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January 28
2021

ISSUE

Winter 2021

‘Feeling The Characters’ Elevates Heart-Filled OVER THE MOON

By TREVOR HOGG

 The backstory of Chang’e was animated in 2D by Glen Keane and then projected onto a moving scarf.

Being the son of famous cartoonist Bil Keane (The Family Circus) did not discourage Glen Keane from pursuing a career as an animator; he subsequently went on to become a Disney Legend known for designing characters in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas and Tarzan. After producing the Oscar-winning animated short Dear Basketball with Kobe Bryant, Glen Keane was drawn to the Netflix animated feature Over the Moon, which entwines Chinese folklore with the present day.

The Moon Goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo) is separated from her husband Houyi (Conrad Ricamora) upon drinking the elixir of immortality, while 12-year-old Fei Fei (Cathy Ang) is mourning the death of her Mother (Ruthie Ann Miles) and has to deal with the prospect of her Father (John Cho) remarrying. Their stories collide when the ‘tweenager’ decides to build a rocket to the Moon to prove that the deity actually exists.

Screenwriter Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give) saw the project as a departing love letter to her husband and daughter as she was waging a battle with cancer while writing the script, and subsequently died. “Audrey said that all of her stories are about healing in some way,” states Keane. “The breakup of families, whether through divorce or death, is something that so many people in the world are going through. The theme of our story is to learn to love somebody new. There has to be depth for me to want to do it.”

Production on the animated musical began in 2017, and with five months to go the COVID-19 lockdown caused artists to finish their work remotely. “120 animators were working at the same time and barely able to keep up,” remarks Keane, who partnered with Netflix and Pearl Studio. “Then on a Thursday at 11 a.m. word comes down, ‘We’ve got to shut down the studio at Netflix.’ Everybody left within an hour, leaving behind coffee cups and coats hanging on chairs. It was like The Day the Earth Stood Still. In some miraculous way, we all went to our homes, used Zoom and continued on.”

 The Water Town in which Fei Fei lives was modeled on Wuzhen, China. 

“CG mouths always have this weird pinch at the corners. But if you open your mouth, the top lip curves and rolls, and there is this beautiful rolling curve at the corners. We worked hard at putting that into all of our human characters.”
—Glen Keane, Producer/Director

What proved to be indispensable was a review system devised by Sony Pictures Imageworks that allows individuals around the world to see the same image. “Part of that toolset includes our animation tool that allows us to draw on the image,” remarks Sony Pictures Imageworks Visual Effects Supervisor David Smith. “I showed Glen that tool and the first thing he did was to sit down in the chair and started drawing with it. He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if this could feel like a pencil and we could have a better brush here?’ We took those notes right away, made an overlay like a traditional animation transparency overlay, and fixed up the brushes so that they responded more like a pencil.”

Animation review sessions got quite lively with Keane and co-director John Kahrs (Paperman). “I’m left-handed and Glen is right-handed, so we would be sitting on opposite sides of the Cintiq grabbing the stylus from each other,” laughs Kahrs. “I worked with the editor on some of these action sequences to calm things down and to tell the audience where to direct their eye. I removed a lot of Dutch angle shots when I got on the show because [the Moon city of ] Lunaria is such a wild, psychedelic color fest that tilting the camera arbitrarily felt like too much craziness.”

Kahrs also wanted to make sure that the characters looked like they were actually singing. “You have to animate the lungs inhaling and pushing that air out through the larynx singing and projecting,” he says. “If you’re just moving the mouth and the character is blinking and looking around, that’s not enough for me.”

A particular aspect of CG facial animation was addressed. “CG mouths always have this weird pinch at the corners,” observes Keane. “But if you open your mouth, the top lip curves and rolls, and there is this beautiful rolling curve at the corners. We worked hard at putting that into all of our human characters.” “More days were spent in rigging than what we typically do on a picture at Sony because anatomy was important to Glen,” states Sony Pictures Imageworks Animation Supervisor Sacha Kapijimpanga. “Getting all of the responses across the face that you would expect to see, we pushed hard on that. Also, we made sure that all of the body parts moved correctly and looked good, so when the cloth simulation happened on top of the forms underneath the cloth, it felt that you could see an arm or leg under there.”

Research was conducted to ensure that Chinese characters felt authentic. “We went to Shanghai and did a lot of drawing of people on the street,” explains Keane. “I did a lot of studying of Asian eyes. There is this double fold on an eyelid that I never noticed before. The higher cheek bones. How does that fit into a simplified design of that face? There is this triangle between the eyes and eyebrows. We worked hard at being able to create enough of the muscle tension in there so you can feel that.”

Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son Chin (Robert G. Chiu), who has a frog named Croak as a sidekick.

Character Designer Brittany Myers (Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse) kept in mind how the various characters might present themselves if they were real people. “Fei Fei has a quirk of pulling the sleeves of her sweater right up to her fingers. I used to do it when I was a little girl,” says Myers. “It’s like a security blanket. She also has crazy, wild hair held up with this little headband because that was a way of quickly getting it out of her face.”

Fei Fei wears casual modern clothing, while the diva Chang’e is adorned with costumes conceptualized by acclaimed couture designer Guo Pei. “At one point, Fei Fei wants a picture and Chang’e responds, ‘Does this look like a photo op to you?’” remarks Production Designer Celine Desrumaux (The Little Prince). “She instantly transforms the setting. For this scene, I took some Vogue pictures of how models are sitting on a box, as well as Chinese calendars from the 1970s that always depicted gods and goddesses
in a floating environment.”

Liberties were taken with the design of Chang’e to emphasize that she is a supernatural being. “[Los Angeles-based artist] Eusong Lee had these wild designs of her being nine feet tall with smaller hands and feet,” recalls Keane. “Everything was going to be bigger than life for her. All of the same emotional components that we put into Fei Fei’s face became the foundation for Chang’e.”

“Chang’e was one of the more challenging characters I’ve worked on,” notes Kapijimpanga. “There were tons of different hairstyles and lots of different outfits. Every time you change those things it is like dealing with an entirely new character. You can’t sway her arms back and forth because she has these huge cloth trails that come off of her arms. Chang’e would hold her arms more in front of her. We kept her walk fairly steady and tried to make her look as majestic as possible. Then we also have her performing onstage where we’re using all kinds of choreography as reference and she is like a rock star. When Chang’e is in the Chamber of Sadness, she is a lot more of a motherly, relatable, emotional character. Chang’e is diverse.”

Three major environments are the Water Town (based on Wuzhen, China) in which Fei Fei lives, a scarf used to tell the backstory of Chang’e, and Lunaria, which is situated on the Moon. “All five senses are involved in the way we created the Water Town,” notes Keane. “When you go to the Moon, I wanted it to feel stark black and white. I gave Celine the image of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon prism. The white light hitting and breaking into a spectrum of colors – that’s what Lunaria had to be.

“Celine came up with this wonderful backstory of the tears of Chang’e creating all of the Lunarians and buildings,” Keane continues. “Everything radiates from her. Then there is this hand-drawn style which had to be graphic and flat because it was on the scarf. I knew that was something I wanted to animate personally and it would probably be the last thing that we did to get the movie done. It was the final thing that we finished.”

As a sidekick character, Bungee amplifies the inner emotions of Fei Fei (Cathy Ang). Fei Fei and Bungee share a fist-pump.

Experts at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and China National Space Administration were consulted to ensure a sense of authenticity.

“Everything is about having a strong concept and for that I always look to Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away),” explains Desrumaux, who also drew inspiration from religious themes. “There is this relationship of the god who creates his own people, so it made sense that the tears of Chang’e would become the Lunarians. It was also creating this sweet relationship that the Lunarians are joyful and colorful, but in the same way keep reminding her that they are tears coming from the sadness of losing the love of her life.

“One thing that I avoided was having iPads and cellphones, everything that makes you think that this movie is from 2020,” Desrumaux notes. “There are these motorcycles driven by the bad guys. I didn’t want to fall into this steampunk or gaseous design. I needed to analyze why a motorcycle is a motorcycle. You’ve got wheels and power, but there is no gas so it was just energy. Lunarians have their eyes and mouth inside of their bodies and the motorcycle is the same. It has power inside of the wheels.”

“The Lunarians are a teardrop shape with a lightbulb effect observes Character Designer Jin Kim (Big Hero 6). “Those are the most difficult designs because they are so simple and could go a thousand different ways. A human is a human. There could be some variations, but you know a human or animal form.”

The voice cast influenced the look of their animated personas. “I used the actor’s facial features and attitude as reference,” says Kim. “That makes a huge difference. For example, there is Gobi who is one of the creatures on the Moon. Glen wanted all of those funny Ken Jeong facial expressions in that character. Before that we had a lot of trials. Try this. Try that. We couldn’t get the right character, but as soon as Ken Jeong was in the movie, it was easy.”

