The moon has captivated humans since the dawn of time. It is a source of wonder and mystery. It is also a great influencer of life on Earth — from humans to the creatures on land as well as those in the sea. So, it comes as no surprise that this orb in the sky is at the heart of many myths and legends for cultures around the globe. In China, for instance, there is the legend of Chang’e. The crux of the story is that the beautiful Chang’e fell in love with the archer Houyi, and she took a magic potion (the reasons vary) that gave her immortality, and then floated to the moon, where she waits for her one and only true love.
Known as the Chinese goddess of the moon, Chang’e is celebrated each year on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month with the Mid-Autumn Festival. During this time, families gather to celebrate this important event, during which mooncakes, a bakery delicacy, are served.
It is this legend that inspired the animated feature film Over the Moon, to be released October 23rd on Netflix.
“Every Chinese child grows up knowing the tale of Chang’e and believing that she lives on the moon,” explains co-producer Peilin Chou (Abominable, Kung Fu Panda 3). “There’s even a national holiday centered around it. Janet [Yang, executive producer] came up with the idea to tell a modern-day version of the legend through the eyes of a little girl named Fei Fei. I loved the idea of bringing the tale of Chang’e to a global audience in a contemporary, fresh and unique way.”
In Over the Moon, from Pearl Studio (formerly Oriental DreamWorks), screenwriter Audrey Wells (The Hate U Give, Under the Tuscan Sun) scripted the story of Fei Fei, a child who believes that Chang’e truly resides on the moon. Fei Fei’s world is eventually turned upside down when her mom becomes ill and passes away. As Fei Fei and her father prepare mooncakes for a subsequent Mid-Autumn Festival four years later, her father introduces his daughter to his new wife-to-be, Mrs. Zhong, and her son, Chin. Fei Fei refuses to accept this; she also refuses to accept the notion that the legend of the moon goddess is not real. She then sets out to build a rocket ship to fly to the moon and bring back proof.
The film starts in modern-day China, where Fei Fei and her family live: a picturesque water town filled with canals capped with small stone bridges. This terrestrial locale is created in the CGI “house style” that's familiar to audiences. When Fei Fei reaches the moon, however, the aesthetic is drastically different, with colorful geometric-shaped characters and objects set against the black backdrop of space.
Animation legend Glen Keane (character animator on such films as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and more, and director of the Oscar-winning short Dear Basketball) directed; Oscar-winning animator John Kahrs (Paperman) co-directed. Sony Pictures Imageworks served as the animation partner for this Netflix/Pearl Studio production, which was completed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keeping It Real
The filmmakers set out to make a film that adhered to Chinese culture. To this end, Keane, production designer Céline Desrumaux and some others traveled to China, visiting two ancient water towns there, including Wuzhen, the “Venice of China,” where Desrumaux took an abundance of reference photos. The group was even invited into one of the houses, which ended up serving as a model for the interior of Fei Fei’s home, down to the tiniest details.
“[Desrumaux’s designs] didn’t look like a typically-animated version of China. It was real. It’s where people lived,” says Keane.
In fact, every object in the film’s water town — every tile, window, even the design of the fire extinguisher — is based on the real version. During the family dinner, Fei Fei and her relatives are seated at a large round table heaping with CG replicas of authentic Chinese dishes. The animation is grounded in reference, very natural and believable. One of the CG supervisors, Clara Chan, even took a mooncake-making class with the crew to familiarize themselves with the process and the weight of the pastry in their hands to better replicate it in CGI.
The same authenticity is not a tenet on the dark side of the moon, where the design is psychedelic-like, the premise being that the characters there are formed from Chang’e’s tears.
While both locations have a different aesthetic and animation style, the artists used the same basic tools set: Autodesk’s Maya and Pixologic’s ZBrush for modeling; Maya for animation; SideFX’s Houdini for effects; Foundry’s Mari and Adobe’s Substance Designer, Substance Painter and Photoshop for texturing; Foundry’s Katana for the base lighting; Foundry’s Nuke for compositing; and Autodesk’s Arnold for rendering. In addition, the studio used a suite of proprietary plug-ins and other internal tools.
Home, on Earth
In the Earth sequences, the imagery is very tactile, as Keane really pushed details in the models and animation, according to Chan. “That was a big deal to Glen,” she says.
Sebastian “Sacha” Kapijimpanga, head of character animation, agrees, noting that it took quite some time before the artists found the right amount of detail for Fei Fei, the first character they built.
“Glen was very specific about anatomical details,” says Kapijimpanga. “It was important that the corners of her mouth behaved in a certain way.”
Fei Fei has dark eyebrows, chopped black hair (from a cut she did herself) and strong eyes and lips. Keane, who had crafted Ariel’s fiery hair and the spiritual movement of Pocahontas’s mane, sees a character’s locks as so much more than a design element — more so a symbol of the character’s plight. In Fei Fei’s case, her hair reflects chaos, as she struggles with her mother’s death.
