The title of the feature film says it all. Strange Magic, based on an idea by George Lucas of
Star Wars fame, is an animated, madcap musical/love story aimed at tween girls, an unexpected combination. The magic is in the telling.
This is the second film for which Lucas has told a story through song choices. For his pre-Star Wars film, the award-winning American Graffiti, song choices were crucial to the storytelling — songs not written for the film, but drawn from the culture. So, too, for
Strange Magic’s soundtrack, which weaves songs from six decades into a story. The title song, Electric Light Orchestra’s Strange Magic, traces back to 1975. Other tunes include those made famous by singers ranging from Elvis Presley to Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce and Lady Gaga, in genres that include heavy metal, reggae, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and pop.
The Strange Magic story begins with the Fairy Princess Marianne and Prince Charming singing, I Can’t Help Falling In Love. But when Marianne learns the prince is not so charming after all, she rejects love and becomes a warrior princess — just in time to help rescue her naïve sister Dawn from the Bog King, who rules the dark forest.
Producer Mark Miller describes the film as farcical fairy tale inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which characters and creatures of all shapes and sizes fall in love with the most unlikely candidates.
The voice actors for the film sing the soundtrack: Alan Cumming as the Bog King, Evan Rachel Wood is the fairy Marianne, Meredith Anne Bull is Marianne’s sister Dawn, Elijah Kelley is an elf, Maya Rudolph is Bog’s mother Griselda, and Sam Palladio is Roland, the charming prince.
“Young girls are prone to infatuation. I wanted to make a movie about the difference between being infatuated and being truly in love,” Lucas says. “In the end, the princesses in this story are brave.”
To direct Strange Magic, Lucas tapped Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who had returned to Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Sound after a stint at Pixar.
Strange Magic marks Rydstrom’s debut as an animated feature director; however, it is not the first animated feature for his crew at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic, who created the Oscar-winning
All told, the film has six hero characters — Marianne, Dawn, Prince Charming, Bog, Griselda and Sunny. The secondary characters include a Sugar Plum Fairy, an impish flying mouse, Bog’s sidekicks Stuff and Thang, Marianne and Dawn’s father the King, who looks a touch like George Lucas, several goblins, and more elves. Several real-world creatures inhabit the forest, as well — butterflies, ladybugs, frogs, one armored squirrel that Prince Charming rides into battle, and more.
The Bog King, his mother, and the goblins are on the dark side of the woods. The Bog King is the beast, the villain in the story. The fairies and elves are on the light side. Real-world creatures are on both.
“Because everyone knows what a real butterfly, ladybug and frog look like, we had to incorporate our fantasy characters into the real world,” says visual effects supervisor Tony Plett. “We did that with detail — hyper, hyper detail. In some shots, you can see pores where hair goes into the skin. We found that as long as we kept the geometry stylized, we could push detail as far as we wanted. We used displacement and bump mapping to extreme amounts. We never knew what would be in focus, so we had to texture what we could.”
Even though the characters had real-world textures, by stylizing them and making their geometry slightly different from humans, the elves and fairies never entered the uncanny valley.
The enormous amount of detail in the characters and the environment created another issue, however: too much information in a single frame.
“We had to take a photographic approach,” Plett says. “We used lighting to focus and isolate characters, and depth of field to help us see these small-scale creatures. It was very tricky at first. Your first inclination in CG is to see everything.”
To help the audience understand how tiny these characters are, the camera was often low. “We tried to play the scale as close to real world as we could,” Plett says. “The characters are three to six inches tall. Ants come up to their knees. We tried to use a low-level angle and always have something recognizable — a daisy or dogwood plant or flower that would tell us the scale.”
CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE
“The movie had been around for years with different waves of people involved when George [Lucas] and [Lucasfilm CEO] Kathy Kennedy asked me to take it over,” Rydstrom says. “There was a crew in place and an art department. What hadn’t started in earnest was the animation, aside from tests.”
Fortunately, modelers and riggers working in Autodesk’s Maya had already prepared characters.
“We had a huge catalog of assets set up within an earlier pipeline that used our Viewpaint texturing software and Lux lighting within Zeno,” says Nigel Sumner, who had been a CG supervisor on Rango, and supervised the visual effects created by a crew largely based in Singapore. “But, the studio had moved to [The Foundry’s] Katana for lighting, Mari for lookdev and texture painting, and an Alembic caching system. So, we developed a hybrid system. We had a conversion method that published the assets into the newer formats, but we could go back to the earlier pipeline if needed.”
The team used The Foundry’s Katana as the primary lighting tool, Pixar’s RenderMan for rendering, and composited with The Foundry’s Nuke for finishing touches. A catalog of HDRIs gave technical directors access to images at different times of day and in various lighting environments.
Animation supervisor Kim Ooi led the team of approximately 40 animators in Singapore who worked on the film. A small group of animators in San Francisco also contributed.
Because this is a musical, the animators needed to perform the characters' singing. “At first I was nervous about going into a musical,” Ooi says. “But Gary said the main thing is getting the right emotion across, whether dialogue or song. Of course, there is the technical side, having the character inhale correctly, but we had reference from the voice actors. And in singing shots where there is a certain kind of rhythm you have to hit, that is a restriction. But the emotional part was similar to dialogue shots.”
One of Rydstrom’s favorite sequences was the fight between Marianne and Bog, which happens while the two characters (Wood and Cumming) sing a duet, Heart’s Straight On. The animators gave Marianne fencing poses and stances. Bog was a matador.
The tricky part was the song. “We had to figure out the rhythm of it,” Ooi says. “We couldn’t do our own thing and hope the soundtrack would match. We shot a lot of reference and relied on Gary’s input as well, and we put the jigsaw puzzle together.”
By the time the fairy princesses have found their true and unexpected loves, they and other characters in the film have sung 25 songs. That’s down from the original 100 that Lucas gathered for Strange Magic.
“But they are all great,” Lucas says. “I loved doing this movie because I love the music. I loved coming to work on it. I love watching it. And that’s the key for me in the end. I did it for the fun of it.”