Time Difference
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 2: (Mar/Apr 2014)

Time Difference

At one time, using 3D computer graphics to create a cartoon with a 2D attitude was like using a saucepan to cook an omelet. The simple graphic shapes and exaggerated motion of 2D characters are easy to draw with ink and paper. But, a flat cartoon style doesn't slide easily into the physics-bound, three-dimensional word of computer graphics.

PDI/DreamWorks has faced that challenge before - the studio's Madagascar series starred animals designed in a simple graphic style that moved with cartoony gusto, as did the characters in Megamind. Now, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the studio's latest film, has challenged them to take one 2D motion-blurred step further into cartoon land.

The film has an improbable premise: A wealthy dog named Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) adopts Sherman (Max Charles), a human boy. Mr. Peabody is a Renaissance man, er dog. He's an inventor, master chef, scientist, mathematical genius, and punster. Sherman is a mischievous child who, in an attempt to impress a classmate, turns on Mr. Peabody's WABAC (way back) machine and starts the time-traveling adventure story.

"I knew that as long as we made the film feel authentic and the relationship between Sherman and Mr. Peabody real, the way a father feels about his son and the son about his father, I had no doubt in my mind that people would go along for the ride," says Jason Shleifer, head of character animation.

People do. Those who remember the 2D cartoon "Peabody's Improbable History" produced by Jay Ward and broadcast 50 years ago between segments of the television cartoon series "Rocky and Bullwinkle." And others who meet the Peabody family for the first time. Released in the UK a month early to catch a school holiday, the animated feature rolled into US theaters with an average 94 percent approval rating from British critics and early reviewers on the aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.

Rob Minkoff of Lion King and Stuart Little fame directed the film, and approximately 300 DreamWorks artists and animators worked on it, many for more than two years - most at the PDI/DreamWorks facility in Redwood City, California, with support from crews in Glendale, California, and Bangalore, India.

Philippe Denis, the visual effects supervisor, managed the production - overseeing everything except story and animation. "The first thing we did was look at the original piece," he says. "It's very graphic, and we definitely wanted to keep some aspects of the original. But the world of CG is more complex. That was our main challenge and opportunity: Bringing the original to the next level."

Working with the art department, modelers created characters with simple lines and caricatured shapes. "Sherman is a short boy with a big head," Denis says. "We followed the original look, pushed the shapes, and found a balance between simplicity and caricature."

Similarly, as in the original cartoon, Mr. Peabody has a huge snout. And, although he is a dog, the modelers built him to be a biped, but one that could walk on all fours.

The story in Mr. Peabody & Sherman revolves around three main characters: the two title characters and Sherman’s classmate Penny.

“Mr. Peabody is the most interesting person in the world, who happens to be a dog,” says Jason Schleifer, head of character animation. “When he was a puppy, he was surrounded by dogs, but he didn’t see the point in fetching a stick. He wasn’t sniffing butts. He used his mind to understand science and art, and he was really good at it.”

When Mr. Peabody adopts the Sherman, the little boy changes his world. It turns out that the dog is an excellent father. “Sherman is an optimistic ball of energy,” Schleifer says. “And Mr. Peabody always helped and encouraged him. Now, he sees the world as a place of opportunity. So, we had to look at how a child with no real fears would approach the world. If someone would say, ‘Look, there’s ice cream,’ Sherman would say, ‘I love ice cream.’ If someone mentioned George Washington, Sherman would say, ‘Tell me more about George Washington.’”

Because Mr. Peabody believes that the best way to teach a child is through experience, and because he’s a genius scientist, he invents a time machine to teach Sherman about history. “He takes Sherman on adventures until he’s about seven years old,” Schleifer says. “Then he decides Sherman needs to experience things on his own, and sends him to school. This is the first time Mr. Peabody hasn’t been with him.”

It doesn’t turn out well. Sherman corrects Penny when she gives a wrong answer in class. She bullies him, and Sherman doesn’t know what to do, so he bites her. Mr. Peabody is called to the principal’s office, and a woman from child protective services threatens to put Sherman with a human family.

So, Mr. Peabody invites the girl and her family to dinner to convince them that Sherman is OK.

It doesn’t turn out well. “Sherman doesn’t want to be involved with Penny,” Schleifer says. “They hate each other. But, Mr. Peabody tells him he must solve the problem. Sherman tells Penny about the WABAC [way back] machine. Penny accidentally gets stuck back in time.”

And the time-travel adventure begins. – Barbara Robertson

Central Control
To bring these models alive, animators used controls created by the 24 character technical directors who worked in the rigging department.  Leading the effort was character TD supervisor Lucia Modesto, whose long list of rigging credits extends back to PDI's 1998 film Antz and extends forward through 14 PDI/DreamWorks animated features. Thus, Modesto has engineered many cartoony characters. Mr. Peabody and Sherman, though, presented unique challenges.

"We built on what we had, but this was a very cartoony movie," Modesto says. "So we added two important things: A lattice and multiple limbs."

The lattice helped the animators squash and stretch each character's head and hands, including anything attached to the main model.

