Animex Week – Day Two

Today was equally educational and interesting – again, although I’d not had much intention to go into the movie industry, it’s still extremely useful to learn plenty about such a creative field. After all, if I’ve taken anything away after these two days, it’s that you don’t know where you might end up even if you think you have a goal in mind for your career. Ten years down the road and many other opportunities might have shifted your focus along the way, so learn as much as you can from as many people.

The schedule for today was as follows:

  1. Heathrow Airport: Coming Home for Christmas – David Hempstead, 3D Artist, The Mill
  2. How making mistakes is the best way to succeed – Domareen Fox, Art Director, and Patrick Brennecke, Production Manager, Studio Soi
  3. Animating The Jungle Book – Peta Bayley, Animation Supervisor, MPC
  4. The anatomy and diversity of Zootropolis – Dr Stuart Sumida, Anatomy consultant and professor of biology, California State University, San Bernardino
  5. Water and coconuts: the complexities of layout on Moana – Rob Dressel, Director of cinematography and layout, Walt Disney Animation Studios

The Monday evening meet-and-greet was also very useful, however I think it may have been easier to talk to a lot of these day-two speakers if I’d known what they were going to be presenting today. I would say that was my only down side so far, as everything else has been absolutely fantastic and I look forward to the games talk starting on Thursday!

Heathrow Airport: Coming Home for Christmas

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I’d not actually known about this commercial while it was airing (I don’t watch a lot of TV live, so I don’t see a lot of commercials), but David Hempstead did show it to us in its entirety – it was absolutely adorable and very convincing in terms of its CG/VFX. The entire advert took about four months to do, from pre-production to completion.

We were told that the art department at The Mill started by sketching out a number of ideas for what the characters would look like as well as what kind of personalities they would project. They referenced a lot of real-life teddy bears and casted the couple seen at the end of the commercial to get a feel for the bears, but they do seem to resemble steiff bears the most.

It was interesting to learn a bit about the filming techniques they did for this real-life/VFX amalgamation commercial; they used stand-in bears for the reference footage and shot clean plates for them do the animations. Using a grey ball, HDRI, and digital SLR camera work to help establish the lighting in the scene, the bears really do blend in SO well with the live footage.

Using textures from the steiff bears and an in-house grooming tool, the re-creation of the bears was nothing short of amazing. The clothing had originally been part of the entire rig, but eventually was separated so that they could get the movement right, using Ncloth in Maya to nail down the look. Finally, the job was rendered out using Arnold for its end look.

How making mistakes is the best way to succeed

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This was an interesting talk, although I don’t know if it tackled anything new for me. Having worked in other industries, I somewhat know how cut-throat certain jobs can be – it’s always important to do the utmost best you can possibly do and make an impact in the industry. I think the two speakers from Studio Soi wanted to reinforce that mistakes shouldn’t be frowned on, but rather used as a learning experience to help shape and grow the worker.

As they pointed out, it’s so easy to cling to your ideas/work, to the point you become blinded by it. Instead, you have to learn to let go and adapt to whatever is best for the work/client/job/etc. Mistakes should be an opportunity to refine your work and industry shouldn’t punish you for that. Make the mistakes as early as possible (which sounded A LOT like what Gary is always telling us in VFX class) so that they can become an integral part of your workflow.

The final thing they wanted us to take away was how important communication was – it was vital to talk regularly to everyone and not expect to be hand-held through the process, since a studio isn’t there to guide you. It’s best to be pro-active and know exactly where you and the project are headed. Overall, the message of their speech was: go the extra 10%, make mistakes, and nurture your own passions in your work.

Animating The Jungle Book

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I remember going to the cinema not expecting too much from this film, if only because I had such a nostalgia for the original Disney animated version and, of course, the book. Therefore, I was flabbergasted to find out throughout this presentation how much of the movie was actually done in CG – while obviously all the animals were, I really would not have guessed how many other parts, such as a lot of the scenery, weren’t real.

Aside from the King Louie scenes being done by WETA Digital, all the other parts of the movie were done in-house at MPC. The movie took two years from pre-production to completion, with a staggering 54 animal species (224 unique variations), 58 master sets (238 unique sets), and 500 variations of plats, trees, and set dressings. Overall, there was only one live-action character throughout the film, who would be standing side-by-side with the CG or layered within it.

One thing John Favreau really wanted to convey was a belief in talking animals. I really enjoyed the parts of her presentation where she spoke about how they took direction from him, trying to achieve his vision, but also adhering to what would be found in nature as much as possible. It was an amazing balance they achieved, especially since they only has a one year animation schedule to adhere to.

While I won’t go into the minute details about the animation process, it was summed up really well at the end by a quote from Rudyard Kipling himself: “For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” There were 105 animators on this film that found the happy medium between characters that weren’t too human, but also weren’t too animal.

The anatomy and diversity of Zootropolis

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This talk was very done and sometimes it’s still surprising to find out just how much research goes into making all kinds of films. Being a consultant on Zootropolis, Stuart Sumida reinforced again and again how important research really can be. In the movie, there are a diverse range of animals represented on screen, who all required their own attention.

Scale was a big (ha, intentional pun) deal in the film, since there needed to be considerations made for all sizes of animals, from the giant giraffes to the tiny mice/rodent creatures. The world then had to be designed with that in mind, too.

I picked up on the mention of Digimorph.org, which is a resource run out of the University of Austin. Stuart gets all of his skulls freely from the site, with hundreds of kinds of animals represented – they provide them digitally in 3D space, but also in downloadable form so they could even be printed out on a 3D printer.

To show how staggering the undertaking on the fur/hair was, while Elsa from Frozen may have had 400k hair strands, some of the animals (such as the giraffe) had upwards of 9 million. They spent an enormous amount of time looking at various structures of fur and getting the looks just right. XGen (a plugin for Maya) was used for the grooming; it’s very useful for hair/fur, but also leaves, textures, and feathers. Above all else, it would also always be important to remember that it goes skeleton, then muscle, then fat, then fur/skin.

Water and coconuts: the complexities of layout on Moana

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Moana is now one of my most favourite animated movies, so I was so excited for this talk – I wasn’t disappointed! We got to see just how important layout is during a movie production and where it actually sits in the whole pipeline. I’d not really thought about it before, so indeed I felt much more informed after this talk.

Layout translates the story reel into 3D, enhancing the story through “the visual language of cinematography.” To Disney, everything is motivated by story, with clarity and appeal being the top-most priorities. It was also emphasised that layout should never be noticed, because if someone is noticing your camera than they’re not thinking about the character and the audience is lost.

Hei Hei was one of the best characters in the film, despite being a very dumb chicken, but it was hilarious to see how he transformed from a more serious, helpful sidekick to the character that ended up in the film. Water and the coconuts were also discussed at length, where Rob Dressel showed us how much work was put into each of these aspects of the film. Layout ends up working very closely with the environment department to achieve the look of each scene, so something like the Kakamora barge would look just right during the action sequences (even if continuity wasn’t always the most important thing).

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