The Magic of Belief
Issue: Volume 35 Issue 6: (Oct/Nov 2012)

The Magic of Belief

Watch the trailer.

If we stopped believing in something, would it cease to exist? If nightmares could destroy sweet dreams, could then fear reach even further and erase children’s hopes, beliefs, and imagination? The threat that this is possible drives the story in DreamWorks Animation’s latest epic, Rise of the Guardians. Produced by Guillermo del Toro, the film features mythic characters, the Guardians, in superhero roles: Nicholas St. North (Santa Claus), E. Aster Bunnymund (Easter Bunny), Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy. These immortal Guardians of Childhood must band together to survive as beloved childhood fantasies. Some people describe the film as The Avengers for youngsters.

“These characters are such big concepts for kids and adults that we definitely wanted to go really big, really epic,” says director Peter Ramsey. “So, it definitely has that [Avengers] aspect. The film is a fairy tale and a superhero movie with characters that get their superpowers from belief, from being believed in. But, it’s also a fantasy. We wanted to duplicate the feeling we have when we remember how we thought about these characters as kids, and honor the size they inhabit in our psyches. There is a warrior side to the characters, but it doesn’t overwhelm the side we’re used to. There’s mystery, a lot of magic, emotion, and heart.”

Two additional main characters are central to the story. Jack Frost is an eternally young, mischievous rebel without a cause drafted by the Guardians for the battle. Pitch is the evil threat. Each character has an associated color and shape: North, a red square; Bunny, purple triangle; Sandy, a gold circle; Tooth, a green diamond; Jack, a blue hexagon, and Pitch, a black rectangular coffin.

“This is really Jack’s story,” Ramsey says. "He’s our gateway character, the audience surrogate. He’s awed by the Guardians. Yet, Jack has something specific that turns out to be the key to fighting Pitch’s weapon. His journey is to find his center and draw on it to save the day."

“Pitch Black is the opposite side of the coin, the boogeyman,” Ramsey continues. “His issue is that everyone encourages people to believe in the Guardians, but whenever a nightmare or a shadow in the room scares kids, parents tell them it’s nothing, just a bad dream, there’s no such thing as a boogeyman. After decades of this, he’s tired of it. He will destroy the Guardians by destroying belief in them. We track the effect of Pitch’s plan through Jamie and four or five of his friends, and see how Pitch uses fear to whittle away their belief.”

Based on the “Guardians of Childhood” series of books by William Joyce, the Paramount Pictures release stars the voice talent of Chris Pine as Jack, Jude Law as Pitch, Dakota Goyo as Jamie, Alec Baldwin as North, Hugh Jackman as Bunny, and Isla Fisher as Tooth. Sandy has no voice; he communicates with body language and by creating images with his magical sand. This is an animated film that sparkles with effects.


As with most animated film production pipelines, everything after story and layout, except animation, falls within visual effects: character effects, simulation, modeling, rigging, surfacing, lighting, and rendering. For this show, the visual effects crew created unique skin textures for all the superheroes, feathers for the Tooth Fairy, Sandman’s sand, Jack’s frost, and Pitch’s shadowy nightmares. The team rigged North’s reindeer and controlled his elves, and dipped Bunny’s eggs in a painterly river.

“I’ve worked on a lot of live-action blockbusters,” says visual effects supervisor David Prescott, who joined DreamWorks Animation after 10 years as an effects and CG supervisor at Digital Domain on such films as Transformers and Day after Tomorrow. “Every time I looked at animated features, it seemed like the effects were an afterthought. On this show, with Sandy, effects go further than helping tell the story. They are part of the story and part of characters’ personalities.”

Head of Character Animation Gabe Hordos and Animator Alexis Wanneroy spent about a year developing the characters’ personalities before moving them into the pipeline. Hordos had been supervising animator for the character Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon; Wanneroy had animated on the Hiccup team and was a character lead for Fishlegs in that film. Rather than testing the characters on shots from the movie, Hordos and Wanneroy developed characters that would work no matter how the story twisted and turned.

