How can you animate characters realistically making their expressions and movements appear alive? Creating computer generated images, integrating a real environment, using realistic or cartoony images? In this context choices in directing, storyboard and previsualisation are extremely important.
Director of the ArtFX Animation and Digital Effects school
special effects, visual effects, CGI, previsualisation, key frame, rigging, compositing, 3D modelling, blendshapes, Cloth, DAM, Nuke, Maya Fur, mental ray, Paul, Harry Potter, Spots vs Stripes, The Spacebox, Annecy conferences, animated film
The "VFX & Animation" shows by example that the two sectors are very close, in terms of hardware and software, and also in terms of graphic talent.
Michaël Nauzin talked about the production of The Spacebox ad for Citroën. "The idea was to focus on the storage capacity of the boot of the car using a dog made up of everyday objects, the message being: don’t leave the things you love at home." The film, made by Sébastien Strasser, won a Visual Effects Society Award for the best animated character in a commercial.
"Quite clearly this film stands out from what we are usually offered and we set up a 10-person team, working for around 250 days, to get the best result possible".
Lead animator Nauzin said that "good design must represent life, the credibility of a character in one single image. Initially, we thought about joining together the different elements making up the body – a bag, a hairdryer, a pair of socks, etc. – like an articulated robot. But this was too stiff, not alive enough. So we chose to put the objects together to represent an animal. This was more allegorical and more in line with what the client was looking for". A lot of research was done to decide on the most appropriate objects to make up the body and, just as important, to be animated realistically. Once the choice had been made, all the objects were modelled in 3D. "The set up, from Advanced Skeleton Pro, couldn’t have been simpler, and it works just as well for bipeds as it does for quadrupeds. The advantage was that we could change the bones, the joints, and even the skinning once".
The storyboard had a major role in the production because it was "made by Sébastien Strasser, who had just lost his own dog. It gave very clear acting directions, with a great deal of sensitivity in the framing and animation. The layout was integrated into the shots to make sure that it corresponded to what everyone was looking for". The animation also raised questions: the cartoon option or the realistic one? "There are two schools of thought and this question caused a lot of discussions in the team", noted Michaël Nauzin. The elements that made up the dog were deformed realistically, mainly the bag, which represents the body and was the most flexible part of the animal, the part that breathes.
Once the decision to go realistic had been approved, the Mikros team worked on a number of video reference documents. "We didn’t have to think hard about the attitudes, we had all the acting possible by watching real dogs move and interact with people. With these references we could validate the animation intentions".
Finally, Cloth software was used to animate the ears, represented by a pair of socks.
Finally, all these very different objects took life to become a dog. A dog like no other, and yet so similar.
The official partner of the 2012 London Olympics Kraft, through its Cadbury brand, has produced a commercial called Spots vs Stripes, where two teams of fish and other aquatic animals face off in a fast and furious, but sporting, competition using seaweed balloons. To make the film Kraft turned to London studio The Moving Picture Company (MPC). "40 people worked for 9 months on this project, under director Nick Gordon and art supervisor Augusto Sola", explained Anthony Bloor, special effects supervisor at MPC. With a large budget of £50M, the studio had to rethink its usual production methods for the commercial: "people always want you to go fast in advertising, but here we had an ambitious project, but a very comfortable schedule, at least at first sight".
Three options were possible: filming real fish, creating CGI fish in a real environment, or doing everything in CGI. The second option was finally chosen so as to optimise the production.
After a great deal of research to decide on all the fish and other underwater creatures (crabs, turtles, octopuses, etc.) which would be in the film, the production chose to share the work between several small teams, each one in charge of a species. "This type of project is extremely heavy to manage, more than we had anticipated, and we focused a great deal on using previsualisation, for several months, to define exactly the shots we would be making and the visual effects we would have to produce. This meant that we could avoid re-takes later on".
The underwater environment is problematic, as the only light source is the sun hitting the surface of the water, and gradually getting weaker as it gets deeper. "We studied the properties of light a lot – reflection, refraction, etc. – correlated to an underwater environment, with the consequences on lighting the fish, whose reflective surfaces also caused a number of difficulties". At the same time, the MPC teams concentrated on creating the textures of the fish depending on their own particular characteristics. They were realistic, but also depended on the team they belonged to, the Spots or the Stripes. Most of the textures were calculated in 8K, which gives a good idea of the amount of time taken for the rendering.
Finally, the typologies of fifteen creatures were finalised, with highly-developed rigs, for each animal. "As far as we could we tried to integrate automatic animation on some characters, such as the fish in the background and the cheerleader crabs", waving their anemone pompoms. To manage the massive amount of assets, MPC used Digital Asset Management (DAM) software "to get a clearer hold on the versioning and validation".
Then a team of divers went to do the underwater shots, not only for the environments, but also for the camera movements with a view to integrating the CGI characters. "Overall they did a fantastic job, sticking closely to the previs. However, we sometimes had to use digital backgrounds to avoid a lack of uniformity in the shots". The compositing was made entirely using Nuke software.
Anthony Bloor explained that "for each shot, we created an environment map, that we could apply in one single pass on the creatures for everything concerning lighting". Three sources were identified: a direct source, from the sun, the caustics, from the seabed, and finally the light emitted from the environment itself.
