Born to Perform
Karen Moltenbrey
March 6, 2022

Born to Perform

Netfilix’s animated feature Vivo takes viewers on a musical adventure from Havana, to Key West, to the Everglades, and on to Miami. “The story, to me, is a love letter to music,” says Karl Herbst, VFX supervisor.
The animated musical, from Sony Pictures Animation (SPA) and Imageworks, is directed by Kirk DeMicco and co-directed by Brandon Jeffords. The cast features the musical talent of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Vivo), Buena Vista Social Club’s Juan de Marcos (Andres), Zoe Saldana (Rosa), Gloria Estefan (Marta Sandoval), and others.

Vivo follows a one-of-a-kind kinkajou (a rain forest honey bear) that plays music to the crowds in a lively town square in Havana with his owner, Andres, bonding over their shared love of music. Before Vivo entered the picture, Andres had a different partner, the now-famous Marta. Despite Andres’ unspoken love for Marta, he encouraged her to follow her dream in Miami when the opportunity presented itself — which she did. Now, years later, Marta sent a message to Andres asking him to join her on stage in Miami for her farewell concert. However, tragedy strikes, and Andres passes away before he can respond.

Heartbroken Vivo finds an old love letter in the form of a song his owner had written years before and embarks on a mission to deliver it to Marta in Florida. Enter Gabi, an energetic tween — a budding musician with a beat all her own. When Gabi and her mother visit Cuba to say farewell to their relative Andres, Vivo stows away to the US with Gabi, unbeknownst to her or her mother. After he’s discovered, Vivo shares his quest with Gabi, and the pair set out to deliver the love letter/song to Marta — which leads to multiple journeys and adventures.

Carlos Zaragoza, production designer, embraced both the musical theme as well as the travel theme that are weaved throughout the film. He started by looking at 1950s and 1960s jazz album covers and travel posters to draw inspiration, particularly for the Havana settings.

To get a feel for the distinctive character of the environments and their color palettes, some of the creative team traveled to the locations to take in the local architecture and culture for inspiration. They also consulted with a team of Cuban culture and music experts to ensure the movie provided an authentic depiction of Cuban culture, music, and traditions. Some crew members who grew up in the depicted regions of the film further contributed to the flavor based on their own memories and experiences.

Painting a Graphic Picture
Vivo reflects the recent trend in 3D animation that embraces that of animation’s roots, shifting from photorealism to more of an art-driven style. “ Spider-Verse is a great example of that, and The Mitchells is kind of in that vein too. With Vivo, we wanted to make sure we didn’t distort things too much, but we wanted to explore a kind of painterly look,” says Herbst.

Like Imageworks’ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and The Mitchells vs. The Machines, Vivo contains 3D imagery along with a 2D painterly aesthetic for the backgrounds that was inspired by paintings from Andy Harkness, one of the film’s art directors.

“This style is driven off of those 1950s posters, which had simplified backgrounds that still provided a sense of place,” says Herbst. Initially this look was going to be reserved just for the Havana settings, but as the artists explored it more and more, they discovered how much they also loved it for the backgrounds in the Everglades and Miami, and developed a specific flavor for each of those locations.

The main method for achieving this look had artists project brushstrokes as both texture and geometry onto the 3D surfaces for an enhanced “texture bombing technique,” says Herbst. This was initially developed for Spider-Verse and rebuilt and re-adapted for the needs of this film. In essence, the artists stamped down brushstrokes of different sizes, driven by the depth of field of the shot, onto the 3D surfaces, so they could take the base color of what was the actual object and mix in movements of those strokes. This broke down the edges and added the hand of the artist to the imagery.

According to Herbst, the team used sets that were limited in their scope through layout, and then did another design path after the camera movements were approved. Afterward, the environment team would help fill out the rest of the backgrounds based on those new designs. Depending on the camera movement, they would then decide how much of it would be 3D or matte paintings. “The camera was pretty dynamic, so most shots are fully 3D all the way to the background,” he adds.

