Digital penguins primped for closeups

Sony puts 'Surf's Up' creatures in the spotlight

Never before have CG creatures gotten quite the closeup they received in “Surf’s Up.”

Because Sony’s Oscar-nominated toon uses a mockumentary format, complete with individual interviews, characters often speak directly to the camera.

And because most of the main characters are penguins, animators were faced with a unique challenge.

“We needed a certain degree of anthropomorphism, but not so over the top that they started wearing glasses or anything like that,” recalls director Chris Buck. “We needed them to be like penguins, yet with all the facial attributes of a human being.”

To accomplish that, the Sony Pictures Animation crew designed their faces more like traditional 2-D images, as that style has traditionally allowed for more expression than CGI images, which are rigged at a limited number of points.

For character designer Sylvain Deboissy, that meant balancing the realistic look he wanted for his penguins with the tweaks necessary to make them expressive and relatable in closeup interviews.

“It wouldn’t work to be too realistic, like ‘Happy Feet,’ ” he explains. “Real penguins have eyes on the side of their heads, but ours are in front more like humans. The beaks of real penguins are relatively high in the face, and we lowered them a bit.”

Though ultrarealism wouldn’t work for closeup talking, Deboissy, who designed “Surf’s Up’s” main characters, was struck by the overall shape and movement of penguins and worked hard to maintain that in the film.

“When you see the first sequence in ‘March of the Penguins,’ with the silhouette of emperor penguins walking, it’s almost the same shape of humans,” he says. “I was trying to keep their overall features because my impression of penguins is that they are already a caricature of people, so we didn’t want to do a caricature of a caricature.”

To that end, Deboissy focused on making sure that all of the characters moved like real penguins, particularly when big groups were seen in wide shots. He and the directors also resisted giving the penguins fingers on their flippers, even though that presented some significant challenges to the animators.

In addition, each of the main characters is based on a real penguin species. Hero Cody is based on a rockhopper penguin, for instance, while his main competitor Tank is a larger, more intimidating emperor.

Only heroine Lani doesn’t resemble a real penguin in her overall shape since, as Deboissy explains, “She has to look sexy, and real female penguins don’t.”

To further personalize the characters, all of whom have similar black and white coloring for obvious reasons, filmmakers gave them all individualized tattoos with bright colors.

However, while “Surf’s Up” does follow the trend of using celebs to voice most of the main characters, the filmmakers didn’t go as far as to design all the characters around real A-list bizzers like some other pics have done.

Sole exception was legendary surfer Big Z. Pic’s creative team based him on the Dude from “The Big Lebowski” and from the outset aimed to land Jeff Bridges to voice him.

As a result, Z clearly resembles Bridges’ performance in that pic. And to make sure they landed the voice they needed, filmmakers animated an entire sequence for just one person.

“We took the design for Big Z and animated him, and had him speak words we had taken from ‘Lebowski,'” recalls producer Christopher Jenkins. “Jeff said he loved it, but that seeing Big Z’s shape inspired him to go back to the gym.”


What: Annie Awards

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA


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