Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 5 (May 2000)

BEAUTY... and the BEASTS

For Dinosaur, Disney created a beautiful and dangerous live-action world for a horde of prehistoric CG animals

The opening shot of Dinosaur is breathtaking: It starts with a close-up of a large egg lying in a nest on the ground. Then the camera pulls back to reveal a tropical landscape filled with thousands of dinosaurs peacefully grazing. Suddenly, a brutal predator crashes onto the scene, destroying everything in its path except the egg, which has been snatched out of the nest by an oviraptor. The camera follows as the raptor swoops over the land, flies past sea cliffs, and dives toward the water below while holding the egg precariously its talons. All the animals in this scene and throughout the movie were created with 3D computer graphics. The background is real, a blend of landscapes shot in various locations. The attack is vicious enough to help give the Disney film, directed by Ralph Zondag and Eric Leighton, a PG rating.

Scheduled to open in theaters May 19, this Touchstone Pictures release provides a unique glimpse of a prehistoric world filled with animated, photorealistic, talking 3D dinosaurs and lemurs. Talking? Well, it is a Disney animation-even if it doesn't look like one. A typical feature animation created at Disney might include some 3D elements, but the films usually have 2D cartoon characters acting against 2D painted backgrounds. By contrast, the characters in Dinosaur are 3D, and they perform within live-action backgrounds. "It's unlike anything ever made before," says Pam Marsden, producer. "The entire movie, 1300-plus shots, is made of effects shots, yet there are no people in it."
Ready for a swim is Baylene, a brachiosaur. Baylene's skin texture is created with 6000 texture maps; actress Joan Plowright provides her voice. In the foreground is CG grass; projected texture maps add to the background.

We've seen photorealistic 3D animals before in effects movies, but this is the first effects movie in which the stars are all 3D characters, and the first feature animation created entirely with 3D animated characters that live in a world fabricated from live-action backgrounds.

"I think we were all insane," laughs Baker Bloodworth, co-producer. "We were mounting a live-action movie out of an animation department, but there was no process for that in place." When Disney approved the project in 1995, it knew that in order to create the movie, the crew had to build a new, digital studio from scratch.

Now called "Feature Animation North side," the studio is in a former Lock heed building in Burbank, California. Com puters, primarily SGI (Mountain View, CA) machines, were installed to create a renderfarm and provide workstations for artists, software engineers, and technical directors (TDs). Software tools were evaluated, purchased, installed, linked, and written, and a production pipeline was put into place. The production team moved into the Northside building in January 1997, and animation officially be gan eight months later, although some work had already begun.
Using film from locations around the world, Disney created an idyllic prehistoric landscape, then filled it with 3D dinosaurs to create a nesting ground.

The Dinosaur crew would grow to around 360 people at the height of production. Together, this crew created a 76-minute film starring more than 30 species of photorealistic CG animals, which range in size from a 12-inch lizard to a 120-foot-long, 100-ton brachiosaur. Ten of these animals-six dinosaurs and four lemurs-talk.

The 65-million-year-old world the animals inhabit was created primarily from locations filmed around the globe during an 18-month period. The landscapes in the opening scene, for example, were fashioned from film shot in Florida, Venezuela, Australia, Hawaii, and at the Arboretum in Los Angeles, then scanned, stitched together, and enhanced digitally to create the Cretaceous Period setting. Miniatures were also used. All told, two live-action film crews shot over 800,000 feet of film, including bits and pieces such as splashes used by the effects team to help blend the CG characters into the live-action plates. Only one scene, which takes place inside a cave, uses all-CG backgrounds.
Trying to fend off an attack from a bloodthirsty predator is Kron, the iguanodon on the tip of the rocky ledge. Actor Samuel E. Wright provides Kron's voice.

"We thought we'd create composited plates for 20 to 30% of the movie, but it turned out to be 80 to 90%," says Jimbo Hillin, effects compositing supervisor. "If the director wanted more grass, we'd add some. If he wanted the camera to pan at a different speed, we could replace a moving camera shot with a CG camera shot. Rather than being limited by live action, it became another tool."

Storyboards created in 1996 and 1997 evolved into 2D workbooks, which became 3D workbooks, or animatics, created with Avid's (Tewksbury, MA) Softimage 3D. In addition to showing the story through rough character animations, the 3D workbook also described backgrounds. "The 3D workbook was a virtual set," says Neil Krepela, visual effects supervisor. The trick was to create real landscapes to match. Herds of dinosaurs move through many of the scenes and need to be shot from 30 to 100 feet away. "It is amazing how big the dinosaurs are," says Krepela. "They stand 12, 15, 80 feet off the ground and they gobble up a lot of space."

Krepela had to find locations that would closely resemble the prehistoric world described in the 3D workbook and that would be in the correct scale to ac commodate the huge beasts. Since few locations met those needs, he filmed landscapes knowing they would later be digitally manipulated and composited to create a background. For example, a rocky valley that appears toward the end of the movie was shot in two locations-Death Valley and Lone Pine, California. "I treated the canyon in Death Valley as if it were a half-scale miniature," he says, "and used one end of the canyon for both ends." An obstruction in the canyon was shot in Lone Pine.
Spending quality time with his family is Aladar, an iguanodon who has been raised by lemurs on Lemur Island. Actor D. B. Sweeny provides the voice for the film's leading character.