“On other films, you typically get to touch the character after the rigs are done, usually quite late in the process,” Hordos says. “You do one or two shots, but you haven’t developed the character. You just show that the rig works. And then you spend time trying to nail down gorgeous animation. We would spend a whole month on one character.”

Later, Hordos would assign a supervising or lead animator for each character and give them sequences based primarily on the character most prevalent in the sequence. Dave Pate supervised Jack; Pierre Perifel, North; Philippe Le Brun, Bunny; Antony Gray, Sandman; Wanneroy, Tooth; Steven “Shaggy” Hornby, Pitch; and Bob Davies, Jamie.

“It was almost like inventing actors,” Hordos says of the development process. “Every film has such a different style, and we had three realms in this film: humor, serious dramatic acting, and action. But, at the end of the day, the theme of this film is ‘belief.’ So when I came on, I wanted to make the animation as believable as possible. So, the riggers put extra effort into making the shapes of the faces work well; the rigs maintained volume with every control. We had animators from Madagascar 3 take some funny parts and make them sing, but the film also gave them a chance to flex their acting muscles.”

Jack Frost


One of the first characters for which Hordos and Wanneroy developed a performance was Jack Frost. “We had to decide whether Jack Frost could fly, and if so, how,” Hordos says. “And then, we needed to know how he walked.” Rather than turning the mischievous character into Superman, they decided to have him fly in the wind with the abandon of an expert skateboarder slaloming downhill.

“He’s had 300 years to learn how to do this stuff,” Hordos says. “So, we had him relaxed and super cool, flying with his hands in his pockets, doing flips. Then, Dave Pate, the supervising animator, took him to another level, of a soul caught in this realm. Everyone believes in the Guardians, but no one totally believes in Jack Frost. So, he’s completely isolated, and he’s a troublemaker. He brings signs of winter and causes chaos. Pipes freeze. There are winter mishaps and inconveniences. But winter also brings snowball fights and things kids love.”

The effects artists gave Jack his frost, a visible display of his emotions that could also serve as a weapon. “He can grow beautiful floral patterns calmly and slowly, or, when he’s fighting Pitch, shoot bolts of frost,” Prescott says. “The system we developed was really controllable. We could grow frost in a room over a table, over a couch, and down the other side. It looked organic.”

The system developed by effects lead David Lipton, who joined DreamWorks Animation after working at ESC on the Matrix sequels, uses cellular automata to grow the frost. “We looked at L-systems, but we needed to have the frost grow, turn left, turn right,” Prescott says. “L-systems would have fallen apart. With cellular automata, we can set a seed and draw a line for where we want the growth. And, as with a fluid simulation, we can put things in the way.”


“He’s a wild man,” Ramsey says. “An adventurer, a warrior, a dynamic force. A big guy who takes over every room. He has two gigantic swords. He kicks down doors. The core idea was, what would a guy who can fly around the world in one night be like? He had to do this with sheer force of will. So we wrapped that dynamo around a guy who loves making toys, whose whole existence is bringing generosity to the world.”

To understand how to perform the character, Hordos and Wanneroy also turned to the mythology developed by William Joyce in which Santa Claus is a Cossack warrior. “Cossacks have an interesting dynamic,” Hordos says. “They are powerful warriors and gentle fathers, farmers, and family men. And, when you think about Santa, there’s something almost bipolar about him. He decides whether to give your child presents or a lump of coal.”

In fact, in the film, North has sleeve tats. One arm reads “Naughty,” and the other reads “Nice.” He also has a long beard and wears a fur-trimmed coat. “Originally, we were going to animate his beard, but it was complicated to mesh it with the fur on his costume, so our character effects department ended up doing that,” Hordos says.

The effects artists used Side Effects Software’s Houdini hair tools for the first time on this film. “Nathan Fok [character effects supervisor] and his team developed the system,” Prescott says. “Houdini was that much quicker than other hair simulation tools available at the time, so we had a crash course for the character effects team.”

The animators and effects artists also worked back and forth to help North control his sleigh and reindeer. “We made North drive the sleigh with aggression,” Hordos says. “The reindeer are like beasts—big, powerful, brutal. North forces these magical creatures off the ground with sheer will.

