Animals and Plants — In Space!
Framestore and MPC each faced distinct challenges in animating Rocket and Groot for the cosmic Marvel movie. By Bill Desowitz.
Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy is like a low-rent version of The Avengers, only with a 1970s sci-fi vibe applied by director James Gunn ( Slither). It’s about a rag-tag quartet banding together to save the universe. But it’s not surprising that the two animated characters — the genetically engineered raccoon, Rocket, and the tree-like humanoid, Groot, steal the movie.
Voiced by Bradley Cooper with a thick New York accent, Rocket was animated by Framestore, while Groot — his single line, “I am Groot!” voiced by Vin Diesel — was animated by MPC.
“We had a definite look for Groot but Rocket was more in flux,” says production visual-effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti. “We pretty much let the vendors do their own versions of the characters, looking at the concept art and the comics. Also, we wanted to know more about raccoons, so we had a real one come in (courtesy of the U.K. animal encounters company Oreo and Friends). We learned how they look, how they live, how they move.”
Both Rocket and Groot were animated in Maya with Framestore and MPC applying their own in-house customizations. However, Rocket was rendered in Arnold, which provided a photo-real look and handles fur well. By contrast, Groot was rendered in RenderMan, and that’s where the two studios had to ne- gotiate the handling of shared assets to make them match.
He’s an Animal!
“The thing that we wanted to keep was that Rocket had animalistic qualities,” says Ceretti. “They are very tactile and use their fingers while doing something else. And so we have Rocket assemble things in the movie — he’s
art and the comics.’ a range of emotions. He’s going from being that badass raccoon, super-excited, shooting guns everywhere, to (being much more vulnerable). So we had to express that on his face and in his eyes. James was very adamant that we could get all of that in what we were building.
“We did a lot of eye tests: the size of the eyes, including iris and pupils. We tried to stay true to the reality but what we found that was really important was getting the level of moisture in
‘We pretty much let the vendors do their own
versions of the characters, looking at the concept
working as a character animator at SunnyBoy Entertainment and Fisher-Price. “They asked me to check out their system, and see what I could do in MotionBuilder. In about four days, we made a moon game that worked well.”
YouTube clips of E3 demos show grown men jumping around a virtual moonscape while wearing the Control VR sensors and the Rift head-mounted displays.
As the nation’s upcoming generations get more and more tech-savvy, classicists worry about the death of the printed page. One company using an innovative approach and proprietary animation technology has found a creative way to blend kid-friendly interactivity with new storytelling techniques to encourage literacy in kids ages 3 to 8.
Enter Auryn Technology, led by CEO Umesh Shukla and chief technologist Rob Kalnins, the brains behind the StoriesAlive app for iPad and Android. The storybook app uses proprietary technology called “Aurynization” to translate any illustrative style into 2D or 3D animation, preserving its unique looks. The story apps, which draw on classics like Nancy Tillman’s On the Night You Were Born as well as originals, incorporate interactive features like word highlighting, dictionary, personalization options and themed games, puzzles and more to engage young readers.
According to Shukla, a veteran visual-effects artist who has worked at Disney and DreamWorks, the technology essentially replaces a 3D camera with a “virtual artist,” which learns what the creators want the characters and background to look like and fluidly tracks brushstrokes from frame to frame.
“We actually have technology to draw things that look like watercolor, that are literally doing one layer at a time, so it looks really realistic because the simulation is really close to how the actual things works,” Kalnins says.
“You just train this thing by example of what you want it to look like and the machine figures out what your style means and then transmits that style to another image. But, this is important to us because when you’re working in the story development space you need to stay as true as possible to the original illustrated style as you can,” says Kalnins. This is especially important when working with easily recognizable author-illustrators like Tillman.
StoriesAlive offers about 160 apps, including storybooks and tie-in digital painting and story writing apps. The stories come in a range from standard types with basic levels of interactive content to premium apps with more bells and whistles. “Each one of our apps has personalization. They’re designed to encourage parents to spend time with children … quality time and education at the same time,” says Shukla, “In these apps, we encourage discovery. In some of them, you press a button, and in others we let the kids find it for themselves, so each page is full of functionality.”
For now, Auryn is keeping its technology to itself, although it has shared its creator apps with the outside world to see what people come up with.
Kalnins points out that this type of system that preserves illustrative qualities in animation is a hot new ticket in the biz, with majors like Pixar working on similar technologies. For Shukla, the most important thing is encouraging kids to learn and create. “Spending time together with children, that’s kind of the core thinking behind what we have done, which is allowing parents to experience the same thing in a different format — with added personalization,” he says. StoriesAlive is available for iPad and Android devices through library subscription plans. Visit stories-alive.com to learn more or view the available titles.
could possibly be focused enough while providing a large enough client base to keep you flush with cash.
