'Abominable': A High-Altitude Animated Adventure
Karen Moltenbrey
October 18, 2019

'Abominable': A High-Altitude Animated Adventure

Sometimes, all that people need is a little direction. And that’s literally what a young lost yeti needed in order to find its way home, and that’s what the teenager Yi helped provide – emotionally and physically – in the animated feature film Abominable, a co-production from DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental DreamWorks).

The film takes audiences on a 2,000-mile trek, from the streets of a Chinese city to the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas. This after Yi finds the magical creature on the rooftop of her apartment building and embarks on a journey with her friends to help the creature they name Everest return home to his family in the Himalayan Mountains. However, not everyone in the world is as good intentioned as Yi and her friends. Hunting the terrified Everest is Burnish, a wealthy financier intent on recapturing the beast following his escape from experimentation at a secret facility, all so the villain can prove their existence. 

The film is written and directed by Jill Culton (Open Season, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 2). She is joined by Suzanne Buirgy, producer, and Peilin Chou, chief creative officer of Pearl Studio, making this the first big-studio animated feature from a trio of female filmmakers. There is even a female lead, Yi. Alas, It took some time to get Abominable completed. It had been slow-going initially, as Culton paused her story progress in 2015 to focus on other projects. While she was on hiatus, Tim Johnson, executive producer, and Todd Wilderman, co-director, stepped in, adding narrative arcs and keeping things moving along. After Culton returned in 2017, production began ramping up at a faster pace over the course of the past 18 months. The film hit theaters September 27.

Asian Flair & Environments

Abominable is a multicultural story, a fusion of Western storytelling and an Asian-focused narrative. Indeed, the film is steeped in Asian culture. “We wanted to stay authentic, and Pearl really helped us stay on course, contributing important insight into China and Chinese culture,” says DreamWorks’ Mark Edwards, visual effects supervisor on the film. The core production occurred at DreamWorks in Glendale, California, while Pearl, located in Shanghai, focused more on visual development. 

To familiarize themselves with the country and culture, some of the DreamWorks team visited China. In fact, Edwards had visited the country years before while working on Kung Fu Panda 3. In addition, the group conducted various online research, and examined books and traditional paintings.

“We really worked to make sure little details were present. For instance, we added a plate of oranges in the kitchen [of Yi’s apartment] because that’s fairly traditional,” says Edwards, noting that in a dinner scene, the Pearl team pointed out that the table didn’t have enough food on it. “And they informed us that a [good luck] sign outside the apartment door should be hung upside down because that is the traditional way to hang it.”

The story soon takes the newfound friends across China, which meant the artists also had to plot a course across the vast, diverse country. “Jill [Culton] wanted to be sure we introduced a new look for each place the characters visited along the way, which also meant new lighting setups and color palettes as well. So, as we were plotting a course across the map, we would look at regions for interesting landmarks, ones that we haven’t really seen before,” says Edwards. 

In all, there are over two dozen environments, as well as multiple locations within those environments, mostly comprising geometry, with a limited number of matte paintings in the non-acting spaces. For instance, there is the rooftop set in the city at the start of the film (which entailed four to five variations as the characters are introduced) and that evolves into other sub-environments based on the story line. According to Edwards, the environments were strategically designed, with some purposely feeling enclosed and claustrophobic, and others wide open. 

Like all yetis, Everest has the power to control nature but hasn’t mastered his abilities quite yet. One of the most spectacular environments is one in which, thanks to Everest’s magic, enables Yi, Jin, and Peng, as well as the young yeti, to surf atop a wave of billions of canola flowers to escape the villains. Puzzled at first on how to depict this ride atop the flora, head of effects Jeff Budsberg took a water simulation and propagated flowers and foliage on top of it. “The simulation indicated what would and wouldn’t work in terms of detail and motion,” says Edwards.

