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April 01
2020

ISSUE

Spring 2020

ONWARD: Creating Mythical Creatures – With a Suburban Twist

By IAN FAILES

Brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot find a way to partially re-animate their deceased father in Onward. (All images copyright © 2019 Disney/Pixar.)

The latest Pixar animated feature, Onward, directed by Dan Scanlon, portrays a fairytale world full of magic creatures – elves, trolls, mermaids, gnomes, sprites, goblins and dragons. But there’s a twist; those creatures live in what appears to be a normal suburban existence, one where magic is perhaps not as special as it once used to be.

Things change when two elf brothers – Ian and Barley Lightfoot – seem to bring their deceased father back to life, at least partially, and end up on a quest to bring him back completely.

From an animation and effects point of view, Onward posed several challenges for Pixar, including designing and executing a large range of mythical creatures and characters and generating magical effects. The more stylized nature of the film also enabled the team to approach this work slightly differently, sometimes with old-school animation techniques.

Animating the father character involved some unique character simulation for just the legs, and later when his body is covered in other clothing.

Pixar approached Onward with somewhat more of a stylized feel than some of its other films.

“Our characters had such an art-directed look to them that even in simulation we had animators come in and do hand-drawn sketches on top of our shots. We would then go in and use sculpting tools on top instead of doing re-sims. It saved us a lot of time and we could just straighten off the shoulders, give a specific curve a look, and that would get the shot finalized instead of doing iterations of sims over and over.”

—Max Rodriguez, Simulation Technical Director

Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) sits with his magically, partly-reincarnated father.

The world of Onward includes mystical and fantastical creatures, providing Pixar with a range of animation challenges.

The two teenagers at the center of the film live a suburban life, but soon take on a whole new adventure.

“There were a number of animators who started first with 2D sketch-blocking. It helped them start the conversation or continue the conversation about how effects might look in relation to a character’s performance.”

—Michael Bidinger, Animator

A STYLIZED APPROACH

The nature of the film’s story was one reason that a more stylized and old-school approach worked, according to animator Michael Bidinger. “The fantasy world in Onward was so rich that it got a lot of people excited to suggest a lot of ideas early. It got a lot of people working rougher; that’s where the organic things just came up.

“So,” says Bidinger, “there were a number of animators who started first with 2D sketch-blocking. It helped them start the conversation or continue the conversation about how effects might look in relation to a character’s performance.”

“That helped us figure out,” outlines Character Technical Director Seth Freeman, “what is this particular character like, what kind of physicality are we going to need to have on this other character? It let us know what kind of work we had to do.”

This continued all the way through production, including in simulation. “Our characters had such an art-directed look to them that even in simulation we had animators come in and do hand-drawn sketches on top of our shots,” says Simulation Technical Director Max Rodriguez. “We would then go in and use sculpting tools on top instead of doing re-sims. It saved us a lot of time and we could just straighten off the shoulders, give a specific curve a look, and that would get the shot finalized instead of doing iterations of sims over and over.”

Even effects simulations for magic, which were mostly produced in Houdini, started life as sketches. Here, 2D cell-like drawings of magical effects were transposed to 3D to deliver a more stylized result. “Our Effects Supervisor, Vincent Serritella, is a fine artist,” details Effects Technical Director Cody Harrington. “He’s an amazing painter. He would come in and work out things like, ‘how’s the motion supposed to happen? How is the flow supposed to go?’ And he would do a quick sketch for us and a draw-over across a series of frames. That hand-drawn approach really saved us a lot of time. Vincent is an incredible effects animator himself, and he’d also set up a base effects pipeline in Houdini to realize what he had done as a quick sketch, if we needed it.

“On this film in particular, compared to other Pixar films I’ve worked on,” continues Harrington, “we were sketching all the time in effects. Normally we’re just ‘hands on mouse.’ But here we were doing draw-overs all the time. When you look at those draw-overs over a plate, it has a special kind of dynamic. We would do that just so we could get the ‘spirit’ of those drawings into the 3D.”

Lighting, too, followed what Lightspeed Lead Renee Tam says was a more traditional approach. “Again, it was more art-directed. Sometimes in the tools we use, a lot of the lighting is set there for you. But our DP, Sharon Calahan, definitely lit scenes in a way that was more artistically driven.”

The latest developments in RenderMan and the studio’s Universal Scene Description (USD) architecture were employed on Onward.

TRYING NEW TECHNIQUES FOR A TRADITIONAL FEEL

Among the tools utilized on Onward was motion capture, not an approach traditionally associated with Pixar, but something the studio has been implementing more and more on recent feature films and shorts.

Coco had mocap for some of the skeletons in the backgrounds,” advises Crowds Technical Supervisor Paul Kanyuk. “On Incredibles 2, they were actually able to bring it a little closer to camera for some of the background humans. But, as much as we try, we understand the limitations of mocap. What we ended up using it for in Onward was for the sprites as a way to get ideas on the screen. The challenge was that the physicality was all wrong because they’re super-small characters that are super-strong.”

