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January 10
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

VFX SUPERVISORS: AN ANIMATED CONVERSATION

By IAN FAILES

Cinesite’s Montreal and Vancouver facilities took on Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank after the film had already spent several years in devel-opment. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Cinesite’s Montreal and Vancouver facilities took on Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank after the film had already spent several years in development. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

A common credit on a CG animated feature film or show is ‘visual effects supervisor.’ But wait, don’t VFX supervisors work just in live-action? This is, of course, not so. Indeed, on a CG-animated project, a visual effects supervisor is a crucial role, often helping to formulate the ‘look of picture’ as well as solve many of the technical and artistic hurdles along the way – not too dissimilar at all from a VFX supervisor working in live-action.

In this roundtable, visual effects supervisors from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, DreamWorks Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Cinesite Studios explain their tasks on recent animated films and shows and share their thoughts on the key trends hitting their field right now.

Cinesite is one of a limited number of VFX studios that also deliver full CG-animated features and other animated projects. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Cinesite is one of a limited number of VFX studios that also deliver full CG-animated features and other animated projects. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

VFX supervisor in live-action versus animation

Alex Parkinson (Visual Effects Supervisor, Cinesite): Often the difference between VFX supervisors in live-action and animation depends on the kind of VFX show you are talking about. Sometimes entire sequences in movies are CG with no live-action aspects at all. In that case, the workflow and the job would be very similar. But mostly the differences between the two jobs reflect the differences between the two mediums. In animation, you tend to have more creative ownership over the final product and way more freedom. Live-action VFX is a more technical and precise process. It is harder in a lot of ways, because you must match existing elements and every shot is put through more scrutiny.

Marlon West (Visual Effects Supervisor, Walt Disney Animation Studios, on Iwájú): While the visual effects supervisor on a live-action film is tasked with leading the team to create images that they can’t go out and capture live, for animation every image is created from ‘scratch.’ So, they are tasked with leading the charge of creating every image technically and creatively.

“Multiple time zones were our main challenge on Iwájú. We have artists in Los Angeles, London, Lagos, Montreal and Vancouver. At one point we had artists in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe as well. While not hugely technical, the biggest challenge was initially story, art and editorial teams who have worked primarily with our internal tools to work with outside partners.”

—Marlon West, Visual Effects Supervisor, Walt Disney Animation Studios

Real-time Rendering: The Future of Animation?

Of all the tech trends that abound in CG animation right now, Cinesite Visual Effects Supervisor Alex Parkinson believes that real-time game engines have the most potential to revolutionize the industry, particularly in relation to CG cinematography.

“Let’s take a typical shot, the villain reveal. The villain walks towards the camera through darkness and mist, their cape billowing in the wind. As they move into the light more of their form is revealed, and then at the last moment they lift their face towards the light,” Parkinson describes.

“In a traditional CG animation pipeline, this would be created in a serial manner,” Parkinson continues. “The camera would be created in layout using some very rough blocked animation. It would be animated without the cape, which would be added in CFX. FX would then do the mist interaction, then the whole thing would be passed to lighting to make it work. However, what if it doesn’t work? What if the timing is off or lighting cannot make the animation work for the face reveal? The shot goes all the way back down the pipeline for a re-do, then round and round until ultimately we run out of time and have to go with what we have.”

Parkinson believes real-time game engines will change this process. “We will be able to work much more like a live-action shoot does. We will be able to assemble all the pieces we have at any time, see them all in context, and work more in parallel, tweaking each element so they work together harmoniously. The potential for a quality increase in our filmmaking is huge.”

Kylie Kuioka voices Emiko in Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Kylie Kuioka voices Emiko in Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Jane Yen (Visual Effects Supervisor, Pixar, on Lightyear): I see my role at Pixar as overseeing all of the technical work that needs to happen in computer graphics to produce the film visuals. Pixar has historically been at the very forefront of computer graphics and creating CG imagery, so a lot of the Pixar history and the roles that used to be called supervising technical director, and now VFX supervisor, were based on developing new technology to make it even possible.

Matt Baer (Visual Effects Supervisor, DreamWorks Animation, on The Bad Guys): At the creative leadership level, there are more peer relationships for the animation VFX supervisor. The head of story is my peer. The head of layout is my peer. The head of animation is my peer. For example, I’m responsible for making sure our head of animation is set up with the necessary workflows and technologies. Ultimately, the head of animation is creatively responsible for the character animation. I consult during animation development and shot work so our animators have context as to how their work fits into the bigger picture.

