About The Wild
An adolescent lion is accidentally shipped from the New York Zoo to the Wild and his father and friends from the zoo must put aside their differences to bring him back home! In this great animated movie from Disney, an odd assortment of animals - including a lion, a giraffe, an anaconda, a koala, and a squirrel - discover what a jungle the city can be as they embark on a dangerous mission to rescue their friend!
Official Movie Site:
C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures is one of Canada's leading digital visual effects and animation studios. For over a decade, the creativity of C.O.R.E.'s computer artists has been part of more than 55 feature films and 50 television series and movies-of-the-week. The company has two studios in Toronto employing more than 400 people, who confirm day-by-day the C.O.R.E. philosophy that a studio designed by artists for artists promotes the very best creative environment.
VFXTalk Goes to "The Wild" with C.O.R.E.
VFXTalk was able to sit down with the VFX Masters at C.O.R.E behind the amazing work on Disney's latest feature, "The Wild." While we were at it we had the opportunity to interview the CG Supervisor for the film, John Mariella.
John is an effects and animation veteran of over 20 years, as well as a director, technical director and software developer. Leading teams of animators to produce some of C.O.R.E.'s most demanding work, John was instrumental in developing the technical aspects of the characters for Angela Anaconda, the Emmy Award-nominated fully-animated series coproduced by C.O.R.E. and Decode Entertainment. John won the Gemini Award for Best Animated Series for his contribution to Angela Anaconda and received a second and third nomination in the same category in 2001 and 2002.
John's technological and artistic expertise was essential in the creation of the digital geese for Fly Away Home, the rat model and fur software for Doctor Dolittle, and the map of New York for X-Men. Recently, John was the Animation Supervisor for Disney's computer generated feature film The Wild, released April 14, 2006. After graduating with an honours degree in fine arts from the University of Waterloo, and with a post-graduate diploma in computer animation from Sheridan College, John was made adjunct professor of Sheridan College's Computer Animation Program in 1998. John also sits on Sheridan College's Program Advisory Committee.
Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your position within C.O.R.E?
JM: I am one of the founding partners of the company. Back in 1994 there were 4 of us that started the company, one of the others being William Shatner. My official position is Vice President, but on a day to day basis I work all manner of roles. If we are speaking about, "The Wild,"¯ then I was the CG Supervisor.
Can you tell us about your work on any projects previous to, "The Wild."¯
JM: I have been with the company since inception, so pretty much any major project C.O.R.E. has been involved with leading up to THE WILD, I have been involved with. We started off with a film called, "Fly Away Home,"¯ which involved us working with flying formations of geese. Then I worked on Dr. Dolittle for the talking animals, The Nutty Professor, The Klumps. I did creature work on a film called Mimic, and Flubber, (not on the Flubber itself, but with more geese), They¯, and X-Men also.
What were your thoughts when you were asked to take on, "The Wild,"¯ project?
JM: Well it was daunting at first, we knew immediately that we were going to be faced with a number of challenges, not only from a technical perspective but logistically, (setting up the studio and taking on a project of this scale) not many companies out there have tackled that.
I understand that you have been named as one of the top ten studios to watch.
JM: That's great isn't it? I have to credit our amazing crew for working so hard. It's really the amazing talent that makes the studio what it is.
It certainly is, we will be keeping our eye on you that's for certain. So what software did you use?
JM: We used a couple of packages. The backbone for our pipeline was Houdini software, all animation, rendering and project management were piped through Houdini. A lot of the character and set modelling was done using Maya.
How many animals did you actually have to create?
JM: There are roughly 70 individual characters in the film, if you count variations on those characters there are close to 130, by that I mean there may have been one "hero"¯ dung beetle that we used to create clones from with modifications.
What was the most complicated part of the film to create, the hardest thing?
JM: Well many of the hero characters were on par with regards to how complex they were, if you look at a character like Samson, the hero Lion. Has it been released in the U.K yet?
Yes it has. It is hard to believe how far character animation has come!
JM: Well thank you, that's very nice to hear. Well Samson alone, just in animation controls had roughly 1700. With those controls we could manipulate everything from toenails to whiskers to eyelids and so on. I'm sure you can imagine, it was a fairly large task for our rigging crew.
And you say that all rigs were equally as difficult?
JM: Well yes, every rig was a fairly complicated bit of engineering, particularly the faces. When you are talking about a character driven feature for Disney, it is critical to have facial rigs with broad range. Each face rig had to have many controls for nuances, fine motion, and subtleties. This was true across the board for all the main characters.
Also, each species of character had its own unique challenges. I mean if you take Larry The Snake, he had no limbs to control, so you'd think he'd be easier to deal with, but he had controls to adjust how his belly would roll around his spine, and how he would anchor himself in places while his head or his tail would move around, and controls for where and how much he would stretch. So while they were all distinct and unique, in terms of technical complexity, they were all on par.
What are you most proud of about the film?
JM: Well the film itself is a major achievement. Here we were...a relatively small shop located in Toronto, creating a major feature film for a reputable major studio. At the time, looking at the level of complexity that this film would require, with all the jungle scenes, ocean scenes, New York City scenes, the numerous furry characters, many were considering the scope of the project unachievable. I think the thing C.O.R.E. as a studio is most proud of is getting it done.
