In 2002, DreamWorks artists and animators were intent on capturing the dramatic look and spirit of the American Old West for its feature film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, about a wild mustang in this vivid, colorful land. At this time, many studios, DreamWorks included, were embracing the new medium of CGI, but the moviemakers opted instead on a hybrid approach, using a combination of 3D CGI and hand-drawn 2D images to achieve the desired results.
Then, starting in May 2017, DreamWorks Animation Television began releasing a computer-animated multi-series on Netflix called Spirit Riding Free, inspired by that film. Like its predecessor, it contains a unique graphical look, with painterly backgrounds.
Now, DreamWorks Animation has trotted out Spirit Untamed, a reimagined cinematic version based on the
Riding Free series, as a young girl named Lucky moves to the Old West with her aunt, who hopes to tame Lucky's rebellious streak. There, the young girl meets a kindred spirit, a wild mustang named Spirit, which shares her independent nature. When an evil horse wrangler captures Spirit and his herd with the intent to auction them off to a life of captivity and hard labor, Lucky and her friends set out on a wild adventure to rescue and reunite these amazing animals.
Untamed is directed by Elaine Bogan and co-directed by Ennio Torresan Jr., and is based on the screenplay by Aury Wallington. It is the next chapter in the franchise, and, like
Riding Free, is written by Wallington. Taking the animation reins for the period-set
Untamed was London-based Jellyfish Pictures, an animation and VFX studio, with which DreamWorks worked on the holiday special
How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming.
The horse-rider relationship was considered when animating the characters.
Horses are said to be one of the most difficult animals to draw and animate, so Bogan (an experienced rider) and Torresan took the DreamWorks crew on a field trip to the Los Angeles Equestrian Center so the team could familiarize themselves with how horses move, their demeanor, and their body language. The Jellyfish animation team likewise visited a local riding school and were able to take photographic reference and study their mechanics as needed. Bogan also sent them information concerning not just the movement of the horses, but the relationship between horse and rider.
Untamed comprises just under 1,300 shots, all but 25 of which were animated by Jellyfish. "It was an ambitious endeavor, especially with the timescale we had, both for DreamWorks to develop the film and for us to do the animation," says Luke Dodd, director of VFX and animation at Jellyfish and executive producer at Jellyfish on the film.
What's more, this was Jellyfish's first feature film - the studio had been focused on episodic work, having launched Jellyfish Animation in 2014.
Jellyfish was further challenged by COVID restrictions, having started the work in August 2019, just before the pandemic began to spread. When work restrictions began in early 2020, the facility - which had migrated to a fully virtual studio in 2017 - was able to move 150 to 200 artists to a remote workflow in less than two weeks, enabling the staff to work efficiently from home.
As production gained momentum, the Jellyfish crew expanded to nearly 350 artists as work commenced at the end of this past February. Of course, this does not include development time at DreamWorks. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that it took over four years to complete the first Spirit feature at DreamWorks - at a time when tools were far less efficient and hardware much slower.
Foreground and midground imagery is 3D; the backgrounds mostly 2D.
A Hybrid World
Time frames, tools, and aesthetics certainly have evolved since the first feature was released, as evident by the unique aesthetic of the original film and then the "mixed" look of the TV series - the latter a style that Jellyfish took to a feature level in Untamed. In
Untamed, all the imagery in the foreground and midground of the shots were crafted in 3D - and, according to Dodd, everything created in 3D contained hand-painted textures.
"Everything was based from a shading point of view on how real the materials needed to look," explains Dodd. "But everything that sat beneath that was very painterly and had the artist's hand behind every single texture you see on the screen. And then, in the backgrounds, the distant part of the shots, were digital matte paintings, so there were 2D drawings for the skies, mountains, and so forth."
The environments, in fact, contain a delicate mixture of realism and artistry.
However, some 3D elements for clouds were sometimes added to those background shots, particularly when the camera was traveling over large distances or when the group wanted a slightly different look. The art direction of using 3D elements off in the distance was something that Paul Duncan, production designer, really wanted to explore, says Dodd, so the group utilized 3D matte painting whenever possible.
