A journey of a billion frames begins with talent, characters and a whole lot of effort by the team at DreamWorks.
wash with color and technical complexities,
DreamWorks brings us their next animated film,
Kung Fu Panda. In production since 2003, the film introduces a cast of clothed and furry or feathery animals that never completely sit still, languishing, dreaming, learning, and battling throughout a collection of expansive environments.
The script contained everything DreamWorks had done before, magnified, to the point of when the head of production handed the script to VFX Supervisor Markus Manninen, she laughed and wished him “good luck”.
“When we started talking,” said Manninen, “the movie was still a high concept. But for everyone that looked at it, it screamed complexity. We launched off saying, how can you make this movie tangible? How can you find smart ways to bring this world to life in a way that makes it a great movie and not feel like the complexity becomes the driver of the story, but the story and the emotion being the driver?”
They started with extensive previs, using it as a creative process, finding a way to use space and dimension for storytelling and solutions for each dramatic sequence that felt unique and interesting. “That is the style of the film; variety within the artistic rules of the film.”
Production designer Ramone Zibach and Tang Heng, art director, took inspiration from films like 'Hero' and 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' but also from the artistic choices made in Chinese Asian art and the world that inspired it.
Zibach was quite particular with the way he wanted the emotional beats to land and color to tell the story, creating a theatrical aspect to the coloring and lighting of this film, an interesting mix between staged lighting techniques and artistic choices.
It all came together in the expansive world in the form of lots of atmospheric layered vistas. Said Manninen, “We worked closely with our R&D, technology, and systems departments to developed a technique for realtime lighting, called mini farm, to allow a lighter to utilize a portion of the render farm to get interactivity when lighting through the parallelizing, the application, and the renderer.”
Emotion was important to the film. In a scene where the terrible Tai Lung is fighting Shifu, the shift in mood was played up by designing the exterior and interior differently. The interior, a room of great wisdom and honor, had a cyan look, not just from the interior pool, but from the light that the pool emitted,. However, outside it was desaturated, with a strong cyan/green horizon line that defined the dramatic graphic look.
For the interior battle scene, Zibach created interesting keys to dissect and find the theory behind the environment. He wanted the effect to feel as if the floor was made of jade with light seeping through it. Sequence CG Supervisor Aaron Smith and his lighting leads developed a balance between making the characters underlit without making the characters float.
The outside vistas were mostly handled with matte paintings, intended to appear as expansive as possible. “Our matte painting department developed these amazing cykes, which is the ability to matte paint circularly around our CG set,” explained Manninen. “So we got not only the ability to move the camera around, but also get parallax as we moved across our world and action scenes, and so forth.”
To create characters with fur and feathers interacting with flowing robes, DreamWorks ventured into simulated clothing. They created a new character effects department that focused on all the effects that were character driven. The character effects department worked closely with animation, and clothing was set up to be run by the animators. “When we did final character animation approvals, there was already a rough simulation pass on clothing, so the animators could actually see the clothing in their overnight motion renders. Not only did it allow animators to have a sense of what the clothing might do, but it also allowed us to sanity check ourselves on how much work it would be, because we had to be schedule minded as well.”
As a starting point they used technology that was developed for Puss ‘n Boots in Shrek 2. Automated, it now offers a procedural way to have fur interact with clothing, by using an automated pass before the characters entered lighting.
They also automated the fur and feather systems. Typically a feather system runs as a post process on the characters, but that technique tends to leave problem areas that require a lot of hand tweaking feathers, frame by frame. The Kung Fu Panda R&D developers focused their attention on creating an automated system that didn’t have those kind of problems. The result was the ability to run the feathers procedurally and the feathers took care of themselves, which is almost unheard of. They used this not only on the main characters, but on crowd characters as well.
Dan Wagner was Head of Character Animation. He first started in 2D animation at the age of 8, and switched to 3D on Shrek 2. He started on Kung Fu Panda before the characters had any rigs, so, falling back on his many years as a traditional animator, worked on test animations for main character Po in pencil and paper.
The film was in animation for a year and a half. Throughout, Wagner’s mantra was “ambient motion”, the importance of keeping the characters alive through subtle queues, be it breathing, or a lifted hand that was fighting against gravity no matter how strong the pose. “If you freeze something in CG, it just looks totally dead. Some shows require that; stylistically you want to go pose to pose and make it snappy, like in Madagascar.
We wanted to make Kung Fu Panda feel more natural, the characters to feel more real. If you look closely, you’ll be see, even when the characters are standing still, there is something moving, giving that extra bit of life. I wanted to make it look like the characters were thinking. It could be a small thing like their eyes darting back and forth, hitting certain poses well before the character starts saying something. It’s just trying to give the characters thought before one says the line.”
Of course, such a diverse cast of characters needed different personalities and rigs. The Viper character was, not surprisingly, the most difficult character. Snakes are deceptively difficult, as mentioned by animators on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and 10,000 BC. It was no different for Viper, which required two rigs and was animated on a path that was also animated. The path had points for manipulation so the movement would appear more organic.
