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.
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.
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.