Long ago, in a far purer time, storks delivered babies. But now, thanks to the relentless march of capitalism for ever-increasing profits, the once nobly-tasked bird has been pressed into a slightly less venerable vocation: delivering parcels for online retailer Cornerstore.com. Such is the clever conceit behind Storks, the latest bundle of joy from Warner Bros. Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks.
The creators have described the film as the unlikely love child of Chuck Jones and Terrence Malick — a film that fuses the legendary animator’s loose-cannon style with the ethereal-yet-tangible reality of the famed director.
Visual effects supervisor Dave Smith, a veteran of live action, was brought on to help achieve that vision, along with co-directors Nicholas Stoller and Douglas Sweetland. To nurse this baby to life, Imageworks pushed the limits of its proprietary TweakIt animation system, and, armed with The Foundry’s Katana, SideFX’s Houdini, and the Arnold renderer (recently acquired by Autodesk), crafted a world of tangible, non-CG-like surfaces photographed with the kind of contrast, darkness and depth of field normally reserved for art-house cinema.
The high-flying story centers on Junior, the ambitious, top delivery stork at the giant warehouse perched atop Stork Mountain. His efficiency-crazed boss, Hunter (Kelsey Grammer), is about to give him what he’s always dreamed of — a promotion to the boss’s chair — but first he must fire the orphan Tulip, the only human in the warehouse. Junior spares her the ax and instead invents a job for her in the long-shuttered letter-sorting office. Junior’s mercy backfires, however, when Tulip receives a letter from Nate Gardner, a little boy pining for a brother to ease the loneliness of life with his career-focused parents. When Tulip accidentally reactivates the dormant Baby Factory, Junior helps her deliver a fresh newborn before the boss finds out.
Trouble shadows them throughout their journey in the form of Jasper, an elder stork seeking a second chance to redeem himself for past mistakes, and Pigeon Toady, a weaselly office snitch. Along with the Alpha and Beta Wolf, they join penguins, a rabbit and a Japanese macaque on the list of Looney Tunes-esque characters whose performances shine with the spirit of Chuck Jones.
“We were aiming for a more structured exaggeration than what we’ve done in the past,” says character animation supervisor Joshua Beveridge. “The characters are fun, pliable and squishy, pushing all the principles of animation, but we always wanted to tell where their home base was, no matter how far they went.”
This underlying structure to the exaggeration was one of Stoller’s primary goals: grounding the action in reality. “Baby is the one that had the most design rules, who we had to be the most reserved with,” says Beveridge. “The whole movie rides on the preciousness of the baby, so while we wanted the animation to feel loose and unrestrictive, and the baby to feel squishy and fleshy, we found there was a sweet spot.”
To hit carefully-set baselines and extremities of exaggeration for each character, animators worked with thousands of controls in Autodesk’s Maya. Starting from loose Pixologic ZBrush sculpts provided by the development team at Warner Bros., modelers fashioned polygon meshes for each character in Maya, pairing them with highly-pliable rigs featuring bones, IK and FK switches, along with a robust system of blendshapes, set-driven keys, sculpt deformers, clusters and lattices for manipulating the body and face.
In addition, animators also had access to Imageworks’ proprietary TweakIt system. Fully integrated within Maya, the TweakIt suite of tools gives animators an arsenal of custom deformers, as well as the ability to pull individual control vertices for shot-specific tweaks without harming the mesh or the rig — a lifesaver in moments of extreme deformation.
“Here at Sony, we have a workflow that’s fairly unique from everywhere else,” says Beveridge, “where animators are not just animators, but sculptors. The TweakIt system allows us to make these incredibly-pushed poses that might only be on-screen for a frame or two, without having to go all the way through the rigging and modeling departments. So we’ll use our standard, super-pliable rig for 80 percent of a move, but when we need a pose for a funny hit in the face that’s going to be designed to camera, we’ll just sculpt. We’ll layer several different techniques over the same action, making the tools effectively invisible.”
A true testament to the effectiveness of this multi-layered approach is the soft fleshiness of the baby, which jiggles, squashes and stretches ever so subtly when, for example, Alpha and Beta Wolf lick its face.