When they’re off the ground, they are almost like birds in flight. But, with six reindeer, each with four legs, and levers everywhere on this race-car sleigh, we needed crazy controls to make it work.”

The riggers created a control system for each animal, connected and constrained the reindeer to a separate yoke system rig, and rigged the sleigh and all the toys within. “I didn’t envy the animators working on those shots,” Prescott says. Once the animators finished performing the reindeer and the sleigh, the character effects team made sure the leather reins worked with the rigs as they would in the real world.

“It was a complex system,” Prescott says. “Making that kind of rig is hard no matter which way you look at it, but you can build a rig and make it usable. It’s almost an art form making something like that user-friendly. [Character TD Supervisor] Arthur Gregory did an amazing job.”



A vivacious half-hummingbird character with iridescent feathers and dragonfly wings, the Tooth Fairy and her army of cute, little mini-teeth fairies collect teeth from children all over the world. “She needs to maintain contact with every one of her fairies at every moment, so she’s constantly distracted,” Ramsey says. “But, there’s an important reason for her obsession with teeth. Inside every tooth is the most important memory of childhood at that point. So, she’s safeguarding childhood memories needed later in life.”

Hordos and Wanneroy had difficulty finding the performance for this character at first. “She looked like a woman in a feather suit,” Hordos says. “So we decided that we’d never let her walk. As soon as we tested her hovering and flying with that zippy feeling a hummingbird has, she worked.”

Other than a bit of flesh on her face, feathers completely cover her body.

When her feathers are unruffled, she looks like she’s wearing a princess dress, but when angry, the feathers flair out. She uses a tail with long strands of feathers to turn, much like a bird. Animators controlled some feathers; others moved as the skin moved. The riggers incorporated feather movement into the facial rig: when animators move her eyebrows, feathers grown later move as well.

“It was super challenging to make that look good,” Hordos says. “To keep her brow shapes simple to read clearly and have the feathers stay on top of each other and bend in the right way took animators, character effects, rigging, and surfacing all working together. The animators see a plain surface without feathers; the feathers all grow in character effects. So, we could control the skin simulation that put extra movement in the feathers, but we couldn't see the result until after character effects and lighting. It took a long time to figure out our limitations, but connecting the feathers to her emotions is a nice, subtle thing. When her head feathers pop out in anger, we’d fluff out her shoulder and chest feathers.”

Fok and Gregory together led the teams of riggers and effects artists who created the feather system. “She has a lot of feathers, a lot of controls, and that meant a lot of headaches,” Prescott says. “We couldn't model every feather, but we needed to give animators the ability to move the feathers without interpenetrations. And, the feathers change scale. So, we had a lot of clever people building a tight system. We modeled and rigged most of the feathers on her head. On her body, we instanced master feathers that we controlled almost like a particle system. The whole mass fluffs up and down when she moves.”

When Tooth flies, her dragonfly wings move so quickly the lighters used sub-frame motion blur to keep the wings visible. “She has four wings on each side, and to get the rhythm right and make sure they worked to camera was a huge deal,” Hordos says. “She moves like a bird, but she’s a warrior, too, super badass. She can use her wings as knives to punch through the nightmares.” Lighting artists added little flecks of changing highlights, and a shader carefully controlled by these artists gave Tooth her iridescent look.


Tooth and Jack were the first characters to try on new skin developed by the lighting and shading teams for this film. “Because of my live-action background and sensibility, I wanted to build and photograph something for reference,” Prescott says. “So we went to Legacy Effects, where artists have created [practical] skin for 30 or 40 years. We showed them our artwork for the characters. We told them we wanted to see texture under Jack’s skin; we wanted him to look cold, but not dead.”

In all, Legacy provided 19 different types of silicon skin that the crew at DreamWorks photographed in different environments. Then, DreamWorks reverse engineered the techniques the Legacy artists had used to create the skin. “They showed us how they put particular colors at various depths when they put in the veins,” Prescott says. “Then [Surfacing Supervisor] Andy Harbeck rewrote our skin shader using subsurface scattering, translucency, everything everyone does, but instead of painting on the surface, he had multiple layers beneath the skin.”

