Free to Roam
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 (www.indiewire.com) and the author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com).
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. [