Turkey Recipe
Karen Moltenbrey
November 27, 2013

Turkey Recipe

Reel FX stuffs its first animated feature film with all the right ingredients.

When Reel FX decided to cook up its first feature-length animated film, Free Birds, the studio was excited and focused, but didn't want to end up with a "turkey" on its hands. But, that was hard to avoid, at least in one sense of the word, seeing that the main characters in the film are just that, turkeys.

Free Birds tells the tale of Reggie, a free-range outcast from a family-owned farm who is saved from the ax with a presidential pardon and is rewarded with a life of luxury. Then, Jake, a factory-bred freedom fighter whose mission is to save fellow turkeys from becoming holiday dinner, kidnaps Reggie to help him achieve his lofty goal. The two steal a time machine and travel back to Plymouth Colony, where they meet the wild turkey Jenny, who is hiding with her flock in an attempt to avoid the Pilgrim roundup. Reggie flees when things go awry, but eventually returns to save Jenny and Jake, and his new feathered friends from Thanksgiving past - and present.

"It's a buddy film," says Scott Peterson, co-digital supervisor on the project with Dave Esneault. "We wanted to make something enjoyable and a lot of fun."

Free Birds is Reel FX's first foray into the realm of animated features as a creation studio, but the artists are no strangers to VFX and animation, having worked on a number of theatrical and direct-to-video movies, TV projects, and animated shorts as a service provider. In addition, the facility has retained its commercial department, with locations in Dallas and Santa Monica, California. "In 2010, we decided to officially take Reel FX in a new direction, branching out from just being a service company into a creation company," says David Ross, president of Reel FX.

In order to make that happen, Reel FX signed on top industry talent from studios such as Blue Sky, Pixar, and Rhythm & Hues. This includes Director Jimmy Hayward from Blue Sky's Horton Hears a Who! "Jimmy is an animator's director," says Executive Producer Aron Warner. "He acts out the parts in great detail for the animators."

Tackling your own production also required the necessary infrastructure and production pipeline, which Reel FX had been building for its previous projects over time. "We've invested a lot of time and technology to find ways and systems that essentially think differently about how to approach the animation business," says Kyle Clark, COO of Reel FX.

The film had been in production a few years before Hayward came aboard; he recruited others with experience on larger pictures to help guide the Reel FX crew, which were new to a project of this scope. "We were trying to get ideas from other studios and make those work as well as possible within the existing pipeline at Reel FX, and were coming up with new ways of doing things more efficiently," Esneault says. "We didn't have the biggest budget or the most people, so we had work as efficiently as we could with what we had."

Simple but Complex

To this end, Reel FX had to make some changes to its existing pipeline. For instance, the studio incorporated the Alembic cache format into its workflow. "We knew we would have some large, complex sets and environments, so we made a proprietary assembly system, rather than creating and publishing large [singular] environments," says Peterson. "It was basically a digital recipe of what the environment comprised, all its elements. We could affect them individually and then assemble them on the fly in a shot."

The goal was to do complex tasks but make the experience easy for the artists. For instance, TDs devised a new, artist-friendly feathering system, called Avian, which enabled the artists, rather than the programmers, to generate feathers of all sizes and shapes and then groom the turkeys. (See "Birds of a Feather" in the November/December issue of CGW.) The results could be viewed within the Autodesk Maya viewport in real time prior to rendering, thereby making the process even faster.

Monika Sawyer, feather and fur supervisor, oversaw the grooming process, and her department developed the look and style for most of the characters, particularly the turkeys Jake and Reggie, who appear in nearly every scene. Working with Sawyer's department, surfacing supervisor Todd Harper took the surface details of the characters even further, determining how light reacted on the beak and feet, and where the plumage should be shiny and oily versus dull. "Jimmy established that he wanted something that felt really gritty and real, yet could live within that cartoon world," says Harper. "So we found this fine balance between detail and not too much detail."

Another efficiency involved a nonlinear approach to constructing a shot. "As soon as layout was launched, we could start animating and lighting, so all three departments could work at the same time, which is unique," Peterson says. "Each department fed the other one cache, but we also had to be careful so that we were in sync, because at any time there could have been an update to a texture, model topology, or UV and the data would change. And that would affect all the shot-centric departments." To help the group avoid those issues, Reel FX developed an asset state system, which alerted artists to any change in the assets and automatically delivered the new pieces and packaged them correctly.

Alas, the system proved efficient, possibly too efficient, generating terabytes and terabytes of data very quickly. "Suddenly, we were running a hundred miles an hour and approving close to 80 shots a week, which is a ferocious pace," says Peterson. "Then, we were told we were filling up the system too quickly." Working with the supervising technical director, they created a series of cleanup scripts and tools that would archive all but the last three versions of the rendered frames on an approved shot. This enabled the artists to aggressively archive work as they proceeded. A similar method was used for the lighters, archiving unused AOVs.

"We had gotten too fast for ourselves and had to cope with a lack of storage," says Peterson.

