Hotel Transylvania 3: A CG Family Adventure
Karen Moltenbrey
September 5, 2018

Hotel Transylvania 3: A CG Family Adventure

The beloved ghouls from the  Hotel Transylvania  franchise are back, bringing their unique sense of fun and animated style to the big screen for the third time under the direction of Genndy Tartakovsky and his creative teams at Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks.

In Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, Tartakovsky takes the characters – and animators – out of their comfort zone with exotic (and challenging) locations beyond the familiar hotel grounds, and with new characters introduced into the mainstay monster cast. 

“This film is a lot bigger than the first two films – it eclipses them in scope and scale,” says Tartakovsky. “There are all kinds of new locations. We get to see the Bermuda Triangle, the lost city of Atlantis, an underwater volcano. These are grand-scale places that monsters can go to take a break. It’s a comedic spectacle.”

The adventure starts when Drac’s daughter, Mavis, books a luxury monster cruise so Dracula, who spends his time planning vacations for others at his hotel, can get some R&R himself. Once aboard, the usually overprotective father falls for the ship’s captain, Ericka, who seems perfect – a little too perfect. Mavis becomes suspicious, and rightly so, as Ericka is hiding a deadly secret. She is a descendant of Abraham Van Helsing, an ancient nemesis to Dracula and the other monsters, and she has far darker intentions in mind than rosé and romance.

Once again, Tartakovsky brings his unique sensibility to the film’s animation, with its pushed, Tex Avery-like cartoony style. “Poses are pushed really far, and when you’re doing that in computer graphics, it can obviously cause a lot of consternation and headaches down the pipeline as animators try to hit these incredible poses Genndy is expecting,” says Michael Ford, visual effects supervisor. “Genndy’s animation style really breaks physics. So, the question is, how do we use our tools to unbreak it?”

Striking a Pose

Starting with the original Hotel Transylvania in 2012, the artists began developing body and facial rig techniques and tools that allowed them to create the action in accordance with Tartakovsky’s style. “We’re putting in a lot of extra controls and deformers that give the animators the flexibility of creating all these different poses,” says Ford. “On top of that, we have what’s called our Tweak system, so we can basically add any number of additional deformers and layer those to work in parallel with our rig. So an animator can be using the standard controls they have on the rig, but if they need something really specific in terms of pose, they can actually sculpt it themselves and add it in – whether they use it for the whole shot or on just one frame – to build the look they need based on what Genndy wants.”

The animators also used a new tool called Pose Stamp, whereby artists create a pose and then “stamp” it, duplicating a piece of a character (such as a limb) and then placing that in slightly different positions to achieve a speed-blur effect seen in traditional 2D animation. 

Characters with Character

Many characters from the first two films are back, but since it has been three years since the last film was released, they needed some updating, particularly when it came to shaders. For the most part, Dracula has the same rig from the original movie, though it had been upgraded slightly for the second film, and yet again for the third. “We basically have new controls and new functionality. We also made slight modifications to some of the textures and some of our newer CFX tools,” he says. “They weren’t huge modifications, but everything got a slight upgrade where needed.”

Also, the monsters received a new wardrobe for their cruise. Sometimes this made things easier for the animators, sometimes not so much. Dracula ditches his trademark cape – practically a character itself – for shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. Mavis, on the other hand, dons a loose-fitting sundress that required the animators to work more closely with the simulation department to make the garment relax appropriately.

“In a Hotel Transylvania film, the cloth and hair team (CFX) kind of take it on the chin a little because of these really extreme character poses. The CFX team has pushed to adhere to the rule sets that we make for the characters,” says Ford. 

While a small amount of internal detail is added to the cloth, such as for Drac’s cape, the focus is on the silhouette. To this end, the CFX team uses a variety of tools, including a cloth cache compositor, whereby the artists simulate specific frame ranges for the cloth using different settings and combine and blend those frame ranges together to create a cohesive look for the cloth simulation. 

Making their debut in Hotel Transylvania 3 are Ericka and her great-great-grandfather, the legendary monster hunter Abraham Van Helsing.

“When Ericka is in deception mode – when we don’t know that she’s evil – she is very sweet and all her dialog sounds very pleasant, and we animated her as softly and warmly as possible. We kept her very calm and smooth, in a way that characters don’t usually move in the Hotel Transylvania world,” says animation supervisor Alan Hawkins. “When you are first introduced to her on the boat, you see her move in a way that’s a little outside of the style of these films. But when she gets into her evil reveal, she starts moving a lot more sharply and quickly, her lines are less soft and rounded, and she gets a lot more straights in her posing.”

Hawkins continues: “It was important to Genndy to create a character that’s a match for Dracula, not just emotionally, but physically. Dracula is our most pushed character –
he can do almost anything – and so with Ericka, we had to find a way to do that as well. When she’s being really evil, she’s doing some pretty extreme stuff that is on par with what Dracula can do.”

According to Ford, the most challenging character, however, was Van Helsing. Times two. The team had to build both a young and old version. The younger character has a very distinctive hairstyle that resembles horns, and that iconic shape had to carry over in the older gent, despite his thin, fine hair. 

The character’s face changed quite a bit in the aged version, too; therefore, two different models were built. Creating further complication was the older man’s mustache. “Mustaches in general are hard to control because they move based on what the skin is doing underneath,” explains Ford. “Genndy’s animation style really pushed this character into extreme poses, and this had an adverse effect on the mustache. And our CFX team had to figure out how to get this mustache to look appropriate.”

