Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 8 (August 2000)

After Earth

2D comic book-style characters enter a futuristic third dimension in the film Titan A.E.

By Karen Moltenbrey

The year is 3028, and although Earth is still considered home, humankind can now travel through space to distant galaxies. But with this newfound freedom also comes peril in the form of a violent alien invasion. In an instant, the Earth is obliterated into a memory. Homeless refugee humans, forced to live as second-class citizens on drifter colonies among alien inhabitants, are still hunted by the alien Drej who destroyed their planet. In this hostile environment, a cynical, rebellious teen named Cale (voiced by Matt Damon) embarks on a dangerous journey to find the Titan, a legendary spaceship sent adrift before Earth's destruction that is rumored to hold the answer to the humans' salvation.

In this new-world order of Titan A.E. (After Earth), the filmmakers at Twentieth Century Fox usher in a unique style of science-fiction animation, where comic book-style 2D characters battle alien forces in stellar 3D intergalactic space in an effort to re-establish a new homeland. One of this year's summer feature-film releases, Titan A.E. was a huge step into another dimension for directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman and the now-defunct Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix, who are known for their traditional 2D animated classics such as Anastasia and An American Tail. Although Titan A.E., with its highly stylized 3D backgrounds and special effects, deviates in style from a typical Bluth/Goldman production, the film still carries the directors' signature hand-drawn characters, producing a uniquely blended look.
Titan A.E. catapults viewers into a universe where 3D backgrounds and objects are seamlessly blended with 2D elements and characters. In the 3D climactic sequence, animators at Blue Sky Studios created as many as 60 layers to achieve the desired effects f

"Audiences are demanding, so we have to keep reaching higher," says Bluth. The result of that effort is a new genre of animation for the directors as well as audiences: edgy science-fiction animation with a 2D/3D twist. Expected to appeal particularly to teens, the film contains exotic spaceships, suspenseful action sequences, strange alien beings, and dynamic heroes, all in a dark, tense setting that is tailored to look and feel like a moving comic book, says Charlie Breakiron, 3D lead animator at Fox Animation Studios.

Integration of the 2D and 3D imagery gives Titan A.E. much of its unique look, but it also presented the filmmakers and animators with their biggest challenge. As Bluth puts it: "We thought Anastasia was tough, but this was Anastasia squared." Some sequences, for example, contain 2D characters with 3D space suits, weapons, and vehicles. Determining which images would be computer-generated was usually a matter of practicality. "On the planet Sesharrim, there are 3D trees made of hydrogen gas, which are reflected in the water. Because we set up keyframes to let the water ripple and move, we got the secondary movement of the reflections and the gas trees bobbing in the water, which was free animation in the computer," says Breakiron. The use of CGI proved so effective that as the production evolved, the volume of 3D images and effects in the film swelled from an initial 30% to nearly 80% by the time the project was completed.

CGI proved especially effective in creating some of the stranger alien beings in the film, such as the translucent and pulsating Drej, who have no faces or eyes. "The CG enabled us to achieve Drej nuances that we couldn't have drawn by hand, such as the delineation of their skeletal structure and the energy that pulsates through them," explains Philip Cruden, production designer. The Drej, as well as other 3D images created by Fox, were modeled in Maya and animated in Softimage running on a variety of SGI and Unix workstations. For texturing, the CGI artists applied hand-painted 2D surfaces that were created in Toonz by traditional cel animators and then digitally scanned into the computer. The artists then added Toonz lines and shaders to help subdue the clean CG look for seamless integration with the 2D images.
To help integrate the 2D and 3D images, background artists hand-painted 2D textures, which were applied to the 3D models. (Image courtesy Fox Animation Studios.)

In contrast to the Drej, the heads of the human characters were created in 2D with Toonz to retain what Bluth describes as a human touch to the imagery. For the most part, the humans' bodies (space suits) and props were fashioned in 3D, which typically created a layering and tracking nightmare. The chase scene on Sesharrim was a case in point: The camera flies around explosive 3D hydrogen trees reflected in 3D water as 2D characters flee from 3D aliens, with ensuing 2D and 3D effects. In all, this scene required more than 40 layers, as the work volleyed between the CGI and cel departments.

Such complicated layering scenes were not confined to mixed animation. In the all-3D sequence of the Earth's destruction, the CGI group used more than 30 layers of effects and debris to create the explosion, which required several weeks to render using Mental Ray (and RenderMan for the Maya models) on an SGI rendering farm.

Complementing the 3D effects produced by Fox Animation Studios were a handful of stunning sequences created by leading digital-effects houses. Persistence of Vision Digital Entertainment (POVDE), a newly formed company in the San Francisco Bay area led by Paul Martin Smith and David Dozoretz (The Phantom Menace editor and animatics supervisor, respectively), created the CG effects for one of Titan A.E.'s most suspenseful scenes. In a perilous journey through the ice rings of Tigrin, the Drej play a deadly cat-and-mouse game with Cale and his companions through a giant field of highly reflective ice formations.