All the Fixin's

Initial production on Free Birds began in 2009 with a small team in Santa Monica. Unhappy with the direction of the film, studio executives scrapped all the assets and began from scratch with Hayward at the helm. "I look at that as our preproduction and development period," says Peterson. From that point, production began in earnest with a crew of 180 to 200. Nearly all the CG work (from modeling to final rendering) was done out of the Dallas location, while those in Santa Monica handled the storyboards, editorial, and art.   

One big challenge was making the turkeys - the main characters in the film - likable and watchable for 91 minutes on screen. After trips to a local turkey farm and various research, one thing was apparent: Real turkeys are not very cute or endearing. "So we veered away from reality when it came to character designs, but we went for realistic textures as much as possible," says Hayward. This meant simplifying the turkey faces: making the waddle much smaller, and making the eye and head shapes more appealing.

There are several different types of turkeys in the film, from the scrawny, brainy birds to the brawny, dumber counterparts. Approximately 95 percent of the characters were derived from Reggie, differentiated through acting and surfacing. To make it easier to create the variations, the group determined that each would have identical point counts, with Reggie serving as the base and made from that model. "We didn't have to completely re-groom or re-feather a ton of turkeys; we just made a few adjustments," Esneault says. "We could just cut and paste our grooms, mattes, and UVs because we started with point-compatible turkeys."

Overall, there are about nine to 10 main turkey characters, with variations made from those to fill the shots - some scenes contain upward of 90-plus birds. All were modeled mainly in The Foundry's Modo, with a few done in Maya. For texturing, the artists used Maya, The Foundry's Mari, and Adobe's Photoshop. Rendering was accomplished in Pixar's RenderMan. Animation and lighting were completed in Maya.

Hayward also wanted the acting to be exaggerated. Initially, the rigging leaned toward a realistic approach but evolved into more of a human rig based on the story and performance development. "We took our inspiration from real turkey movement and looked at other bird movement, and picked out things that we thought would work for us," says Esneault. The animation rig had to accommodate the wide range of acting by the characters - around humans, the birds act like turkeys, but around their own species, they act like humans.

"One moment they are flapping their wings and pecking at the ground, and the next they are picking up things and turning doorknobs," says Peterson.

Adds Rigging Supervisor Josh Carey, "We spend a lot of time specifically on the hands and the wings, calculating the mechanics of how a wing might be able to grab something."

Of particular issue were what Peterson and Esneault call "the fingethers," the finger-like feathers on the wings. The team tackled this by devising a feather stacking system. When fingers were required, animators would turn up the thickness of the feathers at the wing tip, and when turkey-like wings were needed, the animators would dial down the thickness. As a result, the characters had a clean profile but looked appropriate performing with the fingethers.

The realistic feathers were a fine fit for the turkeys, but the human characters needed clothing, leading the artists to create a proprietary cloth system, generated within Maya nCloth, that enabled them to add a default cloth simulation on each pertinent character. "Out of the gate, there was a specific sim that was part of the asset, and that sim worked through normal movement, but when we got into the shot and the animators pushed the rig and did something more dramatic, we would also do an in-shot simulation [for the clothing]," says Peterson.

The average character count in Free Birds is 10 per shot, which is high for an animated feature. The contributing factor is the large flocks: "We have lots and lots of big crowd shots," notes Peterson. The cache format helped with the crowd control, but authoring and creating those big shots were not easy. So, the group created a simple but elegant crowd system, whereby the animators would store a library of cycles and assign those cycles on the fly and blend between them. "That was huge," says Esneault. "Before we developed that technique, it would take a few weeks to do a shot. But after that, Kent Alfred would bust out three shots a day. He was on cloud nine. We thought we would need a team of 30 to do the crowds, but we ended up with a team of just four."

The crew also developed an in-house slicing system that let multiple animators work on the same shot - which was particularly useful when several characters were on screen at the same time. "Asking an animator to animate 15 characters would be challenging, so we developed a slicing system that could publish an animator's cache to their counterparts. So if one person works on Jake and one on Reggie, the person working on Reggie would have a Jake guest, that would be fed the cache from the person working on Jake," Esneault explains. "They could continually update each other on the fly all day long, and in the end, we would send and bake it down into a single shot for lighting."

Setting the Stage

Production Designer Kevin Adams and his team created a variety of sets to take Jake and Reggie from their quaint life on the farm, through space and time, and eventually to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621. "The biggest challenge was to take all those diverse environments and make them feel cohesive enough to be in one movie," says Hayward. To tie these two different worlds together, the art director established a cooler, more sterile color palette for the modern sets, and a warmer, foliage-colored palette for the 1600s period.

The mood was also established through lighting, look dev, and the virtual camerawork. "We can create anything from calm to anxiety to urgency with thoughtful control of the camera," says Gerald McAleece, camera and layout supervisor.

All of that helped set the feel of the large outdoor scenes, which contained a lot of trees, sand, grass, and so forth. The artists tackled the grass using the fur tool inside Side Effects' Houdini. The software was also used to populate the leaves on the trees and to introduce movement in the trees.

Indeed, Reel FX has served up a well-done turkey of a film, and one that audiences are eating up. Already, the studio has another film in the oven, The Book of Life (directed by Jorge Gutierrez and produced by Guillermo del Toro), and plans to produce one animated feature a year.