“There’s no dynamics, no effects pass,” he adds. “There’s no silver bullet. If you try to solve everything with just one trick, it’s going to feel transparent, like a gimmick. So the fleshiness you’re seeing is a combination of a lot of things: controls on top of controls, large ones alongside little regional ones; and then the blood, sweat and tears of hand-shaping little corrections to make something really unique.”
The last character that artists tackled was Jasper, a big, bumbling holdover from a bygone era. “We started working on him after we had a healthy handle on Junior, applying all the same design rules to him but tailoring them for his big, underlying shape. He’s a giant bird, so if you pay close attention, you’ll probably see that [his size] fluctuates quite a bit throughout the movie. That’s because we like to be a little loose with our proportions, which are always finessed for what feels right in the moment,” explains Beveridge.
This slight flexibility in proportion not only lends each character a sense of pliability, but reflects how an animator would actually hand-draw the scenes. “Which was our rule of thumb,” Beveridge says, “never be rigid.”
To make Jasper’s neck and belly feel fleshy and round, artists used some global gross fat movers incorporating clusters, lattices and sculpt deformers (in Maya), along with TweakIt for sweetening the shapes to make the flesh jiggle around.
To create the clothing for all the characters, including Tulip and Junior, with his office attire and the sling that hold his injured wing, effects artists employed Maya’s nCloth solver, bringing in Marvelous Designer software near the end of the show to help drape some of the cloth with a clean, graphical look.
“We were trying to bring that very cartoon, hand-drawn style to realistic 3D cloth sim,” says Smith. “With Maya’s nCloth, we added extra tools like the stretch-rest rig that allowed cloth to expand and shrink with the cartoony squash and stretch, while still retaining correct folding behavior.”
Obviously, the film plays to the popular mythologizing of storks, but when animators put the wolves under the same lens and pushed their mythologizing to its limit, the results almost stole the show. These are wolves that not only want to raise children, but mother them to death. And these are wolves that not only move in packs, but in sophisticated formations. From the outset, executives wanted their shape-shifting superpowers to be a tour de force of animation that would be the envy of the industry. Indeed, the formations would require hundreds of wolves to be almost inextricably entangled, while Alpha, Beta, and any number of others would be striking absurd expressions.
“Right out of the gate, we were thinking this was something VFX would handle,” says Beveridge, “so we tried all kinds of things, like squishing wolves into a volume, all of which quickly proved that we needed to hand-animate this. There would be no [procedural] shortcuts. What’s more, each giant wolf formation would take approximately one month to complete, so we had to do it right the first time; it had to be carefully art directed and designed,” says Beveridge.
To that end, lead animator Alan Camilo sketched rough, “moving storyboard” passes in pen & ink, establishing in broad strokes the major shapes and timing for each sequence, then helped develop a system that would allow the wolf pack to function together like a herd of synchronized Cirque du Soleil acrobats.
“It required a huge change in workflow,” says Beveridge. “Instead of having hundreds of rigs in a super-heavy scene, or parsing out all the wolves into separate animation files, we built a system where could have hundreds of characters in a scene, but work with only one rig that could be shared among the characters. So, as long as all of the characters are of the same type, we could sneakily swap the rig from one to the other.”
Of course, each character could have its own unique rig, paired to its full, higher-resolution mesh, which animators could switch to in about four seconds for unique performance changes before then switching back to the faster, universal rig.
“In addition, it allowed animators to make hundreds of duplicates of a single performance,” Beveridge adds. “Each clone could have its own global position animation and time offset. Therefore, changes to the source would propagate to the clones, allowing changes to have a massive scaled effect.”
This one rig would employ an elaborate set of constraints, driven keys, and relationships in Maya, so as animators tweaked the animation of one wolf, the adjacent wolves would react accordingly.
PONYTAILS & FUR
Bobbing and swaying to the rhythm of her fiery enthusiasm, Tulip’s red ponytail, which is almost bigger than her head, was a team effort between animation and VFX. Using an IK joint chain in Maya rigged to a giant, spherical volume for the hair, animators hand-keyed most of the motion, including secondary movement and overlap.
