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November 09
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

GETTING THINGS RIGHT WITH ‘RON’S GONE WRONG’

By TREVOR HOGG

Just as the growing friendship between a malfunctioning robot companion and a socially awkward middle schooler is the emotional core of Ron’s Gone Wrong, the animated adventure comedy happens to be the first production for co-collaborators Locksmith Animation and DNEG Feature Animation.

Serving as a director along with Locksmith Animation Founder Sarah Smith (Arthur Christmas) is former Aardman and Pixar storyboard artist Jean-Philippe Vine (Shaun the Sheep). “It felt a lot like when Gromit is laying the track in front of the train! It’s two start-ups trying to make a story that is on the level of the companies that we all came from. Locksmith Animation did all of the pre-production while the layout and onwards was handled by DNEG. One of the challenges that we found was that our previs process didn’t quite marry up for technical reasons to the DNEG layout department. We tried to make the handover as seamless as we could.”

Ron was meant to feel like the most stripped-down computer software, with MS-DOS being an inspiration. (Images courtesy of Locksmith Animation/DNEG)

Posing a creative and technical hurdle was the lockdown caused by the pandemic. “When COVID-19 hit we should have been taking it out to previews and getting punter reactions, but that only happened in a limited way when Disney helped us out and did a Zoom screening for us,” recalls Vine. “It’s not the same thing. We had to go with our gut.”

The requirements for feature animation rigs differ from visual effects rigs. “What you want for a visual effects rig is to do anything to the nth degree, and speed is not as much of a concern as the functionality to make it as cool as possible, photoreal, and DNEG is fantastic at that,” remarks Animation Director Eric Leighton (Coraline). Dave Lowry at DNEG is a fantastic champion for character animators and pushed for speed as well as rigging, morphing, facial and sculpting tools.”

The character rig for Ron allowed animators to place his face anywhere on his body.

Look development exploring various textures for the different B*Bots by visual artist Till Nowak.

Another difference is that animation is not shot driven. “Everything from the storyboards, previs, animation, effects and lighting are from the sequence level,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Philippe Denis (Trolls). “Audio was also something that we had to push on our side at DNEG, because with visual effects it’s less important, but for us it’s everything. We tried to optimize as much as possible the pipeline to get that back and forth.”

Ron’s Gone Wrong involves a manhunt as high-tech company Bubble attempts to capture its rogue B*Bot. “We felt that this should be a couple of years in the future so it feels like a plausible world,” explains Vine. “Coming-of-age stories, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Stand by Me, were references. The story is an adventure that takes Barney and Ron into the wilderness, so it was important for us to find a landscape that worked.” Traveling on at train from San Francisco to Portland, Vine discovered his real-life inspiration for Barney’s hometown of Nonsuch. “We sent Production Designer Aurélien Predal [Mune: Guardian of the Moon] to Eugene, Oregon, because I thought, ‘That city looks like it could be the right vibe. Not too big or small and surrounded by this beauty.’”

Getting the desired shape of the grass while having it still looking believable was technically challenging.

Predal partnered with Production Designer Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk) on the world-building. “Early on, Nathan did some 3D passes of design of particular locations, like he does when working on a live-action movie,” says Predal. “Nathan took care of Barney’s house, the middle school, Bubble store and Bubble headquarters. He put the Bubble headquarters on the side of a dam, which was such a strong idea. My role was to bring what Nathan did to the animation world.”

A boxy design language was adopted for Nonsuch while the high-tech company of Bubble had shapes that reflected its name. “I stayed in Eugene for two days and took maybe 1,000 photos of the pavement, road signs, bins and street dressing.” adds Predal. “I also went to the forest. I managed to put together a lot of documentation to brief all of the artists. From the script, it was clear that Bubble needed to be round. It’s as if Amazon and Apple came together to create a headquarters. We also wanted a James Bond feel to it.”

Barney is attired with earth tones because of his love of nature, while Ron has a woolen hat that is used to accentuate his animation.