Location, Location, Location (and Characters)
Vivo contains a variety of different looks, including that of the film’s four distinctive locations. The first chapter of the story takes place amid the baroque and neoclassical architecture of a 1950s-style Havana, as the artists brought the vibrant street culture of this ancient city to life, awash in warm, golden hues that give it a homey feel. In contrast is the cookie-cutter, kitschy sun-bleached Key West, filled with billboards and signage to give it a touristy feel. The Everglades, meanwhile, are teeming with all manner of flora and fauna, including a mangrove swamp. Lastly, the story leads to the neon city of Miami.

“We’ve never had a big CG-animated movie that really explores the color palettes of these places,” says DeMicco. “From the color of the buildings, to the sun and sky, we were able to capture the vibrancy of Cuba and then follow Vivo and Gabi to the kitschy world of Key West. Our journey then takes us to the swamps of the Everglades, filled with fun and scary creatures, and we finally land in Miami, which is the Emerald City, teeming with energy and the great cultures of South and Central America.”

According to Herbst, the Everglades had the most complex environment in the film, especially given the number of vegetation pieces that had to be created and combined, which was accomplished using Imageworks’ Sprout, a brush tool for stamping down vegetation for a more organic look. “The backgrounds got pretty complicated based on the number of elements. Luckily, we have a very robust instancing system, so the memory footprint to render those wasn’t that bad,” Herbst adds. “This is one location where if we had done it with all paintings, the area would have felt pretty flat. Instead, when each camera moves, you really feel a depth to those environments all the way back out to the horizon.”

One sequence takes place when Gabi, Vivo, and The Sand Dollars scout troop trio are caught in a storm while lost in the Everglades. To sell how violent the storm was, the effects team had to move every branch, leaf, and twig in the scene. “At one point, the stat that was given to me was we had over a trillion triangles moving on screen at once. I’m not sure how accurate that is, but everything was moving and had to be simulated to instill the fear of the storm and how it drives Gabi and Vivo apart,” says Herbst.

While the team added a painterly look onto the environments in the background, closer to the camera, the characters and objects have a more typical CG look, animated in Autodesk’s Maya. According to Kevin Webb, head of character animation, the character builds were fairly standard, although each required some outside-the-box thinking in order to solve some issue or another. Some examples include Gabi’s overlapping layers of clothing and her giant spikey hair; the spoonbill Dancarino’s feather and wing setups; and Marta’s complicated necklace, which proved difficult to simulate and look believable. “Every character had something that didn’t come easily,” he adds.

The goal for the hair and cloth on this film was not to have it move naturally, so the style was designed with Character Art Designer Joe Moshier based on how he wanted a certain piece of cloth, for instance, to move. To this end, tools were built around the studio’s current simulation software, which is Maya’s nCloth (and Maya’s XGen for hair), so it wasn’t totally physically driven. “The path we took was to use these really powerful tools and then break away from the real-world physics and build a new set of tools based on the physics of our world,” explains Herbst.

The group took the same approach for the water to give it a more painterly feel befitting the overall style of the film. “We referenced a lot of classic 2D animation since we weren’t worrying about volume preservation. With a splash, for instance, we didn’t need to show every droplet of water going into the air and coming back down,” says Herbst. “Rather, it was more important to give the impression of things.”

Herbst found Dancarino the most challenging character “because feathers are always difficult, especially wings, and we were trying to get a Muppet-like feel for him and Valentina, the other spoonbill.” Webb, on the other hand, points to the Everglades python Lutador as the most technically challenging. “Snakes are quite hard to do in CG animation, but Lutador was far from typical. The early concept drawings had him in these very hard geometric angles, which looked very cool but is the antithesis of how a snake works,” he explains. “He was also covered in these thick scales and large, fractal crystals.” Yet, Lutador had to move like a traditional snake with elegant curves and sweeping arcs, but then slide in and out of these striking crisp angles while maintaining the rigidity of those crystals and scales.

Solving those challenges required a joint solution between rigging, animation, and FX. It started with some clever rigging to allow the animators to dial in how much angularity any given part of the snake would have. Then FX would run a simulation over top to maintain the rigidity of the crystals and scales.

Hitting all the Notes
Indeed, music is the backbone of this film — throughout the story line as well as the characters and cast — and features original songs by Miranda. In fact, Vivo had been a passion project of his since he wrote In the Heights, and began writing the songs for the film in 2009. Miranda wrote eight original songs and a finale, described as “a heartfelt love letter to Cuban music, with a dash of Caribbean and hip-hop influences added to the mix.”