In order to follow the action from a dinosaur's-eye-view, the crew created "Dino-Cam," a computerized camera rig made of two towers with a cable strung between. The camera can move up to 35 mph between the towers and from ground level to 75-feet high; it can also pan and tilt 360 degrees. For filming, the crew used four large-format Vistavision cameras for all but the helicopter shots.

The crew also used data from the 3D workbooks to drive motion-control cameras. Survey data from locations being filmed was fed back into the 3D workbooks to help TDs and animators accurately place CG characters into the filmed elements.

Before the characters could be animated, they had to be created, and before they could be created, two things had to be in place: software tools and character design. For software, the team chose a combination of commercial products and also created numerous proprietary tools. An R&D team of 15 software en gineers wrote 450 programs, of which more than 120 were plug-ins to the animation software, according to Jay Sloat, software supervisor. These programs ranged from MEL scripts used in Alias|Wavefront's (Toronto) Maya, to C++ programs that worked with Maya or Softimage 3D, to translation programs for moving files from one program to another, to stand-alone code. The three major programs created by the team to complete stand-alone applications were: Fur Tool, used for the lemurs and to create feathers and grass; Body Builder, a collection of tools for creating skin and muscles; and Mug Shot, a shape blender that works within Maya for facial animation and lip synch. In addition, the team made a stitcher program for maintaining patch continuity, and created HOIDs, a general-purpose crowd animation program.

David Krentz, an artist who once dreamed of becoming a paleontologist, supervised character design and visual development. For the dinosaurs, Disney brought in experts to provide scientific research, and with this information in mind, Krentz created drawings that ranged from completely accurate to caricatures. "I had to relax and remember that this is a Disney movie and these are characters," he says. Once he got approval on a drawing, he'd draw orthographic views of the animal from the top, front, side, and back, and these drawings were scanned into Alias's Power Animator for the modelers because, according to Krentz, the modelers could work faster from his drawings than from digitized clay models. In addition to the structural design, Krentz also provided paintings of skin texture.
Driving the dinosaurs across the desert in search of water are Kron and Bruton. Disney's Hoids software helped control the herd.

Krentz also created designs for the lemurs. "It took three years to design them wrong and three weeks to do it right," he laughs. Krentz was doodling while on the phone one day when he realized that his original design, which was already in production, would make it difficult for the lemurs to move correctly. In the new design, the lemurs have narrower hips. "Almost as if you stood up a dog, rather than a human," he says.

When the raptor drops the dinosaur egg in the opening scene, it lands safely on Lemur Island, where there are no di nosaurs. Thus, a clan of lemurs living on the peaceful island raise the hatchling, an iguanodon named Aladar. One night, a meteor lands on Earth, destroying the island. Aladar gathers up the four lemurs in his immediate family and narrowly escapes to the mainland, where he sees dinosaurs for the first time.

He and the lemurs tag along at the back of a herd trekking through the desert to reach a new nesting ground. Food and water are in short supply, and bloodthirsty carnotaurs are a constant danger. Moreover, Aladar's sympathy for the misfit members at the back of the herd, who would be eaten first by predators, pits him against Kron, the herd's rigid leader, and Bruton, his lieutenant. Aladar's reluctant mission is to teach the herd to be adaptable and cooperative. The lemurs act as emotional lightning rods and reminders of the importance of bonding and nurturing.

As is typical for Disney animations, each character with a speaking role was assigned to a supervising animator who directed additional animators. Greg Griffith describes his role of supervising animator as determining what the character could do physically so that the integrity of the character would be maintained. For example, he created a hobbled walk for the dinosaur Eema and a library of phoneme shapes that allowed her to speak English without even though she has a beak.
To create the impression of heavy creatures, the R&D team made a tool to add inertia to skin as muscles move. To lighten geometry, some spikes were made with displacement shaders.

As in 2D animation, Dinosaur animators could work from "X-sheets" that provide frame-accurate details for every shot. In addition, each animator had live-action plates overlaid with the virtual sets for ground planes. Animators would first create the body action in Softimage and then move to Maya to do facial expressions in Disney's Mug Shot. "It's like drawing with buttons," explains Dick Zondag supervising animator for Bruton. "Each shape has a slider that we use to blend between the shapes.

Although the characters have individual challenges, the dinosaurs posed some common problems for animators. "These characters don't have hands to gesture with," Eamonn Butler, supervising animator for Kron, explains. "We had to make them expressive, but we didn't have much body language to work with." Butler gave modelers drawings for 250 face shapes so he could make the dinosaur's mouth pronounce English words, and to help create expressions for Kron. In one scene, for example, Kron has been looking for water. He comes up over a hill, but the water isn't where he expects it to be. He walks right up to the camera. His lips are so dry that they're sticky. "In this scene, we tried to tell everything in his face without words," Butler says.

