Free to Roam

Animation Magazine - - Features -

An­i­ma­tors at Weta Dig­i­tal looked to an­i­mals but were mostly in­spired by imag­i­na­tion in keyframe an­i­mat­ing the star of Disney’s re­vamp of Pete’s Dragon. By Bill De­sowitz.

mand­ing on a tech­ni­cal side, that’s for sure,” Sain­don says. “King Kong had a mil­lion in­di­vid­ual hairs and we in­di­vid­u­ally simmed about 10,000 hairs. On El­liot, we had 20 mil­lion hairs and they were all in­di­vid­u­ally simmed, so when Pete (Oakes Fe­g­ley) pushed his hand up through the fur, it ac­tu­ally in­ter­acted with his hand.”

Weta used Maya, a pro­pri­etary ef­fects pack­age, and its new ren­derer, Manuka, which al­lows the light­ing used on set to be used on El­liot.

But be­cause the dragon was key-framed, the an­i­ma­tors had a lot of cre­ative free­dom, ac­cord­ing to an­i­ma­tion su­per­vi­sor Michael Cozens. “Keep­ing such a big crea­ture (25-feet tall) phys­i­cal and real was im­por­tant,” he says.

The flight, in par­tic­u­lar, was a hard mo­ment to crack, but the Weta team avoided watch­ing How to Train Your Dragon. In­stead, they ref­er­enced po­lar bears swim­ming un­der wa­ter, which is where the style of flight came from, and also looked at Pe­ga­sus from Fan­ta­sia. “He re­ally uses his body and limbs to move around and that was some­thing we re­ferred back to,” says Cozens.

As for the in­ti­mate mo­ments be­tween Pete and El­liot, the child ac­tor’s per­for­mance was so strong that the an­i­ma­tors ended up mim­ick­ing him through El­liot. “It tied them to­gether as a lit­tle unit, which was some­thing that David said early on about shar­ing sim­i­lar emo­tions af­ter liv­ing to­gether in the for­est for six years,” Sain­don says. One of the head ges­tures was es­pe­cially use­ful in this re­gard.

De­sign-wise (Aaron Sims came up with the ini­tial con­cept), Weta took poses of var­i­ous an­i­mals do­ing happy, sad or an­gry ex­pres­sions. The an­i­ma­tion team then cre­ated a li­brary of anal­o­gous poses for El­liot.

Also, early on, El­liot’s ears were on the top of his head, but it lacked emo­tional range, so they popped them down to the side. “You got this ro­ta­tion to his ears and if you bend them, you got this ‘cu­ri­ous’ ef­fect,” says Sain­don.

And bas­ing it off of an­i­mals, Weta wanted to keep El­liot an an­i­mal in his per­for­mance, re­lat­ing back to the mo­tion stud­ies they orig­i­nally com­piled.

“It was to make you think you’ve seen that tail wag be­fore, or the way he moves the log be­tween the trees is like a dog try­ing to get a bone through a door that’s too big,” Cozens says. “We watched a lot of Amer­ica’s Fun­ni­est Home Videos.”

And, of course, there had to be a fire-breath­ing scene. “We got that from Smaug, but not as an­gry,” Sain­don says.

The cli­max on a bridge, too, was in­ter­est­ing be­cause they shot it in a park­ing lot and then placed it in a 3D en­vi­ron­ment later on. It snowed the day be­fore, which made it harder to dry off the roads and get the green­screen up.

And what were the most dif­fi­cult scenes for the VFX and an­i­ma­tion su­per­vi­sors?

“For me, it was the cave se­quence,” Sain­don says. “Just be­cause it was such an in­ti­mate mo­ment and the play of light from the fire­place on the dragon and the in­ter­ac­tion with Pete was dark, but not too dark. It was tricky for us.”

“For me, there was a mo­ment at the end when El­liot’s try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate to Pete that he needs to pay at­ten­tion to the book (they shared to­gether),” Cozens says. “Again, it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween how you at­tack that as a hu­man or as an an­i­mal. You’re prob­a­bly see­ing the most evolved side of El­liot. You’re try­ing to find a ges­ture that worked well for him, so all of his ges­tures are very dog-like but pushed a lit­tle.” Bill De­sowitz is Crafts Ed­i­tor of IndieWire ( and the au­thor of James Bond Un­masked (www.james­bon­dun­

TV An­i­ma­tion.