"The thing is, the Madagascar characters didn't have extra stuff, like glasses," Modesto says. "They were simpler. Mr. Peabody and Sherman have glasses. The problem is that when you want to warp the head, the glasses don't move. And Sherman falls on his face a lot."

Because animators wanted to squish everything simultaneously - hair, glasses, head, hats, and so forth - the TDs put the lattice around the head, and also provided a one for the hands. "With the lattice, they could do whatever scaling they wanted," Modesto says. "The animators could pose the character and then do smear shapes that would encompass the glasses. They could squish the character around wherever they needed. We added the lattice to all the characters, although they probably didn't use it on everyone."

The second addition to the rig for this film was the possibility for a character to have multiple limbs. The extra arms and legs helped animators mimic the motion in traditional animation. "Animators could add three more arms or legs to a character in any frame," Modesto says. "You don't really see them - the animators could control the transparency and intensity. But, they give a crazy feeling to the motion, like in a 2D drawing."

Schleifer explains: "It's one of the things animators used to do in the 2D days to show fast action. Because they didn't have motion blur, they'd do a smear to stretch the drawing or sometimes add extra limbs. They could get big, crazy action of a character waving his arms using the extra hands and arms. It's something we've always wanted to do in CG but never had the opportunity."

All the characters in the film had the optional arms and legs, but only the main characters' limbs came fully clothed. "We added clothes to the other characters as needed," Modesto says. "The arms were there, but they were naked." Because the extra arms appeared only on two or three frames, that cloth wasn't simulated. In addition, to keep the models light, the animators brought in the limbs only when they wanted the extra motion, and could turn the limbs on or off.

Performance Artists
Two teams of animators worked on the film: 30 in Redwood City and 28 in Glendale. Schleifer organized the teams by sequences, with five supervising animators working with groups of five to eight animators. "As we launched into a sequence, the supervising animators would meet with the team and split the shots," Schleifer says. "We tried to have a sequence done in eight weeks. That was our generic schedule."

Because all the characters used a standard rig, and because all the characters are bipeds (even Mr. Peabody most of the time), the animators could move easily from one character to another.  "We built Mr. Peabody to be a biped, but we made sure he could function as a quadruped," Modesto says.

Although in the original television segments the anthropomorphic dog was on all fours much of the time, the team chose to animate him more often as a biped for the film. "We decided he would be more appealing if he was a quadruped only when it was instinctual," Schleifer says. "We wait until he's overcome with emotion to have him wag his tail, not because he's thinking about it. During a sequence in Egypt, he runs as fast as he can as a biped, but just as he's about to be hit, he leaps into quadruped [mode] and runs away."

Each time Mr. Peabody moved from all fours on dog legs to upright with more bipedal human legs, the character effects group handled the transition. "We decided to go with that approach because he doesn't spend much time as a quadruped," Schleifer says. "We would do the structural work in animation, get the posing correct, change the scale of the bones, and try to keep the deformation as clean as we could. But it's hard to clean up the pinching, so character effects did that."

THE SURFACE TEXTURES are simple, but the lighting is complex in the scenes.

His large snout presented another problem. "Every time we have a character with a snout, we have to add a lot of controls so the animators can move that huge volume," Modesto says. "His nose is in front of his eyes, so they need to move it out of the way. We also did a lot of development on his face."

Most of the time Mr. Peabody talks from the front of his mouth, with the animators pulling the corners forward to open his jaw. "Sometimes, though, we wanted to pull the corners back to have a nice open mouth, and that was a challenge," Schleifer says. "We had a lot of geometry to move around and compress without having it bunching. And, when we opened his jaw all the way, we had to pull the front back so it didn't look like a crocodile's mouth. To make sure the jaw didn't feel too long, we had an extra joint in the middle. We spent a lot of time pushing and pulling. But, the character TDs gave us a lot of controls, and we found a medium place that worked."

In addition to finding ways to manipulate Mr. Peabody's muzzle into appealing shapes that conveyed emotion, the animators had a second problem: Mr. Peabody wears glasses. And Sherman does, too. "They have big, round, thick-rimmed glasses," Schleifer says. "The top falls right where eyebrows would fall naturally. We had to constantly lift the eyebrows up and down, so we spent a lot of time focusing on how to keep them from having strange graphic tangents and not moving too fast to track the motion."

Sherman's big head and skinny neck offered another challenge for the animators. "If we did something simple, like turn his head without involving his body, it would feel like his head would snap off," Schleifer says. "So we had to incorporate his body without having it be distracting. But, he is such an appealing character, it was a fun challenge."

The third main character, Sherman's classmate Penny, had her own interesting animation quirk. "We always tweak our characters for the camera, to make them appealing and to keep them on model," Schleifer explains. "But, Penny needed more tweaking. I'm not sure why. It was just one of those things - she would look like herself, but depending on the angle of her head, we needed to move and rotate and scale her eyes to keep an appealing shape and make her feel more alive."

In addition to these three main characters - Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and Penny - several other secondary characters pop up through the film: Mona Lisa, Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Van Gogh, Trojans, Greeks, and many more.

AT TOP LEFT, SHERMAN’S classmate Penny and her parents. At top right, Sherman and Mr. Peabody consider eating cake with Marie Antoinette, one of 94 characters rigged for the film.

