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August 01
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

ILLUMINATION POWERS UP EFFECTS FOR THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Coming into contact with the Question Boxes enables characters to transform and acquire different superpowers.

Coming into contact with the Question Boxes enables characters to transform and acquire different superpowers.

Claiming the crown of the top-grossing video-game adaptation of all time is The Super Mario Bros. Movie with a worldwide box office totaling $1.3 billion, which is nearly three times what was earned by second place Warcraft. The overwhelming success was caused by Nintendo partnering with filmmakers Aaron Horvat, Michael Jelenic and Pierre Leduc, screenwriter Matthew Fogel, Illumination Mac Guff and Universal Pictures to produce a story that at times literally pays homage to the source material while also pushing the boundaries of expectations, as demonstrated by the reptilian villain Bowser channeling his inner Ozzy Osbourne and Elton John to sing heartfelt songs dedicated to the unreceptive Princess Peach.

Lumalee is a volumetric character, so classic shading techniques could not be utilized.

Lumalee is a volumetric character, so classic shading techniques could not be utilized.

In the middle of the zany craziness is Illumination veteran Milò Riccarand, who was the Head of CG on the project and has seen the evolution of effects utilized by the Paris-based animation studio since Despicable Me became a global sensation. “The way we use effects has changed hugely because technology and software has evolved a lot,” Riccarand states. “We have a huge render farm. Directors want something bigger, more realistic and interesting. That’s what I love about it.” When doing simulations in animation, it’s all about achieving the proper balance between plausibility and stylization. “We do a lot of proprietary software and jump at the possibility to do what we need in order to achieve the look that the director wants, whether it be physical or cartoony,” Riccarand says. Sequences were mapped out using storyboards and previs. “We did two passes of previs, one animated and the other with characters. This is because the interaction between the characters, the cast and camera can be tricky, as their relationship with each other needs to be like a dance in order to get a good position.”

By combining detail and stylization, the fur and skin of Donkey Kong appears to be realistic and appealing.

By combining detail and stylization, the fur and skin of Donkey Kong appears to be realistic and appealing.

There is no shortage of characters with short legs in The Super Mario Bros. Movie,  which stems from respecting the original silhouettes and poses of the original character designs. “To be fair, it’s not just the short legs,” Riccarand remarks. “The legs can be short in one and become long in another one. A principle of animation is squash and stretch. That can come across as being elastic, which is hard on CFX because you want to do something that is physically realistic, so you have to find a way to do that.” Mario transforms whenever he makes contact with Question Boxes, which allow him to acquire various powers. “It’s a joint collaboration between effects, compositing and lighting departments. We are doing a lot of work in Nuke in order to have particles flowing on his face or forming a force field. Numerous layers had to be comped and lit,” Riccarand says.

One of the most complex sequences and environments was executing the cosmic car chase that takes place on the Rainbow Road.

One of the most complex sequences and environments was executing the cosmic car chase that takes place on the Rainbow Road.

A chase sequence takes place on a prism-colored cosmic transitway. “The Rainbow Road was a complex challenge for us,” Riccarand notes. “The camera had to chase all of the characters, which was difficult technically. The road was a volumetric entity with clouds inside. To make everything look lit [was challenging]. It’s a rainbow, so it’s not something solid. Our render department helped us to sort it out and be able to render that.” Supercharged vehicles add to excitement. “Those were a lot of fun!” Riccarand laughs. “This is not a live-action movie, so we can do what we want with the characters. You get crazy moments with the cars. The Koopa General drives this huge car that takes up all of the road.” The cloud elements assisted in conveying the proper size, scale and speed. “Each shot was set-dressed in order to get the best angle for the camera. We added tiny elements in frame that are going by quickly and cause you to say, ‘They’re going fast.’”

A signature environment is the Mushroom Kingdom that Mario and Princess Peaches walk through.

A signature environment is the Mushroom Kingdom that Mario and Princess Peach walk through.

Bowser lives on a volcanic world and resides in Lava Lake Keep. “It was not scary to do because our proprietary software helped us to deal with the smoke,” Riccarand states. “But when it comes to scale and a thousand shots to do, we had to be smart to find a good solution that doesn’t cost too much. You can’t have multiple simulations rendering overnight to have them ready for the day after. The lava had to be stylized to work with the characters in the scene. It was a bit more cartoony, but with realistic lighting.” A staple of video games is to have a world filled with giant mushrooms. Explains Riccarand, “People love that! The Mushroom Kingdom was a nice set to do. There was a lot of modeling and procedural environments in order to do the set extensions. It is something iconic from the game, so the viewer knows what they are looking for; so we needed to pay attention in order to not disappoint them.” Scenes in World Bowser take place at night, while the Mushroom Kingdom action unfolds in the daytime. “Night sequences are easier to hide things with mist and darkness, and you can use high contrast lighting. When you’re outside in sunny daylight, it’s more complex to light the characters in a believable and interesting way.”

