A Snail's Race
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 5: (July/August 2013)

A Snail's Race

The hallmark of a good underdog story is the focus on a character who wants to do something so impossible, something with the odds so stacked against him that he couldn’t succeed, that it’s compelling to watch,” says David Soren, director of DreamWorks’ latest feature animation, Turbo. “We love to root for the underdog.”

And, what could be more impossible than a snail racing in the Indy 500? Who could have thought of such a thing?

“The catalyst for the story was my six-year-old son,” Soren says. “Even before he could talk, he was obsessed with anything that moves fast. Anything racing related. And, my front yard had a snail problem. That juxtaposition of slow and speed in my home got me thinking about the bones of the story.”

The snail is Theo, an ordinary front yard snail who lives in the San Fernando Valley and works at a local tomato plant, one of many snails that pick, sort, and eat tomatoes. “He’s part of a complacent community that accept their lot in life, including getting plucked by crows, smushed by local kids on Big Wheels, and terrorized by gardeners,” Soren says. “Everywhere a snail looks is an obstacle. Their approach to danger is to stay hidden, stay quiet, and do the same-o, same-o.”

Every snail except Theo. He has a ridiculous dream, and through a freak accident, he acquires the superpowers that could make this crazy dream come true. “We call that sequence the ‘spider bite’ sequence,” says David Burgess, head of character animation.

Even with superpowers, though, racing at the Indy 500 might seem impossible for a mere snail unless someone – say, a couple of brothers who own a taco stand in a strip mall and sponsor back-alley snail races – happens to see his potential. “The snail races are the latest in a long line of failed schemes to draw exposure to their taco stand,” Soren says. “Then, they find a ringer.”Actor Ryan Reynolds provides the voice for Theo, soon known by his racing name, “Turbo.” Paul Giamatti gives Turbo’s brother Chet his voice. Michael Peña and Luis Guzmán voice Tito and Angelo, the taco stand owners.

“Ultimately, the story becomes a parallel brother story with a dreamer in each set,” Soren says. “One brother has wild, unrealistic dreams, and the other is the more down-to-earth naysayer.”Although the snails don’t speak, Turbo connects with Tito through his parallel brother situations. He communicates to  Tito through revs of his shell.

“There’s a scene that takes place at the taco stand with the two sets of brothers,” Soren says. “Tito has come up with the idea of racing Turbo in the Indy 500 and pitches it to the respective brothers. There’s a real charm to the relationships. For me, the dual brother story is my favorite aspect of the movie. I think it holds true with family dynamics in the real world.”

Thus, the story takes place in two worlds: the garden and the wider human world.

“The story starts from the snails’ point of view, in their claustro-phobic world, then widens out into the urban industrial, concrete ramshackle strip mall we all know and love in LA,” Soren says. “And from there, it fans out into the vast world of the Indy 500. The challenges were designing the snails to have a great amount of appeal, and figuring out how Turbo would look on a track with cars moving at 230 miles per hour, what that would feel like.”

In addition to those four main characters, there are five other racing snails and supporting snails in the garden. The snails look similar but not identical. Chet, the realist, has more of a square shape than Turbo, the dreamer and athlete. Whiplash, the racing snails’ leader, has eyes that go walleyed when he is flustered, then come back and focus when the animators want him to look tough. 

Snail Control

“I’d say we had 11, maybe 12, main characters,” Burgess says. “In the early days, from an animator’s standpoint, we thought this was going to be a cakewalk. The snails have no arms, no legs, a limited facial construction with no eyebrows or noses, the things we usually have to animate. So, we thought we’d have half the work. Unfortunately, it turned out that it was a lot more work. One of the hardest things was figuring out how to animate the snails.”

The character designers experimented with a snail that had arms, but ultimately decided to stay with somewhat realistic snail anatomy, a soft body that slides out from a shell with two eyes on long stalks extending from its head.

“You embrace the limitations of what the characters can do,” Soren says. “It forces you to come up with different ways of doing traditional things. For example, at a company update, the snails are talking about how the accidental smushes are down 15 percent, and the crowd applauds by banging their eyeballs together. We have tons of things like that.”

Burgess led a team that at peak had roughly 40 animators working on the show. “The learning curve for the snails was a steep ramp up,” Burgess says. “So, we kept our team intact and got extra time when we needed it to finish the movie.”

Rather than casting lead animators for the main characters (a recent trend with CG animated films), Burgess gave animators sequences to work on. “I was a 2D animator at Disney and supervised characters for Lion King [hyenas], Tarzan [Porter], and other films, so I know what character casting means,” he says. “But, I love the flexibility to mix it up a bit, and I love the ability to own a piece of a film. So, we’d cast a supervisor with a team of seven or eight animators per sequence. The animators would have 30 to 50 feet to animate, generally in order. They’d get a little chunk of the movie to do and be responsible for all the characters in that chunk. It helps make sure the action is seamless from shot to shot.”

A Snail’s Pace

Animators watched videos of snails and live snails in a terrarium in the surfacing department. They considered animating them something like inch worms in which the front moves and the back catches up.

