Carving Out a Niche with CG Animals
January 8, 2020

Carving Out a Niche with CG Animals

Ever since audiences fell in love with  Babe  in 1995, CG animals have been part of our lives, delighting us in film, television, ads and now, social media. An adorable animal can instantly connect with viewers; studies have shown that our brains are hardwired to respond to images of animals even more so than images of people. It doesn’t even matter what they look like – cute or dangerous, CG animals provoke a visceral reaction.  

From a storytelling perspective, animals give writers more freedom, allowing them to showcase experiences humans don’t generally have (like the perspective of an ant). Animals also allow writers more leeway when exploring difficult or sensitive topics; because the characters are not human, there is a layer of “otherness” that can help make a challenging theme more palatable for audiences. And, of course, the use of CG means fewer live animals on set. Activists have long protested the use of live animals in entertainment; CG animals offer a more ethical substitute.

Perhaps the most famous CG animals of the past few years belong to Disney, whose remakes of Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King and Lady & The Tramp have filled theaters, have broken records and have inspired countless memes. And as the studio continues down this “live-action” path, it is creating a big opening for artists who specialize in making photoreal CG assets. But Disney isn’t the only one doing this. Even a cursory look at the industry shows this artistic subset is growing rapidly. 

Take Peta’s award-winning “Best Friend” ad, which blurred the lines between pets and food with an incredibly lifelike pig created by Mackevision. Or The Umbrella Academy’s empathetic Pogo, a talking chimpanzee butler who serves as an ersatz father figure to the family he serves. From Captain Marvel’s Goose the cat to His Dark Materials’ daemons, from John Wick’s dog to the pooch in A Dog’s Way Home, the list of CG animals that have enchanted audiences goes on and on.

So, how can young artists take advantage of this growing field? If CG animals are going to completely replace the on-set variety, what’s going to end up selling the look and feel of an animal that isn’t really there? 

In the past, studios have relied on traditional approaches such as shot sculpting and correctives to try to achieve realistic CG creatures. But these methods are both time- and money-intensive, and can be notoriously difficult to scale at the breakneck pace today’s projects require. Recently, we’ve been tracking Ziva VFX, a tool created by former Weta and Method artists, that allows creature teams to get the results they want faster. Currently used by over 70 major visual effects studios, the Ziva method combines the effects of real-world physics with the rapid creation of soft-tissue materials like muscles, fat and skin, mirroring the fundamental properties of nature so artists can produce CG characters that move, flex and jiggle just as they would in real life.

Recently we spoke with a student named Ludwig Ek, who taught himself the Ziva method entirely through Ziva’s online tutorials and forums, to get his take on what young artists need to crack the code on CG animals. By honing their abilities on simulation tools like Ziva, today’s students can enter the industry trained in a new method, freed from the constraints of “how it’s always been done.” Rather than having to unlearn bad habits, they are coming to the workforce armed with a brand-new set of skills that make them valuable additions to any studio. 

The Project: Gliding Leaf Frog

For a school assignment, Ek was tasked with creating a photorealistic creature in a realistic environment, making everything from scratch, from modeling and look dev to rigging and lighting. Although he had practiced basic rigging in Maya before, this would be his first ever attempt at a full quadruped rig, forcing him to explore unfamiliar concepts, like how muscles, fat and skin interact in a simulation. 

Ek chose to simulate a gliding leaf frog, a tiny and very flexible animal with lean muscle. “I was having a hard time with muscle simulation using Maya's Ncloth when a rigging TD at Important Looking Pirates introduced me to Ziva VFX,” he said. “I quickly realized it was not only simpler, but more fun as well.” After his model was sculpted, textured and shaded, Ek watched some Ziva tutorials on Vimeo before diving in.  

For his first muscle simulation, Ekcreated a small section of the frog’s leg to make sure he understood the basics. Then, he built out the rest of the skeleton and muscles. “Because I knew it worked on one leg, I could use similar settings for the rest of the body,” he says. We’ve seen professionals praise Ziva – like those at Milk VFX, who used it in their work on Amazon/BBC’s Good Omens – but the fact that an amateur artist taught himself to use the tool in a matter of weeks attests to its ease of use and intuitive design. 

Ek was able to simulate a variety of muscles in a short amount of time, which allowed for multiple iterations and gave him the opportunity to experiment and see what worked best. One of his biggest challenges was figuring out how to rig the frog’s toes to wrap around a branch, but he found help in the software’s forums, where newbies and pros mingle. 

Ek also had some advice for students looking to improve their skills: do plenty of research on the creature you’re planning to create, keep your models clean and leave yourself time to experiment. “The muscles turned out to be the easy part, but the skin layer had more of a learning curve,” he says. Although the whole project was completed in just seven weeks, he was quite happy with the result, particularly the way that Ziva helped him create natural motion around the stomach and legs, which gave the frog a more realistic, organic feel. 

More about Ek’s project can be found at .

For students who want to learn more, Ziva created an academic program last year that gives amateur artists access to the same tools used by professionals, at a reduced rate. If the use of CG animals continues to rise, this will prove to be an important skill set in the future.