For example, following Legacy’s model, Harbeck painted North’s veins under the skin. “That allows light to hit the skin and rays to disburse before hitting the veins,” Prescott says. “It creates detail on the skin that isn’t painted on the skin. And, if you rotate the light, you have a completely different tangent to the vein underneath, which is what happens to us. The skin looks slightly warmer. I don’t know if the result is better or worse, but it’s different.”

The goal was not to imitate human skin. In fact, the characters don’t have skin pores. “We didn’t want to go into the uncanny valley,” Prescott says. “We wanted them to look like models or a maquette you could buy.”



Of all the characters, Sandy and Pitch are the most dependant on effects. “Sandy only speaks via effects,” Prescott says. “He has thought bubbles above his head.”

Director Ramsey describes Sandy as a cross between Harpo Marx and Buddha. “He’s adorable,” Ramsey says, “but he can throw down with the best. He patrols the world every night chasing the setting sun, and spreads out his tendrils of dream sand that wind their way into windows all over the world. His power, kind of the most powerful of all, is that he unlocks imagination and dreams, and that becomes a key thing in the film.”

Although he uses sand, the character is not made of sand. He’s a simple, solid shape; he doesn’t shape-shift. “Because he’s one streamlined shape from all angles, he was super difficult to rig,” Hordos says. “He has no distinctive arms, joints, or hips. We wanted the feeling that he could stretch his whole torso yet retain solidity, that if you squeezed him and then let go, he’d pop back into shape. He was deceptively simple and unbelievably complicated. When he bends forward, how does his belly go into his leg? He had to be so connected and not lose volume.”

As for his movement, the animators treated him as if a slightly different gravity affected him; as if he were walking on the moon. “He can kind of float if he needs to,” Hordos says. “He can walk up one side of a building and float down without any danger. Something can swing by and, like Mr. Magoo, he’d keep going.”

Prescott worked with Head of Effects Yancy Lindquist to develop a unique look for the sand. “What happens in the show is that Sandman sends dreams out all over the city,” Prescott says. “They drip down into bedrooms, and from that a dream appears, a fully rigged character that gets filled with sand and has streams coming off it and flowing through it. But, we couldn’t put animated ponies and cars in every dream without blowing our budget. So, we designed clouds that you could imagine had those shapes. If Sandy needs to ask something, a question mark pops up above his head, and that shape is a simulation.”

To create these simulations, the effects crew used a combination of 2D and 3D tools and techniques. Sometimes they would run a 2D simulation along a spline; sometimes they developed full volumetric simulations. “We used the effects tools in Houdini and [Autodesk’s] Maya, and our own simulation solver that runs within Houdini,” Prescott says. “One of the big challenges was building a tool set that people could use creatively. We wanted them to spend time working on the art rather than getting the damn things to work.”

The tool set they created gave the artists more precise control of the entire simulation, especially during transitions when, for example, Sandy’s thought bubbles might change from a cup to a lamp. “Sometimes the middle looks mashed up when you do transitions,” Prescott says. “We developed a way to control the dissolves so that the middle looked beautiful.”

Helping making the dream sand look beautiful were shaders that added gold glints to the sand, which the artists rendered using Side Effects Software’s Mantra and in-house rendering tools.


PitchThe first time we meet Pitch, he’s about to begin his operation to destroy the Guardians by ending all belief in them. “He’s tall, thin, elegant,” Ramsey says, “dressed all in black in a formless robe like a priest’s cassock. He has a thin, narrow face with gray skin and piercing yellow eyes. The idea is that fear can be indistinct. He moves in and out of shadows.”

Finding a suitable performance and setting the personality for the shadowy villain was difficult. “When films have a villain, the animation can become a cliché,” Hordos says. “People tell children not to believe in the boogeyman, and if no one believes in him, he will die. Pitch’s motivation is life. And, he’s found out that fear is more powerful than belief. But, he needs to have people trust him so they don’t fight him as he does his bad deeds.