It was then up to Zaragoza to bring Miranda’s music to animated life. For this, he revisited such classics as Fantasia as well as works by Expressionists. “We went beyond all the conventions and realism, and experimented with shapes and music,” he explains. “We are creating this world in our movie that is believable for our characters, but we’re not aiming for realism.”

As they did for the real-world visuals in the movie, the filmmakers leaned into an artistic style for the musical sequences, only turning up the volume significantly. The worlds in the musical numbers change dramatically compared to the rest of the movie, transitioning from a 3D look to one that looks more 2D. These fantasy-styled sequences were built and animated in 3D but given a shading texture pass that made them feel more like a traditional 2D cel-animated sequence.

Insofar as the musical numbers are concerned, the filmmakers used two different approaches, with the goal of giving these musical sequences a look that was different from the rest of the movie. Some are anchored in the real world, such as emotional moments when the character expresses how he or she feels, while many are more fantasy-based and focus on the inner visions of the characters and filled with colors and geometric shapes. Each musical number, though, has its own look to evoke a certain emotion — akin to the musicals of the 1950s and ’60s.

According to Harkness, working on these musical numbers was like working on several different animated shorts all at once. “Each had its own color and design rules,” he says. “Because there is an emphasis on a very graphic approach, they are more about feeling and color, and less about perfection.”

Webb estimates there are about nine different styles in the musical sequences. “That is definitely pushing the boundaries of what we can do in an animated feature,” he says. “Not only do they have to fit within the overall vision for the movie, but every frame has to look beautiful. The music was everything to the animation of the film. The singing, the dancing, the instruments… it all had to be authentic and choreographed.”

A professional choreographer worked with the animators on several sequences. “We had incredible footage of an entire dance team performing ‘One of a Kind’ and ‘My Own Drum,’ which was invaluable to the animation team, and you can see it throughout those sequences,” says Webb. Composer Alex Lacamoire further recorded sessions with all the musicians he worked with — “every tres chord, piano key, and drum hit is authentic and referenced.” In fact, Lacamoire went so far as to build an entire drum rig to replicate the materials and sounds of the raft Gabi and Vivo drum on in “Keep the Beat.”

One of the big character-related challenges was designing multiple looks in the fantasy sequences. For instance, Andres had three different ages, two of which needed a fantasy and non-fantasy look. “These fantasy looks relied on some new shading techniques while also being augmented with hand-drawn lines from the animators,” notes Webb.

As Herbst points out, the visual storytelling in the musical numbers comes from the point of view of the character who is singing. For instance, the Miami in the third act is quite different from the one introduced earlier during the “Mambo Cabana” sequence, which presented Miami through the eyes of Vivo, whose vision comes from illustrations on album covers and tourism posters from the past.

“One of the early discussions for ‘Mambo Cabana’ was whether the art as a still, which is so inspiring, would feel too simplistic with the lack of motion. So we explored how to add what I refer to as ‘luster’ to those sequences to keep them alive and magical from frame to frame,” says Herbst. “There’s a lot of artistry exploration rather than tech involved in this film.”

The animation in that fantasy sequence was especially unique. “We wanted to have this hand-drawn paper craft look to the characters and the motion, so we animated the characters on twos, and instead of using a typical cloth simulation, we sculpted the clothing silhouettes in animation. Then once we had completed the animation with the 3D character, we hand-drew line work over top to get that traditional animation look,” explains Webb. “The process was very time-consuming, but luckily it only involved a couple minutes’ worth of footage.”

Dancing to a New Beat
With Spider-Verse, The Mitchells, and now Vivo, Imageworks has shown that it dances to its own beat when it comes to an animation style. “People are looking at the story they want to tell and are deciding where they would like to push that story in animation,” says Herbst. “As for the next couple of projects I am looking at, some of them are more realistic and others are far more surreal. And I think both are exciting for different reasons because they’re designed around the kind of stories the filmmakers want to tell and the worlds they want those stories to take place in.”

Herbst himself is a fan of 2D animation, which uses shapes and motion to obscure the real world. And now, the trend is to embrace that style once again— if the project calls for it —only now artists are using 3D tools. So now, artists are no longer bound to a specific look and are free to explore a range of new visual styles.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.