And a bit on “Shrek the Halls”
By Charlotte Brewster
It all begins with Production Design, and I was taken aback by how much Production Designer, Guillaume Aretos, looks like a French Mike Meyers. Dressed in all black—a turtleneck and there may have been leggings—he reminded me of Mike in one of my favorite films: So I Married an Axe Murderer.
The making of an animation film is about a three-and-a-half year process. The first year and a half is the preproduction phase. With an army of about 400 artists, Guillaume explained, “We have to be serious about dreaming.” Indeed.
Art Director, Peter Zaslav, said it best: “Anything that you see is designed in the Art Department.” Audience, be prepared, for you may notice a darker palette for this film. “Aesthetically speaking, we wanted to do something different because Shrek was going through a period of doubt about becoming a father (spoiler #1!), so we wanted to give it a moodier feel with slightly darker, colder tones.” They used northern European locations for inspiration. You’ll see a lot of fall colors, which is a departure from Shrek 2.
All of the films take place in a span of three days and involve travel. That translates into a lot of locations: 82 to be exact, and only 15 of those also appeared in Shrek 2. If my meager math skills serve me right, that’s 67 completely new locations to give life to. One of those is Artie’s (a young King Arthur—spoiled #2!) high school. “We try to play with anachronism and use some very precise references to medieval things but modernize them. In the school there is a snack machine with a lever that works like a jackpot, and you get a big piece of ham or barrel of ale,” said Guillaume. The high school cliques were especially painful—painfully funny. They tried to avoid all Harry Potter references, but there is a medival-looking high school in the film, so comparisons will probably be drawn.
Pay special attention to the French hairdresser. Guillaume himself provides the voice! “It’s a French hairdresser, so I had to do it,” he playfully commented. When asked if he had to pick a favorite design or accomplishment, he said, “I can’t. For every sequence we put such an effort in making it as cool-looking as we can that I cannot pick one.”
“Global Illumination” is the technological quantum leap this time around. They used it a little in Shrek 2, but in Shrek the Third, they’re using it throughout. Guillaume explained, “We have a lot more of a natural reaction to the light. Nevertheless, it’s just a secondary bounce; there is not a third one and a fourth one like light does in real life, which is bouncing around at light speed, by definition.”
In terms of challenges, fabric and cloth simulation is still the bee in the CG bonnet. “There are ways of rendering cloth very well now. All the cloth shaders are doing amazing things; the only thing is that the computers are still not powerful enough to render everything that way, so we have to pick and choose where we have a simulation working. After every film, you have a long list of things you’d like to do next,” Guillaume elaborated.
“Shrek the Halls”
This Christmas the kids will get a new classic in the form of “Shrek the Halls,” a half hour TV Christmas special for ABC. It takes place in familiar environs with the core characters. Peter explained, “It integrates seamlessly taking place where Shrek the Third leaves off. It will be on for 15 years every Christmas, so it has to be on par—visually and story wise—with the Shrek films in terms of quality. So far it’s looking good.” No word yet on whether or not Santa makes a cameo.
Although he’s officially the Head of Layout, Nick Walker likens himself to the Director of Photography for a live action film. It’s up to Layout to figure out where all the cameras are going and block the initial action. The team starts with storyboards with the goal of pinpointing the emotional beats or connections of the characters. They then decide where everything’s going to go. Nick explained, “A CG film is more akin to a live action film than a traditional animation. You have a virtual set and a virtual camera shooting virtual actors on that set. Layout is the group that actually goes and figures out where that camera and those actors are going to be standing on the set. We wind up being the first group to build the shots in the computer that get carried through the rest of production.”
The Layout team tries to make it look as cinematic as possible. “Our task and interest is to make as much of a proper filmic experience as we can out of all of this. Artistically we try to get as much cinematic flavor as possible,” Nick elaborated.
Character Technical Direction
Lucia Modesto is one of the two Character Technical Director Supervisors, and it was nice to see a woman in a top job. She explained, “We get the character as a model and put in all the animation controls, so they can be animated by the animators. Our process is between the models and the animators.” They also begin with storyboards or art from the Art Department, and Lucia explained that, “We’re all here to serve the story.”
Since they only keep one generation of legacy characters, they had to rebuild all of the characters from the first movie. All of the software they use was created in-house by PDI.
They write programs called constraints, so the animators don’t have to animate every little thing. Lucia said, “It takes a long time to rebuild a character—six months or more. The hard thing is that he [Shrek] had to be better, but he had to look the same.”
Just to give you a taste of how much work that is, let’s talk about the animation controls for the hairstyles. The women in the film have 25 different heads and the men about 16 each. In the original Shrek they only had three each. That’s a lot of hair and a lot of motion needed for the hair. The same applies to clothing. They had four outfits in the first movie. Now they have 8 or 9 for each man and 14 for the women. Lucia added, “Technology lets us do things better and quicker, so we can do more, and you get more variety and that’s the important thing.”
Tim Cheung, Head of Character Animation, has been with the company for 11 years and worked on DreamWorks’ first CG movie Antz. His role is to manage the animators and ensure that the director’s vision is fulfilled by them. “We bring the characters to life,” said Tim. In a way he translates the director’s notes into animator speak. It’s also his job to make sure that the quality is superior and consistent throughout the entire film.
There are 32 animators working on Shrek the Third, and DreamWorks has sought out the best animators from all over the world: Hong Kong, England, Japan, Korea, Scotland Russia, Paraguay, and, of course, the USA, to name a few. They definitely pride themselves on their diverse staff. The department is divided into teams of animators, each with a team lead. A new thing on this film is that they’ve dedicated two crowd animators per team so that the quality of the crowds is as good as the “hero” characters.
The Animation process occurs in the middle—after story and layout but before lighting and effects. Each team takes on a sequence of the movie, and there are about 30 or so sequences. One team will handle one sequence, and one sequence takes 6-8 weeks depending on its length. Tim said, “We expect five feet of final animation per week, which equals 3.3 seconds of animation.” Every three seconds takes a full week of work!
Tim added, “One of the challenges in this film is that there are more serious action moments, more heart-to-heart moments. In order to really sell those, you need subtle acting effects.” Artie also posed a challenge because teenagers they have specific mannerisms that needed to be captured just right. “To have a character look realistic, the animation has to look believable, which is challenging.” DreamWorks doesn’t use motion capture—at all. “Everything is key frame animation, so all the movement from head to toe is put there by the animator for the purpose. So there is a lot of creativity in our job,” Tim added.