The ChubbChubbs is the first CG animated short film produced by Imageworks, the award-winning animation company run under the auspices of Sony Pictures. Directed by Eric Armstrong, the animation supervisor for both Stuart Little and Stuart Little 2, The ChubbChubbs introduces the alien inhabitants of the Planet Glorf, including Meeper, it's eccentric hero, the singing Diva, the Zyzaks, and of course, the ChubbChubbs.
In this debut short, Meeper warns the patrons of the Ale-E-Inn of impending danger only to find himself face to face with the toughest creatures in the universe.
Leonard Teo: How did Sony Pictures Animation come about and what role will Imageworks be playing in creating the CGI for feature animations?
Tim Sarnoff: Sony Pictures Animation is a division of Sony Pictures Digital, as is Imageworks. Sony Pictures Animation's mandate is to develop all animated feature films. Sony Pictures Imageworks role is to be the production engine by which these animated feature films will be made.
We are currently working on a number of visual effect projects and creating a pipeline which allows us to create full CG features.
Leonard Teo: Is there a market for feature animations?
Tim Sarnoff: Of course! There's a market for good stories no matter what process those stories are told - whether it be through live action or through animation. Imageworks has been around for ten years and in the last five, we have endeavored to create characters such as Stuart Little, Spider-Man, etc. As a result, we have developed a very strong pipeline to create photo-realistic digital characters -- believable characters for the audience. What we have accomplished in photo-realistic live action characters, we also wanted to tackle in full CG animations.
So we created a small effort to create our own shorts, which is how The ChubbChubbs came to be. The intent for ChubbChubbs was not for distribution, but for creating a story within the company and then fulfilling all the obligations necessary to work on an animation project while maintaining our other core business creating visual effects. We are working with Sony Pictures Animation to set up their first project.
The genesis of Sony Pictures Animation was essentially an extension of Sony Pictures Imageworks' ability to create digital characters.
Leonard Teo: How did The ChubbChubbs come about? As mentioned before, the intent was to create a story within Imageworks, but was it also to test the current pipeline and see if it could extend itself to full-CG animations?
Tim Sarnoff: Correct, we started The ChubbChubbs as a small project within the company to test all the capabilities within the pipeline structure -- not necessarily just the technical ones but the storytelling and animation too. We also wanted to see if this CG project would interfere with our other businesses, which it did not. We were able to produce all of The ChubbChubbs on schedule while maintaining all the other projects in the pipeline.
When we finished The ChubbChubbs, it was our intention to show it to the Motion Picture Group at Sony, to say "look we're now able to create a CG project and are able to create a feature-length CG animation." From beginning to end, we did The ChubbChubbs in four months, it was a very fast project.
We were surprised and thrilled by the reaction of the Motion Picture Group, who wanted to have the short distributed along with one of the feature films going out - they chose to show it with Men in Black II.
It's nice to see The ChubbChubbs being recognized by various festivals around the world such as 3D Festival, because it now has more value than simply being a technical test. This is a story that has characters, has bewildered the audience about why we're all here.
Leonard: Along the way, what sort of pipeline issues or challenges did Imageworks come across?
Tim Sarnoff: It's interesting -- one of the hardest thing to do is to edit something that you like out of the film. The story had to be told in six minutes, but there were enough ideas to make the story as much as three times as long! I think the hardest lessons learned by the animators was watching their shots on the cutting room floor.
The hardest process for the group was to be able to make sure it was telling the story from beginning to end without getting side-tracked by the jokes! You'd be surprised, when you work on a story for a number of months, it's easy to forget that you're telling a story rather than, "here's the joke".
Leonard Teo: What sort of challenges is Imageworks expecting to face going about the full feature animation route? Considering that Imageworks is (sort of) a newcomer compared to Pixar and PDI?
Tim Sarnoff: I think the risk for this company will always rest of the shoulders of those who tell the story - not in the actual production process itself. We're not necessarily a newcomer in creating the product, we've been doing it for a decade and we are large enough to be able to manage a full CGI film while maintaining our core business of visual effects. We're not changing our strategy by going from one business to another, we're simply adding this to our existing business.
Leonard Teo: What's currently in the pipeline for Imageworks?
Tim Sarnoff: Imageworks is currently involved in a number of projects. We're working on Spider-Man 2, Polar Express, Big Fish (Tim Burton), Haunted Mansion (Rob Minkoff), Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and more. We're happy to be busy! On top of that, we have the animation business to maintain a very full utilization of the company.
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3D Festival's Tito "Lildragon" Belgrave speaks with Eric Armstrong, Director of The ChubbChubbs on the animation processes behind the short.
Tito A. Belgrave: What challenges did your team face throughout the making of the ChubbChubbs?
Eric Armstrong:The ChubbChubbs presented a unique set of challenges, both creative and technical, throughout its development period. One of the biggest hurdles that faced the team was the sheer visual scope of the project. But when it came to creating the many inhabitants of the planet Glorf, it ultimately proved to be a lot of fun for the filmmakers.
Tito A. Belgrave: The ChubbChubbs had a very large cast of characters?
Eric Armstrong: It's really an epic short -- it was quite an experience to create over forty characters that had to be modeled in order to populate the Ale-E-Inn. With all the characters and visuals coming at you in such a short amount of time, we had to make sure that our hero, Meeper, stood out both visually and emotionally. Brad Simonsen was able to achieve the perfect nasal voice with just enough innocence to balance out Meeper's character.
Tito A. Belgrave: With the 40+ characters in the ChubbChubbs, and the production time allotted to you, how was animation finished efficiently and on time?
Eric Armstrong: Since the cast of The ChubbChubbs was so vast, we used short cuts throughout the film technically, but always stayed true to the story.