While following through with his nefarious plans, Bowser also has a habit of singing love songs dedicated to Princess Peaches.

While following through with his nefarious plans, Bowser also has a habit of singing love songs dedicated to Princess Peach.

“Those [supercharged vehicles] were a lot of fun! This is not a live-action movie, so we can do what we want with the characters. You get crazy moments with the cars. The Koopa General drives this huge car that takes up all of the road. … Each shot was set-dressed in order to get the best angle for the camera. We added tiny elements in frame that are going by quickly and cause you to say, ‘They’re going fast.’”

—Milò Riccarand, Head of CG/FX Supervisor, Illumination Mac Guff

The simulations for lava had to be stylized to ensure that the environments did not clash with the cartoony character designs.

The simulations for lava had to be stylized to ensure that the environments did not clash with the cartoony character designs.

Some scenes are a direct homage to actual gameplay. “That was fun because the idea was to take something that exists in the game, however, then put it into a more cinematic environment,” remarks Riccarand. “It had to respectful but on a bigger scale.” There was constant feedback from Nintendo, with signature elements like Question Boxes being incorporated into the storytelling. “The Question Boxes are opaque with a little light source inside. They are the same design as Nintendo, but had to have some magic in order to have them fit into the movie.” Something not part of the gaming experience was having Bowser sing in a concert inspired settings and lighting. “That was one of the craziest ideas! It’s like a jazz concert,  but him singing to his girl. We have some good key lights and lots of reference from jazz concerts. The idea was to put the character in the light and simply have him singing. One of our co-directors, Pierre Leduc, previously was our animation director on a lot of movies, so his experience helped us in getting the proper silhouettes and poses.”

A lot of fun was had in getting to design, create and execute the various vehicles that could not exist in a live-action movie.

A lot of fun was had in getting to design, create and execute the various vehicles that could not exist in a live-action movie.

“[The volcanic world of Bowser] was not scary to do because our proprietary software helped us to deal with the smoke. But when it comes to scale and a thousand shots to do, we had to be smart to find a good solution that doesn’t cost too much. You can’t have multiple simulations rendering overnight to have them ready for the day after. The lava had to be stylized to work with the characters in the scene. It was a bit more cartoony, but with realistic lighting.”

—Milò Riccarand, Head of CG/FX Supervisor, Illumination Mac Guff

A scene from the commercial that begins the movie.

A scene from the commercial that begins the movie.

Simulations such as the water from the bursting pipes in the bathroom are more driven by comedic rather than realistic timing. “In two frames you can go from no water to a huge splash of water,” Riccarand observes. “It’s interesting because that’s when effects works with animation. It’s a joint venture between the two. Before doing the effects, the animator will say, ‘I would love to have a splash here and there.’ Afterwards, in effects, we try to make that happen.” Talking in an infantile voice and expressing pessimistic views is the imprisoned star known as Lumalee. “It’s a volumetric character, so it’s not the classic shading. This type of character is difficult to animate because it’s a star shape. In the beginning you’d think, ‘I will not be able to do some extreme movements.’ But you absolutely can. In the end credits, Lumalee is playing the saxophone.”

Actual gameplay was incorporated into the storytelling and upgraded with a cinematic sensibility.

Actual gameplay was incorporated into the storytelling and upgraded with a cinematic sensibility.

“The Mushroom Kingdom was a nice set to do. There was a lot of modeling and procedural environments in order to do the set extensions. It is something iconic from the game, so the viewer knows what they are looking for; so we needed to pay attention in order to not disappoint them.”

—Milò Riccarand, Head of CG/FX Supervisor, Illumination Mac Guff

Nintendo was closely involved with the production to ensure that aesthetic of the video game was maintained.

Nintendo was closely involved with the production to ensure that aesthetic of the video game was maintained.

Grooming for the moustaches of the Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong was achieved through proprietary software. “Donkey Kong has numerous layers of fur,” Riccarand explains. “It has to have a lot of detail to feel real, but it doesn’t need to be realistic. There is a closeup shot of the hand of Donkey Kong, and you see one of his fingers at a huge scale. I couldn’t do the skin realistically, as it needs to be pleasant to look at. We did a lot of tests to produce something that looks real and that has good subsurface scattering, but the texture and painting of it is appealing.” Plenty of destruction occurs in the finale battle that unfolds in Brooklyn. “FX Supervisor Simon Pate drove this sequence. You have the superpowers of the characters plus various simulations everywhere, like smoke and dust. You want to do things that are not too scary but good to see and impressive. It can be hard to do a battle like that in the daytime, but the lighting helps a lot.” Advancements were made in the area of compositing. Riccarand notes, “We did a lot of new work on lens aberrations, and the in-house renderer has been greatly improved because with each movie we want to render more and more. Technology gets better, and people ask for more! But that’s what makes this type of job interesting. You’re always trying to find the best and new ways to do things.”


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