“We started playing with that, but it looked like all the characters were doing a wedding march,” Burgess says. “So, we had them kind of ice skate.”

Riggers set up the control system for Turbo first, and then all the other snails inherited his controls. Al-though each snail is a fleshy mass, the rig mimicked a human rig to some extent. “Imagine the snail is like a capital L with the head at the top and then a foot or base at the bottom that is an oval shape,” Burgess says. “We called the front of the snail, the shoulders, and the back, the hips.”

High-level controls helped the animators “ice skate” the snails. “We called the controls around the base of the foot ‘skirt controls,’ ” Burgess says. “Imagine seeing a snail stuck to a window and all around it are two sets of IK jacks. We can use those to move up and down to give the sense that there were muscles pushing and pulling. If you pay attention to only the base part of the shell, you’ll see subtle things going on down there.”

In addition, animators could translate, rotate, and offset five controller rigs on the snail’s neck to spread movement through that area. “It was important for us that the neck area stayed loose,” Burgess says. “If you watch the snails pretending to rev up, you’ll see a rippling that goes from the mouth to the base of the neck. The snails have a graphic simplicity, but we really wanted them to have an organic, fleshy feel.”

To give the snails a sense that they breathed, the animators gave the shells a little movement. “We animated the shells because, otherwise, the back area felt stiff,” Burgess says. “But, we made sure it was a reactive part of the performance. I love to feel characters breathing. When I get a track with an actor where you can hear the breath during the dialog, I can animate that and add a layer of believability. Because the snails don’t have shoulders or a chest, I used the shell. When the actor took a breath, I’d bend the shell forward as if it were filling with air – super subtly because I didn’t want it to look rubbery.”

Each snail also had a special control so that animators could push the soft body into the shell. “At zero, the snail was completely outside the shell; at 100, it was out in a normal position; and at 50, it was completely retracted,” Burgess says. “Often, we had more mass than would fit inside the limited shell space, so we had to cheat the scale. Shadow [a garden snail] was one of those characters we could not put into his shell. His shell is really small.”

Animators could turn the shell off, but they didn’t. “It just looked too gross,” Burgess says.

The human characters didn’t require special rigs. “They’re caricatured, but in an animation style,” Burgess says. “If you look at the characters in Rise of the Guardians and Madagascar, ours are more in the middle. We could push them if we wanted, but they felt believable.”

The caricatures kept the human characters out of the uncanny valley. “I think animated movies fall into two camps now,” Soren says. “One camp has very realistic characters married with realistic environments and lighting, the other has cartoony characters in a cartoony world. I felt there was an opportunity to embrace the stylistic fun of character design that has evolved through the past 60 years of animation and marry it with the progress made in sophisticated lighting and camera over the past 10 years in CG-animated movies. So, our character designs are pushed and stylized. But, the environments, although pushed in terms of shape language, are grounded and treated more like a live-action movie. I felt that when we have a snail moving 200 mph at the center of a movie, everything else had to be grounded, to believe in the story.”

Start Your Engines

Predictably, the race, which comprises the last third of the film, was the biggest challenge. The speed, the scale, the snail’s performance design. When Turbo is first superpowered, the animators quickly learned how surfaces could affect him. “He lives in a neighborhood where there are shifting geological plates,” Burgess says. “So we built all that stuff – streets with fissures and bumps. We animated Turbo to zoom over them. But, he’d face plant on a four-inch ledge. So, we had to kick the surfaces back to the modelers to smooth out for us.”

Similarly, working from thousands of photographs taken before, during, and after Indy 500 races by the crew, the modelers and set dressers built a realistic racetrack, complete with bits of rubber that peel off the tires over the course of a race. “For a snail, that’s like driving through an asteroid field,” Soren says. “But, these are the things that make our movie different from any other.”

During the race, Turbo is so fast he can cover 100 yards from one frame to the next. He leaves a blue trail behind him, created with a simulation system.

“Luckily, we can select zero in world space to find him,” Burgess says. “At that speed, any time the camera moves away, you will not see him; you will only see where he was. So we had to track that carefully. Once we got his overall path working, we had to adjust his up and down to make sure he doesn’t crash through the surface. And, there is always a cant, always an angle. He’s only two and a half inches tall. We had to be super careful that he doesn’t float.”

The animators spent weeks and weeks experimenting to make Turbo look right at that speed. “We adjusted the jiggle on his cheeks,” Burgess says. “The noise on his foot. I hope you really get the sense he is moving fast and covering an incredible amount of ground.”

Selling the idea that a snail could race alongside the cars at Indy 500 is no small feat. But then, the animation team at DreamWorks has convinced people that pandas can do karate, dragons can become man’s best friend, and an ogre can marry a princess. So, why not?

“I get goose bumps when I see Turbo in the race,” Burgess says. “We are not cheating the speed, and the cars are slightly caricatured versions of Indy cars. So, when you are at the track at a snail’s level going 200 mph, you get a real sense of the rush and adrenaline. And when Turbo goes under a car, you go, ‘Whoa.’ It’s really strong.”

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