You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

How Lighting, Production Design Helped Bring ‘Abominable’ Toon to Life

DreamWorks Animation’s “Abominable” is a fantasy about a city girl and two cousins helping a Yeti travel across China to its Mount Everest home, but creating the film’s look with virtual lighting and production design required as much attention to detail as any live-action feature.

Proprietary software allowed head of lighting Michael Necci and his team to arrange their lights on a virtual soundstage around the final on-screen image. The team was free to make minute adjustments as if they were in the rafters of a real stage, seeing the results in real time. “Looking at what our lights are doing in scenes mimics what happens on a live-action stage,” Necci says, “but we don’t have the limitations of having to position C-stands.”

Written and directed by Jill Culton, with co-director Todd Wilderman, “Abominable” is a co-production with China-based Pearl Studios, formerly Oriental DreamWorks, and opens in theaters Sept. 27. Featuring the voices of Chloe Bennet (as Yi, the teenage protagonist), Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson and Joseph Izzo (as the yeti), the movie is set entirely in China and creates lush digital versions of the nation’s diverse landscapes using the latest computer technology. The film enters China on the heels of “Nezha,” the highest-grossing animated film of all time on the mainland, having surpassed $700 million.

The high cost of producing high-quality animation requires extensive pre-production planning, Necci says. No detail is too small, he notes, with ever-changing creative parameters requiring the lighting to be adjusted and placed by hand for every frame of the movie. 

DreamWorks’ software imitates the rules by which light creates shadows in real life — but in the computer, the way light works can be altered when necessary. “We can break the rules of the physical laws of what light can do if, in the end, it achieves a more [suitable] look,” Necci says.

The lighting chief, whose team mirrors the audience’s experience in a theater by working on their computers in near darkness, finds parallels between his early career experience as a live-action cinematographer and his work on “Abominable.” “It’s not so much that the lighting itself is different, but the path that we as artists take to get there,” he says. “Anybody who’s familiar with live-action production could open up our shots and look at the graphic representation of our light sources and find a lot of familiarity.”

Production designer Max Boas doesn’t have a similar background in live-action, but to him, the process is similar. “We come up with things in the art department,” says Boas, “and it’s physically created [on screen], so we’re making a world.”

The process similarly involves breaking down the script, working with the directors and coming up with concepts that suggest where the action will occur. Beyond storyboarding, however, the layout department used roughed-in animation to create quick scenes so the art department knew what was going to be on camera.

“Knowing where things will take place is huge,” says Boas. “Everything is art-directed [to that] point. You don’t want to overbuild and waste money worrying about surfacing the ground in an area we’re never even going to see. It’s all about having the foresight of knowing where things will take place.”

This process gives filmmakers an added benefit: They can see the characters interact with sets and locations and decide how well it’s working or if anything needs to be changed before proceeding to costly animation. Adding just a coffee table to a set, for instance, means animation may need to alter where the characters walk; surfacing must get involved for textures; and lighting will have to be adjusted accordingly, to name just a few departments affected by what appears to be a minor addition.

Conversations took place daily throughout production as Boas and his team evaluated what was and wasn’t working and the ramifications of modifications. Though Boas didn’t budget for construction the same way he would on a live-action movie, each change involved a trickle-down effect for the other departments.

Boas’ responsibility for the look of the film extended to details like the costumes as well. “There could be a lot of texture on Yi’s shirt when she gets dirty, but we want just enough to sell the idea,” he says. “We don’t want to go too far to where it gets busy. You don’t need that extra detail. It’s ‘edited realism’ — using enough detail to best communicate the storytelling.” 

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Rocketman

    'Rocketman': Chris Dickens Discusses the Inside Story of Editing 'I'm Still Standing'

    Endings are so important and how the viewer leaves the cinema is crucial. For editor Chris Dickens, finding the perfect ending for “Rocketman” was paramount, but it was also a challenge. Elton John’s hit “I’m Still Standing” was going to end the film with the original idea of going to Cannes to recreate the video [...]

  • Charlies-Angels 2019 Costumes

    How Costume Designer Updated Looks for 'Charlie's Angels' While Nodding to Past

    The costumes that the “Charlie’s Angels” trio have worn over the years have always been functional but fashionable. In the TV show starring Farrah Fawcett, Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson, which ran from 1976 to 1981, and then in the movie franchise of the early 2000s with Lucy Liu, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore, the [...]

  • Ludwig Goransson Composer

    Composer Takes Music for the 'Star Wars' Series 'The Mandalorian' to a New Universe

    Ludwig Göransson, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer of “Black Panther,” faced a tricky assignment when he took on “The Mandalorian,” the new “Star Wars” series launching this week on the Disney Plus streaming service. “It’s a new medium, a new set of characters — and it has a certain tech-y grittiness, because you’re dealing with [...]

  • Charlize Theron'The Addams Family' film premiere,

    Charlize Theron to Be Honored by Costume Designers Guild (EXCLUSIVE)

    The Costume Designers Guild announced Wednesday that Academy Award-winner Charlize Theron will be honored with the spotlight award. The Spotlight Award honors an actor whose talent and career personify an enduring commitment to excellence, including a special awareness of the role and importance of costume design. “Charlize Theron is a costume designer’s dream, bringing integrity [...]

  • Sir Lionel Frost (left) voiced by

    Chris Butler Looks at the Magic Behind Animating 'Missing Link'

    Laika’s latest feature “Missing Link” raises the bar once again for the world of stop-motion, pushing boundaries in scope and visuals. The story of an unlikely friendship between Mr. Frost and his 8-foot yeti buddy Link is one of hope. “Missing Link” producer Arianne Sutner says the message of the film was to “leave people [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content