There were some Onward characters where mocap definitely did not prove useful. “Forget about a troll!” says Kanyuk. “I have some really funny clips of trying to be a troll. Mocap is a way to get ideas out there, but unfortunately it really does have its limitations in feature film animation. Also, our animators are really good and have ways of getting that stylized feeling in there that you can’t do otherwise.

“Still,” suggests Kanyuk, “we’re looking into ways we can use it more effectively. There’s a joke at the end of Ratatouille – ‘No motion capture or any other performance shortcuts were used in the production of this film.’ Some people took that to be the outlook of the entire studio. However, we are open to all technologies and all techniques. We’re not that defensive of the way we work that we insist it has to be one way forever. That said, we have a house style and mocap does not give us that house style. So we’ve got to be very careful in how we’re able to use that.”

“Maybe it’s because we’re moving into the technology phase of the animation industry, which has been moving at such a fast pace, that now we’re rebelling a little bit and wanting to just step back. You don’t want to be a machine, you don’t want AI to do your job for you. You want to actually physically get in there and do something. I think right now is kind of like a Renaissance of the tech, where we fall back into being even more organic in what we do.”

—Cody Harrington, Effects Technical Director

Visual development art by Lou Hamou-Lhadj, Ana Lacaze, Kiki Poh, Emron Grover and Matt Nolte.

The brothers Ian and Barley (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) conjure part of their father.
Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Chris Pratt) next to his beloved van, Guinevere.

Director Dan Scanlon gives notes during an Onward art review.

ONWARD AND UPWARD

For Pixar’s crew, Onward naturally represented a chance to advance the studio’s artistic and technical side, especially in terms of story and design, rendering via RenderMan, taking advantage of their USD workflow, and through character and effects simulations. At the same time, however, the studio’s artists relished in returning to more grounded roots in their approach to the film, as Harrington observes.

“Maybe it’s because we’re moving into the technology phase of the animation industry, which has been moving at such a fast pace, that now we’re rebelling a little bit and wanting to just step back. You don’t want to be a machine, you don’t want AI to do your job for you. You want to actually physically get in there and do something. And so I think right now is kind of like a Renaissance of the tech, where we fall back into being even more organic in what we do.”

Onward’s Big Challenges

Members of Pixar’s Onward crew reflect on their toughest tasks during production.

Michael Bidinger, Animator: One of the biggest challenges facing animation was finding the right performance for the Dad character, who at one point is made up of some stuffed together clothing. It was a balance between physicality and the respective materials that Dad is made of, while still creating a performance that felt somewhat alive, or that the other characters could mistake for alive. One of the biggest helps was the tools that we were getting from simulation.

Max Rodriguez, Simulation Technical Director: Hair was a big challenge. Our Simulation Supervisor, Jacob Brooks, comes from the grooming department. He has a real eye for hair. The main characters, Ian and Barley, have very specific hairstyles that are derived from what direction they are looking. If they’re looking towards the right, it doesn’t look the same if they’re looking in the other direction. We really had to pose the hair in a certain way and hope that it wouldn’t be noticeable when they flipped directions.

Cody Harrington, Effects Technical Director: My biggest challenge was taking an abstract concept like magic and developing it to fit into the world on Onward. That took a lot of iteration, a lot of storyboarding and a lot of working with the art department and story to work out the details of what it might look like, and then iterating on it and putting it in the scene, lighting it, and seeing if it worked. Plus, we had a time compression that took us later into the production. But it did force us to build tools to make it easier – this became the multi-shot pipeline that software engineer Michael Rice developed that let us develop the effect for one shot, work it back and forth, drop it into 20 shots, and then just do shot over-rides for customization.

Paul Kanyuk, Crowds Technical Supervisor: Crowd specificity was a challenge on this film. We have a very diverse set of crowd characters. You can’t animate a troll the same way you animate a gnome. Then there were, say, sprites riding a bicycle where each had its own separate pose. There’s less animation re-use than we’d normally be able to do for crowds. I miss Ratatouille sometimes, where every rat can use the same run cycle and you just color the fur differently and you’re okay! The challenge on Onward was figuring out what kind of technical tricks and shared workflows we could use to minimize the amount of shot-specific animation.

Seth Freeman, Character Technical Director: For characters, we had a bit more of a compressed timeline and we had all these species that we had to develop – trolls, gnomes and dragons. It was about, how do we make those characters at the high level we want them to be? For some of that, we built some tools to transfer stuff back and forth. For example, the dragon Blazey’s legs are actually like a derivative of the goblins – we could steal three-legged fingers and put them on there. We also had some tools to automatically rig characters.

Renee Tam, Lightspeed Lead: One of the biggest challenges on this show was that we tried to have the most story time for the story department to create a very compelling story. We kept trying to buy more and more time for development, and meanwhile for the technical teams it got crunchier and crunchier at the back end. When a lot of departments are working on top of each other, which we call ‘concurrent workflows,’ this created a bunch of technical issues because we didn’t always have the time to figure out what was wrong or what were the specific challenges with the shots. We had to roll with the current challenges and fix them really fast.


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