How do you get that across in animation? We played him very sincere. He scares children in the most genuine way he can.”

Although Pitch looks like a man, we rarely see his legs. His long coat disappears into the shadows. “He almost glides,” Hordos says. “Super cool. You don’t feel him walking with the weight of a human. Every Guardian has a superpower. He can manipulate shadows.”

Riggers gave animators the ability within the studio’s EMO animation system to control the effect of Pitch and his shadow. “Animators could move Pitch using a full-3D rig as usual,” Prescott says, “but we had a light in the scene, so they could set up his shadow. And then we had that exact thing work seamlessly with our lighting tool so the shadows were correct. It was a challenge for the animators. They’d animate the 3D character but see only a silhouette, so sometimes they’d lose the emotion. It was almost like drawing shadows in traditional animation. It was fun watching animators and the heads of lighting banding together to find creative solutions.”

Pitch is black to Jack’s white; the nightmare opposite of Sandy’s sunny dreams. In fact, Pitch pollutes Sandy’s dreams and converts them into nightmares.

“That’s a big effect and a pivotal story point,” Prescott says. “Yancy [Lindquist, head of effects] was essential in coming up with the nightmare design. We didn’t just want to color the sand black. We wanted it to move differently, yet keep that contact with the dream.”

At Lindquist’s desk one day, they experimented with running one of the dream shots backward, and that sparked an idea: They’d use the same paradigm for the dreams and the nightmares. “Simulation is familiar; you see so much every day,” Prescott says. “And, it’s predictive. But, if you run it backward, you kind of know where it’s going, but you don’t really see that. It gets a little creepy. So, we’d run the internal simulation backward on a path that’s running forward. We used the good sand to generate the bad sand and keep a correlation between the two.”

As with Sandy’s good sand dreams, some of the nightmares took the form of animated hero characters or objects. A crowd team animated others. “The interesting thing was how the crowd and effects teams had to work together to create the nightmares,” Prescott says. “They couldn’t just send animated geometry to rendering; the nightmares had to go to effects to have ribbons and sand effects streaming off, and we needed a fairly automated pipeline for that. We’d run a basic simulation to turn the streaming ribbons into particles and, through various stages, into dust that would flow back into sand.”


To light the nightmares, the team used only key lights. “We never lit them with the color of the environment,” Prescott says. “If we did, they lost the oily, iridescent, creepy feeling. So, we’d use a key light to get direction, but the color remained in their character. The hardest challenge was the aesthetic. You can make a nightmare look scary, but we wanted it to look beautiful at the same time.”

Pitch got a little color from the environment, but for the most part remained black and white and gray. “It made him feel creepier,” Prescott says. “As if he were from somewhere else.”

Throughout the film, Prescott aimed for a photographic look through the lighting. “I’ve felt that CG movies often seem a little gray,” he says, “as if they are afraid to bloom out to pure white or go to black. We put a full-blown color workflow in place to deal with that range of color and brightness. We wanted the [lighting and shading artists] to be more aggressive and graphic in lighting but still have a photochemical feel in the colors. We also used lens effects. In terms of technology, the biggest development in the lighting area was the modifications to our skin shader. The rest was an evolution of global-based illumination. And, we relied more heavily on [The Foundry’s] Nuke.”

The lighting artists also affected the film’s aesthetic in an unusual way: by controlling eye welling, “You know, when the bottom of the eye gets a little fluid before you cry,” Prescott explains. “I felt that emotional response was important. I don’t think anyone will say Jack has eye welling, but it’s such an emotional key, almost body language. We don’t use it a lot, but it’s very effective.”

Prescott and Hordos evaluated the idea together as the system evolved, but lighting artists rather than animators would control the effect. “Rigging did an amazing job creating a rig that could scale the amount of fluid,” Prescott says. “It was so different for rigging and lighting. Instead of rigging for character animators, the riggers built controls for eye welling in the shaders. And, instead of just putting lights in the sets, the lighting artists created this emotion.”