An organic aesthetic was adopted for the forest. “The tricky part was conveying the proper size and scale,” remarks Denis. “The grass was technically challenging because you want to make sure that you get the shape you want, with it still looking believable. Initially, when we started to run those simulations with the characters creating angels in the grass, the grass was popping up left and right. It was fairly striking. We had to simplify that to get the intent of the visual without pulling you out of the movie. Barney and Ron jumping in the river came late in the process. At one point you start to manage your world to budget. We still have some white water, but decided to have them jump in where it wasn’t too crazy. We also had to get interaction between the water and the set. That was probably our biggest effects simulation in the movie.”

“J.P. Vine wanted to have graphic and stylized characters,” remarks Predal. “Our main character designer was Julien Bizat. From his 2D designs, another artist, Michel Gillemain, did CG sculpts of the characters. Once we had the characters moving, we realized with DNEG that the art was fighting with the realism of the cloth simulation, so we had to find the middle ground.” An example of this is the bully named Rich. “He has a fairly skinny body with a big jacket,” remarks Denis. “As soon as you push him against walls, or when Ron is chasing him in the park,  you end up with weird shapes. You could not run just a simulation on that because you have bad folding and shapes. You want to drive that with some rigging constraints, put it into shape, and run a simulation on top of that to make it physically correct.” Some fun was had with the woolen hat worn by Ron. “I always love to work with an animator,” adds Denis. “I want to make sure that the intent of the shot is there. The hat worked like an exclamation point for his animation. Sometimes it was right on with the physics, while in other cases we added a little bit of simulation on top to make it livelier.”

Conceptualizing Ron provided an opportunity to clash old and new technology. “We always thought from the beginning that Ron should feel like the most stripped-down computer software,” remarks Vine. “I’m sure that you remember MS-DOS. But then as you get to see his versatility and the way that those pixels can move around, you just start to love the guy. We also worked with 2D animators to do some quick tests in Flash to nail down his appeal. From that point on it was about giving the animators some clear rules about how to manipulate his face because they could position it anywhere they wanted.” Played for comedic effect is the fact that Ron is an analog device. Says Vine, “Ron doesn’t have maps downloaded so he needs to use a real paper one!”

Production Designer Aurélien Predal spent two days in Eugene, Oregon, taking reference photos for the city of Nonsuch.

It was important to keep track of the emotional state of Ron throughout the story. “Right at the beginning of the show was I assigned a broken variable to each Ron sequence with 10 being the most fouled-up Ron,” explains Leighton. “When we’re first introduced to him, he’s like a seven. Things keep on getting worse until the bully scene where he is attacking human kids, which is the most broken that a robot could possibly be. Ron gradually gets better until things become stressful and his ‘Ronisms’ start to come back. When he is reprogrammed onto new Ron, we feel for Barney because he has lost his friend. Perfect clean Ron is not interesting. We shot the entire movie out of sequence so to be able to track that rhythm of Ron’s brokenness all of the way through helped.”

Defining the characteristics of the other B*Bots are the cliques in which their owner is a member. “The whole idea is that Barney and Ron are individuals, so you don’t know what to expect,” explains Leighton. “When you go into the school everybody is trying to belong to their own group, so their behaviors are the same. We had the sports, posh, goths and biker groups. On top of that we would do similar kinds of things for their B*Bots. For example, a tech B*Bot when sending a message might do it like a frisbee throw, whereas a footballer B*Bot might do a big arm throw, or the geek B*Bot might toss it up, give a little bump and send the message off. We did a lot of those kinds of tests to take the same sort of communication behaviors that we knew all of the B*Bots would have to have, but then define them based on which clique their owner belonged to.”

Production Designer Nathan Crowley conceptualized the Bubble headquarters being on the side of a dam.

Generic characters populate the big crowd scenes. “In the past, I have worked on things where you create everything and spend your time relating assets, but that doesn’t look good,” observes Denis. “We were recreating the layers in Houdini, and put the generic characters into a crowd context, shot them from different points of view and said, ‘That is a good-looking crowd.’ Or, ‘We have too many with short hair in this.’ Or, ‘That shot is not so good. Let’s kill that.’ This means when you actually set up your world, that you are confident your crowd is going to work and you can actually implement that in the shot. Some shots you can always get rid of one character or switch one character for another. You have all of those controls. The idea was to narrow down the choices so we create just enough to get a good-looking crowd. That’s something we spent quite a bit of time on.”

