Modus FX Journeys into the Far North with Sarila
June 3, 2011

Modus FX Journeys into the Far North with Sarila

Montreal, Quebec - Modus FX has embarked on a new stereoscopic 3D journey: an 80-minute animated film called Sarila, which will be the first feature-length stereoscopic animated film created in Canada. 

Directed by Nancy Florence Savard, Sarila is set amongst the Inuit people of the Arctic and stars Christopher Plummer ( The Sound of MusicThe Last Station), Geneviève Bujold ( Anne of the Thousand DaysThe Trotsky), Rachelle Lefevre ( TwilightBarney's Version), Dustin Milligan ( Beverly Hills 90210Slither), and Natar Ungalaq ( The Fast Runner).

"Sarila tells the story of three young Inuit who strike out on their own in order to save their clan from starvation," Savard  says. "This is an inspirational story, full of hope. It shows young people facing daunting challenges and, through the experience, taking control of their lives. Their world is exotic to us but their experience is universal."  

Written by acclaimed children's author Roger Harvey and Pierre Tremblay, an expert in Inuit culture, and adapted by Paul Risacher, the film uses authentic settings and indigenous mythology in order to capture the world of the "Great White North."

"The story draws on Inuit legends from different regions of the arctic," explains Savard, "but then it moves beyond those traditional archetypes to tell a new story.

"Sarila invites the use of stereo 3D," Savard continues. "The characters travel across the tundra, through snow storms, and meet strange, semi-mythical characters along the way. The immersive quality of the stereo 3D draws the audience into their odyssey."

Modus FX came on board as an investment partner late last year, and began working with the film's art director Philippe Arsenault Bussières in January to translate his watercolor concept art into 3D geometry that can be rendered stereoscopically. The result is an original, stylized aesthetic for stereo 3D. 

"In our VFX work we usually mimic reality, but with this project we are creating something different," notes visual effects supervisor Eric Clément. "Our goal is to capture the essence of the original concept art. We want to 'push' the look of stereo 3D, instead of going in the photoreal direction that a lot of current animation is doing."

Working together with the art director, the texture team at Modus developed a technique for mixing colors with a custom brush in Photoshop. Surfaces, such as the characters' clothing, for example, blend a watercolor look with photographic references to create the final result. 

Modus has a team of 85 artists on the project, many of whom were involved in the facility's recent March of the Dinosaurs project, a 90-minute animation for National Geographic and The History Channel, which was, coincidentally, also set in the Arctic.  Sarila includes 950 shots, so the 15-month production schedule requires an efficient pipeline and relies on several key Modus-developed technologies.

Setting the Scene in the Arctic
The vast and desolate landscapes of the Arctic play an important role in the narrative and atmosphere of the story. Since the film is in stereo 3D, the process of creating these landscapes is more complex than with traditional matte painting. "The old-school tricks of doing '2D cheats' in compositing, like doing a matte painting to extend the background--those don't work in stereo," says Clément. "You need to include the geometry with the images."

To solve the problem, the Modus team has developed a pipeline for creating 3D maps of matte paintings. The spatial coordinates for each landscape are built in Softimage XSI, allowing the team to create and render left- and right-eye cameras. The shots are then assembled in Nuke, again using custom tools developed at Modus. "This way of building our 3D geometry is very effective for working out backgrounds, such as skies," explains Clément.

Another challenge for stereo 3D animations is the volume of data to be managed. Modus has developed a number of technologies for this, including the Modus FX SceneBuilder. This tool enables artists to load "subsets" of a scene, in order to work on one particular element without the overhead of the whole scene. "The film includes 30 different environments, so the MFX SceneBuilder has become a critical tool in keeping our shot pipeline moving efficiently," notes Clément.

Modus has also turbocharged their infrastructure by implementing the new Arnold rendering system. "It's amazingly fast in terms of motion blur, subsurfaces and other computationally-intensive processes," adds Clément. This required creating a new compatible shader library, but the faster render times have easily justified the extra effort. "We keep finding ways to get more out of our pipeline," he added "the result is that our artists can focus on the art, and don't have to think about the technology."

Rigging Done Right
Sarila has a total of 35 talking characters, including people and animals, so rigging and lip-synching are another area where an efficient workflow is critical. "We have bipeds, quadrupeds and birds to animate," says Clément, "so we created a system that would allow our artists to rig their characters in different shots without having to start from scratch each time they started on a new scene."

The Modus FX AutoRigger, developed specially for Sarila, allows artists to generate biped and quadruped bones structures. With the MFX AutoRigger artists can apply movement patterns to their characters automatically and then manually adjust the movements for each shot. "For example, for a sled pulled by five dogs, we want our animator to be able to start with the basic running movements and refine the work from there," says Clément.

The film is being entirely keyframe animated and lipsynched by hand. The voice tracks were recorded by the cast earlier this year at Technicolor and assembled at Studio Expression in Qubec City. "Our AutoRigger buys us extra time, for work like this," mentions Clément. "Being efficient up front means the artists can afford to spend time on the small timing details that make animation come alive on the screen."

Modus has also created a system for automating compositing work. This solution uses templates which can be applied to similar shots automatically from the 3D data. "A script is generated and a pre-comp is sent to our dailies for review," says Clément. "This gives the compositors a good starting point if further work on the comp is needed. We first created this system a few years ago. Like the AutoRigger, it allows our artists to produce better shots more quickly."

"It's exciting for all of us to be creating Canadian film history," enthuses Marc Bourbonnais, president and co-founder of Modus FX. "We're proud to be working with Carpe Diem Film & TV and 10th Avenue Productions on Sarila and look forward to sharing this beautiful story with audiences around the world."

Produced by Carpe Diem Film & TV Inc. and 10th Ave. Productions, and executive produced by Marie-Claude Beauchamp, Normand Thauvette, Paul Risacher, and Nancy Florence Savard, Sarila is scheduled for release in 2012.