Bunny was the only Guardian who didn’t have any associated effects. Half-kangaroo, half-rabbit, Bunny symbolizes nature. “He dovetails with the meaning of Easter as a time of renewal, rebirth, and the return of life,” Ramsey says. “He’s also a warrior, a nature ninja. He’s the most superhero, a protector of nature. And, he is an ornery, crusty foil for North.”

Hordos and Wanneroy tested various evolutions of Bunny until, as with Tooth, everyone realized that he wouldn’t work until they made him a creature, not human. “As we talked with Peter, though, we realized he still needed to stand like a man to make his acting readable, but he couldn’t look like a man in a suit,” Hordos says. “The kangaroo is almost humanoid, but doesn’t look humanoid. So, he’s a mixture of kangaroo, human, rabbit all in one. The tricky thing is that he has to run on all fours and walk upright. While his body is horizontal to the ground and his head is forward, he needs to swivel his head without breaking his head. We took ideas we learned from rigging Toothless and added them to Bunny. And then, Philippe Lebrun, who had done animation tests for the reindeer, took over this character and put the energy in his acting.”

Other than his superpowers, the most magical thing about Bunny is the way in which he colors all the Easter eggs. He accomplishes this inside his bunny warren, in a green, lush landscape. “There’s a little river that all these hundreds of thousands of little eggs jump into to get their first coat of paint,” Prescott says. “We worked with the simulation team at PDI to create shots of the river using a mixture of Houdini and in-house tools. The fluid simulations have a magical quality, with pink and purple colors and glitter.”

As for the eggs, crowd simulations manage the multitudes of pretty little eggs and also the fighting, warrior eggs made of stone.

The gang

At left, Bunny, Tooth, Sandy, North, Jack, the elves, and a yeti band together. Above, North drives his reindeer with a complicated rig through an immense digital environment.


Crowds add texture and life to environments throughout the film—eggs, elves, yeti, mini teeth, nightmares, and so forth. To control them, the crew used a combination of Massive software and in-house systems. “Often, we needed to add 10 yeti when we populated North’s environment, or 10 nightmares,” Prescott says, “not hordes running across a plain, which is what you often think of using Massive for. We used Massive as a placement tool and the Massive brains as a great way to transition between animation cycles. But, animation was important. We have lots of shots with one or two elves running into each other in the background of a crowd scene, bumping into walls. These characters needed more acting ability.” In North’s factory, elves are mischief-makers; the yeti, big, lumbering beasts, make the toys.

Like North, each of the Guardians except Sandy has his or her own environment— the North Pole and North’s toy factory, Tooth’s Fairy palace, Bunny’s warren. Even Pitch has a lair. Jack’s “environment” is the town.

“This isn’t a traveling film, but we go to different locations to tell different parts of the story, so we have over 30 sets and locations,” Prescott says. “I think this is becoming more common for feature animation. If you look at the first CG features, they had only a couple locations. Now, we have better pipelines, workflows, software, and experience, all those things we always talk about, so we can make more models and surfaces, and render them more efficiently.”

All the better to make the stunning epic feature Ramsey had in mind—a success according to early reports. The director’s feature-film debut began receiving accolades even before the movie’s release. Rise of the Guardians premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 10, with wide release scheduled for November 21. But an article October 8 on IndieWire announced that “The Rome Film Festival (November 9–17) will award the Vanity Fair International Award for Cinematic Excellence to DreamWorks’ animated 3D holiday-character adventure Rise of the Guardians for the film’s innovative, artistic, and strategic contribution to contemporary cinema.”

And before that, on September 4, the Hollywood Reporter announced that at the Hollywood Film Awards ceremony on Oct. 22, the first awards show of the Oscar season, Rise of the Guardians would receive the Hollywood Animation Award honoring the year’s best animated film. The last five recipients of this award have gone on to win the Oscar. The Rise of the Guardians crew may not believe it quite yet, but the epic blend of heroes and humor, realized through the efforts of a super team of animators and effects artists, could be heading toward the red carpet next year.