All the characters in the bar were keyframed manually. Although the rigging process wasn't complex, binding the characters turned out to be since we also had to use some stock animation cycles for characters further away from the camera.
On and off we had at least 25 – 30 animators at a time throughout the short, we would basically pull animators who weren't creating any shots for Spider-Man and Stuart Little , which were also being produced at the same time.
Eric Armstrong: Yes that's correct, she was most definitely used as the foil or comic relief for Meeper's clumsiness.
Image: Foiled again! The Diva is on fire!... thanks to Meeper.
Tito A. Belgrave: What methods were used for modeling the characters? Was it all NURBS-based or were Sub-Division techniques?
Eric Armstrong: Actually we used NURBS characters as most of the staff that worked on The ChubbChubbs were already quite familiar with using NURBS in the production pipeline. Since time constraints were already tight we opted for what we already know, though we haven't ruled out Sub-Division techniques completely as they will be used more in the future.
Tito A. Belgrave: How was the ChubbChubbs' fur handled, was it in the same fashion as Stuart Little's?
Eric Armstrong: The fur on the ChubbChubbs was quite similar to Stuart’s but not as complex, we didn't have the timeframe we had with Stuart to manually hand tweak it at every interval, so we used some shortcuts to speed up render time while retaining good visually quality.
Tito A. Belgrave: I noticed there was quite a number of Star Wars cameos from certain memorable characters.
Eric Armstrong: Yes there was quite a few of them, Darth Vader, Jar Jar even! What we were trying to portray was that the watering hole (Ale–E-Inn) was where all the popular locals would go to relax. It also added essence to the bar, since they were used for gags.
Tito A. Belgrave: Can we expect to see anymore of The ChubbChubbs?
Eric Armstrong: At this point I can safely say there's no future plans to continue work on The ChubbChubbs. The short was basically an in-house production test to give us an idea on how a project of this spectrum would be on a smaller scale. Also we believe that the story was told in the time given for the short, but we also know other developments can come from some of the existing characters such as Diva and Boris.
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3D Festival's Tito A. Belgrave also caught up with Jacquie Barnbrook, VFX Producer for Sony Pictures Imageworks on The ChubbChubbs.
Tito A. Belgrave: How did the personality of the main character Meeper came to be?
Jacquie Barnbrook: We knew we wanted Meeper to come across a little timid, sort of an everyman Walter Mitty type. Once the character design evolved, the team then set out to his refine his voice. We had to look no further than production coordinator Brad Simonsen.
Jacquie Barnbrook: We began storyboarding at the end of September 2001 right through to December, but the main core of the film was produced from March to May 2002.
Tito A. Belgrave: Can you elaborate on the choice of music used in The ChubbChubbs? There were quite a few golden oldies.
Jacquie Barnbrook: Chance Thomas led the way in the musical department of The ChubbChubbs. Amazingly enough he recreated and recorded all the original music that was used throughout the short.
We had so many different types of music to choose from, but the choices were finally narrowed down to 10. We knew we wanted the music to really help carry the story and we required it to create a sense of emotion in regards to Meeper, basically further pushing the message “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover”. In fact the animation was done according the music chosen.
Professional singers were also brought in for the Diva. Even a new band was hired to help re-created the original music.
Image: Darth Vader and Yoda test their might at the Ale-E-Inn.
Tito A. Belgrave: I noticed a lot of shortcuts were used throughout the short, things such as lack of details in certain areas. This no doubt was due to time constraints?
Jacquie Barnbrook: Yes definitely, time was the major obstacle we had to overcome, and in regards to that we had to cut corners to save time and money, but we didn't want to lose the essence of the story, so if a character or an object that was in the forefront that help tell the story, this is what they concentrated on. Things such as the lack of bump maps on the bucket weren't of the utmost importance.
Tito A. Belgrave: When I first saw The ChubbChubbs for what they really were I was quite surprised to say the least, were children scared by them?
Jacquie Barnbrook: Quite honestly no, we brought in children ranging from 4-12 years of age to view the film, and believe it or not, not one of them thought the ChubbChubbs were scary. I guess it's due to the fact that the ChubbChubbs only become fierce predators when threatened, they didn’t feel threatened by Meeper because of his kindness and caring ways, and the fact that he tries to save them.
Tito A. Belgrave: Were they any problems with using Star Wars characters in the short?
Jacquie Barnbrook: Actually not at all! We showed George Lucas the short and he thought it was quite funny and very good. So getting an OK wasn't too difficult after that.
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Image: Why can't we be friends? Meeper faces off with the Zyzaks.
Tito A. Belgrave: One of the qualities that really stood out for me were the renders as they had a very rich, saturated children's storybook quality to them - how was this achieved?
Jacquie Barnbrook: Thank you, that's precisely what we were aiming for. We rendered the entire short with PRMan, and lit it with a proprietary software we use in-house called “BIRPS”. Finally we used another in-house package called Bonzai, which was used for compositing.
Tito A. Belgrave: Was being involved in the creation of The ChubbChubbs a rewarding experience?
Jacquie Barnbrook: Indeed it was! For me the excitement of working on The ChubbChubbs was being able to bring together a diverse group of artists and animators all eager to participate in the making of The ChubbChubbs. For many of them, the project offered a fresh opportunity. It allowed everyone to explore and develop their talents all while working on an original, homegrown idea.
From the Editor, Leonard Teo
Eric Armstrong will be speaking at this year's 3D Festival, the industry's largest gathering of creative 3D professionals, 7-10 May 2003 in Copenhagen, Denmark. The ChubbChubbs will also be showing at the 3D Film Festival running at 3D Festival, so don't miss it. - Leo
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