The latest from Rok!t Studio

Earlier this year we featured the innovative Gulliver’s Travels opening titles by Rok!t Studio. Now we take a look at their efforts on two recent films – Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family and the Justin Bieber bio Never Say Never – with Rok!t creative director Steve Viola.

Having worked on two previous projects with Tyler Perry, Rok!t was asked to come up with the approach for the opening titles to Madea’s Big Happy Family. “We watched the feature with Maysie Hoy, the editor,” says Viola, “and then we went back and we found a couple of areas of the film that stood out to us. Our favorite part of the movie was when Madea runs around and wrangles up the family. At some points it’s as if she is beating and dragging them to where they need to go. And a lot of times her car is a symbol of her approaching. You see that car coming and you know, uh oh, something’s about to happen.”

Watch the opening titles to Madea’s Big Happy Family

“So we thought that would make a great main title,” continues Viola. “We pitched a few different concepts. Most were graphic design based – what you might typically see but the director went for this one, which was very character-driven.”

Rok!t originially conceived the titles as a 2D animation that was heavily stylized and graphic – “something between a Mad Men main title and something a little bit more caricature-based,” says Viola. But with only six weeks to complete the titles, the studio instead chose a more 3D approach for the final piece. “That way we could keep the pipeline free-flowing,” adds Viola. “You could have animators, designers and compositors as individual moving parts and not get held up by one another.”

Art director Kaya Thomas designed and created the entire look, including all of the characters and the scenes in the piece. Artists then relied on Maya for 3D modeling and animation, and After Effects for compositing and paint work. About 90 per cent of the environments were fully 3D, but with textures and atmosphere painted on top after rendering by the designers. For some of the sparks and water effects, Maya fluid and particles solvers were used.

“We were able to keep moving forward and increase the quality of the characters, textures as we refined things like camera moves,” says Viola. “We were building the final elements and swapping them out as the new versions became available. Then we purposefully gave it back to the designers to give it a more painterly feel.”

A vastly different approach was required for Jon Chu’s Never Say Never, a stereo film that follows singer Justin Bieber on a 2010 concert tour, in which Rok!t came in to highlight some of the stereo work and also provide animation and titles in parts of the film not shot in 3D. “Firstly, there was this whole documentary sequence of how Justin got to be who he is,” explains Viola. “They had a lot of 2D footage of interviews with his family and pictures and they wanted us to figure out how to dimensionalize it.”

“What we did was take a lot of the photographs of him as a child and wove them in throughout the interview – we would go in and rotoscope the images and create three or four layers and do slow pushes on them and go from one to the next. It was a relatively simple process for that, but I think I did help with the flat look of the documentary side.”

The fan video sequence from Never Say Never

A more elaborate sequence involved floating ‘fan’ videos playing around Justin at a concert and then seemingly transforming into the superstar. “They put out a call to fans to make YouTube videos of the song ‘One Time’,” says Viola. “They actually received hundreds of thousands of videos to the mailroom! They screened a certain percentage of them and then had the editorial department help sync them up, and then gave us entirely synced videos. I think we received a couple of thousand videos.”

To create the first part of the sequence, artists mapped the videos to planes in 3D space, assembling them into clusters that a virtual camera would pull through. “It was a stereoscopic 3D camera rig in Maya and we pulled them by from cluster to cluster,” says Viola, “with all these videos that were synced up. That was tricky because the footage of the planes was 2D, but they were existing in a 3D space which we were using a stereoscopic rig on. And then we resolved at the end that it needed to go back to being a stereoscopic shot. For that one we were able to pull a few tricks and then cut to the next shot of the concert.”

The second part of the sequence, a camera pull out that looks almost like a photomosiac of Bieber performing on stage, proved even tougher. “When we went from all the 2D planes of the footage back into a stereoscopic shot,” says Viola, “those planes needed to fall into the right depth of that portion of the shot. So what we did was a 3D camera tracking of the entire shot of the stage, so that we could get enough camera data out of the left and right eye to smooth out the camera move that was done during the shooting of the concert. Then we were able to build the stage off of that information in 3D. Then we hand placed probably 25,000 planes with the videos all at the correct depth. ”

“Essentially it looked like it was a Magic Eye,” adds Viola. “You could rotate around all the little planes at different depths that looked like it made up the stage, the performers, the lights, everything at Madison Square Garden. Then when we did our final pull out, we could map the left eye of the concert to the left eye camera and the right to the right eye, and the whole piece could come together again and be at the right stereo depth.”

A shot traveling from Justin's home to Atlanta

Rok!t’s workflow involved rendering elements in Maya, tracking in boujou and compositing in After Effects. To keep track of all the videos, artists figured out which should be hero, secondary or background versions, based on the director and producer’s recommendations and the quality of video and level of lip sync. Says Viola: “We labelled them based on all that and then wrote a MEL script to go in and dynamically create all the shaders we needed. Then we labelled them with the corresponding image sequence, and then applied them to all the video planes which were hand placed in the correct places.”

The videos were composited with a level of reflectivity in the planes, as well as atmosphere. “What we needed to do was create the effect with minimal impact on obscuring the videos themselves,” says Viola. “They also had a certain amount of transparency so you could see through them, which presented another issue in stereo when you were seeing through the planes. We also wanted to make you feel like you were still in the concert, so we were doing a little bit of volumetric lighting and lens flares.”

In addition, Rok!t contributed a couple of CG shots to the film for a scene that travels between Bieber’s home town in Stratford to Atlanta. “It’s a travel shot that also transitions from day to night,” says Viola. “We ended on a shot of him performing, so we did these distortion-like sound waves that came out from the city and came with us as we traveled.”

Images and clip from Madea’s Big Happy Family © 2011 Very Perry Films. All Rights Reserved. Images courtesy of Rok!t Studio.

Images from Never Say Never © 2011 Paramount Pictures. Images courtesy of Rok!t Studio.