HDRs for an animated film? Behind the scenes of The Croods

DreamWorks Animation’s The Croods is the first animated feature hit of the year, grossing $330m worldwide after just two weeks. The Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders-directed film is visually spectacular, thanks in part to a refined Point-Based Global-Illumination and physically based lighting approach by the studio, and a newly developed cross-over between effects and animation. We talk to the film’s visual effects supervisor Markus Manninen.

Watch a scene from The Croods by DreamWorks Animation.

fxg: What was behind the new PBGI approach on The Croods?

Manninen: We wanted to create a world that was more tangible and believable, not necessarily realistic, but something that immersed the audience with this family on this journey. In live action films and in visual effects, they’ve spent years and years obviously getting very good at – trying to make materials seem like real materials and light behave like lighting on the set. Although our world is slightly different, everything is designed to have an art-directed aesthetic, it still became a process of look-developing the movie in a way we hadn’t done before.

fxg: So did you go and shoot real HDRs for example?

Manninen: Yes, we would take reference from real life and shoot HDR images for using in our image based pipeline that we developed for this show. In terms of Point-Based Global-Illumination – we had used it in pieces but now we used it to get not only environment sphere lighting but really using it as a singular paradigm for also area lighting, and making it interactive and very art-directable.


fxg: Where did you shoot HDRs?

Manninen: We were lucky – an on-set supervisors from a visual effects facility had joined us and was actually part of developing the front-end pipeline with me a few years ago. He said, ‘This is what I used to do in my previous job, why don’t I help?’ and so we developed a whole toolset around HDR. It was something we hadn’t taken advantage of previously and so we went through the same process everything goes through in capture and getting it into the lighting pipeline. We developed a physical kit and a process and we now have a standard for the studio. It means we can even now do, for example, commercials a lot more efficiently because we can put our characters into plates.

Then we went location scouting for interesting lighting scenarios. One guy in Venice suggested that we go to the morning fog on the beach. We didn’t want to have a lot of man-made lighting sources so what we were looking for were naturalistic lighting conditions. So on the beach we shot the overcast IBLs and HDRis. It was all fogged out but with super soft lighting that you get at Santa Monica during the early hours of the day.

Then we went to Griffith Park and shot a cave, which is actually the 1960s Batman cave – which the car drives out of. We shot the cave interior there which was fun. We also at the same time shot a sunset and we didn’t have the city in view there. Then we shot in Ventura at the beach there for a beach sunset. We also had the brightest moon in the last 10 to 20 years a few years ago and that night we went up into the hills again and shot moonlight HDRis for our night sequences. It was literally a live action scouting session, but just for lighting and not locations.

Meet Guy, a clip from The Croods.

fxg: That realistic approach reminds me of recent animated films that have been getting live action filmmakers and cinematographers involved as consultants, like DOP Roger Deakins.

Manninen: Well Roger was part of this movie also. We started off with having two to three months with him while he was in between projects and he came in and worked through things. At the time, it was so early that we hadn’t locked story. The production designer, Christophe Lautrette, Roger and I spent a month literally planning out the lighting approach for the movie. The movie did change and so we had to adapt while Roger wasn’t here but it really helped having those conversations around the lighting scenarios we wanted to embrace and the lighting quality we were looking for. Photo reference was a way to communicate these. Then as the movie became more comical we actually changed our color schemes a little to be brighter and more colorful and fantastical than what we had started out with. But the ideas remained. And who doesn’t want to work with Roger Deakins, by the way…

fxg: How did that new lighting approach plug into DreamWorks’ existing lighting tools?

Manninen: What makes our lighting tools amazing is that they really complement our process. Not just the process of lighting our films but literally our process of evolving our techniques, changing our looks. Every movie has a distinct look and we want to try new things. The Light tool has become an open framework for us developing these new techniques and still being able to have a consistent approach to lighting. Lighters can go from show to show with the same tool but produce these different images. The Light tool’s been around for a long time, but it’s as relevant today as it was back then. The techniques and methodologies have changed but the framework is still there.

One of the other things we took to the next level on Croods was our rigged-based lighting approach. We’ve been developing this over the years, and we had a very aggressive goal for our film which had a lot of locations (it’s a road movie and in animation it’s often something you avoid, because every sequence has multiple locations and characters!).

So using this new HDR/IBL lighting we developed a new surfacing workflow that allowed us to normalize our surfacing – every asset in terms of its materials, diffuse, specularity etc, actually behaved the same. It’s like a poor-man’s physical-based shading where we had predictable response from your materials. That allows us to throw in any assets in any scene and it would behave the way we would expect it to behave. That in conjunction with our light rig approach – where we can set up one shot and have it propagate to any shot in the sequence – that means we can get the whole sequence up and I can see every shot in the sequence and make choices about which shot I want to ‘hero’ up versus which shots come out of the lighting almost a hundred per cent.


fxg: Aside from lighting, how did you deal with the huge amount of effects in the film especially things like the tar and volcanoes and water?

Manninen: The idea was that the world is the villain in the film, and all these natural phenomena are things we had to accomplish. We also wanted to end the movie big as well. One of things we’ve done over the years is establish a department called the Character Effects Department – they partner with the Animation Department to accomplish the additional simulations and procedural work such as hair and cloth. On Croods we took that to the next level where Character Effects literally became the animation department for anything that the characters also touched. So they took on all the interaction with the world, the foliage for example.

As we came into the last eight months of production, the challenge we had was how do we make this tar sequence which revealed the back story of Guy and Grug – how do we create that and leave enough budget of the tar sequence? Damon Crowe, my character effects supervisor, came up to me one day and said, ‘Why don’t you let us do the tar without doing the traditional mud style simulations we’ve done in the past?’

He pitched me this idea of using deformation animation and cloth sims as an approach to it – more or less keyframing the tar. What was really appealing to me was, not only did they show a test that was very successful, but even more so the moment itself was not a very procedural moment – it was two guys stuck in tar sinking which was a quiet moment in the movie, but we wanted to keep the tar alive. So having the hand-control of placing everything, we’d created these really nice bubbles and subtle indents moving around, and we could art-direct them and focus on the character behavior.

Watch a ‘hunting’ clip from The Croods.

fxg: Any other particularly challenging effects sequences?

Manninen: The head of effects Matt Baer did a great job. There was one effects sequence we had that wasn’t going to be in the movie and it was a lot about water and the family being washed away by a mudslide/water flood. We had our effects developers working on a new water pipeline, but then the sequence went away – to our great regret! We put the development on a shelf for almost a year, and then another water sequence came back into the movie, with different water, but it didn’t mean we couldn’t use the technique. We had wonderful, layered detail with close-up water for interaction with the characters. We now use Houdini as a package and write our own things on top of it. So for water we do most of the sims and even rendering outside of Houdini but use Houdini as the interface to the tools we’ve written. Houdini has a fantastic ability to deal with lots of geometry and particles.

fxg: It sounds like as a visual effects supervisor on an animated film there’s a lot to oversee – what do you see as your main role?

Manninen: It is a little different than live action because really everything we create is a computer graphic effect more or less, whether it’s a performance of a character or lighting or effects work. My job is to take a holistic look at the whole film and make sure that the producers and directors get the film that they want. I spend most of my time thinking about the final image – how that’s going to come together, how all the stuff we do, from the beginning of designing the movie to the end – how that will come together in the lighting department and the final compositing of the shot.

All images and clips copyright 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC.