Easter Funny
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 4: (April 2011)

Easter Funny

It takes a studio with a particularly zany brand of humor to produce a live-action film starring the Easter Bunny, but then Illumination Entertainment, which produced the wildly popular animated feature Despicable Me, did just that. Universal Pictures (in association with Relativity Media) released Hop, a family comedy starring a CG Easter Bunny and his son on April Fool’s Day, April 1.

Tim Hill, who most recently directed Alvin and the Chipmunks, directed Hop. Rhythm & Hues (R&H) provided the CG elements, the Easter Bunny voiced by Hugh Laurie; the Easter Bunny’s son, E.B., voiced by Russell Brand; and several other CG bunnies and chicks, including Carlos, a large chick who is the factory foreman (Hank Azaria), Carlos’s sidekick Phil (also Azaria), and three Pink Beret bunnies. All told, R&H created 600 shots, including two full-CG environments for sequences beginning and ending the film. The CG sequences take place in the Easter Bunny’s candy factory on, of course, Easter Island.
There, bunnies and chickens working in a Willy Wonka-like candy factory pump out Hershey’s Kisses, chocolate bunnies, and other sweet things, and place them in baskets for the Easter Bunny to deliver to children around the world. Jelly beans pour from a giant Easter egg-shaped building, and a river of jelly beans churn through the factory.

Hop opens with a sequence in the factory, with the Easter Bunny showing young E.B.—and the audience—his inheritance. E.B., however, has a hipper idea. He wants to be a drummer—in Hollywood. When the teenage E.B. teleports off Easter Island and into Los Angeles, Hop becomes a live-action film starring James Marsden as Fred. The unfortunate Fred hits E.B. with his car, guiltily agrees to take in the long-eared, recalcitrant teen, and the story takes off. Pappa Easter Bunny orders his ninja Pink Beret bunnies to bring E.B. home. Meanwhile, back on the island, Carlos wants the Easter Bunny’s job.

Supervising the animation at Rhythm & Hues was Andrew Arnett, who had previously been animation supervisor for Hill’s Alvin and the Chipmunks, among many other films. At R&H, animators work with models and rigs in the studio’s proprietary Voodoo software, with an occasional assist from Autodesk’s Maya for custom face shapes. For crowd animation, the studio uses Massive software. Here, Arnett discusses the work the studio did for Hop with CGW West Coast editor Barbara Robertson.

Did you create the storyboards and previs for Hop at Rhythm & Hues?

No, Chris Bailey, the production’s animation director, handled the storyboard team and the previs. He also worked with Tim [Hill] on story points and hashing out ideas about how scenes could work out. I oversaw all the animation. It’s the same process we had for Alvin.

Did any of the characters change during post production?

We had to go back and change E.B. We were working on a teaser when that came to a head. We had found a way to take this rabbit character and make him look like a good drummer; we hit on something early that everyone liked, which was an excited little kid having a fun time playing the drums. But, a decision was made to change him into a sophisticated drummer, comfortable and at ease, like a professional drummer. So, we looked at drumming styles and settled on one for a confident, skillful drumming rabbit—if you can picture that. And you will.

How did you organize the animation team?

We started with four animation supervisors, each having between 10 and 15 animators on their teams. Eventually we added two more supervisors leading two more teams in our
India facilities.

Did the character designs present any particular challenges?

It’s always a challenge to have a creature designed to be on all fours walk on two legs and stay appealing, and still incorporate the characteristics of that animal. The bunnies had really long feet, so to make young E.B. work in an appealing way, we had him do some skip-hopping things to make him look cute.

Also, we hadn’t done a lot of work with long ears before, and they’re almost like having two more arms. It’s amazing how much they become part of the look of a character. We found that they were almost like a Mickey Mouse thing—you always needed to see two ears no matter which direction the bunnies are facing. If we didn’t do that, if we had the ears sweep down, the bunnies looked like another animal.

Were you able to use the same rigs for all the bunnies—those on two legs and four?

They all started with similar structures, but the proportions were significantly different enough that we handled them in different ways. Dad had a unique rig. The Pink Berets had really large feet, even bigger than E.B.’s, and one was designed to be smaller with proportions close to young E.B.

We designed one rig in such a way that we could move from biped to quad and still have it work, and it worked surprisingly well. Even for the Pink Berets. Their martial arts moves were tricky—they had to do acrobatic kung fu moves and then run on all fours. At default, they would look long-legged, so we had to use blendshapes to put them low to the ground in a kung fu stance. We looked at martial arts films for reference, and Kung Fu Panda, which is one of my favorite films, but we weren’t trying to have them hit specific moves. We were just going for a paramilitary feel for them.

Bit, the little Pink Beret, was always sneez­ing and falling down. She would run, hit a pose, and then use her inhaler, so we had to puff her cheeks out. Aside from that, the Pink Berets were the same model and had the same rig that we used for the generic rabbits who work in the factory. The only difference was that they wear the pink berets. The Pink Berets had a couple utterances, but didn’t have dialog.

Was facial animation and lip sync difficult for the Easter Bunny and especially for E.B., who performs alongside a human actor?

It was tricky. A rabbit has a large muzzle, and the trick of it was keeping the rabbit from looking like a dog or a cat, or some other kind of mammal. The bunnies have a kind of lower lip, but the upper lip is a rounded rabbit muzzle. To make those lips read clearly as dialog, to do lip sync, was challenging, especially for E.B. and his dad.

We basically figured out which angles looked best and came up with libraries of shapes that animators could start with. Then, to be honest, it took plowing away at each scene until we got the dialog to read correctly from the camera angle. We had to muscle our way through. We had reference of Russell Brand recording E.B.’s dialog and of Hugh Laurie, E.B.’s dad, and we referred to that a lot. We’d start with the preset shapes, but we could shape the faces, lips, mouth, eyelids, brows, and so forth any way we needed based on camera angle. The hard work was in tweaking the mouth shapes to read as dialog and still look like a bunny.

Could you see the furred bunnies as you worked?

That was another big challenge on a show where the look depends so much on the look of the fur. We have ways to simulate the fur when we animate, but it’s processor-intensive. So, in order for animators to work as fast as they want, we approximate the fur volume. A shell, a piece of geometry that represents where the edges of the fur lie, gives us an approximation of how full the cheeks, muzzle, and ears will look when rendered. It isn’t completely one to one. And, what we show to the director doesn’t look exactly like the fully rendered product, so there was some back and forth after rendering when a character didn’t read the way we expected.

Also, we use lighting in a way that makes it easy for animators to work, but a lot of the shots would have final lighting from overhead, with strong shadows. So the way the light interacts with the fur, the sheen and coloration, and where the shadows fall impacted the look of the character. About half the shots required tweaking.

What kind of changes would you see in the fully rendered and lit bunnies?

Usually it was fairly subtle, but sometimes the look of the mouth, the mouth shapes, and the way it would read might be different. The mouth might look more closed. Or, it wouldn’t articulate clearly. Even the brow shapes could look different, and that would change the quality of an expression.

The close-up dialog shots were tricky. In shots where E.B. is talking to Fred, sitting next to him as they’re driving along in his car, sometimes his mouth looked like a black hole. E.B. has prominent teeth, like Bugs Bunny, but his muzzle was so thick that once rendered, we sometimes couldn’t see the teeth. So we had to adjust the shape of his mouth or reposition his teeth. We needed to see his teeth while he talked, to have him read as a rabbit character and not a character with a human mouth. Sometimes we did that with blendshapes, sometimes with rig controls to move the corners of the mouth, rotate the muzzle, and move the nose up and down.

How did you animate all the chicks and bunnies in the factory?

Initially we had a separate team doing the nuts-and-bolts work for the Massive [crowd] animation, the cycles and actions that would plug into Massive. Later, we relied on our India teams to do a lot of the Massive cycle animation and actions.
For reference, we brought chicks and bunnies into the studio and filmed them. We couldn’t use reference for some of the stuff, though. The Massive chicks and some bunnies were on roller skates. In one shot at the beginning, we have a little chick on skates carrying a pillow with the ‘egg of destiny.’ The chick skates up to dad and presents him with the scepter. Other chicks are like little messengers.

One of [Illumination CEO] Chris Meledandri’s favorite things was a walk cycle of a chick. It’s just a walk cycle, but it’s the cutest thing. We also have chicks driving vehicles, chicks and rabbits in control pods operating machinery. Usually the rule was that if it was close to camera, it was a hero character. If far away or many, we’d turn it over to the Massive group and they’d plug in cycles we created. We could adjust head direction within Massive. And, we could add animation on top. The Massive chicks in the background didn’t talk. We had a couple scenes with murmuring, jumping up and down, and cheering, but they didn’t have lines. A couple of the background bunnies talked, but for the most part, they didn’t say anything.

Were the chicks with dialog, Carlos and Phil, as difficult to animate as E.B. and his dad?

They weren’t as problematic as the bunnies. The beaks were more straightforward and easier to handle. We could shape them any way we wanted, but Tim [Hill] and Chris [Bailey] wanted us to keep their beaks stiff in the middle portion and animate the outside corners to create expressions so they wouldn’t look rubbery or artificial. We used rig controls for that, not blendshapes. We had some blendshapes for Carlos’s brows, but usually we just relied on the rig controls for their faces.

Everyone loved animating Carlos and Phil, Carlos especially. They were the comic relief. Hank Azaria did both voices, and they had a lot of good one-liners, so that was fun. We tried to incorporate chick- and bird-like movements as much as possible without making them too distracting, so every now and then they flutter their wings, do a little head shake, or wiggle like a chicken.

How did the work on Hop compare to the work you’ve done on previous films?

It was absolutely hands down the most challenging thing I’ve done so far.

One of the challenges was that we were feeling our way as we worked through it. Every previous project I’ve worked on has been based on an existing property: Yogi, Alvin, Garfield. This was the first with characters invented out of whole cloth. We didn’t have any history to go on. The directors and producers found their way through the characters as we worked.

Almost every shot in the movie was a hero shot, and all the shots were demanding. They either had multiple characters or a demanding performance. It was nonstop difficult from beginning to end. On a scale of one to 10, this was an 11.