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September 2014
Issue: October 1, 2005

CHICKEN LITTLE

By: Ken McGorry
SAN FRANCISCO - Suddenly Disney is vying for first place among major studios producing CG films that use bleeding-edge technology to create something new and unique for mass audiences. And Chicken Little, Disney's tiny new CG star, could go a long, long way in theatrical release now that ILM has given him an extra two inches. That's the inter-ocular distance which, when applied via ILM's proprietary new "right eye" replicating toolset, creates a stereo - i.e. 3D - effect that can be both compelling and comfortable enough to watch for 82 minutes. Up until now, all the great CG work of Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and ILM itself has mostly gone to create 3D animated content that provides a viewing experience only in mono - the "left eye" in stereo 3D parlance.

Once Disney had finally come to terms with CG animation as the rightful heir to its historic legacy of cel-animated features and cartoons, the studio tapped director Mark Dindal's Chicken Little as the first in a new series of CG animated films that would supplant the old ways. Then, this spring, with Chicken rounding third and heading for home, Disney executives took an extraordinary step. Chicken Little would not just be CG animated; it would also be released in stereo 3D as three-dimensional animation. The effect would be known as "Disney Digital 3D," and be the result of concerted efforts by ILM, Real D and Dolby, with Dolby providing special new servers designed to provide 3D images - not just Dolby Digital Surround sound anymore - for newly installed projectors and screens in about 85 tricked-out theaters around the US. (See the full story at www.postmagazine.com/.)


Disney Digital 3D is the result of efforts by ILM, Real D and Dolby.
The Real D Cinema process (www.reald.com/) also provides exhibitors with a hardware upgrade to a 2K or better digital projector, a customized "silver" screen that can display 2D and 3D content, and lightweight, disposable polarized glasses. The process benefits by Real D's 2005 acquisition of StereoGraphics, a developer of stereoscopic hardware and software. In this respect, Disney was now leading the charge to refit movie theaters as digital theaters.

Disney had a bold plan, four months and one problem. Large scale production and distribution of a digital stereo feature film had never been attempted before.

"The idea came up that certain scenes would look spectacular and the whole movie would have this opportunity to delineate itself from other things in the market," says Chuck Viane, president of distribution for Disney's Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. "We met with our friends at ILM to find out if it was even possible."

COULD CHICKEN FLY IN 3D?


Moving in stereo: ILM's Colum Slevin (inset) says, "Disney didn't initially intend to make Chicken Little a stereo movie."
At first blush, turning Chicken Little's entire 1,400 shots into stereo looked like an 18-week job, but there were only 16 weeks until Disney's September 19 deadline. Initially senior director of CG Colum Slevin had said, "It would be grossly irresponsible to try and do - it's not going to fly." By the time digital production supervisor Joel Aron had examined the problem and come up with a reliable pipeline there were only 14 weeks left.

"In their genius way of doing things they found a way," says Viane. "They took two or three passes at it before they felt comfortable. Then we all went in to see it - it was something quite spectacular in our mind - and Dick Cook [chairman, Walt Disney Studios] made the decision we'd like to go do it. Then all the pieces had to be put together; get the equipment manufacturers, the theaters, and sell it in." Now the project went on the really fast track.


Dramatic impact: ILM's Joel Aron (inset) intended to give director Mark Dindal the feeling of "a little guy in a big world."
"The Disney guys were persistent and really passionate about the idea - they really wanted to do it," says Slevin. "They said, 'Tell us what it will take and we will do everything on our end to make it happen.' Disney was still trying to finish their movie, so we were riding right on their coattails coming in."

Slevin adds, "One thing that made the project was Disney didn't initially intend to make Chicken Little a stereo movie. And they were also to a large extent inventing their CG pipeline as they went because the only other digital production they had is Dinosaur [2000]. We had to work really closely with the Disney people to 'decrypt' everything, learn their process and get useable data out of all their shots - it was an interesting process."


Buena Vista Distribution's Chuck Viane: Chicken Little in stereo is "something quite spectacular."

ILM found ways to streamline the stereo processing of Chicken Little whenever possible. "We had a really killer toolset built by our internal R&D group - we really depended on them," says Slevin. "With the volume of work we had to crunch through - the scale was huge - we knew we had to make it very much an automated process. We had to take big batches of shots and standardize the approach for all of them." Led by Alan Trombla, the R&D group "built this toolset through which we could have a very diverse population of artists work on the shots - CG modelers, compositors, animators - a real cross section of the ILM CG community working interchangeably on these shots."

 

 

 

WAY OUT OF THE BOX

"Joel Aron tuned into the esthetic of the picture really early," says Slevin. "He got to know the film, the director and the producer really well - he got to know where and how they wanted to invest the 3D."

ILM veteran Joel Aron had been a CG supervisor for four years when this spring he was promoted to digital production supervisor on Chicken Little - a change for a guy who considers his work more creative and out-of-the-box. As it turned out, Aron was given a mandate to think way out of the box to make this project work. "We just kept pushing and [Disney] started to see the evolution of what we were able to do," Aron says. "Alan Trombla, Judd Parsons, David Humphries and I worked together to develop something in a matter of weeks.

Although ILM could not "touch" Disney's Chicken Little content, they did get every element they needed to create stereo 3D: Disney's final comp; all their geometry (they did everything in Alias Maya); all their rendered layers; and their Apple Shake script. "We got all that and we built a module within 'Zeno' [ILM's proprietary animation system] so you would be able to launch a Chicken Little version of Zeno, and it would automatically have all the Disney geometry in it for that shot," Aron says.

LOOK BUT DON'T TOUCH

"We were not able to go into their elements and change anything they had done." Aron says Slevin and he assured Disney executives that "no matter what, our render of the right eye is going to look exactly like your final comp, which is being treated as the left eye. There was not a lot of margin to play with - we would go in and play with the depth. There was a lot of trickery done with the depth - we would foreshorten things; make them look longer; we'd make something look deeper. When we were close up on Chicken Little, we'd send the background with a different depth so that the background looks like this big world and Chicken Little looks like you're up on him really close." It's kind of a "vertigo effect" that Aron loves from his favorite movie, Jaws.

In some respects the stereo processing could be automated - artists on a given shot could select a layer (background, foreground or other), select its relevant geometry and, simply put, "hit render." The process benefits from parallel camera rig technology developed by ILM's stereographic guru Phil McNally. The parallel camera process also provides a more natural viewing experience and prevents viewer eye fatigue.

Aron and company (the crew would fluctuate around 60 in number, sometimes more) got more creatively involved in certain shots. You'll see one very tense scene where Chicken is at bat in a close baseball game. Aron set the background very deep and brought the star's head so close "you feel like you're inside Chicken's helmet."

Aron's group also wrote tools within Zeno "that fill in the pixels that maybe weren't there or may not be visible from the [newly created] right eye. If the character had hair, feathers or whiskers sticking out, Zeno had to figure out the depth of those and render it from the right eye."

"It was tremendously fun," Slevin says now. "It took us back to our legacy of innovation - we had to figure out something that we'd never, ever done before. Not just shot-specific challenges, but 'How the hell are we going to do this?'"

"It allowed us to give Mark Dindal his vision of the 'tiny little chicken in a gigantic world,'" Aron says. "That's exactly what Dindal said when he saw the first stereo test from ILM. 'Oh! This is exactly what I've been trying to get across in this entire movie!' It works really well with a movie that wasn't intended to be in 3D."

"You almost get immersed in the screen," says Chuck Viane. "You almost feel like you're part of the actual frame of the movie. That's what made it happen."