Wed 2nd Oct 2013, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

3 October 2013, by Paul Hellard

DreamWorks has produced some of the best animations to come out of California. They've written solid stories and created brilliant animation. The latest animated feature brings a garden variety snail into the picture, with a unique list of challenges for the many production departments. The character of Turbo carries all the hallmarks of an underdog, especially for the guys animating and lighting the little mite. 

“The hardest thing, right from the get-go, was that our main characters were snails," says David Burgess, the Animation Director of TURBO at DreamWorks. "Snails are unappealing, they're kinda gross, nobody likes them. We did a lot of exploration on paper on how to make them look appealing. We tried snails with arms, we had all kinds of different ones before we finally figured out what the formula was to get the appeal factor that we needed.” This included slightly bigger eyes that were kept closer to the head mass, and pushing the mouth as high up as they could get it. This was compounded by the fact the characters had no shoulders, no hands, no eyebrows and none of those traditional things used to connect with an audience. The animators had to work out alternative ways to communicate.


Head of Lighting on TURBO at DreamWorks, Mark Fattibene started in live action doing VFX. Working on Lord of the Rings was just about classed as an animation because there was so much CG involved in each shot. Fattibene travelled further into animation starting a decade ago, with Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters versus Aliens, which he worked on with Burgess. "It's been a pretty solid time, being now about nine years," he says. "Being in DreamWorks means we get to work on their own IP. DreamWorks green-lights movies, writes and develops their own movies, there's a bit more control. It softens the highs and lows between focused projects."

“We needed complete control over the upper and lower eye lid shapes of the snails, for example,” Burgess continues. “We created these things called face offsets and we’d have to tweak each frame to make sure the right shape was delivered to the camera. It was very time-consuming." The human characters were pretty straight forward. Burgess says there wasn’t anything technically different about the human characters. “Animators could come on the show and animate the humans, no problem. But the snails took a lot of ramp up to understand the rigs and figure out how to make them work.”

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The Lighting department at DreamWorks productions uses proprietary software. Working on TURBO, there was a bit of transitioning into a new lighting package that works with the animation package called 'Emotion'. The current gen lighting software is 'Light', and the move is towards a next-gen package called 'Torch'. It shares some similarities but is 'turbo-charged' compared to Light. With every film produced at DreamWorks, the appetite for more power and adaption to the complexity. "A lot of it has to do with the complexity of shots," says Fattibene. "We were lighting a full site of the Indianapolis raceway, on screen. To light all of that, there were over 400,000 crowd pieces. Although the lighting team came up with a simple billboard solution, with a card, render, normal and ambient occlusion, it's still 400,000 of them." As well as the advent of 3D, which meant they had to render two instead of one view.

Lighting has gone from a direct lighting solution, to a more image-based lighting approach, more physically accurate lighting. "We still haven't made our way to a full ray-traced renderer, but that is the next step for us," Fattibene explains. "We use the Scanline renderer, with a ray-tracer."


The last movie that David Burgess was Head of Animation on was ‘Monsters Versus Aliens’, which was DreamWork’s first stereo project.“We always showed our dailies in stereo, with the 3D glasses on,” Burgess says. For the production of TURBO, they did away with the stereo dailies and watched the footage ‘flat’, and then they’d do weekly stereo reviews. “On MVA, we were about all stereo, all the time. But on TURBO, I didn’t want stereo to get in the way of the story choices we were making all the time,” he explains. “We could afford to do the stereo review separately from the notes on performance and acting, the animation being shown. If eyelines or lip-sync didn’t work perfectly when we reviewed a shot in stereo dailies, we’d kick it back to the animator to fix.”

Bob Controls

A lot of the controls developed and used for the TURBO snail characters were drawn from research and development, and indeed controls invented for the blue gelatinous Bob character from ‘Monsters Versus Aliens’. “Bob’s shape was very important in that we needed to be able to completely control it,” explains Burgess. “We came up with ‘shaper-rings’ that were preset to different parts of the Bob body. You could move them up and down the form. You could twist, scale and move in individual directions, and that was exactly the kind of control and level of detail we were after with the snail bodies.”

There was a lot of the heavy lifting done for Bob in ‘MVA’, and bringing it all onto the new characters enmasse for TURBO was a great shortcut but it wasn’t without its challenges. There was a fair bit of adjusting size, strength and usability of the rig. Thankfully, DreamWorks didn’t have to completely reinvent this rig though. The ground deformer underneath Bob in ‘MVA’ was also helpful, as that effect was used where each snail’s foot takes on the terrain’s topography.

The design of some of the characters were quite unique. The Smoove Move character had the same curved mass line that would move after the initial step. “Kind of like the rest of his body is slowly catching up to the rest of him,” adds Burgess. There were other characters that DreamWorks did a lot of development on. Once they had one character running and rigged the way they wanted, a lot of the points were carried over and used to bump up performances on the others. Some of the snails were of course so different, that they had to be pretty heavily modified. White Shadow had a cape so they had to be mindful of where that was. “We had rigging controls on the bow or the neck strap that held his cape on, to let the CFX people what we were wanting because this was beyond normal physics,” notes Burgess. “That’s the difference with this kind of animation. We want it to be truthful and believable, but we don’t want it to be absolutely realistic.”

