Shrek the Third: Ogreachievers

With a weekend opening of over $120US million, Shrek the Third continues the box office success of the franchise. In this fxpodcast, we speak with Larry Cutler and Matt Baer from PDI/Dreamworks including their insights into how working on a series of films changes the workflow. Our online story also contains a large gallery of images.

Shrek is easily one the most successful animated franchises in Hollywood, with the first two films in the series taking in over $1.4US billion in box office receipts and selling over 90 million DVDs. The new film carries on this success based upon opening weekend numbers in the US and Canada, with an estimated $122US million box office opening.

Working on a series provides a lot of benefits for the artisans at PDI/Dreamworks as they are able to continually tweak the process to their advantage. Much of the staff has worked on all three films at PDI — starting at the top with first-time Director/Writer Chris Miller and Co-Director Raman Hui. Not only can the crew revisit characters, but advances in technology also allow greater flexbility in creating effects to enhance the storytelling.

Lucia Modesto has a lot of history in the series, working on all three as Character Technical Director Supervisor, along with co-supervisor Larry Cutler on the last two films.

New wardrobe and advancements in technology lead the main characters to be rebuilt and re-rigged

A lot of technology — including simple raw processing power — has changed since development began on the first Shrek almost a decade ago. “When we started taking a look at the story for Shrek the Third…there were a number of things that were very troubling to us,” explains Cutler. “Shrek and Fiona needed to be in these very elaborate royal costumes at the beginning of the film, and these costumes were multiple layers and they had to come off on-screen and that was the type of thing that the old character setups couldn’t really handle.”

This and other story-driven reasons allowed them to rebuild the chracters from scratch, allowing the animators to create more subtle performances. It was a difficult task to keep the characters looking as much like the originals as possible, yet providing new hooks and flexibility for animation. One example of this is the ability of the new Shrek character to form more facial expressions, such as puckering up to kiss or smiling. In addition, advancements in surface shading materials over the last decade give a much richer look to the characters in the film.

Many more humans played prominent roles in the film, so more character variations were needed

The number of characters in the films has increased with each installment over the years and Shrek the Third has even more crowd scenes where a diversity of characters is required.

Another area in which they looked to improve characters was the pipeline for human figures. Three base characters were created — two males and one female — which could then easily be modified to a variety of human forms from thin to large. Two base men were created because from an art direction perspective they wanted to have a wider diversity of male bodies than they needed for women. To this end, they created a thinner male as well as a heaver male.

Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel make up Fiona's court

The woman generic character actually formed the basis of Fiona’s court – now White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. These characters were actually on screen for about a third of the film, so it was incredibly useful to build a generic character which could be built upon for the supporting characters and not simply background characters.

PDI/Dreamworks was able to do much more with cloth simulation in Shrek the Third both due to software and processing improvements. Utilizing Maya Cloth, they were able to build in much more layered clothing than in the past films.On a film that is the size of Shrek it is simply not realistic to simulate all outfits, so the tighter and less flowing clothing was still built into the character rigs. However, the ratio of simulated clothing was much greater in the third installment than in previous movies.

Fiona's court and other characters required extensive new research to develop hair simulations

One area of simulation which was utilized much more than in past films was in the hair of characters. “We actually ended up building two different hair simulators from scratch,” says Cutler. “Our R&D department developed a hair simulator that was really tailored towards doing long hair and curly hair as well as we have a hair simulator that is very tailored to doing character dynamics that were…poseable by animators. That allowed us to have a much more vaired set of hair styles…so that was an area where from a simulation standpoint we actually really changed the way and type of simulation that we do.”

This was critical in large part due to fact that human characters played a much more prominent role in the third installment. The new hair styles and dynamics were critical for the varied forms which take shape in Fiona’s court and even the young king in waiting Artie.

On top of this, due to the number of crowd scenes, a vastly larger library of clothing, hair, and hats was created for the characters. Having such a wide variety of external features allowed them to push the the variety of characters even more.

Much more effort was put into hair in <i>Shrek the Third</i> than in previous films, allowing a wider variation of digital extras
More outifts were used, including many more with cloth dynamics than in the prior versions
Hats added to the varieties which were available for crowd animations

Effects Department

effects in progress

Head of Effects for Shrek the Third Matt Baer is also a longtime Shrekster, having worked as an effects animator on the first Shrek and an effects developer on the second film. Since the first film, fire has played big effects role in the series and the third is no different. What is different in this film is the role in which it plays and the way in which technology advancements have enabled it.

“On the effects side we were able to do more complex simulations,” says Baer. “On the first film we had to be a lot more picky and not be able to use as large of a simulation or as complex of a simulation so with respect to fire on Shrek the Third we were able to use fluid dynamics…That in general has just become much more accessible to the artist where on Shrek 1 it would have been way to slow for the artist to deal with on a lot of different shots using that type of system.”

Knowing that fire would be used on a much larger scale in the film, a lot of time was spent early on figuring out a balance between being able to coreograph the flames and keeping render times low. Another important aspect was how to accurately choreograph the flames for the story, yet keep render times at a minimum. In the end this was done by being able to actually dynamically resize the effects grid on a frame by frame basis to make it only as big as needed.

final scene

This enabled fire to be used to help tell the story in comedic ways throughout the film — something that would have been unheard of before. For artists like Baer it was nice change from the more common atmospheric and other transparent effects that they are tasked with adding to scenes. “There is satisfaction in that,” says Baer, “but it is so nice to be able to say ‘oh my gosh people are actually going to see this…and I had to come up some really creative ways of hitting these non physical timings, so truthfully its great.” It’s not an easy process, as that while fire needs to act in realistic, physical ways often the timing of comedic effects must drive the animation.

The first steps in creating fire and other effects is to develop the base using fluid dynamics in Maya. This is used for most particles such as fire and gasses — but PDI/Dreamworks has their own fluids simulator for actual fluids. Work is done in Maya because the application and UI have been developed over the years to make creating iterations easy and interactive for the artist. Lots of variations may be tried in a short amount a of time. Once the desired result is obtained, very little actual data is passed out of Maya — in fact, as little as possible — which is then fed into their proprietary pipeline and enhanced with in-house tools.

Magic is another hero of the effects department at PDI/Dreamworks — and with each new Shrek installment there is call for variations that have never been seen before. “Part of the desire is to make something new so the audience sees a new type of magic, “says Baer. “so that’s part another constraint as well…’you don’t want it to look like any magic from any other movie and we don’t want it to look like any other magic from the other Shrek movies but it still has to fit into the Shrek there are these kind of loose guidelines.”

To this end, the magic effects are very much in the eye of the beholder, so a lot of time was spent developing the looks. In fact, almost a third of time in creating the shot is spent experimenting with the look…talking about what the magic is and how it acts in the scene. As the process continues the artists are evenutally able to target into the final look. “It’s fun but you really have to have a lot of endurance to work on one of those effects,” says Baer. “You can’t get your feelings hurt…you end up throwing away a lot of really great ideas.”

Magic Effects Progression

original storyboard
concept art

animatic frame

lit scene with poses and performance

effects elements

effects elements

Merlin hand glow and beam elements

final comp

Head of Effects Matt Baer
Co-Character Technical Director Supervisor Larry Cutler

fxguide's John Montgomery 'on-set' at PDI/Dreamworks

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