The result looked like the snake was being pulled along a train track. On top of that path was the Viper rig. Not only could they animate the snake on the path, they could separate the snake from the path and animate separate behaviors. It was a very complex and powerful rig with a massive learning curve. Wagner worked on the rig initially before passing it to Fred Nilsson, who improved it and offered tips and tricks to the team, becoming the specialist and go-to guy for that character.
Wagner and his team had their work cut out for them. “Just posing Viper took a long time to do. We had 13 points on her, and could lock any of those points to global space, but sometimes we had to have it locked in global space but still moving on the path. There were a lot of hoops we had to jump through to get certain movements correct. If it was a close-up of the Viper, just the headshot, then we could strictly use FK, but it was a very heavy rig.”
Though the characters had human traits, they wanted all to emulate the actual animal itself. Tigress was not only bipedal, but was designed to run on all fours, using the same rig. The same applied to Monkey.
They also utilized squash and stretch using the DreamWorks proprietary system, Emotion, or Emo for short, one that has been around since the mid 80’s when it was just a flying logos program. DreamWorks improved on the software for Antz and Shrek. It’s a muscle based system on the whole body, designed to make everything move realistically. Another muscle based system called an ENet was used on the face, so if a character was to move a cheek, all of the points on the face are all connected, it would move the points surrounding it in varying degrees.
Wagner’s team also added a feature on the panda’s large belly to keep the arms and legs from colliding into the mass. The belly acted like a gas filled bag, so if an arm pushed into the body, the belly would shift away. “There was no way we could animate this character without having his arms and his legs pushing his fat out of the way. We could inflate or deflate the bag. In some poses he looked a little too fat so we had to deflate him, like if he was sitting on his butt we had to deflate him a little because he just looked like a ball.”
Wagner not only brought in martial arts experts to train the animators, he had a few animators on his team that had studied it for years. Animator Michael Kiely would give demonstrations on certain moves and stances and the logic behind each. Supervising Animator Rodolphe Guenoden, who also did storyboard work and acted as fight choreographer, had studied for most of his life.
Every week he would show films like Crouching Tiger or Fists of Fury, often freezing on a frame so the animators could rough out the pose in pencil, continuing every few frames to get a feel for where the character had put their weight and where limbs were extending. He would sketch poses and upload that information so the animators could see the arcs on their monitors, frame by frame. It was an animatic, not full animation, but a framework of how he wanted the characters to fight.
The animation team also attended several in-house seminars by Wushishu expert and performer Eric Chen, who offered details on how to hold a staff, step through certain moves, and where to put the weight on a characters foot when they were trying to flip an opponent.
In addition, what became known as the Furious Five: Monkey, Tigress, Viper, Crane, and Mantis, were named after the original fighting styles that still exist today. The decision was not to emulate human beings. For example, if a human was emulating a crane, they would put both the hands in a shape mimicking a beak, but instead, the desire was to maintain the animal characteristics in those moves.
Instead of Crane using his wings to create the beak shape, he would actually use his beak. And to maintain solid communication throughout the crew, the animation team worked closely with the layout crew and camera people to give them an idea of what was planned and making these characters fight.
One pinnacle of the film was when Tai Lung fights the Furious Five on a decaying rope bridge, a scene that involved character animation, effects animation, with everything intertwined, and it looked impossible to do. They had to find a way of procedurally breaking geometry and be able to describe fighting action with peril, so they used a procedural break technique that was also art directable, called “procedural fracturing.”
Manninen explains. “Lawrence Lee developed a method where we had an unfractured original model we could paint on top of, designing the break pattern for the pieces. Then we created cutting volumes by creating a voxel grid around the unfractured model, then it voxelized based on the painted colors on the surface.
Based on cellular automated techniques you grow the regions until all the voxels are filled in. Then you convert that to polygon meshes using a marching cube algorithm. Then you can use the unfractured model to convert the texture coordinates to have texture continuity through the breaking. You then use those polygonal meshes as a constructive solid geometric algorithm to create the final debris pieces.”
Basically, what that allowed the animators to do was paint on the models where the breaking pieces were constructed. The system makes it appear as if procedure breaks the geometry yet keeps the textural info intact so the textures didn’t pop. Procedural parenting kept the characters on the bridge after the dynamics were applied. This topic, along with several others on the film, will be covered at this years’ Siggraph.
By staying away from pop culture and modern day references, DreamWorks hopes this film will be timeless, and 50 years from now would still be relevant. And in 50 years, it might still be the favorite of some DreamWorks artists. “I had a hard time leaving it,” said Wagner. “Really. Most of the animators felt that way too. They didn’t feel worn out, they really believed and enjoyed working on this film.
It wasn’t too much OT, we worked Saturdays for the last few months, but other than that it was a well run film. We did a lot of preplanning and everything worked out. We did our fight sequences in the middle of production, we didn’t wait and leave them till the end of production so that really helped us out. We did the hard stuff half way through. So all the acting etc was all down hill and easier to manage. Nobody was tired.
We’ve had some productions that were stressful, but this one ran very smoothly and DreamWorks is this production as a template on how they would like future productions to run. We lucked out, and there really was a sense of harmony on the animation. Even the production people. we all seemed like we were on the same page, believing in the film. That doesn’t happen very often. I tell animators, you will be working on dumpers for most of your career, but every once in a while you get a gem. Kung Fu Panda was a gem.”