Pride of Prime Time
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 11 (November 2004)

Pride of Prime Time

The consensus among TV executives is that the sitcom has reached a critical turning point, pushed to the brink by the surging popularity of reality TV and crime dramas, and the end of such stalwarts as Friends and Frasier. According to NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, resuscitating the now-flagging genre is about risk-taking, because playing it safe with formulaic comedies no longer attracts the viewer's attention. Hoping to create the new sitcom sensation, Zucker asked DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg to develop an animated prime-time series with the satirical edge and visual appeal of DreamWorks' CG films. The result is this fall's Father of the Pride, a 3D CG cartoon sitcom that follows the domestic lives of Siegfried and Roy's animals after the curtain falls on their Las Vegas stage act.

Considered the small-screen counterpart to the studio's feature-film Shrek franchise, the show is only the second CG series to air on prime-time network television, after UPN's short-lived Game Over, and certainly the most expensive: Insiders peg the per-episode budget at approximately $2 million dollars, making the show one of the most costly half hours in TV history.

Targeted at adult audiences, Father of the Pride never exceeds the rampantly profane South Park, but revels in satire and social commentary that is more gleefully flippant than what's heard on The Simpsons. More important, the series is proof that feature-film quality animation can be produced on a weekly basis, perhaps leading to a point where 3D animation could become commonplace.

Set in the vast Secret Garden animal compound behind the Mirage hotel-casino, where the Teutonic twosome once held their stage act, the series revolves around Larry and his family of performing white lions, including wife Kate and father-in-law Sarmoti, a curmudgeon ever critical of Larry's work and parenting of teenage daughter Sierra and nine-year-old son Hunter. Along with cartoon caricatures of Siegfried and Roy, who are portrayed as pampered, pompous loonies, the show also features a large supporting ensemble, including a mischievous gopher named Snack, a pair of muscle-bound warthog brothers, and an activist lobster.

Father of the Pride arrived in prime time amid aggressive promotion by NBC, mostly focused on the comedy and the much-vaunted CGI. But it's the breakthrough collaboration between the Glendale, California-based DreamWorks Animation and Hong Kong production house Imagi that has silently paved the way for the show's existence. Established by Richard Chuang, DreamWorks supervisor of international production, the transpacific production pipeline uses 24/7 videoconferencing to facilitate training, artwork review, and the sharing of animation files and video performances of the human actors between DreamWorks' 85 artists and 13 writers, and the 240 artists at Imagi, which produces the episodes.

The DreamWorks end of the pipeline consists of approximately 40 Hewlett-Packard Windows-based Visualize and x4000 workstations for production, and roughly 2tb of HP storage for the data transfers to and from Hong Kong. The site also dedicates an additional terabyte of local temporary HP disk space for its production workstations. Imagi, meanwhile, uses Windows-based HP workstations and a 1000-node renderfarm, also from HP. On the software side, Alias's Maya is used for all facets of content creation, as is Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion for compositing and lighting, and Adobe's Photoshop for texturing and After Effects for motion blur.
DreamWorks is drawing on its film experience to bring high-end CGI to weekly television, although it had to revise some techniques to meet the demanding network schedule.

Far different from a 90-minute feature film produced over a span of years, Father of the Pride requires a nine-month production schedule to complete a full season of 13 weekly half-hour episodes, each averaging 750 shots. The key to maintaining this strict production schedule, according to supervising director Klay Hall, is having a number of shows in production concurrently. To facilitate this, the group uses DreamWorks' automated file management system, which employs custom tools for managing the show's large number of characters and sets.

The show is beautifully rendered with a rich, organic palette, its vast environments suffused with tones that are even warmer than those of Shrek's storybook canvas. "We set out to create our own style in terms of looks and timing," says Hall. Nevertheless, the group relied on the studio's vast film experience to achieve the realism and the quality that audiences immediately identify with DreamWorks' CG films.

While the group chose an earthy feel for the colors of the animal sets and props, they opted for a brighter color scheme for Siegfried and Roy's art design, with harder and straighter edges incorporated into those sets and props. Still, both designs evolved from the same approach that uses reality as a starting point without getting too cartoon-like in the process.

The imagery's soft, organic cartoon aesthetic was achieved almost entirely using Maya, bolstered by plug-ins created by DreamWorks for its recent movie Shark Tale (see "Reef Madness," October 2004, pg. 14). According to Chuang, the Maya/plug-in combination enabled the team to interpret the ambitious vision for the show within a limited network-based schedule and budget, both of which negated development of brand-new technology. "We use what's available and make it work," he notes.