Of course, there was also the question of size. Mike Belzer, supervising animator for Baylene, a brachiosaur and the largest dino in the movie, watched elephants to get an idea of how they moved. He soon realized that a creature eight times larger might need five minutes to take a step. "Occasionally there's time for this walking waterbed to take a step in the film, but if she's talking, we want to be focused on her face," he says. "What helps sell her size is the way her skin and flesh move."

"We try to create the illusion of weight by showing the effort it takes to move a part of the mass a certain distance," Griffith explains.

And then there were the problems of size differences. "Aladar is 30 feet long and he spends half his time talking to lemurs," says Mark Austin, supervising animator for Aladar. Aladar's face is five-feet long; the lemurs are three-feet tall when fully extended. "Every close-up was a challenge," he says.
For this scene, the effects crew shot a physical model breaking the shale, then replaced it with Baylene's CG foot, and added some CG sand and Zeni the lemur.

The lemur animators had additional challenges as well. Larry White, supervising animator for Suri, an eight-year-old lemur, came to the project from traditional animation. The thing White found surprisingly difficult was the lemur's tail. For example: "The tail would follow and overlap a hop," he says. Thus, the tail was like a separate character with a life of its own. "In 2D, it's easy to spontaneously capture the whole body movement, but in the computer, I have to move body parts."

Once animated, the characters moved to "character-finaling," during which a team led by Sean Phillips added secondary animation such as muscle bulges and jiggling skin. The team used a proprietary tool called Body Builder that works within Maya. With this tool, the TDs would create muscles by attaching a spline with disk-shaped cross sections to the skeleton. As the bones move, the spline changes shape, causing the cross sections to change shape and, therefore, the "muscles" to bulge. Also affecting the muscles is an inertia calculation that helps add the impression of weight to the massive dino saurs. To control the amount of wrinkling on the skin, the TDs used attribute maps and spring mesh smoothing.

While Body Builder was particularly important for the dinosaurs, for the lemurs, the challenge was in creating fur in 1995 when there were few, if any, commercial packages available. "We needed to get as close to photo real as we could get, with full dynamics," says Sloat. "The lemurs would have short straight hairs and long curvy hairs. The hair had to be groomable by our artists, and be able to look wet and dusty. And it had to support some really tight close-ups." Thus, the soft ware team wrote a proprietary fur tool based on an SGI Inventor front end and Pixar's (Pt. Richmond, California) RenderMan for rendering. For dynamics, the team used Maya.
Trying to protect Eema, a slow-moving styrachosaur, from a thirsty herd of dinosaurs who have found water is Aladar. Eema, voiced by Della Reese, is one of the "misfit" dinosaurs. An interactive particle engine created by the effects team generated the du

To animate the herds of as many as 1000 dinosaurs, the TDs used the HOIDs crowd-animation tool, which built on crowd experience used in other Disney movies such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Lion King, and Mulan.

By pairing texture painters with shader writers, the team working with Cliff Brett, look development supervisor, was able to create skin texture for the dinosaurs that would maintain detail in close-ups. The number of NURBS patches ranged from 240 to 800 for the animals in the film, and each patch had as many as nine texture maps, four of which were displacement maps. Baylene, the old brachiosaur, for example, required 6000 texture maps. Most maps were 2K resolution although some were 4K and 8K. Shaders were also used to create spikes for some of the dinosaurs, which reduced the size of the underlying model. In addition, shaders were used for effects. With "Sticky Shaders," a texture or an image could be projected onto a surface that would always be oriented toward the camera. This was used, for example, to add splashes in the water, explains digital effects supervisor Neil Escara, who notes, "We used everything in the book."

Hillin gives some examples: To integrate characters with the ground, the animators would sometimes create contact shadows in 2D and other times use rotoscoping. To make the bottom of a foot look like it was walking on rocky, uneven ground, the TDs might use a morph, or if that was difficult, sometimes simply hide the foot. To reveal a footprint as the foot came off the ground, painters would add tracks in the sand.

In addition to the software tools written in R&D, the effects team wrote several "effects engines" to create explosions, dust, sand, rain, snow, and ripples and splashes. For water, the team often used animated shaders.
Although the explosion created from the meteor is a filmed element, the debris is CG. Also, animated shaders created reflections on the ocean; volumetric lights were used for clouds.

To help light the characters so that they would look as if they were part of the background, Chris Peterson, lighting lead, used Disney's proprietary "Light Tool." This GUI for RenderMan al lowed him to work interactively with lights.

Ultimately, everything was composited in Avid's Illusion, heavily modified for and by Dis ney. "Nearly every shot is a composite," Hillin says. "We could fluidly exchange pieces of live action, miniatures, computer graphics."

More than any movie since Phantom Menace, Disney's Dinosaur exemplifies how artful filmmakers have become in stitching a movie from bits and pieces of 2D and 3D computer graphics, location shots, and filmed miniatures, and how skilled animators have become in working with photorealistic 3D animals. In this film, the seamless integration of film and 3D graphics becomes especially fascinating when set against the unusual idea of photorealistic talking dinosaurs and the familiar Disney style of animation.

Says Griffith, who has been working with 3D animation at Disney for 13 years, "What we can do with CG and film now is anything we want."

Barbara Robertson is Senior Editor, West Coast, for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at