What do you feel is the biggest visual achievement on the film?
JM: When Spaz, the director, first described to us what he wanted to see, he referenced both a photorealistic look, and an almost painterly realism found in modern art, all the while speaking in terms of classic¯ cartoons. So at first, it was difficult to imagine exactly what imagery he had in his head. But eventually, together with Art Director Chris Farmer, we were able to find a rich and compelling look for the visuals that I think were exactly what Spaz wanted.
What made it especially challenging was creating a very tactile reality for the characters, and making equally rich environments for them to live in, and keeping it all feeling somewhat stylized. Everything had to stay in sync in this idealized, realistic, fantasy world.
What can you tell us about the transition from 2D to 3D models?
JM: Our character modelers were supplied with 2D artwork created by the Hoytyboy art department in San Francisco. The designs were mostly pencil drawings done in either a three-quarter view, or for some characters, a collection of views from profile, top, back, etc. When our team started recreating the characters as 3D models, it quickly became evident that there were numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies in the pencil blueprints¯ when we went from one reference to the next. This is only natural, because each drawing is hand made, and it would be extremely difficult to make them identical. Even though we tried our best to average out the subtle differences, for some characters it took many iterations to capture their spirit in 3D form after everyone on the design team, and also Disney, had bought off on a particular design.
The other element that can complicate this matter is that certain features¯ on a character are better created in the rigging process rather than built-in at the modelling stage. For example, a raised bump created by the shoulder blade would work better for us as a rigged feature¯ rather than a modeled feature¯. This is because we want the raised area to move in response to a limb moving and be totally driven by the position of the limb. Also, in the case of something like a shoulder blade, the bone moving under the skin would slide¯ beneath it creating a very loose relationship between where the raised area is and the surface of the skin.
Did you run in to any major problems?
JM: (John laughs) all of them. Any of the major problems we imagined we would encounter originally, eventually we did not things that held the production up or stopped us from getting our job done, just in terms of the sheer size and scale of the project. We had to execute very careful planning, but seriously everything you can think of we overcame.
What did you use to render the movie?
JM: We used Photorealistic Renderman, with Houdini as a front end.
How long did it take to render?
JM: If you look at each individual frame, any shot was built up of many many different layers. Everything was rendered separately. Objects in the extreme background, the midground, and the foreground were broken out into separate layers. Not only that, each character was rendered out into numerous distinct elements, (each being a separate render pass), like a shadow pass, diffuse colour pass, specular pass, various matte passes. And then all these layers and components would be re-integrated into a final image by compositing. All in all, on average, I would say it took 5 to 7 hours of rendering to create all the necessary layers for every single frame.
Did you have to adapt anything to get the job done?
JM: Well when we started this job we already had developed significant technology for the creation of fur, (rendering it and grooming it and so on,). While the technology was useable and stable, we knew it still wouldn't be enough to meet the demands of this film. Over the course of several months we certainly adapted that technology to make it better and more robust. In version 1 of the fur software, we could easily groom short fur to match almost any design. We could interactively paint where we want the fur. It would be very much like holding up a 3 Dimensional object and airbrushing over it. And by the end of the project, we were able to generate long fur and manage each lock of hair on Samson's mane for instance. The fur software was also used as the basis to support application of feathers on the bird characters.
Samson Wireframe Pass
Samson Final Render Pass with Fur
How long in total did it take for you to complete your work on the film?
JM: Well some of us have been working on the film for 3 years. The actual production started in March 03 and finished in December 05.
Did you have to do any research to get the animals right?
JM: Absolutely yeah, we looked at all different kinds of reference footage. We went on field trips to the zoo. Initially when we started off, Spaz, (the director,) wanted a lot of the performance to be based on natural movement so we did a lot of research to get that covered, but then as the animation evolved and the movie became more stylised and "cartoony"¯ we couldn't really depend on the reference material there simply wasn't much reference of lions and wildebeasts dancing.
How did you feel when the project was finished?
JM: Well it was interesting, usually at the end of a film there's this mad scramble to get things finished, working night and day, spending several days in the office, people wondering if you are going to survive, you know you smell bad, the works that wasn't this production at all. The day the last shot was finished, it was comfortable. We just cruised through to the end with time to spare. We even had time to go back and re-address any little things which we had built up in a list from Disney and the director.
If you had chance to do it again, would you do anything differently?
JM: I'm sure there is all sorts of stuff that you wish you could have done better. If we were to go back there are probably hundreds and hundreds of things. But I'm pretty pleased with it as a whole. It exceeded expectations from Disney and everyone who approached me after seeing it commented on how much they were blown away by the richness of the visuals. I wish it could have done better at the box office so that more people could have seen it. I would have liked it to have had a wider audience, but after delivering the finished film to our clients, at that point there is nothing more we can do.
Finally do you have any words of wisdom for our community?
JM: Striving to do things differently and creatively is always the challenge. Your people should try and push the boundaries and innovate. Doing things in typical fashion gets tired pretty quickly. Anyone that can do something to expand the capabilities of the art form would be doing the industry a favour by showing others that there really are no limits.
Thank you so much John you have been wonderful.
JM: Thank you.
1. Flat Shading
2. Foreround Pass
3. Final Render
Written by VFXTalk