Danny, the ge­nius in­ven­tor of the time-travel lunch­box, is based to some de­gree on Quincy’s own child­hood. “When I was in fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade, I was a lit­tle chubby kid and I had glasses and there was a time where I did wear a cap­tain’s hat,” he says. “I had friends and ev­ery­thing, but it would have been just so cool hav­ing your own Chew­bacca or E.T.”

Fu­ture-Worm, mean­while, be­gan as sim­ple doo­dles. “I started draw­ing beards and things on a worm, just think­ing, ‘What’s the most ridicu­lous thing that you would see on a worm?’” Quincy says. The end re­sult is the Fu­ture-Worm fans see to­day, com­plete with cen­ter-parted blond hair, full bul­let­proof beard, vi­sor, ti­ta­nium abs and a cape at­tached via a gem-cen­tered col­lar.

It was 1980s tough guys such as Hulk Ho­gan, Mr. T and Chuck Nor­ris that in­formed Fu­ture-Worm’s per­son­al­ity, as does voice ac­tor James Ado­mian. “It’s just fun to think of this tough guy worm on this lit­tle kid’s shoul­der, like a body­guard Jiminy Cricket who al­ways had your back,” he says.

Fu­ture-Worm’s ori­gin was briefly cov­ered in one of the shorts: Danny (voiced by Andy Milon­akis) sent his time-travel lunch­box into the fu­ture with his lunch in­side it. When fu­ture sci­en­tists find the box con­tain­ing an ap­ple with a worm in it, they use a ge­netic es­ca­la­tor on the worm to cre­ate Fu­ture-Worm and send him back to Danny.

With those char­ac­ters set, the rest of the se­ries came to­gether rather quickly. “The un­der­ly­ing thing about the se­ries is it’s about ac­cep­tance and Danny’s fam­ily doesn’t ques­tion that he hangs out with this worm and goes on these time travel ad­ven­tures,” Quincy says. “It’s all just ac­cepted.”

The for­mat does re­quire a lot of sto­ries — Quincy says they need more than 60 to fill all the slots for the show’s first sea­son — mean­ing there’s a lot of world build­ing go­ing on and the cast of char­ac­ters has ex­panded rather quickly.

Among the cast: Robo-Carp, one of Danny’s less-suc­cess­ful in­ven­tions; the pur­ple haired hu­man-size fairy Bug (voiced by Jes­sica DiCicco); Danny’s par­ents, Doug and Me­gan (voiced by Quincy and Me­lanie Lynskey); and Steak Star­bolt, star of Danny’s fa­vorite in- show car­toon (voiced by Jonathan Frakes). Ad­di­tion­ally, sci­en­tist and ed­u­ca­tor Neil deGrasse-Tyson plays a ver­sion of him­self, ap­pear­ing from time to time as a wise men­tor, à la Obi-Wan Kenobi.

“Some of the three-minute seg­ments are like a Steak Star­bolt episode, and you won’t even see Danny or Fu­ture-Worm in some of these,” says Quincy, who draws on his South Park ex­pe­ri­ence in com­ing up with sec­ondary char­ac­ters that can carry their own episodes.

Most of the pre-pro­duc­tion work on the show — writ­ing, char­ac­ter and prop de­sign, back­grounds, sto­ry­board­ing — is done at Disney TV An­i­ma­tion in Glen­dale, Calif., with an­i­ma­tion done at Tit­mouse’s Van­cou­ver stu­dio.

Fu­ture-Worm pre­sents an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter an­i­ma­tion chal­lenge, by na­ture of his de­sign. “Not only does he not have any arms, he doesn’t have any eyes,” says Quincy. “He can do things with his tongue and things with his tail but it’s been chal­leng­ing. I think every­one’s ex­cited about an­i­mat­ing him and pos­ing him.”

For a show that started out as a time-travel pitch, Quincy says the big­gest sur­prise in mak­ing the show so far was that the char­ac­ters are strong enough to not al­ways need that idea.

“We have such a di­verse cast and these char­ac­ters can just do stuff in their back yard or in Bug’s junk yard — there’s enough lo­cales and en­vi­ron­ments that they can just do ad­ven­tures there and you don’t have to go back in time or ahead in time,” he says. [

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