By IAN FAILES
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By IAN FAILES
How do you put yourself into the shoes, or feet, of a Giganotosaurus? What about an advanced chimpanzee or a bipedal hippo god? And how do you tackle a curious baby tree-like humanoid? These are all computer-generated characters with very different personalities featured in films and shows released in 2022, and ones that needed to be brought to life in part by teams of animators. Here, animation heads leading the charge at ILM, Wētā FX, Framestore and Luma Pictures share how their particular creature was crafted and what they had to do to find the essence of that character.
When your antagonist is a Giganotosaurus
When Jurassic World Dominion Animation Supervisor Jance Rubinchik was discussing with director Colin Trevorrow how the film’s dinosaurs would be brought to the screen, he reflected on how the animals in the first Jurassic Park “weren’t villains, they were just animals. For example, the T-Rex is just curious about the jeep, and he’s flipping it over, stepping on it and biting pieces off of it. He’s not trying to kill the kids. I said to Colin, ‘Can we go back to our main dinosaur – the Giganotosaurus – just being an animal?’ Let’s explore the Giga being an animal and not just being a monster for monster’s sake. It was more naturalistic.”
With Trevorrow’s approval for this approach, Rubinchik began work on the film embedded with the previs and postvis teams at Proof Inc., while character designs also continued. This work fed both to the animatronic builds by John Nolan Studio and Industrial Light & Magic’s CG Giganotosaurus. “Early on, we did lots of walk cycles, run cycles and behavior tests. I personally did tests where the Giga wandered out from in between some trees and was shaking its head and snorting and looking around.”
Another aspect of the Giganotosaurus was that ILM would often be adding to a practical/animatronic head section with the remainder of the dinosaur in CG. For Rubinchik, it meant that the overall Giga performance was also heavily influenced by what could be achieved on set. Comments Rubinchik, “What I didn’t want to have were these practical dinosaurs that tend to be a little slower moving and restricted, simply from the fact they are massive hydraulic machines, that then intercut with fast and agile CG dinosaurs. It really screams, ‘This is what is CG and this is what’s practical.’
“Indeed,” Rubinchik adds, “sometimes as animators, you have all these controls and you want to use every single control that you have. You want to get as much overlap and jiggle and bounce and follow through as you can because we’re animators and that’s the fun of animating. But having something that introduced restraint for us, which was the practical on-set dinosaurs, meant we were more careful and subtler in our CG animation. There’s also a lot of fun and unexpected things that happen with the actual animatronics. It might get some shakes or twitches, and that stuff was great. We really added that stuff into Giga wherever we could.”
“What I didn’t want to have were these practical dinosaurs that tend to be a little slower moving and restricted, simply from the fact they are massive hydraulic machines, that then intercut with fast and agile CG dinosaurs. It really screams, ‘This is what is CG and this is what’s practical.’ … But having something that introduced some restraint for us, which was the practical on-set dinosaurs, meant we were more careful and subtler in our CG animation. There’s also a lot of fun and unexpected things that happen with the actual animatronics. It might get some shakes or twitches, and that stuff was great. We really added that stuff into Giga wherever we could.”
—Jance Rubinchik, Animation Director, MPC
This extended even to the point of replicating the animatronic joint placements from the John Nolan Studio creatures into ILM’s CG versions. “All of the pivots for the neck, the head, the torso and the jaw were in the exact same place as they were in the CG puppet,” Rubinchik outlines. “It meant they would pivot from the same place. I was so happy with how that sequence turned out with all the unexpected little ticks and movements that informed what we did.”
The advanced chimpanzee Pogo is a CG character viewers greeted in Seasons 1 and 2 of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy as an assistant to Sir Reginald Hargreeves, and as a baby chimp. The most recent Season 3 of the show sees Pogo appear in an alternative timeline as a ‘cooler’ version of the character who even becomes a biker and tattoo artist. Wētā FX created each incarnation of Pogo, which drew upon the voice of Adam Godley, the on-set performance of Ken Hall and other stunt performers and stand-ins to make the final creature.
Having ‘lived’ with Pogo in his older, more frail form in the past seasons, Wētā FX Animation Supervisor Aidan Martin and his team now had the chance to work on a character who was capable of a lot more physically, including Kung Fu. “All of a sudden, Pogo’s been in the gym. He’s juiced up. He’s doubled his shoulder muscle mass and his arms are a lot bigger, so the way that he carries himself is completely different. His attitude has changed, too. He’s more gnarled and he’s a lot more jaded about the world,” Martin says.
From an animation point of view, Wētā FX animators took that new physicality into the performance and reflected it in postures and movements. “It was even things like the way he looks at somebody now,” Martin explains. “Early on in Season 1, when he looks at people, he’s very sincere. He was like a loving grandfather. Now, he’s a bit fed up with it all and he’s not looking at you with good intentions. He thinks you’re an idiot and he doesn’t have time for it. That’s where he’s coming from behind the mask.”
“All of a sudden, Pogo’s been in the gym. He’s juiced up. He’s doubled his shoulder muscle mass and his arms are a lot bigger, so the way that he carries himself is completely different. His attitude has changed, too. He’s more gnarled and he’s a lot more jaded about the world.”
—Aidan Martin, Animation Supervisor, Wētā FX
One of the VFX studio’s toughest tasks on this new Pogo remained the character’s eyes. “Eyeline is everything, especially with chimps,” says Martin, who also had experience on the Planet of the Apes films at Wētā FX. “When you’re trying to do a more anthropomorphized performance, chimps with their eyelines and brows do not work very well compared to humans because their eyes are just so far back and their brows sit out so far. For example, as soon as you have the head tilt down and then try to make them look up, you can lose their eyes completely. Balancing the eyeline and the head angle is really difficult, especially on chimps.”