As noted earlier, DreamWorks drove the design and story, handing over artwork - "absolutely beautiful designs," says Dodd - elevations of characters, props, and assets that fit within the environments, as well as key art of what each sequence would be, such as the time of day, which really set the tone for what each sequence should look like, including the characters and environments. Jellyfish would then go on to model those assets, translating 2D drawings into 3D maquettes. Sometimes DreamWorks would supply those 3D art models as well.
"Our amazing modeling team then brought all these characters off the 2D page and into the 3D world," says Dodd.
A lot of time was spent developing the hair and fur for the humans and horses.
The film features a number of characters, with six hero characters in all: three girls and three horses. The girls had long, flowing hair and beautiful period clothing, while the horses had manes and tails that blew in the wind. The 3D modeling and animation was accomplished in Autodesk's Maya, as was the lighting. Rendering was done through Maya with Arnold, and compositing through Foundry's Nuke. SideFX's Houdini handled all the simulation, particularly for the cloth and hair, as well as the 3D effects. Meanwhile, the artists built the clothing assets in Marvelous Designer, and utilized Foundry's Mari and other key software for the textures.
In fact, some pipeline tweaks were required to integrate Houdini at the scale needed for all the VFX work. Some further changes were made to enable the group to automate and see first simulations on the hair, manes, and tails in a more timely manner so they could get approval much faster. "That was one of the key markers for us being able to speed up and fit the whole project in the small production window we had," says Dodd.
In Dodd's opinion, the most technically challenging work involved the hair and fur. "We did not underestimate it going into the show, and we knew that the speed at which we had to deliver it would become a big focus for us," he says. "We had to learn the differences in the sims from when a horse is galloping compared to when it is at rest. Or when taking a turn, what happens to the tail."
In fact, how Lucky's and Spirit's hair moved required a good deal of development, in addition to the simulation. "It was incredibly challenging, but we learned a lot. And, it looks really beautiful," Dodd opines. The artists approached the hair as they would simulating realistic hair in visual effects, then worked with DreamWorks to dial the sim back to an aesthetic that fit with the painterly environments. To help with the process, the group created a number of setups that enabled the artists to drag and drop the starting positions of the hair, including pre-design settings for the following movement. This allowed the artist to sim a solid first version in most situations.
"To get to these pre-designed settings, we generated different wedges for different movements; each wedge had slightly different settings for weight, stiffness, bounce, and so on," Dodd explains. "We worked closely with DreamWorks Animation to find the right combination of settings for different movements or actions. This became the basis for how the hair would move through the whole movie."
Another aspect artists paid particular attention to was the horse rigging and the play of the muscle on these animals. "The rig complexity on this movie was way ahead of what we've done for our animation series work in the past," Dodd adds. We had over 10 different layers of body deformation and 40 different layers of facial deformation built into all the hero rigs. Each rig then had four levels of detail and functionality, allowing for real-time playback at 25 fps," says Dodd. In fact, Jellyfish collaborated with Spanish-based VFX house Minimo, which created rigs across the whole show.
In Dodd's opinion, the Spirit rig was the most complicated due to the mane and tail complexity plus the muscle sim facility - the weight and movement of such a magnificent animal was so important to the film and critical for Jellyfish to get right.
The artists approached the muscle simulation in a similar way to how they found the movement of the hair. A system was built that mimicked real muscle movement across the whole horse, then they reduced or restricted any areas of movement they felt did not stay faithful to the artistic style of the picture. "I know the animation speaks for itself, and I am truly proud of what our team created," he adds.
In terms of the 2D, the group largely used Mari and Adobe Substance Painter and Photoshop for creating all the texturing and shader work. They also used Marvellous Designer to create and build all the vintage clothing. "Our artists handcrafted all the textures, sometimes scanning in our artists' physical watercolor artwork to use as reference or even a starting point for a texture," Dodd points out. No photographic details were used for the textures; they are all hand-painted and hand-drawn. "This attention to detail, we hope, really helps the viewer feel the artist's hand touching every element."
Looking back, Dodd is especially happy with the results of Jellyfish's first feature. "I really think it has a unique aesthetic, and it all fits together really nicely," he says. "We were really conscious of making sure the backgrounds and the environment all sat nicely and played well with the characters, and that was hugely important in making every sequence consistent and having a beautiful aesthetic run through the whole movie."
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.