 The facial features of Fei Fei served as the foundation for Chang’e (Phillipa Soo). 

Lunaria was a blend of 2D and 3D looks. “We wanted to get even the building colors correct and composition right in rough layout,” states Sony Pictures Imageworks CG Supervisor Clara Chan. “That changed the structure and pipeline. Also, the buildings are not made of anything that is real, so we had to change our shaders.”

The Moon was not treated universally. “There are two parts of the Moon,” explains Chan. “One is more realistic and has the sun as a source. For that we used a lot of NASA imagery to be our reference. But when we get to Lunaria, it’s a fantasy world. Every building is a light source, but we don’t want everything to be glowing; otherwise, it would be overwhelming. We had to pick and choose what would make the image look best.”

A primary lighting source for the Water Town were the numerous lanterns with a unique aspect being the numerous white walls. “There was a particular brush style that Celine liked all of her art to have that was rooted on this concept of a white wall,” reveals Smith. “She would say that a white wall is full of color. Each one of our white walls probably had 15 different shades of white or hints of yellows, pinks, blues and greys.

“We would build and simplify a traditional tree so it had the impression of a realistic one but with less detail,” adds Smith. “We only built the trunk of the willow tree. The effects team came with up a procedural system for the longer branches and leaves so we could always control the density, because there are times that Fei Fei is peering through or sitting behind the willow tree branches.”

A proper balance was needed to make the Moon feel authentic, but avoid floating characters and objects becoming too distracting. “In Lunaria, there is this palace at the center of this world, and as you get closer to it gravity becomes more Earth-like,” remarks Kapijimpanga. “As you’re further out on the outskirts of the Moon, it is more what you would expect to see in old space footage.”

Chin (Robert Chiu), who is soon to be the stepbrother of Fei Fei, stows away on her rocket.

It was important to Glen Keane for the Asian cast to be ethically and physiologically correct. From back left clockwise: Grandma (Irene Tsu), Grandpa (Clem Chung), Auntie Mei (Kimiko Glenn), Auntie Ling (Margaret Cho), Uncle (Artt Butler), Father (John Cho), Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh) and her son, Chin (Robert G. Chiu).

Lunarians had detailed rigging which enabled them to have a variety of facial expressions that could be controlled. “The Space Dog forms out of this nebula and stardust, but the dog we animated was completely realistic,” states Kapijimpanga. “We allowed effects and compositing to be able to dial in how much that you would see of the character.”

Not all of the buildings on Lunaria were created at the same time from the tears of Chang’e. “Further out of the city, you can see the buildings that are much more simple, blobby and lava-lamping around,” explains Smith. “The buildings as they get closer to the palace are more solidified, structured and detailed.”

It was not easy dealing with aliens that are luminescent and translucent. “We had this solid gelatinous form for the characters, but within there was a gas,” Smith explains. “Normally, if you put gas inside water or a gel you will get a bubble. We had to rebuild the shader so that they would allow a gas to live inside the same space as a solid or semi-solid gel. We also had to have it so that the shader would both cast and receive light. Also, many of the characters and buildings have these little tear-offs that work like lava lamps.”

An extra element requested by Keane significantly complicated the 2D backstory of Chang’e. “Originally, we thought it would be something simple, but Glen had the idea of mapping that 2D animation onto a moving scarf,” remarks Chan. “That simulation was tricky because we don’t want it to have too much wrinkles, otherwise it distorts the 2D animation. We had to think of a way to put it onto a scarf, make it still look like it was lit by the environment, and yet maintain the colors that we wanted to see in the 2D
animation. That actual environment is the family sitting by the river and the main sources [of light] are the moon and a lantern. We couldn’t make it too flat, so we made sure that some parts on the scarf had some highlights from the lantern.”

“As my mentor, Ollie Johnston (Bambi), would tell me, “Don’t animate what the character is doing. Animate what the character is feeling and thinking,’” states Keane. “I’ve always taken that as my mantra for what I’m trying to do in a film. There is one particular moment when Fei Fei sees her dad touch Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh), who is going to become her new mom. The camera is one big shot of her face. Fei Fei’s eyes widen and her eyebrows go in. Her world is beginning to crack and crumble at that instance. We showed this one shot at the 2019 CTN animation eXpo. There was no sound and context. It was an audible gasp in the crowd. For five seconds, you feel everything that girl feels, and it’s pure animation.”


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