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Inside DreamWorks Animation

Dan Philips was DreamWorks’ digital supervisor on The Road to El Dorado andco-head of effects on The Prince of Egypt. During his five years at thestudio’s animation facility in Glendale, California, Philips played a keyrole in building DreamWorks’ digital infrastructure for producing so-called”traditional” animated films. Here, he offers Millimeter readers an insidepeek at the studio’s transition to a digital pipeline from 1995 to thepresent, a time when the facility was in constant production on The Princeof Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron(scheduled for 2001 release).

Our digital development at DreamWorks Animation over the last five yearshas been directly linked to the creative demands placed on us by The Princeof Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, and the upcoming Spirit: Stallion of theCimarron. Those films caused innovations out of necessity. They also led tothe ongoing development of an animation department that was significantlymore digital than before-a department designed to produce traditional,2D-animated films through a combination of traditional and digital tools.

One example of this journey to increased digital production is ourco-development, along with Silicon Studios, of a proprietary “Exposure”camera and integration tool set for use on The Prince of Egypt and The Roadto El Dorado. We badly needed 2D/3D camera and artwork integration tools togive us greater speed and flexibility in combining a wide range of imagescreated both by hand and digitally. Until recently, in combining 2D and 3Dimages, we had to lock literally everything to a preliminary 3D cameramove, which we tediously plotted on paper frame by frame and at fieldingsizes that often made it difficult to draw and lock the characters to theirsurroundings. The development of Exposure finally gave us a softwareapplication that permitted our artists to view and work on 2D and 3D imagesin one environment.

Developing this ability to design, construct, and see elements fromdifferent dimensions together and at practical working sizes has beencentral to our ongoing 2D/3D integration process. As El Dorado wrappedproduction, in fact, we went beyond Exposure’s linking abilities with a newin-house tool called Toonstage, which is now replacing Exposure as Spiritproduction begins.

But this is only one example of the many challenges we have faced in ourongoing effort to create a digital path for our films. Following areseveral others that confronted us during the heat of production on ourfirst three movies.

3D Joins a “Traditional” PipelineAs we entered production on The Prince of Egypt and preproduction on ElDorado, our desire to integrate the 2D and 3D processes brought initialchanges across multiple departments. Solutions developed by our AnimationProduction Technology Group immediately paid dividends on The Prince ofEgypt, but that film proved to be only the beginning of our studio’sdigital transition. The evolution eventually expanded to include everyproduction department and was affected by both our own internal goals andchanges within the industry.

For The Prince of Egypt, we linked Exposure to our 2D animation tool, aspecialized version of Cambridge Animation’s Animo, and the 3D software wewere using at the time, Alias PowerAnimator. As production went forward onEl Dorado, we saw that PowerAnimator was quickly being replaced throughoutthe industry by a new tool: Maya. Thus, we began slowly phasing Maya in andAlias out, while simultaneously developing Toonstage to take Exposure’splace in linking our version of Animo with Maya.

Some difficult moments arose late in the production of El Dorado because wehad to do some temporary, custom jury-rigging to handle certain scenes aswe began switching from Alias to Maya. For Spirit, however, Maya andToonstage are now up and running, providing connectivity between our 2D and3D tools.

Even before the move from Exposure to Toonstage, the transition to Mayabegan during the early days of production of El Dorado and was spurred bythe fact that we wanted to rely exclusively on Maya for all 3D work inSpirit. We began the transition during El Dorado by using Maya only forcomplex effects scenes, while still using Alias and Exposure for moststandard shots. This approach made it easier for us to leave Alias behindas we started Spirit.

During our transition to Maya, we also realized that we would have tosubstantially change the way we dealt with 3D models within our pipeline.We came to understand that our desire to incorporate 3D models into a”traditional” animation process would require us to standardize how webuilt and used 3D models. During the early days of El Dorado, our variousdepartments and artists were not using standard tools and procedures for 3Dmodels. That created difficulty as models traveled from one department toanother. Unfortunately, we did not restructure to address this problemuntil very late in the making of El Dorado. Since that time, we have hiredMarty Havran to reorganize this process among all the productiondepartments working with 3D models on Spirit, and that reorganization isongoing.

With work on Spirit now under way, the transition to digital tools andprocesses and our general increased use of 3D models in traditionallyanimated films has permitted the digital equivalent of true”cinematography” to find its way into our movies. That’s why, among otherthings, we have changed the name of our weekly “CGFX” meeting to “DigitalMethods”-to acknowledge the fact that this digital transition has rapidlygrown beyond our Effects department.

For example, our decision to move 3D crowd-character work from the Effectsdepartment to the Character Animation department exemplifies the fact thatcharacter animation now incorporates digital processes. To help with thattransition, software developer Mike Ullner changed our 3D crowd-characterprocedures from our The Prince of Egypt setup. Back then, our crowd worktraveled from Alias models to Softimage animation to DW simulation(DreamWorks simulation) for crowd placement to the “mArias” MentalRayToonshader we used (so named for software developer Michael Arias) toRenderMan to Animo. Now, for Spirit, we will follow a process that takes usfrom Maya models to Mayaanimation to Mike Ullner’s new DW-crowdchoreography tool set to RenderMan to Animo. In this process, we will alsobegin using more 3D geometric models than before.

That’s an important step forward for our crowd work because it allows us touse the best images-whether 2D, 3D, or a combination of both-to optimizecrowd scenes according to each project. In Spirit, for example, we will beinserting more 3D models into our crowd/herd scenes, since crowds in thatfilm will consist of herds of horses, which have more depth to them thantwo-legged humans. Thus, we can now refine those crowd sequences for thecreative needs of this particular project, less hindered by limits on theuse of 3D models within our pipeline.