Two shots were particularly complex to manage: the final shot underwater, where the 60 characters all converge on the last seaweed balloon, and the following one when the duck dives into the water to steal it and then fly away, pursued by a stingray and a swordfish in dazzling sunlight. "For the group shot, the difficulty was to integrate all the characters into a background which existed in our shot bank. Finally, we had to do a digital extension to contain the whole crowd. For the shot out of the water, with the duck that steals the last balloon, we had to redo the rig totally to be able to make it fly properly. Maya Fur and mental ray were used to manage the properties of the waterproof plumage and the impact on the lighting. We also totally rethought the reflection and refraction effects on the swordfish and the stingray, which are not normally found out of water".
Nicolas Scapel, rigging supervisor at Framestore, then spoke about the joint creation of Dobby and Kreacher, two house elves in the Harry Potter saga. The first one first appeared on screen in Harry Potter 2, the second came much later on, in the fifth episode of the wizard’s adventures.
The London-based studio has being creating visual effects for Harry Potter since the first film, but with The Deathly Hallows – part 1, they worked on recreating house elves Dobby and Kreacher visually. "The first Dobby was designed by ILM, and we were responsible for Kreacher. We thought that audiences wouldn’t necessarily remember exactly how Dobby looked, and that we could recreate him, without him losing his identity, though", explained Nicolas Scapel. "We also had to humanise him, remove a bit of his grotesqueness, because their roles in this film were important, particularly given the fatal ending, and had to bring a more emotional dimension. This meant that we had to refine the initial models". Another important decision was to choose key frame animation for the elves, rather than using motion capture.
A life-size model of Dobby was made, with as many details as possible (wrinkles, veins, etc.) so that the rigging and modelling teams could grasp the complexity of the character. "Rigging is a complex architecture to set up, but it is essential to be able to change any part at any time, but without having to start from scratch". Although Dobby is an elf, his skeleton was designed like a human’s, the two teams (rigging and modelling) worked together to get greater efficiency. Dobby’s body was made up of muscle rigs that could be used as a "rigging map, which was both easier to manage and more artistic in its approach".
His face had to be very expressive, given the number of close ups, particularly when he dies in Harry Potter’s arms. "We created a facial rig with blendshape distortion. Some expressions were created using displacement mappings, meaning that details on his face could be changed very precisely".
To help the 60-person team working on the film, the studio asked the voice actors of the elves to come into the studio. "Filming them on the set, not only reading the text, but also acting the roles helped us a great deal in animating the characters".
Paul is a feature by Greg Mottola, with a screenplay by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also act in the film. It is the story of the peregrinations of two geeks who discover an alien, Paul, who behaves just like a human: he smokes, drinks, tells stories… "The challenge of the film", said Patrick Giusiano, senior animator at Double Negative. "We had to make Paul credible not just as an alien, but also make him as endearing and funny as any other actor. Audiences must believe in his presence in every scene in the film". The teams at the studio first drew up an inventory of imagery of aliens in films and comic books to find the best approach. "Seth Rogen, who voiced Paul, is big and muscular, and we had to integrate his deep voice into this frail body. We filmed him with sensors on his body and face, to get as much data as possible to animate Paul, particularly for the many sequences where he is in contact with the human actors".
Paul was animated in key frame. "It was the most efficient solution for this alien character", said Patrick Giusiano.
In the "Titanic" sequence, Paul and Simon Pegg are meant to have a dialogue similar to that between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in the film Titanic, when she asks him to draw her naked. To get into the sequence Patrick Giusiano remembered that "being an animator means also being an actor. I filmed myself reading Paul’s text to see what the best attitude to adopt would be. What you get from the video reference is not necessarily the tone, the gesture, but the energy that comes out of the acting. Finally, I made a patchwork of these references as a support, as a basis for the work".
One of the people in the animation team spoke in a way that resembled Paul’s and he was filmed for the key sequences as a reference for the other animators. Finally, the alien’s skin and the lighting on the face were done with a number of shaders and displacement maps.
Gilbert Kiner: "For Dobby or Paul, were the rigs set at the outset or was there some freedom to change them?"
Nicolas Scapel: "For a biped or a quadruped, we started from the existing system, which works well, and we tried to set the main components of the rig as soon as possible. Then, depending on the discussions with the animators, it could be refined".
Patrick Giusiano: "It’s all a question of communication. At Framestore, there are a lot of exchanges between the production and animation teams, meaning that we can progress together".
Gilbert Kiner: "Is R&D an important point in your studios?"
Nicolas Scapel: "It is important not to separate R&D and the artists. You need to know how to capture good ideas, wherever they are, to re-use them in other films".
Audience: "What sort of profile do you look for in your teams: generalist, technician, multiskilled?"
Anthony Bloor: "On the commercial, being multi-skilled was an extra, because we generally work with small teams. For Spots vs Stripes, the importance of the team is exceptional".
Patrick Giusiano: "Animation requires real specialisation".
Nicolas Scapel: "For the rigging part, which is very technical, there a few generalists. But the artists, overall, are passionate about a subject, if they want to do something, naturally we let them do it."