“Even once you’ve got that working, getting the mouth shapes to read properly is also tricky,” Martin continues. “There are some really tricky shapes, like a ‘V’ and an ‘F,’ that are incredibly hard on a chimp versus a human. Their mouths are almost twice as wide as our mouths. Humans look really good when they’re talking softly, but getting a chimp to do that, it looks like they’re either just mumbling or they get the coconut mouth, like two halves clacking together, and everything’s just too big. We used traditional animation techniques here, basically a sheet of phoneme expressions for Pogo’s mouth.”
Going hyper (or hippo) realistic
Finding the performance for a CG-animated character often happens very early on in a production, even before any live action is shot. In the case of the Marvel Studios series Moon Knight’s slightly awkward hippo god Taweret, it began when Framestore was tasked with translating the casting audition of voice and on-set performer Antonia Salib into a piece of test animation.
“The Production Visual Effects Supervisor, Sean Andrew Faden, asked us to put something together as if it was Taweret auditioning for the role,” relates Framestore Animation Supervisor Chris Hurtt. “We made this classic blooper-like demo where we cut it up and had the beeps and even a set with a boom mic. We would match to Antonia’s performance with keyframe animation just to find the right tone. We would later have to go from her height to an eight- or nine-foot-tall hippo, which changed things, but it was a great start.”
“We looked at a lot of reference of real hippos and asked ourselves, ‘What can we take from the face so that this doesn’t just feel like it’s only moving like a human face that’s in a hippo shape?’ We found there were these large fat sacks in the corners that we could move, and it made everything feel a little more hippo-y and not so human-y. Probably the biggest challenge on her was getting Taweret to go from a human to a hippo.”
—Chris Hurtt, Animation Supervisor, Framestore
During filming of the actual episode scenes, Salib would perform Taweret in costume with the other actors and with an extender stick and ball markers to represent the real height of the character. As Hurtt describes, Framestore took that as reference and looked to find the right kind of ‘hippoisms’ on Salib. “We looked at a lot of reference of real hippos and asked ourselves, ‘What can we take from the face so that this doesn’t just feel like it’s only moving like a human face that’s in a hippo shape?’ We found there were these large fat sacks in the corners that we could move, and it made everything feel a little more hippo-y and not so human-y.”
“Probably the biggest challenge on her was getting Taweret to go from a human to a hippo,” adds Hurtt, who also praises the Framestore modeling, rigging and texturing teams in building the character. “The main thing for animation was that we had to observe what the muscles and the FACS shapes were doing on Antonia, and then map those to the character. Still, you’re trying to hit key expressions without it looking too cartoony.”
To help realize the motion of Taweret’s face shapes in the most believable manner possible, Framestore’s animators relied on an in-house machine learning tool. “The tool does a dynamic simulation like you would with, say, hair, but instead it would drive those face shapes,” Hurtt notes. “It’s not actually super-noticeable, but it’s one of those things if you didn’t have there, particularly with such a huge character, she would’ve felt very much like paper-mâché when she turned her head.”
The enduring, endearing allure of Groot
The Marvel Studios Guardians of the Galaxy films have borne several CG-animated characters; one of the most beloved being Baby Groot. He now stars in his own series of animated shorts called I Am Groot, directed by Kirsten Lepore, with visual effects and animation by Luma Pictures. The fully CG shorts started with a script and boarding process driven by Lepore, according to Luma Pictures Animation Director Raphael Pimentel.
“There were scripts early on showing what the stories were going to be about. These quickly transitioned into boards. Then, Kirsten would provide the boards to us with sound. She would put them to music as well, which was important to get the vibe. These would then be turned over to us as an animatic of those boards with the timing and sound that Kirsten envisioned, which was pretty spot-on to the final result.”
In terms of finding the ideal style of character animation for Groot in the shorts, Luma Pictures shot motion capture as reference for its animators, which was used in conjunction with video reference that Lepore also provided, and vid-ref shot by the animators themselves. The motion capture mainly took the form of Pimentel performing in an Xsens suit. “We went to Luma and identified the key shots that we wanted to do for every episode,” Pimentel recalls. “We would do one episode each day. As we were going through those key shots, we ended up shooting mocap for everything. Kirsten was there telling me the emotions that she wanted Groot to be feeling at that specific point in time. And we said, ‘Let’s keep going, let’s keep going.’ Next thing you know, we actually shot mocap for everything to provide reference for the animators.”
In one of the shorts, “Groot Takes a Bath,” a mud bath results in the growth of many leaves on the character, which he soon finds ways to groom in different styles. This necessitated a close collaboration between animation and effects at Luma. “That was a technical challenge for us,” Pimentel discusses. “In order for Kirsten to see how the leaves were behaving, she would usually have to wait until the effects pass. We built an animation rig that was very robust that would get the look as close to final as possible through animation.”
The final behavior settled on for Baby Groot in the shorts was “endearing,” Pimentel notes. Despite Groot’s temper tantrums and ups and downs, he was still kept sweet at all times. From an animation standpoint, that meant ensuring the character’s body and facial performances stayed within limits. “It’s easy to start dialing in the brows to be angry, but we had to keep the brows soft at all times. And then his eyes are always wide to the world. Regardless of what’s happening to him, his eyes are always wide to the world, much like a kid is.”