Effects artists would generate hair using Sony’s proprietary instancing software Kami, employing Maya’s nHair solver for dynamic secondary movement and overlap, as well as Houdini for another layer of simulation for various sprigs and strands of hair.
“We needed the animator to hand-key the important pieces of the bounce and jiggle, making sure [our dynamics] were either exaggerating it nicely or not distracting from the performance,” says Smith.
For the wolves, the directors were at first hoping to avoid fur simulation in favor of a more cartoonish outline, but when early tests ended up resembling plastic volumes, lacking the tangibility and the “grounded in reality” artistic mandate, artists again used Kami to generate and comb the matted and sometimes bedraggled coats for hundreds of wolves.
“Kami involves the traditional laying out of guide hairs, which the computer then interpolates to fill in the rest of the surface,” says Smith. “Though we wanted the hair to look realistic, we tried for a more graphic look in the design of the combs.”
However, they styled the human hair with Kami, as well as Maya’s Xgen instancing plug-in, ultimately funneling the animation through Maya’s nHair for dynamics.
STORKS WITHOUT FEATHERS
The only surface for which instancing geometry and extensive dynamics would be too harshly realistic for their Looney Tunes performances would be the feathers of the storks. Junior’s arm is a wing, then a hand, with or without a thumb, or a brandishing index finger.
“We had to engineer this incredibly-robust system where, anatomically, Junior’s wing would function like a wing, with a tendon attached to the wrist and the shoulder, and fold into this beautiful streamlined shape tucked close to the body. Then it would suddenly emerge like he’s a dude with an arm.”
Using an elaborate set of IK controls and deformers in Maya, along with their TweakIt tools, animators worked with a wing that, in its default position, resembled a brick, but, as Beveridge says, “with all the controls engineered to work closely with each other, they could easily make any shape with it they wanted.”
For the wings, though, effects artists could not resort to a proliferation of instanced feathers. Instead, they built shaders in Arnold that would give surfaces, like the Gardner’s skin and clothes, the tangible, sanded granularity of Claymation, and even add, to a greater or lesser degree, light fuzz. It’s these shaders that captured the feel of soft down. Feeding them into Katana, the lighting artists were able to use them to populate a surface with short, diaphanous hair.
LOONEY TUNES MEETS REALITY
The high-contrast, naturalistic approach to the cinematography can be seen in almost every scene, from the dour, industrial atmosphere of the warehouse, to Hunter’s office, and the sepulchral shadows of the wolf cave.
“We really did want to push high key lighting, very strong rims, and strong light sources,” says Smith. Artists sculpted the lighting for every scene in Katana, where they also honed the carefully-designed lighting and color keys that draw an emotional distinction between the subdued color palette of suburbia and the more saturated hues of Stork Mountain.
The lightning-quick Looney Tunes animation became a rendering challenge, requiring a new approach to motion blur to prevent characters from vanishing under the sheer speed of their movement. “We wanted to push motion blur on this film, so we used a backwards shutter [in Katana], opening it up to give us a harder leading edge,” explains Smith. “There were a couple of pans where you’d see a little bit of strobing, and we’d have to go for a more traditional shutter that’s open on either side; but for the most part, we got away with a strong leading edge and a little bit of a strobing, which resonated with the more cartoony, graphical side of the film.”
Honing the motion blur and lighting in Katana, and compositing in Nuke, the team ultimately rendered the scenes through Arnold. In addition to incorporating Claymation-like shaders, the team also lent a tangibility to the ludicrous world by adding certain effects normally used when compositing CG elements into a live-action plate, like chromatic aberrations, grain and other artifacts — an approach that came from Smith’s unique perspective as a veteran of live action.
“We just wanted the audience to feel like they could reach out and touch the characters and the world,” he says.
Indeed, Storks delivers an impressive visual feat, a world rooted in a deep sense of reality, yet open to the most gloriously free-spirited animation — a place where Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner would feel right at home.
Martin McEachern (email@example.com) is an award-winning writer and contributing editor for Post'
s sister publication, CGW.