Nick Sax (played by Christopher Meloni), an alcoholic ex-cop turned hit man, gets the full Roger Rabbit treatment in the Syfy series Happy! When Nick is revived after being shot and left for dead, he can see a small, blue, cartoon donkey-unicorn named Happy (voiced by Patton Oswalt). The goofy creature is the imaginary friend of Hailey, Nick's estranged daughter, who has been kidnapped by a deranged man dressed as Santa Claus. Happy "escapes" from captivity to seek Nick's help in saving Hailey.
One of four vendors working on the series, UK-based AxisVFX is responsible for the personification of Happy and his friends, transforming the blue donkey-unicorn from the pages of the cult graphic novel into a CGI character that is required to have "as much presence and personality as our protagonist, Nick," says Grant Hewlett, co-founder and VFX supervisor at AxisVFX.
Close to 700 shots of Happy, the villainous three-headed patchwork dog Raspberry, and a gang of other imaginary friends were spread across AxisVFX studios in London, Bristol, and Glasgow. "New workflows were developed to increase cross-site efficiency across all departments," Hewlett says.
"In the comic and the script, Happy has a huge range of abilities and emotions. This meant he had to be designed very thoughtfully, considering his anatomy and characteristic features," he continues.
Hewlett remembers the "exciting moment when the rig approached final and all of [Happy's] fur and shaders were applied. "We had our stretchy, crazy, lovable, blue, flying donkey-unicorn!"
Since a flying donkey-unicorn isn't constrained by the laws of nature, the animators had some latitude in determining its movement. But, as Hewlett notes, Happy is a busy shape, with the four limbs, wings, horn, tail, and big head, so when animating the character, the artists had to pay close attention to getting his silhouette as clean as possible for clear lines of actions.
"Before the project started, we did a lot of tests regarding how cartoony he would have to be; we had to balance photorealism against his crazy squash-and-stretch nature," says Hewlett. "When Happy was on screen with Nick, we made sure that he shined when it was his time to shine, but when Nick was the focus, we made sure Happy would not distract from him."
Animators were given "a lot of freedom" to bring emotion to Happy's performance. "Since he mainly flew, when he was sad, we could pose his limbs to be drooping down, even his nose would be slightly more downturned and his movements would be slower, more lethargic. When he was happy, then he would be more perked up, front legs tucked up, hips pushed up so his body formed his classic bean shape, and his movements would be more energetic," Hewlett explains.
Artists at AxisVFX primarily used Auto-desk's Maya for modeling and animation, with in-house tools for fur dynamics and caching. The texturing workflow was completed mostly in Allegorithmic's Substance Painter, but the artists are free to use whichever package they prefer. Scene assembly and rendering is always done using Side Effects' Houdini, and the studio has a proprietary lighting and shading pipeline utilizing Side Effects' Mantra as its renderer. Hewlett attributes the power of Houdini's digital assets as really helping the team meet its very tight deadlines on the show. In addition, Foundry's Nuke was used for compositing, and AxisVFX created tools for loading characters and picking up other 3D outputs, such as cameras and geometry.
Happy! is shot on location in New York City, and AxisVFX worked with the show's VFX senior producing supervisor, Ajoy Mani, who coordinated the interaction among the director, editorial, and the studio. "Ajoy's team provided us with all the reference photos for photogrammetry, HDRs, and other lighting reference plates, including Macbeth [ColorChecker Color Rendition] charts, diffuse lighting ref, and a blue unicorn plush toy roughly representing
Happy's color and form," says Hewlett. "These were very helpful for getting an idea of how Happy would actually look."
Most of the time Meloni visualized Happy without a prop stand-in. "This allowed for a very organic and spontaneous performance," according to Hewlett. "But one of the biggest challenges was getting the focal planes to gel. As stand-ins were not shot, there were many situations where, for instance, the focus remained on Nick, but Happy needed to be sharp in the foreground."
This necessitated a lot of clever solutions per shot from the comp team, and they were always able to get a good integration, he adds.
"But there was a lot more contact with Nick than we had anticipated, so we often had to go back to 3D for an additional shadow pass or object track," Hewlett notes.
AxisVFX also did the effects needed in shots with Happy - water, blood, glass, deflations, transformations. There were a lot of extra effects called for by the edit, he notes, so the group would often have to produce simulations with a fast turnaround across its sites.
A support group segment featuring Happy, Raspberry, and a host of friends - including a very profane Little Bo Peep - perched on folding chairs was a standout animated sequence. Challenges largely had to do with rigging "very unusually shaped bodies, such as Goose the Toad, whose tiny arms and bloated torso constantly wanted to intersect with his clothes," says Hewlett. Or take Raspberry, a hero character who underwent as much development, if not more, as Happy, with his three facial rigs and extended mustache/eyebrow hairs.
Although Season 2 of Happy! has yet to get under way, AxisVFX is ready to go with "a sharpened set of tools" should the company get the call. "Quite a lot of further improvement on our hair/fur system has already been taking place, as well as the infrastructure for working across our three sites," says Hewlett. "Networks and storage are freshly upgraded, which can only increase efficiency. Looking back, we now know what we didn't before; therefore, we can only get better at providing even more awesome animation and VFX for
- C. Bunish