You probably have a pretty good idea how traditional animation works: A guy sits at a desk, draws a series of pictures and voila: Steamboat Willie. But what about 3D animation, like the new Despicable Me 2? Turn out it’s a pretty labor-intensive process, but it’s still a lot easier than doing everything by hand. We spoke with Dan Warom, Crowd Supervisor at Scanline VFX and a major animation studio vet, about how Gru comes to life. Read and learn.
“A rig is essentially the muscles, skeleton and skin of a character,” says Warom. “Sometimes there are guys whose sole job is just to be the face animator.”
Everything starts with pre-production. It’s where the story gets put on storyboards, but also where technology is developed specifically to make it happen. “Every film is different, and you need to adapt your technology to that,” Warom explains. “Making a 3D animated feature is like building a car. You need to adapt your production pipeline for the specific product.”
This is also the stage where the art department decides, for example, exactly what Gru is going to look like. In doing so, they have to work with other departments balancing three things: what they want, what can actually be done with existing technology and the deadline for the finished product. “Bob, the blue blob from Cowboys vs. Aliens is quite challenging to make a rig of,” says Warom. “The art department might have wanted something crazy with two hundred arms or whatever, but the animation department might step in and say ‘the tech just doesn’t exist to make that kind of a rig yet’ or request more time to get it done.”
Once all the storyboarding is done, it’s time to make a rough version of the entire film. Only after that’s all been squared away is it time for all the other departments to come in. “After final layout you start installing the actual characters the animators will use. This is when the lighting department, the effects department, the character effects and the crowd department all come in.”
They may be products of the imagination, but there’s a lot of substance to the elements you see on screen. This is because the characters are built around a rig. “A rig is essentially the muscles, skeleton and skin of a character.” It’s the animated character at his or her most basic. Warom, who worked on Kung Fu Panda, notes that “sometimes there are guys whose sole job is just to be the face animator.”
When you make a rig, you start from simple sketches. These sketches will show characters and objects from several different perspectives, allowing for the rig to be shown from all sides in a 3D environment. Using these models, the team makes 3D models using something called wireframe animation. There’s an element of drawing the models, however there’s more to it than that. The team will effectively tell the computer that Lucy Wilde’s head has certain dimensions and that it moves according to a certain set of physics. This logic is created not just for the characters, but for all the objects in the film.
At this stage, there are several different facets that must develop simultaneously. That’s why the work is divided and farmed out to different departments during post. These departments include:
Crowd Department: When you watch Gru addressing 10,400 of his minions, that’s the work of the crowd department, Warom’s specialty. “This is generally grouped under animation,” he says.
Effects Department: When things blow up, that’s the effects department. However, they don’t just work on big things. The little details that make the final product believable—a character kicking up dust walking through the desert, for example—are the domain of the effects department.
Lighting Department: After the crowd and effects are put in, the lighting department gets a crack at the film. Can’t show Gru in an, ahem, unflattering light, right?
Character Effects and Finaling Department: Remember, it’s not just the characters that move; it’s also their clothes and hair, for example. The finaling department adds these finishing touches during post-production.
Once all the departments have done their job, there’s just one small problem: they’ve all got different versions of the film. “A character might be rendered separately in the effects and the environment,” notes Warom. Compositing brings all of these versions together into the finished product, what you eventually see on the screen.
The Silver Screen
Once the compositing is done, the film gets transferred to digital video or film so it can go out to theaters and entertain the heck out of you. The good news for the guys making the sequel? A lot of the work from the original film can be reused. “You build the film as modularly as possible, so that when you have a sequel, you just reuse the parts over again.” The one’s that haven’t been blown to smithereens, that is.