A Stitch in Time
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 9 (Sep. 2009)

A Stitch in Time

The characters, settings, and plot of the computer-animated feature film 9 are certainly atypical of what we are used to seeing in all-CG films such as Up, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and Monsters vs. Aliens. In fact, the film diverges from the usual computer-generated film genre in a number of ways, with the director extending the breadth of the medium to digitally achieve his storytelling vision, which he does with great success.

In 9, the protagonists are little burlap-covered dolls, fused with artificial intelligence, whose chief occupation is scavenging as they struggle to stay alive in a dingy, dark post-apocalyptic world. The characters are known by the number stitched into their fabric, each displaying unique qualities. For instance, 1 is a domineering war veteran, and 2, an aged inventor. It is 9, though, who displays leadership qualities that may help the group survive.

The antagonists are frightening predator-machines that roam the junkyard world with the intention of annihilating the ragdoll beings. They are equally scary in appearance as they are in their physical prowess: a feared cat-skulled creature, a bat/manta ray-like character that takes flight, and an insectoid hunter with jointed legs and a pod-like body.

The setting in which the movie takes place is dark, dingy, grimy—a world away from the bright, colorful backdrops in most CG films. But that is the advantage of using the medium: It can take audiences to unique places conceived inside the director’s mind. In this case, the unusual universe of 9 was born from a concept and short film from Shane Acker (see “Short and Sweet,” February 2006). For the past few years, Acker, along with producer Tim Burton, have been transforming the short-film concept—a combination of animation/science fiction/adventure/fantasy—for the big screen.

action takes place in the near future, at a time when machines have turned on humans. Survival is in the hands of a small band of so-called “stitchpunk” creations, who must draw upon their brains more so than their brawn as they fight for survival.

Working the Numbers
Acker has been working on 9, in one form or another, for nearly the same number of years as the moniker of his project and the project’s hero. He spent four and a half years working on the short-film version of 9, which was his thesis project at UCLA’s Animation Workshop. The nine-minute short proved more difficult than he had anticipated, so Acker took breaks from the work while taking on paying jobs, including The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. During that time, his artistic and technical skills expanded, and he applied lessons learned to his short, which when finished, won numerous awards, including the Best in Show at SIGGRAPH 2005’s Electronic Theater. It also captured the attention of Burton and others, and plans were soon under way to develop the property into a feature.

While Acker tackled the short film himself, for the feature, he had a team of modelers and animators behind him, first at Attitude Studio in Luxembourg, and then at Starz Animation in Toronto. There, a total of 215 people (45 animators and 12 modelers/riggers) worked on 9 for approximately 16 months before the film was released by Focus Features on September 9.Even with the help, the project clearly remained Acker’s passion. According to Jeff Bell, VFX supervisor, Acker himself did a substantial amount of work toward the look of the film, going so far as to gather artistic references for the weathered, rusty, and dirty environmental elements, and to provide certain visual effects elements that were incorporated directly into the final composites—such as bullet hits in one of the shots in the War Flashback sequence.

The characters in 9 are burlap “stitchpunk” characters with numbers sewn onto their backs. Modelers created them and the villains, as well as the background objects, in Autodesk’s Maya.

“His passion in describing the ‘feeling’ of the sequences enabled us to quickly move toward artistic and technical solutions that achieved the look and mood that he intended for each of the extremely varied locations and situations that the characters faced,” says Bell.

Aside from Acker, Christophe Vasher and Kevin Adams also played a major role in the look and feel of 9. Vasher’s initial artwork formed the basis of the color palettes used in the movie, as he played with combinations of warm and cool colors as well as staged the lighting. “If the main light sources were warm, shadowed areas would contain cool pools of ambient light,” says Bell. “If the main light sources were cool, the reverse would be true.”

As Bell points out, light sources became one of the characters of the movie. How-ever, this posed an extreme artistic challenge for the lighting supervisor and team in that the pools of light needed to help form the stage for the characters, while at the same time, not feel forced. “In many cases, the lights were treated as 3D vignettes in order to accomplish the goals of the original concept artwork,” he adds.

Adams, who served as art director, followed through on that initial vision by carefully scripting the color through the sequences to match the original concept work and by working with Bell in executing those scripts within the lighting department. “A large portion of the grandiose nature of the movie was due to his efforts in guiding the matte-painting team in the generation of 2D and 3D mattes and camera-projected paintings to enhance the environments and raise the overall artistic level of the show,” Bell says.

Key Tools
The main software package for the feature, as it was for the short, was Autodesk’s Maya. All the character animation was keyframed by hand, and dynamics were a combination of traditional keyframing and Maya dynamics with nCloth solver simulations, in some cases layered, to enable the animators or character finalers to put the finishing flourish on the animation generated through the simulations.