So, the animators borrowed from the water properties and translated the water language into canola flower lingo. Edwards explains: “This gave us a spray of petals and  pollen-replicated water spray, and we had a boat wake that revealed the green underneath. We could also track our heroes via that water wake as well as splashes of flower petals once the large wave was rising. Even when the four principals are coming down in the last wave crash, we looked at surfer references to make it translucent right through the wave. Volumetric techniques replicated that through the canola to give the scene a nice ocean wave feel.”

Edwards admits that technically, it was a challenge to deal with that much data. However, this is where DreamWorks’ new near-real-time proprietary renderer MoonRay – initially rolled out on How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – really shined, as the renders contained representative lighting early in the process. “That helped us a lot. It scaled with our large  datasets really well,” he adds. 

Such a sequence prepared the team for what was yet to come: koi fish clouds that the characters use to soar above the land, thanks again to Everest’s magic. As reference, the artists looked at time-lapse footage of cumulus cloud layers. “We had a cloud river that the characters are almost ‘swimming’ up. That helped us keep them grounded, and not out in space. It also allowed for effects interaction,” says Edwards. “I think it became one of the most beautiful sequences in the film.” 

Conquering Everest

Everest is a youngster, equivalent to a nine-year-old human boy, albeit a very large nine-year-old boy, who can be stubborn and prone to tantrums, but also lovable. He is shaped like a gorilla, but the directors did not want him to move like one. As such, he often walks on four legs, but there are times when he walks upright on two. Initially, artists had animated him like a biped, but the director wanted him to be a little more animalistic in his appearance. “He is a combination of polar bear, orangutan, and even a bit of baby rhino,” says head of character animation John Hill, noting the character also had to be naïve and curious like a puppy.”

Some of the biggest technical challenges facing the artists resulted from Everest, a 2,000-pound white, furry yeti covered head to toe in approximately three million strands of hair, which were all simulated for various windy conditions and physical interactions. “Of course, [the kids] hugged this big yeti all the time, so there was lots of work for the character effects team to deal with in terms of the hair,” says Edwards. Nevertheless, VFX and animation worked closely together to overcome these obstacles.

Meanwhile, the studio reworked its proprietary hair shader, to make sure each strand felt correct and there were enough light bounces to make Everest soft and fluffy. “We started with a white character, and to get him to stay white and not become dingy, we worked with our shading team to basically revamp our hair materials to provide enough interactive light through all the hair to keep him nice and white and soft,” says Edwards.

For the hair itself (for Everest as well as the humans), the artists used Willow, an in-house tool, and Whip for the simulations. Everest has many different hair sets. Brian Missey, character effects artist, started with a base coat and then added further layers. His face, hands, and feet contain tighter fur, with longer strands on his arms and shoulders. The brows – which have thousands and thousands of hairs – were particularly challenging, says Hill. 

“The procedurals were pretty controllable. We could dial in the clumping as well as the amount of curl and kink, and the important thing was we could see it in animation and in motion. We could run it through our proprietary hair solver and try to improve it based on how it’s working while in motion,” adds Edwards.

According to Hill, the group knew that rendering all this fur would be an issue, which thanks to the use of USD integrated with MoonRay renders for animation, helped resolve this obstacle. In addition, Everest’s look had to be very specific, and the directors wanted to see an accurate representation as he was being animated. So, the studio came up with a renderer to satisfy that need and accomplish it within a reasonable time frame. “We got spoiled, as the renders were quite remarkable and quite close to the look of the final version, so when the animators would send over the renders overnight, what they got back was a fully furred and rough lighting pass of the shot, which looked remarkable,” he says. 

Everest presented another hurdle in that he does not speak (he emits a hum). Thus, he has an extensive facial rig with a good amount of controls to achieve an emotional performance. Complicating this was Everest’s anatomy. “His face could essentially open almost in half,” says Edwards, as the character has a giant mouth with an underbite and protruding, large teeth. In fact, his teeth were so large that when he closed his mouth, artists had to move his teeth around to accommodate the motion. “We were always doing teeth management,” says Hill, adding that the group often used an animation library to ease this task. 

