Alien-mation: Home

DreamWorks Animation’s newest animated feature is Home, the story of an alien race called the Boov that hides on earth from an aggressive species known as the Gorg. One Boov member, Oh (voiced by Jim Parsons) is banished from his race and befriends a teenage girl, Tip (Rihanna). We talk about the film with head of character animation Jason Reisig, who worked on PDI/DreamWorks first animated feature Antz and several other DreamWorks films, and was instrumental in the re-design of the studio’s animation software.

fxg: What was the biggest animation challenge on Home?

Reisig: The biggest challenge was creating the main alien species – the Boov. There was a fair amount of reference in the book, but for the most part we had to work out their physicality and what they could and couldn’t do with their anatomy, especially their tentacles. How soft are they? How do they move? What colors do they change into?

There were a lot of questions and we really had to set a bunch of rules for how they behave and what makes them Boov? And then having a character, Oh, that doesn’t fit in with those other characters – what made him different? They do all look similar, but how much did we have to make him both physically different so you can recognize him, but also what makes him not fit in.


fxg: So how do you do that character exploration in terms of, say, animation tests?

Reisig: In development, we’re looking at the rig and the controls. Such as the ‘nostracles’, as we called them – the tentacle noses. How do they curl up? How does Oh use them? Were they really expressive like dog ears when they turn and react to something? We found that sweet spot of what feels good – we couldn’t be too ‘alien’.

With the colors, we played with mixing up the colors with the different emotions and making them different every time. Then it became too weird – if he’s sad and his face is turning red you just know that’s not landing right. There’s a reason why the blue shade feels sad and red is anger – so it was trying to find the right balance.

We did this fun exercise early on when animators were coming onto the show – we gave them the main character Oh and didn’t really give them all the rules. We didn’t say, ‘Make sure you move the arms this way or that way,’ so we let them play and experiment. We said, ‘Give him a prop and let him explore with this prop.’ It gave us a lot of different viewpoints without any pre-conceived ideas of what it should be or could be. From those we found things that we wouldn’t have discovered right away.

Watch a clip from the film.

fxg: That colors aspect of Oh’s character is interesting – did animators have controls to adjust that during animation?

Reisig: In the beginning we thought we’d want all the control in animation to change color and see it that way. We’d just re-written our software and all the tools were very new and so even to animate a texture map was a little tricky. So we actually planned to be able to change colors in animation and then got the tool to work that way. We could do quick dissolves in the colors but we couldn’t do fancy stripes or patterns or textures – so we discovered we really didn’t need to do it animation unless it was something very clear, say where we needed to have a pause as the color transforms over a long time – say when he is lying. We had the ability to put it in there if we needed to, but the final result was the effects department doing a pass. We talked to them about how to tie it in with the emotion of the character. It sometimes got a little busy and would be hiding something that read a little more in the expression. So just playing with a ring pattern that goes all the way down his body – should it go to his fingers, say?

fxg: You mentioned the new software – was that Premo and how did it impact on production on Home?

Reisig: Yes, Premo – it’s a big game changer for our department. We had a really great tool we were using before but it’s based on a very old toolset that evolved over the years and was never really re-written from scratch. So Premo was a fresh start taking advantage of the multi-core computers we were using and multi-threading. Basically it translated to this: we could get real-time characters full hi-res. We never had to switch to a lower level res of our characters as we animated. So you could see the deformation as you were doing it. It made so much of the guess work go away where you were just posing the final result. You’d be able to see how everything could look in the final image as we’re posing it. So the process of blocking out your shots went that much faster and that last polish you do right at the end where you have your high-res characters was sped up immensely because it didn’t bog down like before.

Being able to have 10 to 15 characters in your scene and still have it work in that way was so nice. I was actually very involved in designing the Premo tool from the animators’ perspective. I didn’t program it but I was helping guide how we wanted the workflow to be and the interface. It was fun to be able to work on the tool and then go onto a project that uses the tool I just helped design. It was very rewarding in that sense.


fxg: You started at Alias | Wavefront – did that experience help in contributions you were making to Premo?