For the movie’s textures, the team used a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Autodesk Mudbox, while the lighters and compositors made heavy use of Eyeon’s Fusion, using custom-built plug-ins for relighting scenes and objects inside Fusion, and shader reconstruction within Fusion for basic lighting. For rendering, the group used Mental Images’ Mental Ray.

At Starz Animation, extended work was done on the relighting pipeline for use on 9 by increasing the quality of the solution and adding additional features required by the movie that were beyond that of previous productions.

Setting the Scenes
According to Bell, the design, modeling, and surfacing of the characters and environments were fairly standard in terms of CG creation. The art department, under the supervision of Adams, crafted the designs and then worked on the models and texturing, with Acker approving. Because Acker was located off site, he used Rising Sun Research’s CineSync and Photoshop to mark up the renders, which were sent back and forth digitally.

Animators keyframed the unique 9 characters in Maya and added dynamics within Maya nCloth.

Storyboards and rough layouts were used as guides for the environmental LODs during surfacing. All the environments were textured with a “coverage pass” first—a rough texture pass that enabled an asset to be passed to lighting for the establishment of the environmental light rigs. This surfacing pass, Bell says, was sufficient for most of the assets and camera positions.

“The completed storyboards and rough layouts gave us insight as to where the surfacing details would or would not hold up, enabling us to expend effort where it really made a difference on screen,” explains Bell.

More to the Story
The biggest hurdle in terms of 9’s content creation was the overall complexity of the assets, notes Bell. “Geometrically, the environments and characters were very heavy and placed quite a load on the technical hardware and software infrastructure of Starz Animation,” he adds.

All the character assets had an “animation look,” a medium-resolution version that sacrificed detail in order to be more memory efficient, both in terms of texture usage and polygon count, Bell explains. An extreme example of this was the Fabrication Machine: The original high-res model had geometric data for all the nuts and bolts, but those details were eliminated in the lower-resolution asset, enabling the animators to more effectively work with the machine-character.

Another hurdle, says Bell, was the overall look of 9—it needed to be extremely dark and moody, and had to portray a post-apocalyptic environment. This posed two technical and artistic challenges.

First, the environments needed a large amount of set dressing in the form of rocks, pebbles, and other debris. So a number of assets were created for the final layout, to allow for quick placement of these elements to dress the scenes to camera. They took the form of various prop assets, known variously as “rock god,” “pebble god,” “junk god,” and so forth. These combined a number of smaller assets into larger chunks that could be brought in and manipulated to dress the scenes appropriately and quickly, maximizing the on-screen density of these types of objects, and minimizing the amount of work required by final layout to maintain the complex look of the movie.

Second, the overall dark nature of the movie required particular attention to detail in shadow areas. “It was imperative to ensure there was image information in the shadows,” says Bell. To this end, the art and lighting departments performed value studies prior to lighting, and then contrast, hue, saturation, depth of field, and atmosphere were played off one another in varying amounts so that depth was maintained in the imagery, he explains. It also imbued the film with a general feeling of dread and decay.

The feature film extends the concepts and creations of Shane Acker from his short-film “9.”

While not new but a great influence on the look of the film was the expanded use of 3D matte and projective camera-painting techniques, which pushed the imagery of 9 in a slightly painterly direction. It also enhanced the scale of what was possible in a short production cycle.

Also to streamline production, the artists developed enhanced lighting propagation techniques to enable a parent-child relationship between key shots and shots derived from those key shots. This included management of the Mental Ray caches and automatic generation of compositing scripts that were derived from the key shots. Thus, the lead lighters were able to propagate their lighting to their team in an automated way for greater consistency and speed.

Starz’s animation clip and pose system developed for
Everyone’s Hero (see “Painting a Picture,” October 2006) and subsequently used for other productions, helped speed up the creation and reuse of animation for cycles and poses, as well as to maintain continuity between shots.

In another timesaving move, the group created a 2D camera to mimic certain 3D camera moves. As Bell explains, layout would perform a move within Maya, and information was extracted from the 3D scene to create a camera move within Fusion. The team subsequently rendered a single frame of the background, thus enabling paint-over work to be performed on background elements when the move was small enough (for slight camera bumps or small pans/tilts). This also saved the artists precious time when rendering background elements in the scenes.

How will audiences embrace this unique story and style of CGI? We’ll soon see. While audiences have been slow to embrace the medium for anything other than children’s movies, perhaps now its time has come. With Burton behind the project, audiences just might open their minds to this “new” way of filmmaking.