A layout frame from a hyperjump sequence in Pixar’s Lightyear. (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

A layout frame from a hyperjump sequence in Pixar’s Lightyear. (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

 

Animation pass on Buzz Lightyear. (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar and Pixar)

Animation pass on Buzz Lightyear. (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar and Pixar)

R. Stirling Duguid (Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks, on The Sea Beast): At Imageworks, compared to other animation companies that are vertically integrated, we have a client/vendor relationship. My primary role is to represent Imageworks to the client as well as the director, the production designer, the art director and their producer. That’s the first step, representing the company. Then it’s about building the team and the framework for the entire production – how we go from storyboards to final composite, laying that out and making sure that we have the right people in charge for each of those departments.

Lighting, FX and rendering are the final steps in the final frame. (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Lighting, FX and rendering are the final steps in the final frame. (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

Solving the art and tech and pipeline, in animation

Matt Baer: On The Bad Guys, one of our key visual goals was to pay homage to illustration and 2D animation. Our design philosophy was to use simplification to achieve our stylized and sophisticated look. Anyone who has worked in CG knows this is the opposite of what many of our tools are designed to do! We needed to replace the realistic details of traditional CG techniques with the wonderful hand-drawn imperfections seen in illustrations. Taking this to scale on a feature film required us to build new workflows for every department, allowing them to create images that look handmade – removing superfluous CG details while keeping just enough visual information to guide the eye towards the most important aspects of the shot. Once the image was reduced, our artists added custom line work, textures and 2D effects to every shot in the film.

A first look image from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Iwájú series. (Im-age courtesy of Disney)

A first look image from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Iwájú series. (Image courtesy of Disney)

R. Stirling Duguid: For The Sea Beast, the big technical hurdle was ropes. We had thousands of them to do. Our Animation Supervisor, Joshua Beveridge, said, ‘We have to start from the ground up and build an awesome rope rig because we’re not going to make it through the movie without that.’ We came up with a procedural solution that was designed to be animation-friendly. The idea is that the length of the rope would always stay the same – usually it stretches or is cheated, but ours had the proper hang and everything. Ropes are in so many shots.

Jane Yen: Lightyear was Pixar’s largest FX film to date. Almost 70% of the film has FX elements in it. As the VFX Supervisor on an animated film, I had to look at every single component of the film, not just FX but also set building and modeling, set dressing, character modeling, building articulation, tailoring, cloth simulation, hair grooming – and that’s just the asset-building side. Then we have lighting and shading. I’m sure there’s some element in there I missed, but you can kind of get the picture that on an animated film, every single component of every visual thing that is on the screen, we had to account for.

A frame from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto, on which Marlon West served as Head of Effects Animation. (Image courtesy of Disney)

A frame from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Encanto, on which Marlon West served as Head of Effects Animation. (Image courtesy of Disney)

A Specific Animation Challenge: Face Creases

Among the many technical hurdles Sony Pictures Imageworks had to conquer in The Sea Beast was realizing the distinctive crease lines and wrinkles on several of the characters’ faces. Usually, such wrinkle-like features are modeled or textured into the detail.

Looking to capitalize on earlier work done at Imageworks with inklines on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Visual Effects Supervisor R. Stirling Duguid and his team developed a tool called CreaseLines that gave animators the ability to easily, dynamically create and control curves on faces to define the right emotive facial creases.

“Normally if you model things like that, it requires a high-density mesh, or you have to use displacement maps, which are hard for an animator to visualize,” Duguid explains. “Our Animation Supervisor, Joshua Beveridge, had this idea for crease lines, which came from Spider-Verse. It was about thinking in the animator’s shoes, dealing with the director, getting a note and finding the quickest way to address the note.

“CreaseLines gave us the flexibility to move those lines and not be constrained by the topology, as far as how dense the mesh was. This let us directly drive displacement of the face meshes. It was a real win.”

“While animation has always sought to create new and imaginative worlds, the last few years have seen a rapid increase in the variety of visual styles produced across the industry. Despite this increase, we’ve only barely cracked open the visual possibilities in animation, which really excites me for the future.”

—Matt Baer, Visual Effects Supervisor, DreamWorks Animation

Marlon West: Multiple time zones were our main challenge on Iwájú. We have artists in Los Angeles, London, Lagos, Montreal and Vancouver. At one point, we had artists in Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe as well. While not hugely technical, the biggest challenge was initially story, art and editorial teams who have worked primarily with our internal tools to work with outside partners.

