— they were huge. A shot could have up to 80 characters. A lot of time was spent on making each character different from the one beside him—each one is reacting but can’t distract from the main guy who you’re supposed to be focused on. You have to use a lot of animation principles. It’s satisfying work.”

Before she started on a shot, Ku Lea sat with Petey, who explained what he expected from the performances. “The direction was very clear,” she says. “He would say, ‘This is the point. Make this character more aggressive. This is the approximate composition.’ I also had animatics and notes. And, if I had a question, I could ask my fellow animators. It was really collaborative. I could go to dailies, even if I didn’t have a shot up, and learn from seeing the senior animators showing their shots and getting feedback. Being part of that process was truly a big learning experience for me.”

Ku Lea credits her classes at Animation Mentor with helping her understand the workflow. And, during the Q&A with the mentors, I learned how to take feedback,” she says. “At Digital Domain, I found it interesting to ask my supervisor how he would approach a shot, and ask the more senior nimators how they would [do so], to learn from their workflow.”

Next Up

Both animators are fully committed to their careers in animation. After finishing her work on Thor, Matuszak now works at Prime Focus in Vancouver. And Ku Lea is preparing a new piece for her demo reel.

“I’d like to work more in feature films because I love the quality and the time you can have, which offers great possibilities,” Ku Lea says. “I love character animation, whether it is for a full-CG film or for a visual effects film—the principles are the same. When I’m working as an animator, I feel lucky. I feel like this is the best job in the world.”

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