DreamWorks is known for its dedication to creating quality animation. In watching some of your favorites, such as Shrek, Over the Hedge, or How to Train Your Dragon you probably take the CGI (computer-generated imagery) for granted. Did you know that each film takes three to five years to create? Are you aware of just how detailed these artists get? Thankfully, DreamWorks Animation has publicized its work process, which is provided below. Everything, the text, the images (click on them for a closer look), the punctuation comes straight from the DreamWorks Animation Official Website on their Production Processing page. After all, the professionals from the studio will be able to explain the process best.
Meet Toothless, from How to Train Your Dragon.
He, and his world, were created by a team of artists using a delicate marriage between creativity and technology. Every detail, every leaf, tree, blade of grass, rock and cloud; every shadow and shaft of light; every thread of clothing and lock of hair (or fur), was imagined and brought to life by our creative teams over the four years or so that it takes to complete an animated film. So, how did we do it?
Great films begin with great concepts. Some of our ideas are completely original, while some are inspired by a wide variety of sources, including children’s books and comic strips. Once we’ve settled on an idea, the first step is to write a script. The page you see here is from an iconic scene in Kung Fu Panda 2.
Once a script page is ready, we give it to our storyboard artists. Imagining how the words will translate into actions and pictures, they make a series of sketches, a kind of comic book, to tell the story and bring it to life. Once the directors and producer approve, the drawings are digitally photographed and strung together to create what we call a story reel (imagine a flip book that lets you see how the drawings flow together). We combine that with temporary music, sound effects and dialogue, and work with the movie in this form for about 18 months.
Once the story reel is underway, our visual development department begins to plan the look of the film, developing the style, tone, color and overall artistic approach to each and every sequence. Everything has to be designed, from the major characters to the smallest of props. Thousands of drawings, paintings, blueprints, sculptures and models later, our development artists have designed a fantasy world and characters to tell the story.
STEREO 3D 1
Starting with the release of Monsters versus Aliens in 2009, all feature films at DWA are produced in stereoscopic 3D. The groundbreaking experience this new visual format provides has been compared to the advent of color and then sound in cinema history. With these advanced technologies came the possibility to elevate our movie-making journey into the future and beyond.
STEREO 3D 2
The stereoscopic filmmaking process requires changes to the traditional methods of CGI film-making, introducing exciting new technical and creative opportunities. Integrated into all aspects of the DWA pipeline from the development of story and visual style to layout to the final render, the stereoscopic process translates the creative vision of the director into an immersive visual environment. The stereoscopic process at DWA enables artists to tell stories in creative new ways through the interaction of the camera with our characters and the space around them, further engaging the audience. The studio continues to push the boundaries of stereoscopic filmmaking through the development of new technologies and techniques.
Our storyboards are drawn, our characters and sets are designed, so now we need to find voices for our characters and start recording their lines. Casting in animation is unlike casting for live action movies. Since we create the physical characters on the computer first, we’re much more concerned with what an actor sounds like than how he or she looks. In other words, we cast with our ears, not our eyes. We record the actors before we start animating. We usually videotape the actors performing their roles to help provide reference for the next phases of production.
MODELING & RIGGING
Using production designs culled down from hundreds of drawings, modelers will construct a digital model, sort of a clay model inside the computer. The modelers start with this wire frame sculpture that we call an armature, that breaks down our design into workable geometry and allows us to rig the figure, which will give the animator the ability to move our 3-D figure in whatever way is necessary to get the articulation we want. Once we’ve set up the armature, we can begin to add basic surfaces. It is this simplified “puppet in a box” or digital marionette that we use in our next step.
Modelers create the “physical” objects in the virtual world of our movies. Modeling artists digitally sculpt the characters and environments in our films by collaborating with the Art department to realize design concepts as tangible 3D forms. The modelers start with this wire frame sculpture that we call an armature, that breaks down our design into workable geometry and allows us to rig the figure, which will give the animator the ability to move our 3-D figure in whatever way is necessary to get the articulation we want.
After modeling and before animation comes the rigging process. Character TDs, also known as “riggers”, evaluate the CG “statue” coming from the modeling department and determine how this character must move, where the bones, muscle and fat would be under their skin and how realistic or “cartoony” their actions must be in the film. Joints and various mathematical operations are then employed throughout the body, face, hair and clothing of the character to make it bend and deform like a living creature. Finally, rigging works with animation to design and build an extensive set of controls for the character so animation can pose every part of this digital puppet and bring it to life.
Layout has two distinct parts: Rough Layout and Final Layout. In Rough Layout, artists interpret and recreate the hand drawn 2D storyboard panels in a 3D CG environment. In doing so, these artists determine the initial 3D camera placement and motion along with the first pass of character blocking and staging. Working with rough versions of the characters lighting, effects, and environments, Rough Layout creates the cinematography for the film. Once the Rough Layout has been approved by the Director, the Final Layout artists take the shots and replace the rough characters and environments with the final approved assets and provide the set dressing. This allows the Character Animators to add final performances to the shots and all remaining production processes to start. Once the shots have been animated, Final Layout applies any additional camera polishing and tweaks to account for the new performances added by the Character Animators.
Once the sequence is working well in layout, the animators start bringing the characters to life in the computer. They articulate the thousands of controls that were created during the character-rigging phase to bring each character to life and to synchronize them to the voice performances. Now the characters really look like themselves, but not quite. Remember, this is just the animation; the scene isn’t quite finished yet.
Coming out of modeling, characters, props and environments are flat and grey. The surfacing artists add the colors and textures to these elements, making surfaces look smooth and shiny like glass, bumpy and gritty like dirt, fuzzy and soft like wool, etc. Sometimes characters need to be customized for a specific shot, such as being made to look dripping wet or covered in mud. The surfacing department may also be called to groom hairstyles into place, grow fields of grass, or paint footprints into a snowbank. After each environment is setdressed, surfacing artists work closely with lighting to develop the final look of assets in the film.
After the camera moves have been set and the characters have been animated, the next step is effects. In a live-action film, it’s easy to photograph things like leaves blowing in the wind, waves at the beach or even footprints in the sand. In computer animation, these simple things are all designed and animated by the effects artists. In other words, if it’s not acting, but it moves, it’s an effect.
Lighting artists utilize the computer to “paint” with light, bringing the final color, look, and illumination to the film. Lighting is the first time we get to see animation, surfaces, grass, trees, water, crowds and effects all working together. Lighting does this by creating illumination for the scene. It creates the mood and atmosphere to support the story. Lighting leads the viewers’ eye to the critical elements of the frame so that the audience is looking exactly when and where the storyteller wants them to look.
SOUND FX 1: Sound Design
Sound designers create and record sound effects, ambience and foley to create the textures and layers of sound that enrich the story. Foley artists create sound effects that are specific to each movie, such as footsteps, clothes rustling, doors opening/closing, glass breaking, etc.
SOUND FX 2: Music Scoring
The composer writes the music that heightens and enhances the story beats of the movie. The music helps the audience follow the action and emotional moments within the story.
FINAL MIX: Echo
The dialogue, music and sound effects are assembled on the sound mixing stage. Audio levels, equalization, perspective and treatments (echo, TV or radio sound, public access delay) are added as tracks and mixed into the final version of the movie.
Now that you understand the animation process, go back and watch one of your favorite DreamWorks productions. Notice how soft Puss in Boots’ paws are or how a wave of wind ripples through Eep’s hair. Each detail was individually handled with care, all for your ninety-minute viewing pleasure.