Alex Parkinson: Being an independent studio, we must find ways to match the quality of big studio movies as closely as we can, and that is a bar that is constantly moving, so our tools and workflow must constantly evolve to keep up. Often our problem is stylization. For example, three of our recent movies, Riverdance: The Animated Feature, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank and Hitpig, have featured sequences with fast-flowing water. Because we use tools developed primarily for live-action FX, they tend to produce photorealistic results. They don’t fit in our world, so we must find ways to make natural elements feel more ‘cartoony.’

Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, in Encanto. The fireworks were crafted as effects animation. (Image courtesy of Disney)

Mirabel, voiced by Stephanie Beatriz, in Encanto. The fireworks were crafted as effects animation. (Image courtesy of Disney)

Stylization: a major trend in animation

Alex Parkinson: The use of non-photorealistic rendering, or NPR, exploded after Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. That showed the potential for what a CG-animated movie could be. I see it as part of the maturing of our industry. If you think about 2D animation and all the looks and styles that it covers, from an episode of The Simpsons to crazy anime action, to the work of Cartoon Saloon, it is so varied and creative. CG animation is a very young art form, and up until now has tended to stay within the styles it was born from, like Toy Story, Shrek, etc. That is to say, more photoreal. 3D animation is branching out, experimenting, and developing all new NPR techniques – that’s very exciting.

R. Stirling Duguid: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a pretty big splash for Imageworks as far as doing a whole movie like that. Then look at the evolution into The Mitchells vs the Machines, where we also took it to a really nice place. And, actually, it was quite different. You can clearly see the difference between Mitchells and Spider-Verse, but it was using a lot of the same technology.

A storyboard frame from a driving sequence in DreamWorks Animation’s The Bad Guys. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Animation)

A storyboard frame from a driving sequence in DreamWorks Animation’s The Bad Guys. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Animation)


A storyboard frame from a driving sequence in DreamWorks Animation’s The Bad Guys. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Animation)

After storyboard, the studio moves to previs and early animation. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Animation)


The final rendered frame. On The Bad Guys, DreamWorks Animation in-jected an enhanced level of stylized look and feel to the final images, partly to reflect the source material. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Animation)

The final rendered frame. On The Bad Guys, DreamWorks Animation injected an enhanced level of stylized look and feel to the final images, partly to reflect the source material. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Animation)

Jane Yen: I think we are now going to see movies come out that have a much more stylized and ‘pushed’ look. I think you’ll see that in our next feature film,  Elemental. Even though Lightyear may not have pushed that spectrum, specifically, I think the industry is leaning that way, and I’m excited to see what comes out of it.

Being an independent studio, we must find ways to match the quality of big studio movies as closely as we can, and that is a bar that is constantly moving, so our tools and workflow must constantly evolve to keep up. Often our problem is stylization. For example, three of our recent movies, Riverdance: The Animated Feature, Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank and Hitpig have featured sequences with fast-flowing water. Because we use tools developed primarily for live-action FX, they tend to produce photorealistic results. They don’t fit in our world, so we must find ways to make natural elements feel more ‘cartoony.’”

—Alex Parkinson, Visual Effects Supervisor, Cinesite Studios

For The Sea Beast, Imageworks developed a new animation rig to deal with the many different kinds of ropes seen in the film, allowing them to stretch and hang and be animated as realistically as possible. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Sony Pictures Imageworks)

For The Sea Beast, Imageworks developed a new animation rig to deal with the many different kinds of ropes seen in the film, allowing them to stretch and hang and be animated as realistically as possible. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Sony Pictures Imageworks)

A face-crease-lines tool helped the studio dynamically create and control curves on faces to define the right emotive facial creases. (Image courte-sy of Netflix and Sony Pictures Imageworks)

A face-crease-lines tool helped the studio dynamically create and control curves on faces to define the right emotive facial creases. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Sony Pictures Imageworks)

Marlon West: Stylization, supporting production design and character animation, has been very important for us at Walt Disney Animation Studios. We have endeavored to share 2D sensibilities with team members who started their careers creating images in CG. While those classic animation principles are important to character animators, overlap, staging, anticipation, etc. are just as valued by Walt Disney effects animators, too.

A final frame from The Sea Beast. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Sony Pictures Imageworks)

A final frame from The Sea Beast. (Image courtesy of Netflix and Sony Pictures Imageworks)

Matt Baer: While animation has always sought to create new and imaginative worlds, the last few years have seen a rapid increase in the variety of visual styles produced across the industry. Despite this increase, we’ve only barely cracked open the visual possibilities in animation, which really excites me for the future.


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