Harry Potter Animated
November 29, 2010

Harry Potter Animated

Framestore Commercials Department creates a hauntingly beautiful storybook animation for Harry Potter
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has received double-whammy input from Framestore: Not only was the VFX powerhouse asked to take on some of the film's key visual effects, Framestore’s short-form commercials know-how was additionally commissioned to create the haunting and delicate two-minute, 40-second “The Tale of Three Brothers” animation sequence. The commercials team was awarded the production on their creative approach to developing visuals and animation techniques as evidenced in their work for the storybook sequence in the 2009 film The Tale of Despereaux (see “Bold Camera, Subtle Animation, Tactile World,” CGW, January 2008).

Directed by Ben Hibon (A.D., Codehunters, Heavenly Sword), the captivating sequence inspired by oriental shadow puppetry, visually narrates Hermione’s story about three wizard brothers who try to outwit Death. Led by Dale Newton for Framestore, the animation is created in sepia tones, and its mysterious characters are conveyed through silhouettes and shadows, inspired by traditional Eastern puppet theatre. The clip is so beautifully detailed and intricate that it required over six months of work by a team that peaked at 32 Framestore VFX artists.

Framestore’s creative energy was put to good use in pre-production by designing all the characters and lighting concepts that would establish the all-important look and feel for the piece. Newton, who designed the characters Death and the Three Brothers, said, “We created a visual language that echoed particular curves and shapes throughout all the characters and sets, creating an aesthetic logic for the sequence.”

One of the distinctive elements to come out of the design phase was a papery, grainy background that bound the images together well and added to the overall ethereal feel. This had to be translated into something that would work with moving cameras and not be “pasted over the top” in comp.

The sequence was composited by Nuke (The Foundry) artists Russell Dodgson and Adam Rowland. Framestore commercials has been fast to embrace the power of Nuke as a compositing system, especially its ability to handle the vast amount of data types that can be generated in 3D. After a short period of R&D, a Nuke workflow was set up that would combine rendered elements with a dynamic, three-dimensional paper fog at the end of the process. Nuke’s powerful 3D space was also used to project the paper textures onto set geometry to gently degrade the environments while maintaining a constant aesthetic. Achieving a uniform grain and tonal balance in the paper noise proved beyond challenging; but allocating this task to the compositors, combined with Nuke’s speed, made it possible to make changes to this effect quickly.

Autodesk’s Maya was used for character animation. CG Supervisor James Healy enhanced Framestore’s commercial department’s character rigging pipeline for use on the show. The lighting and rendering pipeline was set up in Mental Images’ Mental Ray. Character, prop, and set assets were look-developed in the standard way for commercial production, with a small team of texture and Pixologic Zbrush artists working up the detail--renders were generated to produce a typical array of passes for comp’ing in Nuke: RGB light and shadow, depth, incidence, to name just a few. The compositors’ greatest challenge was finding the best way to manipulate the full color and beautifully detailed renders, and to combine the passes creatively to achieve the director's desired look while also maintaining the fine detail. The compositors were able to craft the final look in Nuke, starting with the lighting concepts created earlier in the production and then developing this further as the project continued.

“The sequence was a compositors dream job," said Russell Dodgson, “technical, challenging, and with an ever-evolving creative process that required a lot of out-of-the-box thinking. Nuke’s faster workflow and tight integration with 3D applications aided artists and clients by being able to respond to director feedback and get more creative iterations before the deadline.

Due to the relatively long shot durations, cloth simulation on Death’s cloak and the bride’s dress proved challenging. The brief in the case of Death was to create an ethereal otherworldly movement that felt natural in this stylized world. The team decided that the wizard characters’ cloth would have a stiff puppet look to further distinguish them from Death. James Healy created a pipeline to deal with these elements using Maya’s NCloth.

Martin Aufinger used Side Effects’ Houdini for the magical bridge-forming sequence. In order to further the gritty, hand-made look, the team experimented with lowering the frames rate on elements in shots. Due to the moving cameras, this was impossible as it generated excessive strobing. The only element that stayed on twos was the bridge. Telecine artist, Simon Bourne, managed the sequence’s signature sepia tones by grading in FilmLight’s Baselight. This gave the director more latitude to create punchy and dramatic pictures while pushing certain elements within the grade.

Newton, said, “The film itself gave Framestore a great opportunity to create more cutting-edge visual effects. But this storybook sequence posed a different set of challenges: namely, how do you create a delicate, papery animated sequence in CGI? How to create compelling poetic characters in a dramatic narrative when only using shadows and silhouettes? So, rather than being the visual effects task that we’ve all become so accustomed to, this was more a creative voyage of discovery.”

For a detailed look at how the VFX throughout the film were created, see “On the Road Again” in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Computer Graphics World.