Fri 1st Nov 2013, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

1 November 2013, by Paul Hellard

FREE BIRDS is the story about a struggle by a couple of turkeys to free their race from the annual traditional cook up. A comedy of sorts to bring the dinner table tradition of North America Thanksgiving into line with their wish to continue to exist. But in the real world, the production of FREE BIRDS is more about a small studio getting the chance to expand its market of creative ventures using a wildly talented group of artists and technologies.

In that same real world, FREE BIRDS is the animated creation of Reel FX in Texas, a milestone production that signifies twenty years of animated creations coming from this Dallas studio. FREE BIRDS is Reel FX's first own feature film, but the run of work on other major studios work include shots for Fox, Warner Brothers, Disney, DreamWorks and Sony Pictures. CGSociety huddled up with the dedicated crew of animators and technicians, eager to talk about their proprietary software and unique production workflows used to make these turkeys live, move, emote and create. “It makes me incredibly proud that Free Birds is Reel FX’s first feature,” says Aron Warner, executive producer of Free Birds and President of Animation for Reel FX. “First of all, technically, the film is beautiful. And story-wise, its tone is completely unique.”


Reel FX was founded in 1993 by Dale Carman and David Needham in Fort Worth, Texas, focusing mainly on commercials and short form projects. In 1999, the studio began to move into the film industry with animation shots on Open Season, Looney Tunes, Rise of the Guardians, and Despicable Me. Many others like for Blue Sky's projects like the Ice Age Christmas Specials. “We’ve come a long way, from being two guys in a garage who worked in commercial post production to where we are now,” says Kyle Clark, COO of Reel FX.



In the ramp up for the FREE BIRDS production, there were plenty of people who wanted to be there with them in Texas. Monika Sawyer, the feather and fur supervisor on FREE BIRDS was formerly TD and lighting up at Blue Sky in New York. "I was really lucky up at Blue Sky because I started on the fur team for Horton Hears a Who," Sawyer says. "There was Ice Age 3, Rio, Horton and Ice Age 4 and I came along as Senior Fur TD." As many will know, there is plenty of fur at the front of all of these brilliant productions, especially on Horton, including trees and grass, even the clothing in the Seuss-inspired environments. "I got to groom their ties, jackets, skirts and everything," she adds. Lighting is at the back of the pipeline, and this doubled the job for Sawyer. When she finished with the fur, she got to go over to the lighting department to be technical director over there.



Below is an exclusive introduction video by Monika Sawyer, describing in detail the workings of the Avian feather creation system. This engine was the basis for creation, movement and detail of the feathers on the turkeys.


Avian is a fully proprietary feather plugin in the Reel FX pipeline. Built from the ground up by TDs at Reel FX including Monika Sawyer. Coming out of Blue Sky, the concept of Avian was that it was extremely WYSIWYG, so the average artist could get to work and do as much as possible in the simple interface and in Maya and see what was being created. So simple that sending it to RenderMan for the rendering stage was a no-brainer at the end of the frame creation.

The Avian feather system is a huge proof of what can be achieved in a short amount of time, given the technical knowhow brought onboard for this production. Certainly something that Reel FX can carry along to use for future productions.
There were six artists in the fur team for FREE BIRDS. Director Jimmy Hayward from Blue Sky invited down a bunch of artists and they got to work on the Avian feather system. There 97 individual characters to create and rig and then to 'flock and feather'. "We built the system to be really fast, as well as being visually accurate without having to render. This allowed the artists to really see what results they were getting, even from inside Maya," Monika explains. "This saved us a ton of time, not having to wait for renders at all." Animation Supervisor Rich McCain was also brought in from Pixar, richly experienced in animal animation, as one might expect.


When you get a chance to have a good close look at a turkey, they're really not the most attractive creatures. When the modeling crew came out of their concept meetings, there was this idea of 'flocking'. "This was devised in the art department where the models would have this fuzzy, furry, puppety head," explains Monika. "This allowed a visual interest, but kept it still kinda cute and cuddly." Reel FX used Joe Alter's 'Shave and a Haircut' for this 'flocking' on the head, with many additions to the plugin from previous projects. The effect was just perfect for the underlying tight surface fuzz required for the characters.

The Jake and Ranger characters in FREE BIRDS were graced with huge shoulders and thick necks. This brought on their own challenges to the riggers and those tasked with setting the feathers onto the characters. "One thing with feathers in animation, any kind of pinching, bending, folding can be seen a lot easier than with any fur," explains Monika. "There's nowhere to hide. So when it came to Jake's neck or Ranger's neck, we really had to be careful when they would bend and twist, that they not clash too hard. The solution was a solid set of rules dreamt up by the rigging, animation and fur department and I think it worked out pretty well. There are times in the film where the turkeys use their tails for instance, as a form of expression. But the silhouette was important, because the character shapes needed to stay within their own volume."

While the art department required the silhouette pretty early on, the research done by the feature department reached out into the real world with the amazing array of turkey feathers available. "The range of iridescence in the surface of the real turkey feather is pretty amazing," Monika adds. "The variety of shades, shapes and numbers of stems and barbs was quite stunning. While animation references were brought in from Daffy and Donald, Foghorn Leghorn and many others, we went out pioneering for this movie because characters actually had to have wings and hands at the same time," she adds.

