The Story Behind the Story
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 6: (Nov/Dec 2017)

The Story Behind the Story

It’s one of the oldest holiday stories every told: the birth of Jesus. 

While gospel accounts vary somewhat, the story the world has come to know has a very pregnant Mary and her husband, Joseph, traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem during the time of Herod the Great to comply with a world census. With accommodations difficult to find, the pair find shelter in a stable, where Mary gives birth. Meanwhile, a bright star appears in the sky to mark this historic event, attracting three wise men from the East bearing gifts for the newborn. 

Two millennia later, the event is celebrated by millions of Christians around the globe. 

So, how does a person tell one of the most famous stories ever recorded and bring it to the big screen in a fresh, new way? That was the challenge facing the filmmakers behind Sony Pictures Animation’s (SPA’s) The Star, an animated family feature about the events leading up to the very first Christmas.

“It’s the Nativity story from the point of view of the animals,” says Director Timothy Reckart. Here, the animals take center stage and are the stars, while the many humans are more background characters –for example, more attention is placed on the wise men’s camels than on the wise men themselves. 

The movie follows Bo the donkey, who yearns for a life beyond the daily grind at the village mill. One day he breaks free and embarks on a journey, teaming up with Ruth, a lovable sheep who has lost her flock, and Dave the dove. Along the way, they are joined by a trio of wisecracking camels and some eccentric stable animals. While following an unusually bright star in the sky, they become accidental heroes in this animated tale. 

In fact, the animals are oblivious to the history-making events occurring around them. Rather, The Star focuses on the choices the animals make. And by helping these two random people, Mary and Joseph, Bo ends up achieving the most important thing possible. 

Executive Producer DeVon Franklin calls this version of the greatest story ever told, “the greatest story never told.” 

 “We have a classic three-act movie structure, with characters, comedy, adventure, and tension, without stepping on the original story. We wanted to do a classic ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ approach, where most of the story would belong to these side characters who usually do not get the spotlight and only occasionally would their story intersect with the story we are most familiar with,” says Reckart, referring to Tom Stoppard’s play that expands the role of the two courtiers from “Hamlet’ and whose action takes place in the wings of Shakespeare’s plot. 

Franklin emphasizes that the filmmakers found opportunities in the movie for fun and invention. “Audiences are not coming for the documentary or the historical exposition,” he says. Despite the religious overtone of The Star, Reckart sees this movie as a film for everyone.

Concept to Screen

The theme of new and old are reoccurring in The Star, from story to staff, starting with the director. Reckart is experienced in animation, albeit stop motion as opposed to CG. He has even directed some short-form projects, but The Star marks his feature-film directorial debut and his first foray into CGI.  

“This was my first CG project, and that meant a big learning curve for me in terms of the pipeline and things falling into place,” Reckart acknowledges. “As far as the director’s role, it is pretty close [to what it is with stop motion]. My goal was to get a result I am happy with, though I do not know how to tinker with splines or curves or anything like that. But I do know what kind of performance I am looking for and what I am looking for in the final assets, even if I do not know what the technical limitations are. And maybe in some ways that meant we pushed the team at Cinesite a little harder because I did not necessarily know the consequences and difficulty of what I was asking for.”

What Reckart did want was a very tactile feel to the world in the film. In stop motion, that is achieved for free by virtue of the materials used (silk, corduroy, and so forth). 

Similarly, Reckart pushed The Star’s lighting scheme for one based on real physics and real cinematic live-action, with contrast between “bright areas that are blowing out and dark areas that go quite dark.” 

The learning curve on this film did not pertain to Reckart alone. This is the first time SPA has worked with a group outside of Imageworks on a theatrical release, turning to Cinesite Studios to handle all the animation. According to Reckart, this outsourcing model enables the studio to work at a lower price point, but ideally at the same quality as a more expensive production, with a slightly lower box-office requirement in order to be deemed a success. 

Cast of Characters

According to Reckart, the movie’s characters are fairly realistic in terms of their design and the way they move – to an extent. To this end, the artists spent a lot of time studying the way these animals move, particularly donkeys and camels. “We wanted to do anatomically realistic animals, but the story line has comedy, action, and suspense, so they needed to play like human characters, and that is where the expressivity of our cartoony style comes in,” he says.

The characters, especially Bo the donkey, show a great deal of emotion. The same holds true for the sidekick Dave. Having a somewhat cartoony style for the animation at times provided the expressiveness necessary for these leading characters. 

“The movie has so many gags where you need that cartoony-ness. We struck a really good balance between occasionally cartoony physics of what I call expressive squash and stretch, with what I consider heartfelt and human nuance performance style,” Reckart says. “I didn’t want the physics of the world to feel cartoony, but I wanted to be able to use that style for clarity of expression in movement.”

