Cartoony VFX
Barbara Robertson
November 23, 2014

Cartoony VFX

Visual effects artists working for animation studios and visual effects studios employ the same tools, but those working on animated features have an extra challenge. The tools, largely developed to blend CG with live action, bring richness and believability to animated worlds. But, they do not always lend themselves easily to the stylized worlds. This is particularly true for simulation, lighting, and rendering tools. And especially true for animated films like PDI/DreamWorks’  Penguins of Madagascar,  which adopted the cartoony style established in the previous three  Madagascar  films.

In the film, the would-be secret agents globe-hop from Antarctica, to the US, Venice, and eventually China, with interesting stops between. The sequences take place outside in daylight and at night; on snow, sand, and water; in densely urban and desolate locations; and inside both bright and dark interiors. Lighting established the mood and defined the characters in each location.

“Nowadays, a lot of films use physically-based lighting,” says Penguins Visual Effects Supervisor Philippe Gluckman. “It gives you a certain style. The difficulty for us was to use that, but still stay true to the Madagascar style, which is cartoony and deliberate. It’s almost like painting each frame.”

Many people on the Penguins crew, who were primarily based in India, had worked on the Penguins TV episodes, and others had been on previous Madagascar films, so the style was familiar. 

“When you’re trying to light scenes photorealistically, you bring a lot of physical properties to the way light and the camera lens behave,” Gluckman says. “Exposure becomes important; you stay true to real cameras. For example, if you’re inside a [sunlit] room, typically everything out a window will blow out and be unreadable. But in Madagascar, we never do that. Things stay cartoony and illustrative.”

The hero characters provide another example.

“Half or more of a penguin’s body is black,” Gluckman says. “If we let the [physically-based] light do its thing, we wouldn’t see their flippers sometimes, and their fast, cartoony action wouldn’t be readable enough. So we have to be more deliberate. We cheat by placing lights to underline the action. We don’t want to go crazy with that and almost paint every frame. But that has happened.”

One of the other hero characters, the villain, is an octopus, and here, too, the visual effects artists needed to adjust the photoreal lighting.

“One of the big goals on this film was to never get too scary,” Gluckman says. “If we went too far with lighting the octopus and he looked too realistic, he quickly got creepy. At one point, we gave him a gelatinous second skin, but we backed off to bring him into the cartoon world.”

As with lighting, the water, explosions, snow, and similar simulations needed to live in a cartoony world, despite their origins in physics. One effect, the villain’s “ray gun,” however, had no counterpart in reality. 

“That was hard because it was subjective,” Gluckman says. “We didn’t want it to look 2D or like something from a horror sci-fi movie. We collaborated with the art department and did prototypes in 2D to look for ideas; we tried to bring concept art and graphic elements into a believable 3D world. We played with concepts like cell division. We had animated lines of energy. There’s a smoke element. It had so many parts.” And sometimes, they added fanciful elements, but describing those would be a spoiler.

For all these effects, the team turned to Side Effects Software’s Houdini and often used Mantra for rendering.

“The theory is that you no longer have to worry about making a scene realistic,” Gluckman says. “It isn’t always true, but it’s easy to get a good starting point. So now, it’s about the artistry. Making things cartoony is the challenge.”

In the November/December 2014 issue ofCGW , Barbara Robertson reveals how the crew at PDI/DreamWorks took advantage of new techniques in layout to help design sequences for Penguins of Madagascar .