“It was such an incredibly-difficult design,” says Keane of Fei Fei and some of the other characters. “If you looked at the early animation, you’d see that these characters were often coaxed into arriving at the target. There was a lot of experimenting that went on.”
David Alexander Smith, VFX supervisor, points out that Fei Fei’s hairstyle didn’t have a specific form, but rather, was guided by Keane’s sketches.
“Hair will typically want to relax, and we needed it to feel natural and move naturally in the wind, but not relax at all, to keep that very distinctive form,” he says.
According to Kapijimpanga, there was a great deal of emphasis on pushing the anatomy and the acting level of the terrestrial characters with nuanced performance. In this regard, Keane relayed to the team wisdom passed on to him by one of Disney’s revered “Nine Old Men”: Don’t animate what the character is doing, but instead what the character is thinking and feeling. So, rather than use an actor’s performance for animation reference, the animators themselves acted out the motions, enabling them “to get into the skin of the character and have a true sense of what the character is feeling at that moment.”
“Kapijimpanga suggested this, saying we would get a performance that is so much deeper and heartfelt, and he was right,” says Keane. “Rather than avoid those really subtle moments, we zeroed in on those and took the time to focus on Fei Fei’s eyes, for instance. If you’re going to focus on anything, let it be the eyes of the character.”
Take Me to the Moon
When Fei Fei first arrives on the moon, she lands on the bright side, which has a fairly realistic aesthetic in terms of design and animation, informed by reference from NASA. On the dark side of the moon is the world of Lunaria, a floating galaxy that rotates around Chang’e and her palace.
“I remember when Glen first gave me a brief for Lunaria; he told me to reference the cover of ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ by Pink Floyd — a simple prism of white light and refracted colors. He said he had no idea what Lunaria looks like, but it needs to be as strong as that cover,” Desrumaux recalls.
On Lunaria, the moon goddess is the city’s primary light source, and everything is illuminated from within — as opposed to Earth, where the light is reflected.
“There were a couple of things that I knew right away. I knew that I wanted a black sky in the space and that I wanted colors,” she says.
Another goal was to avoid creating anything that looks like it had been constructed by humans. Further inspiration for Lunaria and its resident Lunarians came from Catalan artist Joan Miro, whose work is often described as abstract, combined with Surrealist fantasy.
“He had a way of designing objects that looked like they were floating geometric shapes,” says Keane.
So, little by little, the filmmakers came up with the idea of a floating city comprising shapes and colors. But, there were inherent issues when it came to animating and lighting the 3D Lunarians.
“How do you animate characters with [practically] no bones? How do you light a shot when they are standing on a building that has a light source that’s shaped like a balloon and is always floating, and they themselves have a light sources that’s coming from inside? How do you see their eyes? Where do you put them?” Keane says of the questions that had to be considered.
The Lunarians are floating, amorphous--shaped, brightly-colored gummy bear-like ancient characters formed many years ago from tears that are continually shed by Chang’e — the most recent ones being the least evolved in terms of structure. There is no comparable real-world material for the translucent, watery/gaseous Lunarians, so it was up to the VFX team to come up with a digital material befitting that description.
“Lunaria is this crazy land with lots of colors and these characters that are sort of mid-form — soft and blobby — and that carried out to the buildings as well, and is persistent throughout Lunaria,” says Smith.
As Kapijimpanga points out, these characters share a common rig that is particularly flexible, “because we weren’t exactly sure what the design would evolve into.”
As a further complication, little pieces of material would often break off as the Lunarians moved. So, to enable animation to more easily handle these gelatinous-like creatures, a rig was devised that integrated Houdini’s engine into Maya and used Houdini’s powerful particle system to create a unified mesh that gave animators freedom to create unique shapes and performances.
As Ian Farnsworth, VFX supervisor, explains, setting up a rig to handle the liquidy, blobby creatures in Maya would have been a big undertaking, so instead, the group looked to Houdini and Houdini Engine for its OpenVDB tool set and procedural workflows. As a result, the Lunarians were able to have their body parts separate, blend back together and have an arbitrary number of control points added to the rig.
“In addition to giving animators a lot more freedom, running it through Houdini gave us a lot more control over the final look. We were able to up-res and smooth out the characters to a higher degree for rendering, add custom attributes for shading and calculate accurate motion vectors,” he says.
The oldest character residing on Lunaria is Gobi, who is more developed than most Lunarians, as are the trio of so-called biker chicks and a pair of playful lions that help guide Fei Fei’s rocket. They all have a more defined form and, thus, a more traditional rig.
One of the bigger challenges facing artists was that each Lunarian emitted its own light source.
“These characters were sort of like a drop of water, which is a liquid, but it’s a solid volume of liquid, and within that there is a gas which would give them a glow and their color,” explains Smith. “For us to have a volume of water undisturbed by the gas inside, we basically had to cheat and tell the renderer that this was two materials that were capable of something that’s physically impossible to have. You can have gas inside water, but it would just be a bubble. In this case, the gas lived in the same volume as the water.”
Moreover, these self-illuminating creatures existed within a self-illuminating city.