Often, the animators employed a “less is more” approach to various aspects of Everest, finding that the less they tried to convey extreme eye and brow shapes, the more easily they were able to project his emotions, usually through body language. 

Everest’s eyes, like those of the other characters, contain highlights and are reflective. Because the yeti’s eyes are so large, when Yi and Everest are having close emotional moments on screen, the artists had to be cognizant of Yi’s motions since Yi would be reflected in Everest’s eyes, even if she was not in the frame. 

And of course, there was the issue of Everest’s white hair on backgrounds that were also white, such as the snow-covered mountains or the clouds. “That’s something our art director, Paul Duncan, had nightmares about!” Edwards says. “We had white hair and white clouds over white mountains. So we focused on our lighting setups and how we could accentuate things with color and value structure.” As Edwards explains, for the white-on-white scenarios, the artists would backlight the shot with a strong, warm light and use a lot of intense colors – blues, purples – and shadows to get a value structure, so Everest would stand out or blend in, depending on the goal of the shot. 

Animation & Effects

In the film, Yi “speaks” to Everest through her violin. In fact, she oftentimes uses her music to express her feelings. Because this was such an important aspect in the film, the animators wanted to be sure they portrayed the violin playing as accurately as possible, so a professional violinist, Charlene Huang, was brought to the studio so the artists could observe the movement. Ludovic Bouancheau, the character lead for Yi, took it the dedication even further and began taking violin lessons to better understand the mechanics. Then, to help the artists hit the right notes in terms of the animation, riggers added new finger controls to the character. 

As technically challenging as that was, Edwards maintains that Everest was the most difficult character overall to work with. Of course, there was an abundance of fur, but also Everest is a kid who is placed in some difficult situations. On top of that, he is magical, which required additional simulations. Thus, the effects team was heavily involved in every aspect of the film – from modeling, surfacing, and character effects, to simulations, final lighting, and even destruction scenes, such as the Himalayan avalanche at the end of the film. “We wanted to avoid some of the traditional ice cracking and have these internal fractures instead, so this giant ice chunk is fracturing and breaking internally, and it all comes crashing down on them,” says Edwards of the sequence. 

“It was a really big set for a few shots that required days and days per simulation,” adds Edwards.

In fact, Edwards and the effects department were involved in the production early on and was part of evolving character arcs that included effects and location designs. “We would discuss each story scene, their thoughts about the location, and how the magic would work for that sequence, as well as how we would build up Everest’s magic over the course of the film,” he explains.

Edwards provides the following example to demonstrate how the effects department melded with the rest of Abominable’s production. Within the Leshan Buddha sequence, during which Yi has a breakthrough about love and loss, Edwards’ goal was to create an artistically elevated yet realistic portrayal of this actual location just east of Leshan City, Sichuan Province. The scene showcases how Everest guides Yi to play for her father, to let out all the sorrow she’s been holding inside. For the VFX group, it was crucial they craft the scene to scale, with head of layout, Robert Crawford, helping to devise how they would shoot the characters and magic to make them feel integral to the setting. “We looked at textures and foliage to make sure we could build those assets to reflect the real world,” he says. “We developed how Everest and Yi’s magic would effectively create the field of flowers that blossom and grow as she plays.

“A lot of that is based on the timing of the musical cues, when the flowers would sprout and fill in,” he continues. The team also partnered with lighting and the digimatte supervisor, so as Yi releases her emotions, the scene goes from overcast, somber, and gloomy to bright and cheerful.

Full Circle

This “travel” film took the characters on a journey of discovery. At the start, Yi and Everest are sort of kindred spirits, connected through the loss of family – Yi with the death of her father, and Everest who is lost and a long way from home. But after this adventure of self-discovery, both find the strength to persevere and then find their respective way home: Everest to the Himalayas and Yi to her remaining family fold of her mother and grandmother.