Winging It
Douglas King
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 2: (Jan/Feb 2013)

Winging It

The lead character of Adventures in Zambezia is Kai, a falcon, brought up in isolation and taught to value selfsufficiency. Kai embarks on an action-packed journey that concludes with him realizing the value of community and teamwork. The same might be said about Triggerfish, the little animation studio located at the southern tip of Africa, as it embarked on an inaugural journey to produce a feature-length animated movie.

“This tale of a plucky little falcon pursuing his passion in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles has been an epic journey for me, too,” says first-time Director Wayne Thornley. “From a green, naïve director who had only done a few short projects, I have grown alongside the movie and the studio. With foolhardy ambition and meager means, we proudly brought to the screen a wonderful world influenced by the sights and sounds of Africa and shaped by the vibrant bird characters that inhabit the great city of Zambezia.”

At its core, Adventures in Zambezia is a coming-of-age film about a young falcon who ventures out into the world, against his father’s wishes, to visit the famed bird city of Zambezia, nestled in the shell of an enormous baobab tree and perched overlooking the powerful and majestic Victoria Falls. Zambezia is a bustling city of birds famous for being the safest city in all of Africa, in part because it is defended by an elite squadron of birds, called the Hurricanes, tasked with the duty. The story was developed by first-time writing team Andrew Cook (writer) along with co-writers Anthony Silverston, Raffaella Delle Donne, and Wayne Thornley.

The story of Triggerfish is also one of coming of age, as the studio embarked on producing its first feature. The facility was literally being built around the production team as it was in pre-production on the movie, and Thornley admits that, like Kai in the beginning of the film, he and his team “made so many rookie mistakes mainly because I think the studio was still trying to figure out what it was really about as a company.”

On his journey, Kai learns about his family’s history and the importance of community. His thying skills earn him a place on the Hurricanes, and he will have to use that experience when Zambezia is attacked by Marabou storks. Tired of scavenging of the scraps of Zambezia, the Marabou storks join forces with Budzo, a vicious egg-eating Leguaan (Dutch for iguana), to take control of the island city.

To produce this film, Triggerfish grew to a “family” of 85 and was able to explore the rich tapestry of African culture and landscapes. fle skills the team acquired has earned the studio a place among some of the finest animation companies in the world, such as Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Sony Imageworks, Blue Sky, and Illumination, by being one of the first South African animation studios to complete a featurelength animated movie.

Originally conceived in 2005, the team developed a story that would center on birds because it wanted to show ofithe fictional world of Zambezia, which was inspired by the area surrounding the real-life Victoria Falls in southern Africa. (fle real Zambezia is the second-most populous province of Mozambique, located in the central coastal region.) Admittedly, the group was unaware of the challenges ahead and the difficulty involved in animating birds.

“Creating feathered CG characters was initially a daunting challenge, especially at that time,” remembers Mike Buckland, head of production, “but, fortunately, by the time we went into production in September 2009, the technology to achieve feather systems was more accessible, and we managed to create great-looking animated birds.”

Adventures in Zambezia, created by the South African studio Triggerfish, incorporates the look and feel of “home” in the production’s visuals.

Birds of a Feather

As one would expect with a cast of 86 individual characters, the majority of which are avian, feathers play a substantial role in the film.

All character modeling and rigging was completed in Autodesk’s Softimage. fle rigging posed the first challenge for the filmmakers due to the fact the wings needed to be used for thying and gesturing like hands, and also be able to fold and tuck into the body—all without feathers thipping or passing through one another.

“Wing folding was a very tricky rigging challenge when combined with the specific needs of the other two functions,” Buckland says. “We had to rebuild our wing rig and re-topologize the models many times as a result of the testing and interaction with the animators in order to get something that fulfilled all the requirements.”

Using a re-topology method allowed the modelers to concentrate purely on the form and shape of a model first without considering technical aspects, like the thow of polygon edges or the number of polygons used. Once the artist had a shape that he or she was happy with, then the person would think about re-working (re-topologizing) the edge loops and redefining the mesh for optimal polygon placement to enable good deformations for rigging and animating. flis also helped keep the number of polygons at a reasonable level.

The benefit of this methodology was an increase in speed and productivity in building the first round of models with the exact look the artist wanted for the characters. Upon testing, if there were problem areas, the modelers could focus just on those sections.

After the rigging was completed, the artists then added the feathers, a task that presented its own set of challenges.

The feathers themselves were created using a plug-in called mbFeathersTools, created by Michael Buettner. This plug-in for Softimage makes use of the multi-thread Interactive Creation Environment (ICE) platform within Softimage. Here, it allowed the artists to populate the characters with feathers, groom and style the feathers for each bird, and then tweak the rotation, size, and position for the specific needs of each shot.

“The animation of the characters had to be carefully checked and tweaked to remove extreme deformations and creases for reducing the popping and flipping of feathers,” says Buckland. “We point-cached the motion of both the character mesh and the feathers to prevent unwanted inconsistencies during the rendering process.”