The forest was given an organic shape language.

The forest provided an opportunity to manipulate the colors and lighting to reflect the emotional state of Barney and Ron.

Furthering emphasizing the ostracization of Barney is the color palette, as Nonsuch is muted while his home is vibrant. “In the beginning, Barney is embarrassed about bringing kids to his house because the grandma has goats and chickens in the garden, and there is an explosion of vegetables and tapestries on the wall and sausages hanging from the ceiling,” states Vine. “It needed to feel quirky and specific to the family. When our two heroes head out into the woods, that’s where we heightened the palette because it worked with where they are emotionally. We wanted to have some fun with the Kubrickian world of Bubble that has unusual color choices. We could dial up the intensity as the movie’s intensity dials up.”

Extensive motion graphics were needed for the social network devised by Bubble that is displayed on the B*Bots and the monitors in the control room. “Every time a character is touching a B*Bot, we need to have something on the screen,” reveals Predal. “All of those interactions were complex because you couldn’t anticipate an idea coming from animation and you needed to respond to that. We wanted something poppy and colorful. Often, I found that we could get some nice, clean designs, but it was sometimes hard to read because the B*Bot were rotating or the camera was moving. A lot of the design had to be done in the shot to make sure it was readable. It was a large amount of work.  We had to create an advertising campaign as well as a toy within the movie.”

A mood board that reflects the growing friendship between Ron and Barney.

A lighting reference for the interior of the Bubble store by animator Carlos León

The circular shape Bubble store contrasts with the elongated design of the city of Nonsuch.

“It’s quite a grounded camera language right up until Ron moves into the world. That’s when things start to get a bit more out of control,” observes Vine. “Sarah and I both love choosing a camera style that feels organic for the scene. For example, there is a fight in a playground between Ron and a couple of bullies who are hassling Barney. We decided to shoot reference with actors and handheld cameras to try to get in there and gave that reference to the layout crew to launch them. We tried to pick our camera style to sell the intensity of the scene.”

It has been quite a five-year long odyssey. The project went from Paramount to Fox, which was in turn bought by Disney. Then there was matter of the growing pains associated with two start-ups working together as one production company. Directors changed. The third act was rewritten. And let’s not forget the pandemic. “We joked that by calling this Ron’s Gone Wrong we were setting ourselves for mishaps,” chuckles Vine. “But we got there in the end.”

“Early on, [Production Designer] Nathan [Crowley] did some 3D passes of design of particular locations, like he does when working on a live-action movie. Nathan took care of Barney’s house, the middle school, Bubble store and Bubble headquarters. He put the Bubble headquarters on the side of a dam, which was such a strong idea. My role was to bring what Nathan did to the animation world.”

—Aurélien Predal, Production Designer

A lot of effort went into developing generic characters for the crowd scenes.

A color key by Production Designer Aurélien Predal for Nonsuch Middle School and the surrounding area.

“We felt that this should be a couple of years in the future so it feels like a plausible world. Coming-of-age stories, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Stand by Me, were references. The story is an adventure that takes Barney and Ron into the wilderness, so it was important for us to find a landscape that worked. We sent Production Designer Aurélien Predal to Eugene, Oregon, because I thought, ‘That city looks like it could be the right vibe. Not too big or small and surrounded by this beauty.’”

—Jean-Philippe Vine, Storyboard Artist, Pixar Animation

“We always thought from the beginning that Ron should feel like the most stripped-down computer software. I’m sure that you remember MS-DOS. But then as you get to see his versatility and the way that those pixels can move around, you just start to love the guy. We also worked with 2D animators to do some quick tests in Flash to nail down his appeal. From that point on it was about giving the animators some clear rules about how to manipulate his face because they could position it anywhere they wanted.”

—Aurélien Predal, Production Designer

The different B*Bots on display in the Bubble store.

Dr. Strangeglove by Stanley Kubrick was a major influence on the lighting schemes in the control room of Bubble headquarters.


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