Reisig: Yeah, I went to Art Center and then did a Disney internship in my last year in Florida and that got me into animation. And then my first job out of school was working at Alias. Again I didn’t do the programming part but I was a demonstrator and trainer, where I could use the software and work with the studios to show them how to use the different tools. That then got me my first job at PDI, and my first production job was on Antz at PDI/DreamWorks.

In the early days at PDI, the tools we were using were fairly technical, we had to work with spreadsheets and would indirectly manipulate characters. You’re animating so much in your head – you understood so much the CG-ness of the project, that when you went to apply that more artist-friendly part of your brain – you had to switch back and forth.

What was key in making Premo really strong was having different people with that ability to see what made it better – if you understand technically what’s happening and how you can abstract that to a more creative, simpler workflow, it means it’s easier to bridge that gap between the two sides of your brain. Really, it just comes down to wanting to make it a simpler solution to more complex problems. Do you really need to have the visibility to all the aspects of the character or can you abstract down to just grabbing the corner of the mouth and pulling it around – more like clay rather than knowing the angles and values of things.

Watch a clip from the film.

fxg: Oh and the Boov are such malleable characters with a lot of squash and stretch – how was Premo used for them?

Reisig: That’s one of those complex things that’s hard to boil down to something easy. With squash and stretch sometimes it would get so complicated that it takes so much time to do it. So we’d try to simplify the interface for it – say, you could take Oh’s torso and push it in and it would automatically squash and give you a nice squash and stretch feel. Or, he had six legs which were always complicated to have to manage when you do a walk. But when you move his body up and down we had some really nice automatic squashing and stretching of the legs. Then you can adjust on top of it if you wanted.

We also did some really fun stuff with creating some sims – you run sims on things to get overlap on ears and tails. For Oh we explored having sims on both the arms and the fingers, so you could make it really squishy and dial it in so it was just a little bit or really big. And then animate on top if you wanted. We didn’t want them to feel cuttlefish-y – the idea was that they evolved out of water like an octopus and they didn’t really have bones like we have. We gave them that feel in posing but also we made the deformations feel softer so there were nice clean lines all the way from his shoulder down to his fingertips.

There were also nice soft shapes across his face. This was actually really tricky because he had such a big mouth and it went very wide and very small. Having that geometry place nice was definitely a challenge technically. There was something about making sure you kept that shape simple and soft, otherwise it looked overly detailed.


fxg: The Boov are heavily contrasted with the other alien species, the Gorg – can you talk about different challenges here?

Reisig: Yes, the Boov are of course round and bubbly – everything was circular. But the Gorg were all about hard, sharp angles and aggressiveness. The ships moved very jerkily and that was all very deliberate in their design. It made it pretty easy to carry out in animation.

The Gorg body was a strange beast – he was kind of a starfish but a mean, armored character in design with spikes on him, but he had a soft underside to him. So he still had tentacles but he had a more aggressive stance. We spent a lot of time on his walking and running and what his face looks like. We wanted him to feel rigid and angular, but not stiff.

fxg: And there are the human characters, in particular Tip who’s played by Rihanna. Did you look to reference for her – how was Tip animated?

Reisig: We used a fair amount of reference, but not directly. The tricky thing about her was that she was tween age, a 12 to 13 year old girl. We didn’t have an actress we could bring in who was that age. It’s tricky when you use actresses from other movies as reference at that age – they always tend to be or act a little bit older. We wanted her to have that feel of being not quite a little kid, and not an adult. She’s still a little awkward and kid-like. So it was a challenge to nail down that age group – she couldn’t be too serious otherwise she came across as cold adult. Some of the animators have 12 year old daughters, so we had them do some reference for us. When you try reference from your 12 year old, it never turns out quite what you’d expect! But it was fun.

All images and clips © 2015 20th Century Fox.