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.”
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.”
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.”
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.