"We rigged 94 heads total on this movie, counting the generics and special characters," Modesto says. "It involved a huge amount of rigging and lots of clothes. The only location where we didn't have crowds was Florence, but we still had generics in the background. We had to rig them all. And, we had different outfits for each time period. We were rigging until a week before animation finished." Maintaining the same topology for each character helped speed the process.

Time Travel
To move the characters from one moment in time to another, a group of effects artists and painters developed and produced a unique design. "As usual, when we design something that doesn't exist, we play with different ideas," Denis says. "The wormhole idea came up pretty fast, to have them move through a circular element. And, since we're making a movie in stereo, we knew it would be nice to play with the depth. There are a few shots where everything becomes really, really deep."

To experiment with timing and speed, the artists moved drawings into a 3D space and tested variations there. "We had simple rings at the beginning, but if we moved them too fast, we had a stroboscopic effect, so we had to test that," Denis says. "When we found an element that worked, we'd paint over it. We wanted to have something that looked like a field of energy, like electricity. But at the same time, we wanted the wormhole to look alive and organic, and not too crazy electric. So as the WABAC travels through the wormhole, the rings become perfect circles; the WABAC drove the animation of the rings procedurally."

As with the characters, the environments in which Mr. Peabody and Sherman land at the end of a time-travel trip typically have a simple, graphic look, but one that takes advantage of the complexity computer graphics can offer.

"We followed the same rules for both the characters and the environment, and tried to make them more graphic," Denis says. "Mr. Peabody's apartment and the WABAC room have a modern, minimalist architecture. Even the wood grain is graphic in nature. But the older houses in Florence and the Egyptian environment have more richness in texture. Those were the two exceptions."

Similarly, the artists designed simple surfaces for the characters. "The skin doesn't have much detail, and the fur stays organized," Denis says.

Although they pushed the colors beyond those in the original, they simplified the color palette somewhat.

"We limited the palette per sequence," Denis says. "And, we wanted to make sure the colors weren't super saturated, although Sherman's hair is very saturated because it was like that in the original [broadcast].

ARTISTS AT PDI/DREAMWORKS began designing the soft, rather than photoreal, lighting in the previs stage.

However, the simplicity ended when it came to lighting and material response. "The rule was simple textures, complex lighting," Denis says. "We quite rapidly decided not to have photoreal lighting; we have soft lighting. But we kept the properties and materials true to nature."

Designing in Previs
To help design lighting for various sequences and sets, the artists began testing possibilities in the previs stage. "That gave us the opportunity to make some general decisions about lighting," Denis says. "We could quickly mock up something with simple shading using early versions of the set and see where lights would work better for story beats."

The previs lighting also helped refine the set design. In Egypt, for example, they learned that columns were placed so close together than the light couldn't get through. In France during the revolution, they tested the timing for a reflection on Sherman's glasses to be sure the lighting would work with the animation. The artists also changed the direction they had planned for sets inside the Trojan horse.

"Because we were in previs working with simple sets, it was very quick to do," Denis says. "We could answer some of the big questions. And we were able to make some modifications to sets if they weren't proper for the lighting. The animators would then work with the modified sets."

The lighting team did the previs work in Autodesk's Maya. The sets then moved into PDI/DreamWorks' proprietary animation system and the lighting into the studio's proprietary lighting and rendering software.

Previs also helped the effects team design and execute a chase sequence inside the sewers of Paris. In the sequence, Mr. Peabody and Sherman are in the water. A gate explodes, and when water from the sewer runs down, the two characters surf the waves. 

The team that worked together on the sequence included the head of character animation, the animators working on the shots, the head of effects, the director of previs, and Denis. "We'd meet three or four times a week," Denis says. "Because the simulation of the water would determine the speed of the characters surfing the waves and, therefore, the camera position, we started with a set. The set drives the simulation of the water, and the simulation creates the shape."

Effects artists working with Autodesk's Naiad (formerly from Exotic Matter) would run the simulation and then meet with animators, who would ask for changes. "One of my favorite moments was when one of the effects artists told an animator not to worry about a big wave because he would tame it down," Denis says "The animator said, 'No, I love it. I'm using it.' So, previs said they'd change the camera, and we kept it.  It was a fun, collaborative process that allowed these happy accidents. It was very, very exciting."

Because Denis, Schleifer, and many others on the crew had worked together on Megamind, that collaboration came easier. "All the heads of the departments have been working together for a while," Denis says. "We knew each other, trusted each other. It was really helpful. The collaborative aspect is so important."

In the early days, feature films created with 3D computer graphics seemed locked into a particular style. That's no longer true. As animators and artists have become more attuned to increasingly sophisticated software and faster hardware, CG has become what it always really was: a device. Not a style. Not a genre. A tool that, finally, filmmakers have shaped into wildly diverse actions and images.

Among the possibilities, animated features that resemble 2D cartoons in look and character performances have proven the most challenging. No studio has scrambled to meet that challenge with more success than PDI/DreamWorks, as Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the latest film from this studio, attests.

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW . She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net .