The challenge, as Animation Supervisor Ryan Yee points out, was to not pull the animation too far from reality or do it too often, for risk of pulling the audience out of the film. “Once that happens, it’s too difficult to bring them back into it,” he says.

The characters were modeled and animated in Autodesk’s Maya, which was supplemented with other third-party and proprietary tools. Because of the short schedule (11 months of production), the group did not have time to iterate. So, they came up with an alternative process to push the animation style.

“Many times, I asked for a performance in the animation, and it turned out the rig didn’t have a certain muscle for that particular facial expression. So, in some cases, the animators had to use a sculpt tool to push the model beyond where it had originally been designed to go,” says Reckart.

As Yee explains, the animators treat each frame as a drawing when creating poses, to bring in a greater sense of design to the film. To this end, they used in-house tools to draw or sculpt poses, to push the silhouettes and expressions. 

“We used the same method for all the characters, but they all have a different set of rules. The animation process begins with notes in the form of draw-overs to communicate an expression or idea, as it is faster than working within the CG environment. From there, the animators would use every tool in the box at Cinesite to help push their creative expression further,” Yee continues. “A huge credit goes to the artists for being immensely patient and resilient in tackling the creative challenges we placed on them in such a short time frame. We really pushed the rigs to their limits to get the appeal and performance Tim was looking for in the characters.”

Animation had just six months to complete their work. A Herculean task, without question, but made possible with support from Cinesite London and Vancouver.

Focus on Fur and Feathers

All the character grooms were done using both Peregrine Labs’ Yeti running within Maya and Cinesite’s own fur system, CS Fur, depending on the character. For instance, the artists used the full fur simulation within Yeti for the horse Leah’s mane and the top of her head. For characters with short body hair, CS Fur – a quick procedural system without dynamics – proved more efficient. For the hero characters, artists often used a combination of CS Fur and Yeti, while secondary characters, like the tiny desert mouse, were textured in CS Fur only.

“We had different strategies for the furred characters, and there are lots of them,” says Chris Kazmier, VFX supervisor at Cinesite.

For Dave’s feather system, the group used Yeti; for the small down on his body, they used CS Fur. In the film, Dave uses his feathers to gesture, but the feathers do not serve as fingers. His body is more bird-like, and his wing system can spread, fold, and tuck like an actual bird’s, explains Kazmier. “We had to figure out how to make Dave live in this character world but also have some physicality and reality to his anatomy,” he adds.

Another challenging character when it came to grooms was the sheep Ruth, which is covered in curls that resemble pastry rolls. Each path of curl was hand placed, Kazmier points out. 

The hardware and dev teams at Cinesite’s London studio helped the artists optimize the hair settings and rendering. “Ruth was expensive at first, but we figured out how to treat her differently [from the other sheep] to be fluffy and light whether during the day or at night. Lighting added a little rig on her, and comp would compensate for that,” explains Kazmier. “To do this automatically would have tripled the rendering time.”

Hair also presented a challenge on the human characters. As Kazmier explains, the director and lead designer had a specific look in mind for Mary’s hair. It had to retain a certain shape and be movable, which meant the group often had to customize those shots. “Animation had to go back and forth with different facial shapes when Mary spoke so there would be certain curls in all the shots,” says Kazmier. 

Moreover, the humans’ long hair and beards required a good deal of grooming, too. Fortunately, veils were often used to cover the  heads – and hair – of some female characters. Those veils and other cloth work, including the long robes, were handled in Maya nCloth.

Set Design

The world in The Star is designed to feel huge and epic. Like the characters, it has a realistic quality to it in terms of the objects and lighting.

Reckart describes The Star as a road movie, which has the characters traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and en route there are multiple locations designed to mirror the mood of the characters at that point in time. “For instance, when there is this big action set piece, we used sharp, jagged desert rocks to frame the canyon area,” he explains. “When they are at a low point, we use a desolate desert area.”

According to Kazmier, Bethlehem was one of those environments that really stood out. That’s because there is a lot of variation in height, and there is a large green area. For the foliage in Bethlehem and elsewhere, the artists used SpeedTree’s realistic vegetation system. In addition, the artists used Maya and Pixologic’s ZBrush to add some non--realistic greenery as well. 

Some of the outdoor sets are quite large and were provided to animation by the previs department, where the sets were made to be geographically correct according to the story line. 

The crew designed Bethlehem using a coherent map that the animation team followed for the chase scenes through the city. “We built the city for what we needed in the story,” says Reckart. “It was like putting together a puzzle, building a single city to hit the story points and where the characters finally cross paths.”

The End

Everyone knows how this story ends: with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. But The Star’s story delves much deeper. And, it examines the journey. A new beginning.

Not just for The Star’s characters, but for its filmmakers as well, as it tested the first-time feature director, this expanding and establishing animation studio, and a new model for making animated features at SPA. Not to mention, The Star gave the entire team a chance to work on what they all hope will become a new holiday classic – one for the history books. 

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.