Snail lip-sync

Working with snails takes a renewed view of the animator’s assets. Pushing the dialogue and emotion into a form that has no arms or legs or eyebrows, is a challenge. Burgess would do a rough pass on the lip-sync almost immediately, “just to get that audio burrowed into my brain,” he says. He keeps it fairly rough, but as the shot progresses, he tightens the nuances and gets to ‘final’ the look as the animation is complete. “Other guys will want to get it down fast. Then others will hold off until the expressions are there, and then go fit the lip-sync later.”

The crew is collectively proud that the TURBO characters really feel fleshy. “They don’t feel like little plastic toys,” adds Burgess. “I’d like to think the shells feel hard but we really worked hard to make the rest feels like flesh and muscle in these little creatures.” The DreamWorks team of course could have kept it simpler and made them look a little like toys but Burgess feels the team rose to the occasion.

Eyes have it

When it came to subsurface scattering (SSS), the challenges began with the different areas of each snail. The fleshy skin was acceptable, but the large eyes on the thin stalks were an interesting challenge. "In many scenes, we chased the lower eyelid, because there was this eyeball that would shadow any backlighting. Looking from straight on, you'd have this translucent eye-stalk and a dark lower eyelid and then the upper eyelid would get much brighter, depending on the source. The balance of this combination was very important because of the contrast in the image."

How do you make blobs with eye sticks emote so much? Since the TURBO characters had so many individual rig offsets for the different looks, the animators could shape the lids the way they wanted. Burgess comes from a strong 2D background, having worked in at Disney during the nineties, working in TV and commercials before that. Even ‘Madagascar’, which has a very 2D animation aesthetic. Burgess found all that 2D knowledge the most handy when he set up for the 3D TURBO movie. “It was all about making the eye shapes really flow,” he explains. “Making sure the lids created a single line, and that would inform the audience about how the character was feeling.”

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There were so many assets to lay out for the Indianapolis setup, the different departments had to be very collaborative and mindful of where everything would end up for the final shot. "Lighting and Animation did a lot of work together to establish how each character would behave," says Fattibene. "Rigging and Animation might decide, given what the director wants, that when lit, might not come across. Working with snails that don't have arms, made the expression of any sentiment a whole new challenge. Lighting had to be sure to make sure the snails didn't lose their shape. We had to be very attentive of what was coming out of animation. To understand why the character was posed in a certain way and what were the marks to hit."

Departmental Collaboration

There were ‘bookend’ departments that worked very closely together, like Layout on the front end, PreViz and the Camera departments. The PreViz department became a bit of a lifesaver for everyone when they set the cars going around this huge track which was two-and-a-half miles in circumference. They kept all that data and the gross world position was already there, so the other departments just had to layer all the performance on top of it. “That did save us a lot of time, because on a movie like this, the relationship between the characters and the camera is super important,” explains Burgess. “We learned really quickly when we were sculpting the facial expressions. If the camera is moved after the fact, even a few degrees, the performance would break down. Seeing this in production we found out how sensitive that was.”

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In the bridge sequence before Turbo falls into the traffic, he pines for more to his life. “Again, in order to push the ‘appeal’ factor on the snails, we added two new eye controls we’d not done before,” adds David. “We had the rigging team adjust how sensitive the sliders were for this new iris control. We could key in a value of ‘0.0001’ and it would still register a discernible difference. Another highlight was added that lifted the emotion of the character, and refers to light bouncing off the orb of the eyeball. This helped us flag the move to Lighting, a department we don’t usually have much to do with. There was also a black shutter line that animators could lower from the top eyelid. That gave us a shadow that made the eye and the lid really pop with a highlight. In that same shot, Turbo looks up into the sky and sees the star and he wishes he could go fast.” Burgess animated this shot. “I took the highlight controls and I wiggled them. To the audience, this signified immediately the emotional tap, and it let the lighting crew know I wanted something special in there, like a drop of tear appearing to shine on the eye.”

The animation in TURBO was done entirely in Emotion, the inhouse package at DreamWorks. This application harks from the early days in at PDI, created by Carl Rosendahl, Glenn Entis and Richard Chuang. There have been many improvements to it over the years, and its advantage is that it is just for animation. “In the last couple of years, DreamWorks has built a brand new animation suite called Primo, and this is being used to create the sequel to ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, and ‘Home’, while the TURBO movie is one of the last movies to be animated in ‘Emo’.”

Always reaching out for new and different inspirations for the look of their movies, DreamWorks worked with Wally Pfister, DP on Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. He spent a lot of time as a visual consultant with the different departments and that helped to create the cinematic look and the scale of the movie. "He helped everybody think in the same language," says Fattibene. "There's always a special challenge to work on a movie that moves so fast, but with a very small main character."

DreamWorks even partnered with Hulman & Company, the parent company in charge of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indy Racing League. The input here was to ensure the racing part of the movie was as real as possible, even though it was a story about talking snails. They even called on Dario Franchitti, a heavily awarded racer himself, as a consultant on the film to give advice how Turbo should navigate the speed and inertia for the perspective of a snail.





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