Moreover, once the feathers were added to a character, it made that character model too “heavy,” or CPU-intensive, for the group to be able to animate interactively. As a result, the animators had to fly blind when animating since the rigs did not include any of the body feathers. “This initially caused a few problems whereby the animators did not allow for the extra thickness that the feathers brought to the birds’ bodies,” Buckland says.

“The schedule was so tight, in some cases we sort of skipped steps and just bullheadedly ploughed on, and that caused real headaches later on,” relates Thornley.

Feathers also created a challenge for the lighting and rendering teams, which had to devise methods for optimizing the multiple layers of semitransparent feathers. This was especially true for the background characters.

Triggerfish artists modeled and rigged the characters in Autodesk’s Softimage, and used tools such as Pixologic’s ZBrush and Adobe’s Photoshop for texturing, creating rich, vibrant scenes like the one at top. Bottom, from left to right, shows the scene’s progression.

Tree of Life

Depending on a character’s distance from the camera, the animators reduced the number of feathers on each bird, as well as the number of polygons that made each feather. For very distant birds, the characters were rendered nude, or simply put, without any feathers at all; instead, the artist used a texture map that created the impression of a coat of feathers.

In addition to feathers, the Triggerfish team had to populate the world of Zambezia with leaves, since the main location was a huge baobab tree. The team modeled and textured a variety of different leaves in Softimage, then placed them on the tree branches procedurally using ICE.

Because the film was being produced in 3D stereoscopy, the team discovered that the stereo process exposed a number of the compositional cheats that would normally be used by the layout team. Therefore, the artists were forced to populate the scenes with more leaves as well as other elements much deeper into the set than they had planned in order to maintain the impression of depth in the composition of each shot.

By the Numbers

  • 30tb of data was rendered and spread over two 18tb file servers.
  • Imagery was rendered out on 60 1U render nodes (single-socket quad-core Xeon boxes with 12gb RAM running at 2.97ghz) working full time, along with 80 workstations (i7-950 and i7-960 boxes with 12gb RAM running at 3ghz and 3.2ghz, respectively) after hours—so the amount of nodes would increase to about 140 nodes after hours.
  • One IT person oversaw the production.
  • Zambezia is believed to be the first bird movie where rigs were created to let the birds fly, gesture, and fold their wings in one shot, as opposed to the preferred movie “cheat” of switching shots to avoid using the same rig to do a fold through to a proper flying mode, to a human-like gesturing.
  • Each bird character had an average of 18,000 feathers, with the marabous being the exception of only 9,000, as they only had body feathers.

Up, Up and Away

Beyond the use of feathers, creating a movie around birds resulted in another interesting challenge for the filmmakers: generating larger environments to cover the vast bird’s-eye view of the characters.

Buckland says, “Having a falcon as the main character gave us a great vantage point to show off the incredible African landscapes as he flies on his journey to the fantastical bird city of Zambezia.” But, with the characters being able to fly at substantial speeds and over vast distances, the producers found themselves having to constantly extend the sets and add more detail. “We found that our sets had to be much bigger than we initially anticipated and needed to work from many more angles than a ground-based movie would require,” Buckland points out.

The art direction for the bird city of Zambezia was informed by the concept of “No Chairs;” this was Thornley’s mantra throughout the production. What he meant was that anything that appeared in the city needed to look as if it had been conceived and built by birds. Birds have no use for chairs or ladders, and are quite at home in an environment that is both vertical and horizontal, so the animators had to build all the sets with this in mind.

The city of Zambezia was especially organic and complex. Each object was built up from many smaller elements, such as sticks, bark, mud, leaves, and woven grass or thatch. Each of these elements required extensive geometry and texturing detail. “We have a talented texturing team that worked wonders in creating the impression of complexity with painted textures,” says Buckland.

Softimage was again employed for all the terrain modeling, and ICE was used extensively to procedurally dress the environments with plants and other vegetation. Also, the team used Pixologic’s ZBrush for sculpting and texturing work, while Adobe’s Photoshop was employed as well, for texturing and matte paintings.

Although the artists incorporated extensive textures, the environmental sets were still polygon- heavy. Scene files for the sets could run up to 500mb in size, which made the loading and saving of files especially slow. “Our workstations and render nodes had only 12gb of RAM,” notes Buckland. “Fortunately, Softimage is quite good at managing large datasets despite the limited RAM available, which certainly helped. But, all the sets had to be optimized quite extensively on a per-camera basis to work within this limitation.”

High-resolution versions of the environments were created for the close-up framing, and many lower-res versions were substituted for the wider shots. The wide shots of the baobab tree required hundreds of thousands of polygons just to describe the leaves. To compose the entire scene, the group generated approximately 500 different models, such as the nests, walkways, flocks of birds, branches, and other organic elements, including the tree itself, which meant that some scenes would contain millions of polygon faces and thousands of different texture maps.

