In 2002, the artists and animators of DreamWorks set out to capture the drama and spirit of the American Wild West for their feature film. Spirit: Cimarron Stallion, about a wild mustang in this vibrant and colorful country. At that time, many studios, DreamWorks included, were embracing the new CGI medium, but filmmakers instead opted for a hybrid approach, using a combination of 3D CGI and hand-drawn 2D images to achieve the desired results.
Then, starting in May 2017, DreamWorks Animation Television began releasing a computer animated multi-series on Netflix called Spirit Riding Free, inspired by this movie. Like its predecessor, it contains a unique graphic aspect, with painterly backgrounds.
Now DreamWorks Animation has trotted Untamed spirit, a reinvented cinematographic version based on the
Free riding series, as a young girl named Lucky moves to the Wild West with her aunt, who hopes to tame Lucky’s rebellious streak. There, the young girl meets a soul mate, a wild mustang named Spirit, who shares her independent nature. When an evil horse fighter captures Spirit and his herd with the intention of auctioning them off for a life of captivity and hard work, Lucky and his friends embark on a wild adventure to save and reunite these incredible animals.
Savage is directed by Elaine Bogan and co-directed by Ennio Torresan Jr., and is based on the screenplay by Aury Wallington. It’s the next chapter in the franchise, and, as
Free riding, is written by Wallington. Take the reins of animation for the period
Savage was London-based Jellyfish Pictures, an animation and VFX studio, with which DreamWorks worked on the vacation special
How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming.
The horse-rider relationship was taken into account when animating the characters.
Horses are said to be one of the most difficult animals to draw and animate, so Bogan (an experienced rider) and Torresan took the DreamWorks team on a field trip to the Los Angeles Equestrian Center so the team could get on with it. become familiar with the way horses move, their behavior and their body language. The Jellyfish entertainment team also visited a local riding school and was able to take photo references and study their mechanics as needed. Bogan also sent them information regarding not only the movement of the horses, but the relationship between the horse and the rider.
Savage includes just under 1,300 shots, all but 25 animated by Jellyfish. “It was an ambitious undertaking, especially with the timeline we had, both for DreamWorks to develop the film and for us to do the animation,” said Luke Dodd, director of visual effects and animation at Jellyfish and executive producer at Jellyfish on the film.
Additionally, it was Jellyfish’s first feature film – the studio had focused on episodic work, having launched Jellyfish Animation in 2014.
Jellyfish has been further challenged by COVID restrictions, having started work in August 2019, just before the pandemic began to spread. When work restrictions began in early 2020, the facility – which had migrated to a fully virtual studio in 2017 – was able to move 150-200 artists to a remote workflow in less than two weeks, allowing staff to work efficiently from home.
As production gained momentum, the Jellyfish team expanded to nearly 350 artists as work began at the end of February. Of course, this does not include development time at DreamWorks. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that it took over four years to complete the first Spirit functionality at DreamWorks – in an era when tools were much less efficient and hardware much slower.
The foreground and mid-plan images are in 3D; mostly 2D backgrounds.
A hybrid world
Timelines, tools and aesthetics have certainly evolved since the release of the first feature film, as evidenced by the unique aesthetic of the original film, and then the “mixed” look of the TV series – the latter is a style that Jellyfish has. brought to a level of functionality. in Savage. In
Savage, all the images in the foreground and in the middle of the shots were designed in 3D – and, according to Dodd, everything that was created in 3D contained hand-painted textures.
“Everything was based from the shading point of view on the reality of the materials needed for the appearance,” says Dodd. “But everything underneath was very painterly and had the artist’s hand behind every texture you see on screen. the skies, the mountains, and so on. “
The environments, in fact, contain a delicate blend of realism and artistry.
However, some 3D elements for clouds were sometimes added to these background shots, especially when the camera was traveling great distances or when the group wanted a slightly different look. The art direction of using 3D elements in the distance was something production designer Paul Duncan really wanted to explore, Dodd explains. So the group used 3D matte paint whenever possible.