"The team definitely hit the ground running on this movie," Monika Sawyer says. "It's so great that Reel FX has all this experience inhouse, so they didn't have to go out and find someone to outsource to too much."


Digital Supervisor Dave Esneault made the change from the cool of upstate New York in at Blue Sky for the relative balminess of Texas at Reel FX after 15 years. He was crewing on the original Ice Age and lastly then he was production manager on RIO. He'd been down there in Dallas working on a Blue Sky 'overflow' project after working on RIO. "While I was down here working on the Ice Age Christmas Special, I saw Jimmy Hayward and then Carl Clark who is here as well, and they kept hinting at the move," quips Dave. "It was a universe thing, saying, hey it's the right time for the move."

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Esneault was responsible for the final look of the movie. He works with the director, the art director and production designer when they do the look concept and then he works with the other leads to bring on the final look of the film. "There was a concern about the look of the feathers on the characters when we first set out on the concepts for the movie but thanks to the crew we have and the troubleshooting they did early on, there was no reason to worry," Esneault confirms. "In the end, the difficult areas for an overall look were in the environments. The grass and the trees were immensely complex. Perhaps over designed for what we really required. But it actually ended up looking better than we originally had it defined."

The departments were working very closely together in each sequence approach for FREE BIRDS. The Fur and Feather, Rigging and Animation departments all had to work together to nail the final look. "We never ever had a definite view of how the final render was going to look like though," Esneault explains. "Sometimes in production, feathers would be flipped due to surface alterations or collisions that nobody saw, so we had a system where Monika would go in and tweak the feathers to bring them under control. Pretty quick and failsafe. Jimmy Hayward, the director was particularly interested in getting a bit of that deep shimmery light in the feathers, something that isn't so easy to replicate. But once the technical side of the shaders was worked out, it all came up extremely well."

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Josh Carey was the rigging supervisor on FREE BIRDS. Now, rigging of a comedic non-human character must be one of the most unpredictable duties a rigger can do. There was a number of creative shapes and hairstyles, and including the human characters there were around 120 of them to get ready to animate. As mentioned earlier, turkeys aren't the most gorgeous creatures and the range of shapes between young and old turkeys, staid and comedic, fat and thin, makes the spectrum of body shapes almost completely random. "There was a huge design phase in hunting for that appeal in the turkey," says Josh Carey. "The first big question was about the arms or wings. Do we give them hands or feathers? In the end they are more arms than wings, since they don't fly, but we did it in the way that all the feathers are laid out so it looks like a wing, but can be manipulated to work like a hand if needs arise."

A normal turkey can tuck everything in, but the character had to be set with key poses and that's the way the riggers and animators got away without having to look like that 'tucked in' turkey. "There were no moments where the turkey characters had to go from arm articulation to wing articulation," Josh notes.

The face of the characters also had to go through similar screening processes to find the right mix of expressions and especially how to deal with the turkey's neck wattle and what is called a beak snood. While not especially attractive, still a basic part of the recognisable anatomy of a turkey head. "If you look at a regular turkey, they have a wrinkled wattle," adds Carey. "We decided to avoid that cos it was kinda gross. Early on, the crew went out to a couple turkey farms to get an up-front view of how the real turkey's walked and behaved.


Getting the wing rigs to behave and do what the animators needed them to do was a big challenge for the rigging department. Each wing had plenty of layers of control and allowed the thickness of the wing to be adapted to the shot. The top layer had four controls, while further down there were 16 controls and each layer of feathers could be interpolated. Individual features could be controlled as well. "A last minute request was that dynamics could be added to it, so it was pretty complex," quips Carey. "Close to 200 controls are there, just for the wing, for each of the lead turkey characters. The guys got what they needed and they didn't ever need to touch all of those controls, thankfully."

Reel FX has their own modular rigger so every piece of a rig split up into a module. This isolation of rigging allows just that joint to be moved, be it fingers, hand, arm, legs, spine etc, all with their own modules. "Based on the projects Reel FX has done over the years," explains Carey, "like the Looney Tunes projects, the Ice Age Christmas Special, as well as some Open Season characters; this gave them a huge library of modules to pull from in time of need. These can be built really quickly, and is customisable to what the animator needs within Maya."

They have also authored a lot of extra custom tools based on this system, tool to help with quick skinning, alerting collisions, deformers of volume preservation, stuff like that.



In all of the FREE BIRDS characters, the rigging department created a combo face rig, based on a blend shape system. This was devised to give the animators the best of both worlds. They could rig up the face with plenty of controls for the 'lips'. These can be manipulated in any direction. The blend shape system is designed to work even better with lip-sync and was adopted from a system that Pixar uses. "In the end most lip-sync was dealt with blend shapes and the rigs were used only in extreme moments of stretchy cartoony stuff," Josh adds.

Reel FX is busy working on their second and third feature animated movies 'Book of Life' and 'Beasts of Burden'.



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