Animation: 'The Book of Life'
Issue: November 1, 2014

Animation: 'The Book of Life'

Reel FX continues to build upon its original, CG-animated film credits, this time with the new feature The Book of Life, which hit theaters nationwide on October 17th. Last year at this time, the studio released Free Birds, its first entirely-CG-animated, stereo 3D feature. The Dallas studio used its experience to fine-tune its workflow, making it even more efficient for the latest project, which stars Zoe Saldana (Maria), Channing Tatum (Joaquin) and Ron Perlman (Xibalba), along with Christina Applegate, Diego Luna and Ice Cube.

The Book of Life was produced by Guillermo Del Toro and directed by Jorge Gutierrez. It centers around Manolo, a boy who tries to follow his heart while fulfilling the expectations of his family. Just prior to its release, Post had a chance to catch up with VFX supervisor Augusto Schillaci , who was in Mexico, participating in an educational conference for students looking to enter the world of computer animation. He took some time to detail Reel FX’s workflow and some of the challenges the studio faced while creating this colorful theatrical feature.

The Book of Life is 3D in terms of animation and its presentation? Can you talk about your involvement?

“It’s all 3D and stereo 3D, so it’s 3D on both sides. It’s a very nice overall movie. My involvement — I know the director has been doing it longer than I — but for me it was two- to two-and-a-half years in production. We have three different worlds and every one has unique characters and unique architecture.”

How many characters had to be created?

“I think, if I had to estimate, more than 120, for sure. There are a lot of characters in the movie. You have all of your main characters, and then the incidental characters, but there are a lot of them. When you have to create three different worlds, you have to populate them. That takes quite a bit. They are all based on the main characters. You create the base and from there create the different ones. You get the sense you are in a big, populated world, especially when you go to the Land of the Remembered. People are walking and having fun all around, so that was a challenge.”

What type of pipeline do you have set up?

“On Free Birds we did Maya/Renderman. We always use Houdini for effects, and we use Nuke for compositing. The animation was done with Maya. When it came to texturing, that was done with Maya. Modeling was done with Modo. When you get to lighting, we always used to do lighting in Maya with Renderman, but for this project we did lighting with Houdini. One of the main reasons was, this project has so many effects and we always do effects with Houdini, so you’d have to kind of translate it into Maya.”

How did using Houdini streamline things?

“For the Day of the Dead, we wanted to make it look creepy, but with a lot of joy, so there are thousands of candles, thousands of flowers, thousands of graves. Houdini does that pretty well. We decided to do that stuff in Houdini so the lighters could just grab it from there. And it worked really well.”

You have offices in Dallas and Santa Monica. Did you work across both studios?

“Everything was done from the Dallas facility. That’s where the main animators are. Santa Monica is a little more for story boarding and to have that connection with Hollywood. But the creation of the movie was more in Dallas.”

How big was the team for this project?

“The overall team? It was close to 350 people at the peak of the movie. We have a commercial division, so that’s more of the overall facility, but definitely the team was pretty big for the movie.”

What hardware did you rely on?

“We use Dell computers based on Linux.”

And for rendering?

“It was Mantra out of Houdini. Except for a movie called The Wild, we are the second movie completely rendered in Houdini, working with Mantra.”

What scene presented the biggest challenge?

“The trailer shows just a little — when Manolo wakes up and the camera opens up and you see the Land of the Remembered. That had to be the most challenging. The buildings are floating on air. Flower petals are floating in the air. It’s kind of like a metropolis, where there is no ground. That main shot that is in the trailer, that took almost four months to complete! Of course we used that one as development for the rest of the shots that come after. It worked out really well.”

With so much detail, where do you find efficiencies?

“You have to make it look amazing, but you have to stay on-budget and on-time. That’s always the tricky combination. We managed to work together with the art department to design all the buildings in a way that we can reuse them from different angles. As a matter of fact, it allowed us to build these beautiful big worlds, but without the cost of the rendering.”

Is that the challenge? Rendering?

“Yes, especially since every movie is now done in stereo. You used to be able to use a lot of matte painting and do tricks, but now you can’t because as soon as you put on the 3D glasses, you know that that world continues, and where it goes miles away. Now you have to build it all. There is no cheating involved.”

As a VFX supervisor, do you approach animation differently than live action?

“It’s funny that you mention that because at this convention in Mexico, one of the master classes I am talking about is the difference between a live action VFX supervisor and an animation VFX supervisor. It’s huge! In live action, you just go to the shoot and work on your live-action shots. I used to do that, too — and that’s it. You don’t work from the beginning to the end of the movie. Here, I am pretty much the right hand of the director. I stay from the beginning and I am pretty much the one helping translate the movie from a 2D image from the art department into 3D. I am the one who works with the director, and says, ‘Let’s put the camera here.’ It’s 100 percent much more involvement. I oversee all the departments.”

Did your experience on Free Birds help?

“We’ve been working on trying to do movies a long time. I have been working at Reel FX for 14 years already. When I started, we were pretty small, so we kind of went through all the growing pains. Free Birds was our first release and it let us know a lot about how to do things for clients and how to do your own work; how the pipeline works, and how to refine it. And we have refined it a lot. One thing we learned was how the pipeline works and how we can make it more efficient; how we can scale; how to work on a big quantity of shots. From 300 to 400, you are now doing close to 2,000 shots. I think with every movie, you always learn something, but in this case, pipeline was the biggest one.”

Are other feature projects in the works?

“Oh yeah. We have a development team that doesn’t sleep, trying to work on our next IP. The idea is to keep producing one film after the other. That would be our goal.”