For the first season, DreamWorks created 30 principal sets, 500 special props, and about 100 characters. In fact, a typical episode unfolds across all 30 principal sets and features two or three unique locations as well. The lion habitat is inspired by the real Secret Garden in Las Vegas, where the actual Siegfried and Roy lions reside. In Father of the Pride, the Secret Garden encompasses residences for the main characters and their families, and public areas ranging from the community bar to a school classroom. Since Larry and his family drive the story lines for most of the episodes, their residence is the most detailed, comprising separate, contiguous sets for the living room, the kitchen, and the children's bedrooms. Meanwhile, the assets are stored in individual files so they can be loaded into separate layers and assembled modularly.

Guided by the conceptual designs for the characters, the artists used Maya's polygon tools to surface the meshes. Because Father of the Pride is broadcast in HD, the artists subdivided and smoothed the polygonal models until they matched the resolution of the character models used in DreamWorks' films. "The biggest issue related to modeling was trying to effectively appraise a smooth-shaded, gray-scale model before it was surfaced with fur, since fur tends to add volume to a character," says producer Mary Sandell. This challenge increased exponentially, as nearly 65 percent of the characters have fur, from the long, flowing mane of the lions, to the short pelt of the gopher, to the fuzzy black-and-white coat of the pandas, to the frazzled shocks of orange hair on an orangutan.

To generate the pelts, the artists bypassed the more complex magnet-based system employed for Shrek 2's fur and hair animation (see "After Effects," May 2004, pg. 14). Instead, they relied solely on Maya Fur and Maya Hair, which offer controls for such attributes as specularity, translucency, curvature, direction, clumpiness, and curliness. This forced animation supervisor Raman Hui and CG supervisor Paul Wang to find innovative ways to develop, model, and texture nearly 100 furred animals during the production cycle. For example, to overcome the challenges posed by the white fur of the lions, which leaves the artists minimal color and texture for defining their forms, the modelers tailored the character designs to convey the lions' personalities, capturing, for instance, the cuteness and innocence of the kids through high foreheads and large, low, wide-set eyes, and the grumpiness of Sarmoti with heavy, furrowed brows, an elongated face, and protruding jaw. In addition, Hui and Wang created a proprietary motion-blur process that greatly enhances the definition, shading, and texture of the achromatic animals.

While all the animals are anthropomorphized, they can revert to their natural quadrupedal posture, as they do in scenes with humans. Therefore, the four-legged animals have dual IK setups—a biped and a four-footed IK rig—between which the animators can toggle. Moreover, both setups are ideal for the show's animation style, which is slightly less exaggerated than that of Shrek.

Meanwhile, the group constructed the facial animation system from Maya's rigging tools, including blend shapes for sculpting basic facial poses and Set Driven Keys for combining them into an almost limitless range of expressions. Hui directed the designs of the facial blend shapes based on those for the principal players in Shrek and Shrek 2. Tailoring the blend shapes to the unique personality of each character, the artists sculpted shapes that reflect the glowering, irascibility of Sarmoti, the cheerful nonchalance of Larry and his wife, the innocent earnestness of Hunter, and the wisecracking cheekiness of Sierra.

Because of the tight production schedule, the team also used an out-of-the-box approach for other tasks, including the show's atmospheric effects (clouds, rain, fire) and terrestrial elements (sand, dust, foliage), created with Maya's effects tools. Similarly, no custom or proprietary shaders, such as Shrek 2's advanced subsurface scattering skin shaders, were used. Rather, the warm organic hues of the imagery come from a palette of simple Maya shading groups, while all the rendering is done through Maya's internal renderer.
The artists used the internal tool set within Alias's Maya to model, texture, and animate Father of the Pride's cast of animal characters, including (from left) an activist lobster; Donkey from Shrek, making a guest appearance; and the elder lion Sarmoti

Producers attribute the quality of the program's CGI largely to animation supervisor Raman Hui, who supervised the animation on Shrek and Shrek 2. "His experience with the diversity of the characters in Shrek was crucial to this show, because the complexity of Father of the Pride's character-driven stories demands complicated, nuanced performances in every episode," says Chuang.

DreamWorks also frequently draws on the deep pool of talent it assembled for the Shrek films to consult and assist on the myriad technical and artistic challenges that arise. That massive support network, maintains producer Sandell, was the springboard for a collaborative production model leveraging the vast experience, knowledge, and talent throughout DreamWorks that underlies much of the show's current success.

For its premiere episode, Father of the Pride roared in the ratings, drawing 12.4 million viewers to become the week's most-watched program. To a degree, the show follows the successful formula set forth by other highly rated prime-time cartoons, such as The Simpsons and King of the Hill, which have focused on the family unit, universal themes, cutting-edge social satire, and a large cast of likeable characters to connect with a mass audience. Thus far, that formula, combined with the freshness of CGI, has accomplished Zucker and Katzenberg's goal of rejuvenating the potentially lucrative sitcom genre.

Martin McEachern, a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World, can be reached at