Arctic Blast
Issue: Volume 39 Issue 1: (Jan/Feb 2016)

Arctic Blast

The Arctic is home to an abundance of living creatures: polar bears, walruses, narwhals, beluga whales, reindeer, caribou, lemmings, and more. However, it is not a place for humans. At least that is the opinion of Norm, a polar bear of many words, especially on the subject of tourists invading his home in the Arctic.

When a maniacal developer threatens to build luxury condos in his backyard, Norm heads south to New York City on a hero’s journey in an attempt to put a halt to those plans and save his homeland in the 3D computer--animated adventure-comedy Norm of the North, directed by Trevor Wall in his feature-film directorial debut. 

Norm is produced by Splash Entertainment, in partnership with Assemblage Entertainment, and distributed by Lionsgate. Splash (formerly Mike Young Productions and Moonscoop US) specializes in children’s entertainment, encompassing a wide spectrum of productions, from television to now feature films with the debut of Norm.

With their respective expertise in broadcast, Wall and Splash turned to what they knew best, approaching the feature’s workflow as they would a television production. “We had a short schedule and a modest budget, and this was the fastest, most efficient way to do things,” says Wall. 

At a feature animation studio such as Disney or DreamWorks, for instance, storyboarding starts with a scratch track, a sound recording used as a temporary placeholder until the animatic is locked down for the voice actors. For Norm, the crew followed more of a TV approach, moving from script to recording the voice talent, and then storyboarding from the actors’ track. 

However, unlike broadcast, there was no juggling of multiple scripts and productions, affording the crew the luxury of focusing solely on the movie.

Work on the film was divvied up among coproduction partners across the globe. The storyboarding occurred at Splash in California. The post sound effects and pre-mix were done at Telegael in Ireland, as were preproduction of original backgrounds and orthographics for the characters based on concept designs developed at Splash. Animation was handled at Assemblage in India, and a smaller portion was done at a studio in China (GDC’s Institute of Digital Media Technology). Postproduction work, meanwhile, was completed at Splash.

“I would check in with the animators in India and China every week to talk about a scene, and they would model the characters and backgrounds, and push that through from layout to final color,” says Wall. 

Arnaud Mathieu started out as animation supervisor, overseeing the work at Assemblage; later, his role shifted to assistant director. 

Working in vastly different time zones made Norm a 24-hour-a-day job for Wall and the others involved. Most of the communication was done via Skype, and dailies were sent each day. The groups also used The Foundry’s Hiero shot management, conform, edit, and review solution extensively, for basic editing and shot review, “which considerably smoothed the follow-up on the shot versioning,” says Mathieu.

What a Character!

Norm is a polar bear with a big personality. But he is complex in other, more technical ways. He has the ability to walk on two legs when taking on human attributes, such as dancing, and of course, embarking on his NYC adventure. When he is in polar bear mode, he is a quadruped, such as in scenes where he is interacting with his father. 

In addition, Norm is covered in thick, white fur. In fact, a number of the characters in Norm are furred creatures, including Norm’s sidekicks, a trio of lemmings, as well as caribou and other lemmings. To handle the fur, the Assemblage artists used Joe Alter’s Shave and A Haircut hair modeling and animation software. 

Norm had roughly 1.5 million hairs. If this wasn’t complicated enough, he was often wearing clothes or interacting with props. In a storm sequence, the fur was wet, presenting a separate challenge. As a result, the character had various grooming requirements, depending on the situation and scene. 

The number of furred characters in a particular scene affected how the shot was rendered. At times, the crew used cloud rendering, giving them access to several thousand render blades.

“We also created simpler shaders to imitate the fur for background characters in some of the shots of the Norm crowning sequence with all the furry characters in the cavern,” says Mathieu.

The evil villain, Mr. Greene, meanwhile, is a new-age executive-turned-guru with long charcoal hair. Animators gave him a lot of cartoony squash-and-stretch capabilities, with extreme poses, antics, expressions, and so forth. 

Assemblage created these models using an Autodesk Maya-based pipeline. Animation was done in Maya, as was the lighting. Maya’s built-in Arnold (from Solid Angle) was used for rendering, while The Foundry’s Mari was employed for texturing and the company’s Nuke for compositing. 

On the hardware side, Assemblage used dual-Xeon workstations with 32gb of RAM and Nvidia graphic cards. The network architecture at the studio relied on Isilon storage, which offered efficiency and stability.

Some scenes even required crowd control – to handle the mobs of people and the heavy car traffic in NYC, for instance. This was done with Golaem Crowd simulation software that’s built into Maya. 

