Studios clear tech hurdles to advance styles

During the 13 years since Pixar unveiled its computer-animated “Toy Story,” CG filmmakers have tackled one major stylistic hurdle after another, perfecting photorealistic fur, skin and water, complex crowds, camera moves and backgrounds. For years, audiences would flock to CG toons just to see the technology evolve.

Together, DreamWorks Animation and CG shop PDI produced franchises around the wisecracking “Shrek” and “Madagascar” toon worlds, paving the way for “Kung Fu Panda’s” cutting-edge innovations. And though Disney didn’t pursue 3-D animation until 2000’s “Dinosaur,” the studio’s new “Bolt” demonstrates that creative chief John Lasseter intends to make the Mouse House a major CG player.

And though this year’s releases may not feature the dramatic surface innovations of toons past, the animation studios were no less busy clearing technical hurdles to advance their signature styles.

“Wall-E” certainly pushed Pixar in a direction not seen before. The 1970s sci-fi homage led the studio to forgo the CG conventions that keep everything in sharp focus to infinity and beyond. Instead, “Wall-E” producer Jim Morris invited d.p. Roger Deakins and ILM vfx whiz Dennis Muren to consult, prompting Pixar’s artists to experiment with real-world camera techniques that gave the impression that the film’s characters were photographed, not just rendered digitally.

“It’s self-consciously photographic,” says Morris, who joined Pixar after years helming ILM. “And the visual effects are more like you’d see in live action.”

The technology required to make “Wall-E” yielded permanent changes in Pixar’s RenderMan software, and future directors will have the option of creating a real “camera lens” look.

“Some of this will inform other productions,” Morris believes. “Our next one, Pete Docter’s ‘Up,’ is a more stylized world, but ‘Toy Story 3′ may have a more hand-held feel because director Lee Unkrich comes from live action. People may feel emboldened to take risks because of ‘Wall-E.’ “

For DreamWorks, “Kung Fu Panda” posed one of the biggest challenges the studio has ever tackled, using computer animation to support a dynamic martial arts comedy.

“We had to make it as exciting as live action, which puts the bar at a different level than traditional animation,” says vfx supervisor Markus Manninen.

Upping the ante was the requirement that five styles of kung fu be performed by a variety of different animals, including a bird and a viper. Traditionally, animators gravitate toward human-shaped characters, since their underlying movements can be adapted to existing skeletons (or “rigs”).

“We put these characters through calisthenics,” recalls rigging supervisor Nathan Loofbourrow, who notes that knowledge gained from PDI/DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” films provided useful foundations. “For our panda, we started with Gloria the hippo and pushed her to the next level. And for the viper, we started with the tail from Alex the lion.”

Such give and take between DreamWorks’ PDI and L.A. facilities has become a hallmark of the studio. As “Madagascar 2″ animation supervisor Rex Grignon explains, “We have a system to essentially Frankenstein a character from the anatomy of other characters. We do it all the time.”

The 25-year technical legacy of CG pioneer PDI is evident in several aspects of DreamWorks’ ’08 releases. As Grignon notes, “We addressed crowds of thousands back in 1998 with ‘Antz,’ and we can now do a lot more with them. On ‘Madagascar 2,’ we had 11 species of crowds. We’re also on the third generation of our facial animation system.”

And the simulated clothing that appears in both “Madagascar 2″ and “Kung Fu Panda” was advanced not only by the studio’s “Shrek” films but also by previous vfx that PDI did for “Batman Forever.”

“Creating Batman’s cape gave us amazing technical capabilities, so when those things came up later in our animated films we could embrace them without many concerns,” Grignon recalls.

Nowhere is such a “second generation CG” influence more evident than in Disney’s “Bolt.” To move the film’s furry heroes through nonstop perils, the production drew upon the digital animation expertise of Lasseter and sister company Pixar, as well as knowledge from Disney’s former vfx arm The Secret Lab.

“Bolt” vfx supervisor John Murrah, whose prior credits include “Armageddon,” says, “Our crew was an amalgamation of effects people and the facility created for ‘Dinosaur.’ But the ‘step beyond’ we took with ‘Bolt’ was in the environments. We wanted to bring in Disney’s hand-painted traditions. Traditional matte artists created very painterly buildings, but when we lit and rotated and rendered them, you’d see fully formed objects that could move in space.”

The new tools invented for “Bolt” that enabled this process have led Disney to apply for five patents, and Murrah believes there’s a rich creative vein to be mined for future films. “We could create Rapunzel’s castle and apply these same principles.”

This year’s varied crop of CG features is likely to inspire artists to tackle genres not tried before. After all, if it’s now manageable to animate clothed humans, floods, fire and a cast of thousands, what’s next after martial arts and sci-fi? As “Wall-E” producer Morris observes, “We may be approaching a different point on the scale between animation and live action. That means there are more places to go.”

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