To create this hall of mirrors, the artists at POVDE used Electric Image. Rather than raytracing the scene, they hand-placed the painted reflections onto the various surfaces using Commotion and After Effects to achieve a surreal, rather than realistic, effect. "We wanted the audience to think it sees the enemy, but it's just a reflection," says Dozoretz, visual effects supervisor. "Visually, this is something different, and it enabled us to play tricks on the audience, thereby raising the intensity level of the scene." Hand-placing the textures also enabled the artists to maintain the reflective quality of the huge crystal-like surfaces as the formations shatter into millions of pieces. To achieve that effect, the animators used a particle system specially written by Blair Burtan at Northern Lights Productions (Redondo Beach, CA).
In this complex scene by Fox Anima tion Studios, 3D trees of hydrogen gas on the planet Sesharrim take on a life of their own amid alien creatures. (Image courtesy Fox Animation.)

In addition to creating and producing the CG effects for this scene, POVDE created its overall concept, or previsualization, with a variety of tools running on Macintoshes. Using the same Mac platform and models from the previsualization (although the images were further enhanced on the Mac for the final sequence), the effects house was able to accomplish this 124-shot sequence in just 58 days with about 15 artists. "We tweaked the animation, lighting, and effects, but there was no repetition of work. I don't think a single shot had to be reanimated," says Dozoretz, who also served as the film's previsualization supervisor. "It was the first time that the technology was there to allow us to scale up from low-res previsualization into the high-res final effects shots, and it was all done with low-cost Macintosh tools."

In fact, POVDE created all the animatics for the film, which were used in place of storyboards for the more complicated action sequences. "Considering Fox's accelerated production schedule, I don't think the film could have been finished on time without previzualization," says Dozoretz. "When Fox approached me, they didn't have any action in these particular action sequences." In three weeks, POVDE created animatics that Breakiron believes saved months of production time. That's because with storyboards, "there are always mistakes. And while it's painful to scrap a live-action shot because it's not working, it's almost unheard of with cel animation where it takes months to do just one shot," Dozoretz explains. "Despite all its benefits, previsualization is still one of the biggest secrets in the film industry."
POVDE created a cat-and-mouse game between the heroes and villains in a vast field of ice crystals, whose reflective surfaces create a hall of mirrors. (Image courtesy POVDE.)

One of the most complex scenes in the film from a compositing/rendering standpoint is the Wake Angels sequence, created by Reality Check Studios (Hollywood, CA) based on POVDE's animatic. In this breakaway from the intense action of the film, Cale commands a spaceship for the first time. Entering a nebula, he en counters Wake Angels, or dolphin/ stingray-like creatures that glide playfully alongside the ship.

The biggest challenge to creating this 3.5-minute, 35-shot sequence was designing the cathedral-like nebula, which was a contradiction in terms. "It had to have enough form for the angels and spaceship to dodge, but be nebulous enough so that the wing of the spaceship could slip through, pulling some of the clouds with it," explains Kory Jones, cofounder of Reality Check. Such soft-bodied objects with no clearly defined mass are notoriously difficult to produce. As a solution, the group constructed the nebula in Electric Image and applied various filters and displacement maps in After Effects, which gave the clouds their soft, wispy appearance. The Wake Angels themselves were created in Maya and composited into the scene with After Effects.

In a separate yet explosive sequence, Blue Sky Studios (Harrison, NY) unlocked the spaceship's DNA materials and, in 120 seconds, created a brand-new Earth. While NASA space footage was used for inspiration, the sequence was left to the artists' imaginations, since there is no existing visualization of an asteroid field collapsing onto itself to form a new planet. In this climactic scene containing solely digital effects, the camera shifts frequently from the molecular destruction of ice crystals to thousands of miles filled with colliding space debris. "We wanted to maintain a sense of scale and grandeur to the sequence," says Jan Carlee, Blue Sky animation director.
During a break in the action, the space heroes enter a cathedral-like nebula, where they encounter Wake Angels, strange creatures that float alongside the spaceship in dolphin-like manner. (Images courtesy Reality Check Studios.)

To create the millions of particles and dynamics in this scene, the animators used Maya, but scripted their own particle system for defining placement, then rendered the particles using CGI Studio, Blue Sky's proprietary rendering software. This combination, says Carlee, produced an organic look, as swirling blue and magenta gases stream into the scene and begin forming the new planet. "Every frame had millions and millions of particles that had to move in just the right way to pull off the desired effect," he says.

To achieve the smoke- and cloud-like effects, the artists pieced together the shots in layers, then composited them together using Shake. According to Michael Eringis, lead technical director at Blue Sky, on average these shots contained more than 40 layers, with some climbing above 60. By using Shake to manipulate the rendered particles, the team retained more control over the dramatic lighting and color shifts that occur throughout the 11-shot sequence in an efficient yet flexible manner.

In Titan A.E., animators blast the audience into a compelling universe in a stellar example of what can be accomplished with off-the-shelf software and finely honed techniques.

Karen Moltenbrey is an associate editor of Computer Graphics World.

Titan tools

Adobe Systems
San Jose, CA

Puffin Designs (Pinnacle Systems)
Sausalito, CA

Rancho Cordova, CA


Pixar Animation Studios
Pt. Richmond, CA

Nothing Real
Venice, CA