“The extensive use of crowds in NYC pushed us to find different solutions for the dancing sequence in the city, without compromising the quality. For example, lots of animation cycles were generated to fit the mood of the crowd at different parts of the plaza sequence. We sent the cycles to Golaem, which handled the crowd on a shot basis,” explains Mathieu. “This gave us the flexibility to arrange the crowd per the artistic requirements.”

However, the animators, working in tandem with the director and the crowd VFX team at Assemblage, had to change a few camera movements and framings in the sequence so the shots could be delivered on time.

Environmental Concerns

Norm contains a wide assortment of environments and backdrops, including various locations in the Arctic (Pride Ice, Grandpa’s land, and the shore, to name a few) and in New York City (such as Times Square, Greene Square, the warehouse, Mr. Greene’s building, various streets, and more). Altogether, artists constructed more than 600 buildings – a low number compared to some features, but a difficulty for the small crew working on this film. 

(left to right) Squash and stretch was used for the evil developer. Other characters, like the lemmings, needed fur.

“New York City was one of our main challenges,” says Mathieu. “We needed to re-create a complete and personal version of the city, in sync with Wall’s view. The GPU cache of Maya helped a lot in this regard, whereby NYC was divided into several different zones that were loaded into Maya depending on our needs. To help the production flow, we also had to create matte paintings that were used in some shots to show the buildings in the background. Trevor [Wall] wanted to give the feeling of a very dense city that was really lively, with lots of cars, crowds, and buildings.”

The modelers at Assemblage used Pixologic’s ZBrush, mainly for the detailing work on the sets in the Arctic. “Lots of the mountains were detailed in ZBrush and rendered with displacements in Maya, giving the environments a more lively and natural look,” says Mathieu. “Although this produced heavy scenes with long render times, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve the look and feel Wall wanted otherwise.”

The effects artists had their hands full, too, creating water, snow, ice – “just about everything except fire,” says Wall. 

Snow proved a big obstacle, making the Arctic scenes especially complex. These effects, as well as most of the movie’s VFX, were achieved in Maya. To add footprints in the snow, the group first employed an automated system that was based on the position of the feet by the characters making the tracks, along with displacement on the surface. It also worked for characters sliding on the ground.

However, the artists realized that the creation of those footprints needed a little more precision on close-up shots. So, the system was improved to get a smoother creation on the surface. 

Water effects were tricky, too, generated with Maya Fluid as well as Side Effects Software’s Houdini. According to Mathieu, the water simulations involved a great deal of surface area and detail, often resulting in sims that took three to five days to compute.

Water was a major occurrence in a giant storm sequence near the end of the movie, with rain, lighting, splashes, wind. It is the sequence in Norm that Wall is most proud of. Vayu Digital in Mumbai created the simulations for the storm, working in sync with the animation department at Assemblage to match the animation of the boat. 

“When you read a script where the main furry characters are living in the Arctic, going to New York City, and sailing into a storm on a huge barge in front of a tidal wave, you already know that you’re going to spend a lot of time in the office,” says Mathieu. “What I mean is, given the production constraints and the time, there were many obstacles on this ambitious project. But all the studios and everyone – from Splash CEO Nicolas Atlan [who stayed in contact with the production team and regularly visited Mumbai] to each and every artist – met those challenges head-on.”

That’s a Wrap!

Assisting in the production of Norm in LA were two animation veterans from Disney and DreamWorks, who Wall says showed him how other studios approach CG features. “I learned from them the right way to do things on a feature film,” he adds. 

(top) Norm is a biped when acting human-like. (bottom) Maya Fluid and Houdini were used to generate the CG water.

Assemblage’s CEO, Max Madhavan, also hired several leads, production managers, and a new COO, Milind Shinde, all coming from DreamWorks, who brought their expertise and experience to the project.

According to Wall, the tight schedule was the biggest looming issue for everyone involved. At one point, the filmmakers held their breath for an entire week, fearing something devastating had happened to the movie halfway through production following a fire at Assemblage.

“We were already on a tight schedule, but they stepped up, worked day and night to fix everything, and in less than three days had everything back on track,” Wall says.

Wall believes audiences will embrace Norm. “It has a basic but heartwarming story that will be liked by children and adults. It also has entertainment value,” he says. “I am proud of the entire film.”

Wall will be returning to broadcast work, but has since fallen in love with moviemaking, breaking the ice, so to speak, with Norm. In fact, he, along with many of the others who dipped their toes into the frosty waters of animated feature filmmaking with this project, are not that dissimilar from the characters in the film, who determinedly set out on a big adventure into unknown territory for something they believe in. And now we can enjoy the results of that journey in theaters.