As previously stated, DreamWorks led the design and story, handing over artwork – “absolutely gorgeous designs,” Dodd says – elevations of characters, props, and assets that fit into the environments, as well. that key illustrations of what each sequence would be, such as the time of day, that really sets the tone for what each sequence should look like, including the characters and environments. Jellyfish would then model these assets, translating 2D drawings into 3D models. Sometimes DreamWorks would also provide these 3D art models.
“Our amazing modeling team then brought all of these characters off the 2D page and into the 3D world,” says Dodd.
Much time has been spent developing hair and fur for humans and horses.
The film features several characters, with six heroes in all: three girls and three horses. The girls had long, flowing hair and beautiful period clothing, while the horses had manes and tails that blew in the wind. The 3D modeling and animation was done in Autodesk’s Maya, as was the lighting. Rendering was done via Maya with Arnold and composition via Foundry’s Nuke. Houdini from SideFX handled all of the simulation, especially for the fabric and hair, as well as the 3D effects. During this time, the artists built the wearable assets in Marvelous Designer and used Foundry’s Mari and other key software for textures.
In fact, a few pipeline adjustments were required to bring Houdini to the scale required for all VFX work. Other changes were made to allow the group to automate and see early simulations on the hair, mane and tail faster in order to get approval much faster. “It was one of the key markers for us to be able to speed up and fit the whole project into the small production window we had,” says Dodd.
In Dodd’s opinion, the most technically difficult job involved the hair and fur. “We didn’t underestimate him before the show, and we knew that the speed at which we had to deliver him would become an important goal for us,” he says. “We had to learn the differences in the sims between when a horse gallops and when it is at rest. Or during a turn, what happens to the tail.”
In fact, the way Lucky and Spirit’s hair moved took a lot of development, on top of the simulation. “It was incredibly difficult, but we learned a lot. And it’s really beautiful,” said Dodd. The artists approached the hair as they would by simulating realistic hair in visual effects, then worked with DreamWorks to bring the simulation back to an aesthetic that matches the pictorial environments. To make the process easier, the group created a number of setups that allowed artists to drag and drop the starting positions of the hair, including pre-design settings for the next move. This allowed the artist to simulate a solid first release in most situations.
“To access these predefined parameters, we generated different wedges for different movements; each cleat had slightly different settings for weight, stiffness, rebound, etc. », Explains Dodd. “We worked closely with DreamWorks Animation to find the right combination of settings for different movements or actions. This became the basis of how the hair would move throughout the movie.”
Another aspect to which artists paid special attention was the rigging of horses and the play of the muscles of these animals. “The platform complexity on this movie was way ahead of what we’ve done for our animated series work in the past,” Dodd adds. We had over 10 different layers of body deformation and 40 different layers of facial deformation built into all of the hero platforms. Each platform then had four levels of detail and functionality, allowing real-time playback at 25 fps, ”says Dodd. In fact, Jellyfish collaborated with the Spanish house of VFX Minimo, who created platforms all over the show.
In Dodd’s opinion, the Spirit platform was the most complicated due to the intricacy of the mane and tail as well as the ease of muscle simulation – the weight and movement of such a magnificent animal was so important to the film and essential for Jellyfish to be successful.
The artists approached muscle simulation in a similar way to how they found the movement of hair. A system was built that mimicked actual muscle movement across the entire horse, and then they reduced or restricted any areas of movement that they felt did not stay true to the artistic style of the picture. “I know the animation speaks for itself and I’m really proud of what our team has created,” he adds.
In 2D terms, the group made extensive use of Mari and Adobe Substance Painter and Photoshop to create all of the texturing and shading work. They also used Marvelous Designer to design and make all of the vintage clothing. “Our artists made all of the textures by hand, sometimes digitizing our artists’ physical watercolor illustrations to use as a reference or even as a starting point for a texture,” Dodd points out. No photographic detail was used for the textures; they are all painted and drawn by hand. “This attention to detail, we hope, really helps the viewer feel the artist’s hand touch each element.”
Looking back, Dodd is particularly pleased with the results of Jellyfish’s first feature film. “I really think it has a unique aesthetic and everything fits together really well,” he says. “We were really concerned with making sure that the backgrounds and the environment were all set right and played well with the characters, and that was extremely important to making each sequence cohesive and having a great aesthetic throughout the film. “
Karen Moltenbrey is the editor-in-chief of CGW.