Old Van Helsing is also Ford’s favorite character in the movie. “He’s not an attractive man, but he has so much detail and so much personality. He’s got skin that feels old and weathered, and then there’s that scraggly mustache,” says Ford. “I love the performances that the animators got out of him. He’s not scary; he’s almost endearing in a way.” 

Also new is a huge kraken which appears in a battle sequence near the end of the film that highlights work by all the teams. 

“Like all things in Hotel Transylvania, Genndy didn’t want it to be scary; it had to have some humor to it,” says Ford of the character. “So, there’s this giant creature with all these tentacles slamming to the ground and basically destroying this arena. The animation is moving at incredible speeds, but that is the speed Genndy wanted. And all the departments that were downstream from that animation, especially effects, had to contend with things that weren’t necessarily real in terms of the physics.” 

When the tentacles hit the water, one of the effects animators pointed out that it was traveling at Mach 4, so the effects team had to slow down and manipulate time on the tentacle in order to get a water sim and any associated debris to work. 

“The sequence shows how animation drives the way things are going to look, even what’s coming out of the departments downstream,” says Ford. “All the teams rose to the occasion of making sure it looked and felt real, in a Hotel Transylvania way.”

Exotic Destinations 

In Hotel Transylvania 3, Tartakovsky, co-writer on the film, continues with the hotel jokes since, after all, a cruise ship is basically a hotel on water. And, there are a lot of new environments – “more than any other movie I’ve worked on, especially in the Hotel Transylvania series,” says Ford.  

One of the more complex is an underwater volcano, complete with a simulation, as it was always erupting. “When Genndy first told us, you could hear a pin drop in the room,” says Ford. The volcano had to fit into the Hotel Transylvania world, which is bright and colorful. But, underwater volcanoes are actually the opposite: dark and scary. Production designer Scott Willis added a red underlight that was pretty and bright, and Ford and his team dressed the location with coral and kelp, adding details that made the locale seem real.

Also challenging was the Bermuda Triangle, from its waterfalls to the tower of wrecked ships. “It is a literal triangle in the middle of the ocean, with thousand-foot waterfalls into an abyss,” Ford explains. “How do you create a thousand-foot-tall waterfall that’s cascading into a big hole in the middle of the ocean? How’s that going to look? There is no real reference for that.”

The artists also had to build, and then destroy, all the ships that are piled up in the location (including some actual famous boats that allegedly disappeared in this area). “We needed a perfect structure that we could shoot from all angles but make it feel big and like it had been there for a long time,” says Ford. “It took all the tricks in the book from our modeling, texturing, and look development teams, as well as our lighting teams, to make this pile of boats feel big and unique, but also comical.”

In addition, the animators had to construct the lost city of Atlantis with a massive casino built under the sea. “Genndy, I think, was trying to break us,” says Ford with a laugh. The casino floor is an aquarium. The ceilings, walls, and floors – every surface – was reflective glass and metal. Outside, animated fish, whales, and other sea creatures swim by. Inside are all the elements found in a casino: a bar, gaming tables, slot machines. And, the location is not short on details: even the slot machines contain motion graphics. 

“When you pull a slot machine, it actually animates. And there are lots of different machines. There was a lot of artwork generated for that by our amazing matte-painting team,” Ford adds. 

Then, monsters were inserted into this extremely complex set, which also features ancient ruins. 

“It was layers of complexity on top of other layers of complexity in terms of the environment builds. It’s definitely the biggest environment that I’ve built on a movie, especially for a sequel,” says Ford. The location includes a giant colosseum that rises out of the sea, which had to be built and then destroyed purposefully, with careful choreography, by the kraken’s tentacles – and with the use of Houdini software.

As Ford points out, the software works well under real-world scenarios, but the movie does not feature real-world situations and visuals. So, the artists had to find ways to bend the software to their needs of Tartakovsky’s exaggerated animation style.

In addition to these locations, the group created a detailed airplane, populated and flown by Gremlins, and filled with a real attention to detail. The cruise ship itself was a massive environment with various sections, such as a swimming pool and decks. It sports more than 5,700 portholes and other fine details. 

Water, Water Everywhere

When Tartakovsky told the crew they were doing a Hotel Transylvania 3 on a cruise ship, the initial realization, says Ford, was they were going to have to deal with a lot of water. And they were correct in that assessment, as the environments were located on, or below, water. “Genndy’s cartoony style doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the physics of water,” he adds, “and every location has some sort of effects or simulation component to it. For example, not only is the boat on the water, but the boat has a pool where a monster volleyball game takes place.”

The effects team studied a lot of different types of water movement, as it was important for the water to look real, at least real in the Hotel Transylvania sense. This involved adding an artistic, manipulated layer on top of a physics-based baseline. Using Houdini, the effects artists generated numerous layers of water, including a surface layer, particle layer, and a vapor layer, which, when combined, provides what Ford describes as a “good look, especially in the cartoon world” and a result that allows the effects animators ultimate control of each of the layers that make up the water. 

However, when the giant kraken interacts with the water, it pushes things to the limit, as the simulation software is not made to work at extremes. “If things are too big in the computer world, it starts to break and fall apart,” says Hawkins. 

Making A Statement

Unlike many animated features, which contain a good deal of dialog, Hotel
Transylvania 3
features a number of scenes where the performances and music drive the story. Because of this, the animation has to speak volumes and deliver on the gags. 

Beyond the laughs, though, is an endearing story of family and friends who look out for one another. And when the characters find themselves in unfamiliar territory, it is their ability to rely on one another that enables them to conquer these new situations and challenges. The same can be said of the teams at Sony Pictures Animation and Imageworks that worked on this film.