Many grew up singing this earworm jingle, the theme song from The Addams Family television show, which aired from 1964–1966, in black and white, no less. Transcending various types of media, this gruesomely fictional family first made its introduction as a cartoon from artist Charles Addams in The New Yorker. Following the live-action television series, The Addams Family continued its presence (in live-action and 2D animated form) across television and film; the franchise even spurred two musicals and a video game. Its latest incarnation? A 3D computer-generated feature film from MGM.
“CGI gives us the chance to take these really awesome single-panel vignettes and turn them into whole shots and sequences, and give a fuller existence to The Addams Family that is difficult to do in a single-panel comic,” says Laura Brousseau, head of lighting at Cinesite Animation (Vancouver), which brought this latest iteration to life on the big screen with assistance from its studio in Montreal.
The film contains 1,173 shots – 989 from Cinesite Vancouver and 184 from Cinesite Montreal.
Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, the ghoulish animated feature hits theaters October 11.
…They really are a scream
This latest resurrection maintains the spotlight on the main characters: an eccentric, wealthy clan of macabre characters who are unaware that others find their behavior peculiar and frightening. This includes father Gomez, mother Morticia, kids Wednesday and Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Cousin Itt, Grandma and Lurch the butler. The film has the family settling into their home in New Jersey, but they find themselves at odds with designer reality-TV host Margaux Needler, who is constructing a community of prefab homes she had intricately designed in the neighborhood, with the Addams house “marring” her creation. To make matters worse, Margaux’s daughter, Parker, has become friends with Wednesday Addams. All the while, the Addams clan prepares to welcome similarly bizarre relatives arriving for a major celebration.
“There’s the main family that everyone knows, and then there’s even a couple additional surprises in there that some may not even know are part of the original cast of characters,” Brousseau says. “And all over the house there’s a lot of paintings and homage to Chas Addams’ original work.”
The design of the main characters is inspired by the original comics, and everything else in the film is based on those same shapes and designs – from the new characters to pieces of furniture and peculiar objects. Neil Eskuri, visual effects supervisor, estimates there are about two dozen extended family characters who appear at the very beginning of the film during Morticia and Gomez’s wedding, as well as at the end of the film.
The lead characters are very different in size (from the severed hand Thing to the towering butler Lurch, and everything in between), with varying skin tones and different needs, resulting in lighting challenges that reflect their individual personalities. Each presented different challenges for the animators, as well – whether that involved hair, costume, animation, lighting or shading. Three family members in particular stood out: Morticia, Margaux and Cousin Itt.
Wife Morticia is very tall and thin, with a somewhat skeletal structure to her face. “She is very slender, with this beauty and elegance. We always wanted her to look beautiful, but also had to make sure her incisive yet subtle personality was reflected,” says Brousseau. To this end, the group used a film noir-esque range of techniques to light her. “We used a very soft eye light, combined with her red lips and sleek, shiny, black hair.”
And while taking well-known characters from single-frame drawings in a comic panel and then building a whole personality and style to their movement and performance is always difficult, it was made even more challenging when it came to this character. For instance, Morticia wears a long, tight dress that restricts her model’s leg movements. On top of that, the “moving” tentacles on the edge of her dress posed even more difficulty for the animators. “There is very strategic placement of her in the film; she goes up and down the stairs in camera only when it’s really necessary,” says Brousseau. “And you will see those tentacles sort of glide and move with her and mimic her general way of walking.”
Also, Morticia and Wednesday have distinct personalities whereby they don’t often emote in an exaggerated way and have a more deadpan way of speaking, and yet audiences have to both understand their emotions, the intensity of such and the story. Thus, animators had to work hard to get those performances just right.
TV host Margaux’s difficulty stemmed from her huge head of big, blonde hair that was always bouncing around and interacting with her large, round, dangling earrings. “Her hair was really big, and if she pushed her head back or moved it forward, the hair would get in the way. Also, we would have a lot of issues with the penetration of the geometry, with her earrings or her collar,” says Eskuri.
Because of Margaux’s excessive amount of hair and thick bangs, her face often fell into shadow, and the directors did not want to lose some of her intense acting, especially in crucial points of the film. As a result, the artists were always finding ways to come up with bounce light or extra fill on her, to be sure the audience was reading all of that acting.
Meanwhile, the hairy creature Cousin Itt was covered head to toe in long strands of hair (approximately 85,000), yet animators had to make him expressive without facial features, and lighters had to accentuate his shape while lighting him. Itt was not the only character that presented artists with a “hairy” situation. There is also Margaux, of course, who has 165,000 strands, and Wednesday, who has 57,000.
