Markus Manninen, the VFX supervisor on DreamWorks’ The Croods, appeared with two of his colleagues on a SIGGRAPH panel to discuss the role of VFX at the animation powerhouse. He gave me a sneak peek of the sophisticated naturalism coming March 22, 2013.
So what’s it been like on The Croods with Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco?
They really pushed us towards a slightly different take on the CG image. I think Chris came away from How to Train Your Dragon really understanding the image as a storytelling device — how the characters emote and what makes that emotion come through the CG. We’ve stayed true to our original intent, which is story driven: How do we make this world feel physical because the story works not only if we believe that the family is from a prehistoric world on Earth but even more so that the rules of the world are well understood. If you get hurt, you can die, so that’s such a quintessential part of the movie that we wanted to embrace visually as well that it couldn’t be this super stylized movie that broke away from that. The trick there is that if you go more stylized then you have to establish what the rules of the film are, just as if you are introducing magic.
What is the look of this movie?
We think of it as naturalistic sophistication. We have a very, very strong shape design that is very, very pushed. But we make it feel physical and tangible by putting a lot of textured detail, grit, physicality into the materials, and also light it very, very physically. It was interesting because when we had the original discussions about how to make this world service the story that we are taking, we wanted to develop some new tools to make it even better using much more soft lighting and a lot of it came from the emotion of our characters coming through. We wanted to be impressed by their movement, their physique, their abilities. And that became a big story point. But how do we take those ideas that we saw in drawings and sell it so it actually feels believable and tangible. We visually had to work with animators on an animation style and we iterated many times and Chris really pushed to get the kind of level of detailing that made everything feel like an integrated image and, frankly, an authentic movie in that aspect as well.
What were the VFX demands for you?
Well, it was interesting when it came to effects, I was lucky enough to have a great head of effects, Matt Baer, who’d gone through How to Train Your Dragon and we had to put ourselves in the role of the villain about what destruction we could create. Originally, we thought of it as the world as a teenager: it’s still forming, it’s still experimenting, things are happening, and there’s a big disaster aspect that pushes this family on their journey and really becomes the villain of the film in some ways, and actually the manifestation of that was the tricky bit. We were able to leverage our experience with making very physical effects: we have big eruptions and lots of interaction with the characters; we have water, rain… all the elements come to life in this movie and create obstacles for our characters, whether it’s in a threatening way or a comedic way. And this is a film where the family is forced out of their comfort zone and the elements become their way of coming together and experiencing something new and they have to adapt and they have to evolve.