In fact, all the 3D character modeling work throughout El Dorado-done byMarc Chavez, Ryan Roberts, Michele Cowart, and Michael Spokas-was of a muchhigher standard than the good work done on The Prince of Egypt. DirectorDon Paul wanted more animation control on major characters this time and abetter character design match with traditionally drawn characters. Thisapproach will carry far beyond El Dorado, as our 3D character groupeventually becomes fully integrated with our traditional animationdepartment. The studio is currently hard at work training selectedtraditional character animators on certain aspects of 3D animation usingMaya. The goal there is to have an animation department that no longerdistinguishes between 2D and 3D character animators, with most artistscapable of utilizing any tools-digital or traditional-to do their work.

Effects StrategyOver the past five years, we’ve also seen an evolution in our use ofcommercially available effects packages such as Elastic Reality. We firstused Elastic Reality to give life to cloud background paintings on ThePrince of Egypt. Now we also use its warping capabilities to give limitedanimated life to previously non-moving, old “held-cel” characters. For ElDorado, animator Bob Lyss also used Elastic Reality to animate sails,ropes, and other items on 2D painted ships.

Another recent adjustment has allowed our Background department to workwith Layout-department artists to build, view, and apply painted colors andtextures to 2D and 3D environments and better integrate characters intoshots. Likewise, as work progressed on El Dorado, our artists innovated newdigital methods for using projected, painted artwork. Since El Dorado, wehave been able to mix the projected artwork with actual 3D paintingextensions and use Alias 3D StudioPaint to retain painterly characteristicseven while an object is turning, tumbling, or falling into viewdimensionally. This advance was applied to great effect in shots of thegiant water tower seen during El Dorado’s climax.

Many of our traditional background and effects artists learned to usedigital tools as The Prince of Egypt finished and El Dorado began. Forinstance, our Background department went more digital for El Dorado. UsingFractal Paint and PhotoShop on Macs, these background painters were able todo tweaks, versions, and fixes more quickly than in the past. Severalartists also began their work traditionally and then scanned it in toelaborate, extend, version, and complete the art.

Meanwhile, other artists in the Effects department attempted new productionmethods that combined 2D drawn, traditional artwork with 2D and 3D digitalimage drawing and creation work, including a couple of new techniques wenicknamed “VecTones” and “Cheezypoof Dust.” Some of this work involveddigitally drawing vectors directly onto the rendered image of a piece ofart, whether it originated as a hand-drawn image or as a CG picture. Thatsaved us lots of interdepartmental travel, physical checking, processing,and digital checking time. It also showed us that keeping the artworkdigital, instead of going in and out from the computer to paper and back,was more practical.

Other improvements allowed us to create 3D spheres with limited 3D lightingto produce “dust” effects. These effects animated more quickly than drawing them by hand, with increased levels of control for color, placement, and transparency. While Bud Myrick led the 3D digital-effects team and Steve Wood ledthe 2D traditional-effects team in this effort, a small team led by JaneGotts focused solely on the creation and digital manipulation of strictly2D, CG images during the making of El Dorado.

The lava in El Dorado is a good example of all three effects groups workingtogether to achieve a composite effect. We assigned two artists, SeanMcLaughlin and Ed Coffey, to create the 3D and 2D digital and traditionallava elements, while three others-Jane Gotts, Colin Sittig, and StephenKrauth-used a combination of digital methods and mattes to add hot dust,steam, lava geysers, and particle splashes on top. That developmentdirectly built on previous work from The Prince of Egypt in which we didmore modest, digital environmental effects.

New LooksThanks to new software developed in-house, El Dorado also features a hostof effects we couldn’t do at all on The Prince of Egypt. These includegraduated eye tones and “gobo” leaf shadows on several characters, amongothers.

The “gobo” effect, in particular, has allowed us to animate and castfoliage shadows onto animated characters as they move through the jungle.This is an effect that would have been too tedious and costly to do withframe-by-frame, hand-drawing, scanning, color modeling, and compingtechniques. New tools and processes allow us to bring flat, traditional artquickly into the computer, digitally inflate the matte of those picturesusing a 3D light source to render rounded curvature onto the picture, andthen apply stencil-like “gobo” leaves to the rounded and inflated digitalelement frame by frame, before moving to the final compositing stage.

Another El Dorado advancement builds upon a theory first tried by two ofour artists, Doug Cooper and Henry LaBounta, on The Prince of Egypt. DougIkeler, our effects-sequence lead on El Dorado, built on their ideas toattach to, or drive, traditionally drawn animation cycles using 3D particleanimation. The result of his work is a new tool we call “Spryticle,” whichallowed us to create complex and rapid white-water effects, such as theones seen in El Dorado’s climactic scene.

The particle animation utilizes flat, digital “sprite” cards that carryplayback of traditional 2D animation. The cards can be bent, curved,stretched, illuminated, or manipulated to arrive at visually pleasingcompositions of great complexity, all riding on a 3D water surface animatedin Maya and rendered out using Pixar’s MTOR (Maya to RenderMan) andRenderMan products.

These are but a handful of examples of the changes taking place in ourstudio. In closing, it is important to note that DreamWorks is stillworking to perfect an organized way to distribute the use of digital toolsthroughout the entire production system. As is common in new environments,the need for this new system and the steps required to make it happen grewfaster than our ability to recognize and deal with this rapidly spreadingtransition. In some ways, it has taken on a life of its own-but we’reworking on it.