“It was definitely something we hadn’t done before. The most important thing to the filmmakers was that there would be an explosion of color on Lunaria, that there would be an energy to it. The design has an elegance and simplicity to it, so we needed to bend the rules of lighting to achieve that. Even though everything was created in 3D, we wanted to blend in some of the 2D aesthetics,” says Chan.
Furthermore, the native characters and buildings not only give off light, but they also absorb light.
“And in ray tracing, that is pretty complex,” says Smith.
The lighting situation became even more complicated in scenes where Lunarians and earthlings shared the same shot.
“Both the illuminated characters and earthlings needed to react to light when they were standing next to one another or going through the city,” explains Smith, whose team reconfigured its mesh light software based on technology initially created for Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man films, whereby any geometry can be turned into a light. “We wanted the characters to be able to react to light. So our shading team had to rewrite that software so it could both respond to light and give off light beautifully and realistically without a lot of ray-traced noise.”
In one scene shortly after Fei Fei finds herself on Lunaria, she enters a gigantic concert hall where at least 250,000 Lunarians are gathered to watch the moon goddess sing.
“With all the gases inside each Lunarian and the effects, it was very complicated and required a lot of optimization to render,” notes Chan.
For huge crowd scenes like that, the dev team also tweaked its in-house tool, Sprout, which had been used to paint trees across an environment, only in this case, their brushstrokes produced Lunarians. Tens of thousands of them in some cases.
“The film had some of the biggest crowds I’ve ever dealt with,” says Kapijimpanga.
Creating a Goddess
In myth, Chang’e typically is depicted as beautiful, peaceful, genteel and softly feminine, though in Over the Moon, the filmmakers turned that on its head, making the goddess more diva-like as she basks in the adoration of the Lunarians. (At least this is the case when Fei Fei first meets her, but the girl eventually draws out the gentle, empathetic person the goddess is known to be.) In addition, Chang'e has extremely long, flowing hair, but sports amazing traditional hairdos for which a simulation artist at Sony Imageworks wrote a tool within Maya that enabled him to complete the styles quickly by building a model and then filling its volume with hair.
Indeed, Chang’e is a goddess who is larger than life, literally, standing nine-feet tall. Making her stand out even more, this glamazon is outfitted in elaborate couture, designed by renowned fashion designer Guo Pei, who created Rihanna’s yellow dress for the 2015 Met Gala.
“When talking about Chang’e’s costume design, we knew we needed someone who was going to honor her authenticity, but we also wanted someone who could give her a fresh and modern take,” says Chou. The gowns Pei sketched were intricate and elaborate; to manufacture them would have taken thousands of hours. Even in CGI, this was no easy task.
“For Chang’e’s dress in the Chamber of Exquisite Sadness, [Pei] designed ‘super silk’ that floated ethereally around her with every movement. She provided the patterns, fabric samples and embroidery designs for each costume [accurate enough to be sewn together and even worn on a live model],” says Keane. “Chang’e’s royal robe tells the story of her love for Houyi as two intertwining exotic birds.”
Then, the cloth team at Sony Imageworks used 3D software from Marvelous Designer to build the CG clothes and then fit them to the character’s body. Like most couture, once the dress was on the body, adjustments had to be made.
“It was complex and time-consuming,” adds Chan, especially with the goddess's many wardrobe changes.
Over the Moon contains a variety of animation aesthetics, but one of the more surprising in this 3D film came from director Glen Keane himself: a traditional 2D hand-drawn animated sequence that depicts the story of Chang’e. It appears early in the film on an undulating silk scarf worn by Fei Fei’s mother, as the camera position moves from the real world to the scarf and then back into the real world.
The purpose of the hand animation was to tell the story of Chang’e, her backstory, quickly and in an engaging way, especially to those unfamiliar with this tale.
“That was my fun. It was the very last shot approved,” says Keane.
As Clara Chan, a CG supervisor, notes, incorporating that 2D animation onto a moving scarf animated in 3D presented some difficulty.
“Glen did not want it to be a flat 2D animation. He wanted it mapped onto the scarf,” Chan explains. The challenge was to simulate the scarf so that it did not move too much as to distort the animation.
“We had to strike a balance between being able to read the animation clearly but still feel that it is flowing on the scarf with a little wavy pattern to it,” says Sebastian “Sacha” Kapijimpanga, head of character animation.
Over the Moon is a touching tale — one blended in past and present, tradition and contemporary — told through the creativity of a renowned traditional artist and a talented team of 3D animators.
“This was definitely a unique experience for many reasons, among them working with Glen Keane, a legendary animator, and Netflix, which is an emerging market that's making fantastic products,” says Smith. “Having the opportunity to put the artistry from Keane and Céline Desrumaux up on screen was amazing.”
At the time of the film’s development, Netflix’s newly formed animation division consisted of Keane, his son Max, and Gennie Rim (producer). Since then, the animation division has swelled to approximately 800 artists, as Netflix continues to make its mark on a growing segment of the animation industry. Indeed, a new moon on the rise.