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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.” 

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