In the close-up scenes within the branches and walkways of the baobab tree, the artists did their best to reduce the scene file sizes and limit what could be seen on screen. Buckland says, “Wherever we could, we hid parts of the sets with large clumps of leaves from the tree.” Because of the organic nature of the Zambezia tree-city set, the environmental artists had to model extremely uneven walkways and floors. This affected the animators, who had to ensure that the characters achieved accurate foot contact as they walked around these unique sets.

In the end, though, Buckland is pleased with the results for this environment. “Ultimately, I think that it all came together to create a visually stimulating environment with an African twist that most people will not have seen before,” he says.

(Top) To generate the birds’ feathers, the artists used mbFeathersTools, a plug-in to Softimage that utilizes the ICE platform, allowing them to more easily groom and style the plumage. (Bottom) The film is shown in stereo 3D, making the flying sequences especially thrilling for audiences.

A Long Fall

Possibly the largest environmental element the production team had to face was the splendor and beauty of Victoria Falls, which ended up being more than 1,000 meters (roughly 1,100 yards) from the top to the bottom of the gorge in virtual space. The falls also had to work from various angles since the birds would be flying around it and fighting in it.

One scene in particular created interesting trials for the environment artists and animators— ironically enough, it is the scene in which Kai is performing his Hurricane trials so he can join the squad. “We conducted a number of camera-specific cheats to get the best look for each shot,” says Buckland of this sequence.

To achieve these cheats, the special effects team took full advantage of Softimage’s ICE. ICE offers a well-defined set of basic nodes for controlling just about any aspect of particle creation and motion. These are designed to be linked together to create complex particle systems. But, the artists at Triggerfish found that, depending on the proximity to the waterfall, the camera angle, and camera lens used, as well as taking into consideration the mood of the shot, they needed to dial in different settings, such as speed, gravity, birth rate, and particle life, or add various turbulence nodes to create the impression of masses of water for each specific shot.

Additionally, the effects team used Exocortex SlipstreamVX to simulate the fine mist spray, which was then rendered out in Exocortex Fury.

Winging It

Like many CG films, Adventures in Zambezia is being shown in stereoscopic 3D—a wise choice since the flight sequences that make up a large portion of the film benefited greatly from the 3D experience. Because of the expansive vantage point the birds have as they soar over the incredible African landscapes, the animators were able to add considerable depth to each flying scene, thereby offering the viewer a truly awe-inspiring experience.

To perfect the fluid motion of each of the various bird flight patterns, the animators first visited a bird park in Cape Town, studying firsthand the wing motion of various birds. The animators also gathered a huge library of photographic references as well as an extensive library of footage of different birds in flight. It should be noted that all of the bird species seen in the film are indigenous to the South African region.

The animators took great care, and pride, in using only authentic African wildlife in the film. From the main character Kai, a falcon, to the comic relief of a kooky stork named Gogo and her copilot, a cute African weaver called Tini, to Kai’s love interest, Zoe, a beautiful and feisty Black-shouldered Kite, and, finally, the film’s villainous Marabou storks, all the birds were accurately modeled and textured to create as realistic a representation as possible within the style of the film. The only non-avian character in the film is Budzo, the iguana.

Animators had to rig the models so the characters could use their wings to fly and serve as hands; the wings also had to fold and tuck into their bodies without the feathers intersecting.

Leaving the Nest

Adventures in Zambezia has had a successful run outside the US, after having opened in wide release in Russia last year. At the end of March, it will be released in the US on Blu-ray and DVD. Meanwhile, the film received two Annie nominations for Best Music and Best Voice Artist. This is the first time in the history of the Annie Awards that a studio from Africa has appeared on the nominations list.

Lending their voices to the characters are Jeremy Suarez in the lead role of Kai and Samuel L. Jackson as his father, in addition to Abigail Breslin as Zoe, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Richard E. Grant, Jennifer Lewis, and Jim Cummings.

With this first feature film completed, don’t expect Triggerfish to rest. “I have two scripts in development at the moment. They’re offshoots of the very first personal project I started working on way back before Zambezia,” says Thornley. “Back when we started, I made the rookie mistake of throwing too many ideas into one movie, so after learning that lesson on Zambezia, it became two movies!”

In the film, Kai’s biggest challenge is overcoming his past and learning that no matter how fast and talented a flier he is, no bird is an island.

The biggest challenge for the animators at Triggerfish was overcoming the fact that they had never made a feature film before. To do so, they learned quickly that a team of talented animators led by a director with a vision was essential for success.

“Pretty much every step in the process was untested and pioneering for us,” says Buckland. “In some ways, this turned out to be a benefit for us as well. We didn’t really know what couldn’t be done, so we just did it anyway!”

Douglas King is a freelance writer and producer based in Dallas. He has worked in the entertainment industry for more than 20 years, including time spent as a creative director for a game developer, product development manager, and writer/director for film and television.