For modeling, rigging, animation and layout, the artists used Autodesk’s Maya as well as Pixologic’s ZBrush at times for sculpting. For lighting, the crew used Foundry’s Katana; for texturing characters, props and environments, Foundry’s Mari. Meanwhile, SideFX’s Houdini was used for effects, while hair grooming was done with the Maya XGen plug-in. Compositing was done in Foundry’s Nuke, and rendering was achieved using Pixar’s RenderMan 22.
“We did adapt Katana for the first time on this project, and we had used RenderMan before, although we had been using Reyes previously and on this project we used RIS,” notes Brousseau. “Those were big things for us, and we spent almost half a year getting that [technology] in-house and building a pipeline for that before we really got into surfacing and lighting.” However, the resulting node-based workflow provided more efficiency and eliminated many repetitive tasks, resulting in a greater creative and technical balance for the artists, enabling them to build their materials in surfacing and lighting, and then focusing more on the creative side as they lit their shots.
Their house is a museum…
There are two major types of sets in the film: those where it’s always bright, colorful and sunny, and those at the Addams’ house, which is very dark, lit mainly by candlelight and diffused exterior lights. Lighting darker characters against darker environments was not always easy, and the team had to remain constantly vigilant when it came to collaborating with other departments to create light sources that also helped establish the appropriate mood and achieve the right color temperature.
“Usually the good guys are bright and colorful, bad guys are dark and scary, but we are flipping that notion in this film to further emphasize the story point that it doesn’t really matter what your family is like, they’re still family, and families come in all different types and sizes,” says Brousseau.
The Addams’ “haunted” house serves as the main environment in the film, and within it are multiple interior and exterior locations on the grounds of the property and within the mansion itself. The exterior was especially difficult because it was so expansive and required very distinctive art-directed trees that lined the entire property as well as a layer of surrounding fog, according to Eskuri. “We have these very distinct, slightly red hedges everywhere and a grouping that forms a little skull shape,” he adds.
There’s also a “brownhouse,” the Addams version of a greenhouse, in addition to gardens, a pond and even a cemetery. And all of the environments had to be dressed to reflect the family’s unique sense of style. This required the artists to “Addams-fy” the objects, tailoring them to match the family’s “interesting” personality as opposed to a normal-world assimilation. “There were a lot of ideas coming from many different places on what we could add that would be visually interesting or further the story, or even be a homage to the original franchise,” says Brousseau. She credits Production Designer Patricia Atchison and the art and design department for their research and understanding of the franchise, and then building great packages of color palettes and shapes, and coming up with unique designs for the film.
“The Addams house definitely has a lot of really cool touches, and you’d probably have to watch the film a few times to catch them all,” Brousseau says. The style can be considered “creepy chic,” dilapidated elegance as opposed to tattered and worn; this contrasts with Margaux’s technicolor antiseptic aesthetic.
With such an expansive set and plethora of objects and elements, rendering was no easy task, taking between eight and 12 hours a frame, if not longer.
Neat. Sweet. Petite.
To complement the environments, there are a wide range of effects, including dust, smoke, rain and so forth. “We had a library of elements that lighting could use and drop into the shots as needed,” says Brousseau. As would be expected of such an old house, there is dust – in one scene, Lurch is “dusting,” which for this family means spreading dirt rather than getting rid of it. However, the particles are limited. “We had a fairly extensive setup for our dust motes. It’s quite a subtle effect that we really only pushed up in a few select shots, mainly because we made the choice not to have it in every shot as to not be distracting,” she adds.
In addition, artists created a swamp with a looping, continual roiling and rippling effect, and lots of custom fog – mostly art-direct VFX. Because effects mainly are generated with software that works on a real-world scale and with real-world forces and simulations, it was not easy putting an artistic spin on them for the film. “For instance, there is a spirit and we gave it a personality with the way the simulation was done,” explains Brousseau.
We’re going to pay a call on…
…The Addams Family
The Addams Family is the first project for Cinesite’s Vancouver Feature Animation Studio. For Brousseau, it is the first time she has tackled a franchise for feature film that is so beloved, making the project both daunting yet fun.
“Anytime you’re taking on an existing franchise, you want to make sure you’re true to the core heart of the characters and their stories, yet you also want to put your own spin and twist on it without losing that,” says Brousseau. “That’s something that stayed with us all the way from the beginning to the end. We’d always ask ourselves, Does this prop fit into the Addams’ world? Is this how Morticia would say this or how she would respond to a certain event?”
While The Addams Family is timeless with its ghastly, endearing characters, this film’s story lines are reflective of today’s era in many ways (there’s even a reference to It, as Wednesday appears with a red balloon “without a killer clown attached to the end of it.” And while there are plenty of new songs in the movie, filmmakers played homage to the family’s past by referencing that song we all know so well.
Karen Moltenbrey (Karen@cgw.com) is the chief editor of CGW, Post Magazine’s sister publication.