In a matter of minutes, you could jump online and find out how many veterinary clinics, zoos and other animal-centric businesses there are in the country or even around the world. Next, you would need to find out if they have a need for your services. Lastly, you would need to find out if they would be willing to pay well for your services. This takes a little research and more than likely some phone calls and email correspondence, but in as little as a few hours
To work, it also had to be fast-paced, witty and more adult in tone than typically seen in previous DC Universe features.
“It’s not an adaptation, so I had a little bit of a freer hand to (pace it) as fast as I could,” says Corson. “Also, because we’re doing a heist movie, those things are breathless. They gotta move so quickly that you’re just keeping up. So that sort of was baked into the concept that it needed to move as fast as it possibly could.”
Villains Say the Darnedest
Using villains as the main characters made this task easier than dealing with heroic characters that tend to be stoic and concerned about saying and doing the right thing. “(Villains) don’t have any sort of impulse control,” says Corson. “They want what they want now, and they don’t care who knows it and they don’t care who they have to hurt in getting it.”
Jay Oliva, a veteran storyboard artist and director of several DC Universe features who co-directed Assault on Arkham with Ethan Spaulding, says he was surprised by the script the first time he read it, but got the Guy Ritchie-style vibe Corson was shooting for.
“I realized this is a heist film and I then pitched an idea to the producer, James Tucker, and I said, ‘Hey, James, if I directed this the way I would normally do one of our DC Animated Universe features, I don’t think it would work out too well.’ And he said, ‘Well, what are you thinking?” I said, ‘What if I directed this like a Guy Ritchie film?’ ... And he liked that idea.”
With so many different influences, Oliva says they went for a tone in the visuals and with the music that is distinctly different from the classic Bruce Timm look or the recent New 52 features.
Facing the Competition
“I don’t try to make these films to compete with other animated films out there; I’m thinking of what’s the last great comic-book film that I’ve seen,” says Oliva. “For example, I just saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier a couple months ago and I thought it was fantastic. So whenever I approach these animated films for DC, I’m always thinking to myself, ‘This is my competition.’”
Oliva also took a cue from Zack Snyder — Oliva drew storyboards for Snyder’s Man of Steel and its upcoming sequel Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — who intentionally changed his style to one influenced by Terrence Malick for Man of Steel.
“Most people think that Zack is a one-trick pony, and this is how he does it; but the fact is that he actually likes to try different things if it fits the story,” he says. “And off of his cue, when I was doing this, I was like, ‘Let’s try directing outside my style.’”
This movie called for an approach that used more humor and had a more adult level of violence and even a bit of sex. For the former, Oliva says Tucker’s instincts were the strongest influence. “James is a master of knowing when to put a joke in or when to add some levity (from having worked on) Brave and the Bold,” he says. “I learned a lot from working with him.”
Making it for the Fans
“I was told to make this as adult as you can, make it something you want to see, so I really wrote for a fan like myself,” says Corson. “I tried to throw in as much as I could and make the world as dark and as vicious and as violent as Gotham really is.”
There also was a chance to have a lot of fun. “I knew I wanted to see the property room at Arkham, which I can’t believe nobody has ever done before,” says Corson. “I love the idea of these guys playing with other villains’ weapons, which is super fun.”
Figuring out character designs — a task handled by Jon Suzuki — that worked in animation but still evoked the game was another challenge. “The videogames are CGI and it’s really hard for us to try to replicate that, so we tried to find a stylized version of the videogames and what we did is we looked at Batman,” says Oliva. “Whenever we design a show, we always base it on our main character.”
Mapping the proportions of the video game version of Batman over to animation allowed the crew to figure out proportions that would work for the other characters.
Oliva says his favorite design was the one he came up with for Harley Quinn, where neither the costume she wears in the game or in the current comics seemed right. “I basically took Bruce Timm’s classic design and, on my desk I have the Adam Hughes Girls of the DC Universe Harley statue, that I love, and so I was looking at that and it was like that’s what I want,” he says. “I want her to pull off her hat and her pigtails basically fit into where those little ear things are on her Harley outfit. And then what I did is I took that classic look and I gave it kind of a punk, Tank Girl feel.”
Another element borrowed from the video game are the action sequences, particularly the fight scenes. “It’s ballet for men, because it’s just really a highly choreographed dance,” says Oliva, citing as influences 1980s action films, Hong Kong fight choreography and Bruce Lee. “I’m just like, I’m going to put all things that I love into my action sequences, whether it’s a hand-to-hand fight or a big chase sequence ...
“The nice thing about animation is I don’t have to worry about the stunt man complaining that he can’t do this particular move that I’ve told him to do. If I can draw it, Batman is gonna do it!”
Chou ( Appleseed: Ex Machina, Halo Legends), the DVD and Bluray ($30.99) were previously announced to contain director’s commentary and 11 makingof featurettes, plus a 12-song soundtrack from artists like Skrillex, nishi-ken and RAM RIDER. [Release date: July 22]