To propel this saga that revolves around a boy and his fire-breathing companion, hundreds of computer animation artists used software that DreamWorks Animation built and employed for the first time. This system, called Apollo, integrates a range of processes — from modeling and animation to lighting and visual effects.
“We wanted to eliminate complexity from artists’ lives,” says DWA chief technologist Lincoln Wallen. “In the past, a lot of their time was spent managing data and rifling through files. Now it’s more like using your smartphone. You don’t need to know where the data is; you just open an app and manipulate it.”
DreamWorks Animation engineers spent five years developing this approach, and they collaborated with animators to make the tools artist-friendly.
Among them was Fred Nilsson, who previously worked on 1998’s “Antz.” “I came from that ‘spreadsheet’ animation world, punching numbers on a keyboard,” Nilsson recalls. “What we wanted from the new workflow was to be able to click on a character and change that character’s smile.”
A key result of this brainstorming was a new animation tool called Premo, which allows animators to control characters with strokes of digital pens. “Now we can hop from character to character,” says Nilsson. “Our animators have gotten faster, and they enjoy it more.”
The characters these artists are manipulating are also more fully realized. As Wallen says: “Animators should be able to work with a character’s soft, deformable surfaces, and create expressive performances right before their eyes. That takes a lot of computing power.”
But the artistic possibilities are evident to Bonnie Arnold, producer of the “Dragon” franchise and DreamWorks Animation’s new co-president. “It’s easier now for artists to imagine what a scene will look like,” she says. “When I worked on the original ‘Toy Story,’ Buzz and Woody looked like Popsicle sticks moving across computer screens. When artists can see real characters, they can make interesting choices with less waiting.”
The innovations behind “Dragons” also included a new lighting tool within Apollo called Torch, which enabled the production team to create more realistic lighting.
“Just like Premo, Torch streamlined a lot of workflows,” says Nilsson. Going forward, the ability to pursue ideas from consulting d.p. Roger Deakins could keep getting easier.
Implementing Apollo while producing “Dragons 2” was a challenge that Wallen likens to “putting a new engine in a car while you’re driving it.” And the development process is continuing during production of DWA’s upcoming film “Home.”
“Our artists are giving us all sorts of ideas about how animation might be done in the future,” Wallen says. “We haven’t fully liberated ourselves from the ways CG animation was done before — or taken full advantage of what’s now possible. It’s still an exploration. We’re following a road map that could take us who knows where?”