DreamWorks Animation’s newest film How To Train Your Dragon 2 was also the first to use its re-vamped set of animation and lighting toolset - dubbed Apollo. We find out from visual effects supervisor Dave Walvoord how the tools became part of the studio’s pipeline, plus how the team worked with cinematographer Roger Deakins in crafting Dragon 2’s look.

Hiccup and Toothless meet new people and new dragons.

fxg: Dreamworks built a new software platform for use on Dragon 2 - can you talk about what’s inside?

Walvoord: The two main components are new animation software called Premo and new lighting and renderer software called Torch. It’s a new animation setup with a new execution engine, so our animators are able to pose at 12 frames per second and get 24 frames per second playback of high res models on the animation. There was no animating low res models anymore - it was all high res. 12 frames per second is not realtime but when you’re talking about posing it’s pretty damn close. The animators never thought that was a slow down.

The new lighting tool - Torch - was designed to handle a more complex film, as well as the new renderer we put behind it which we called Moonlight. There were a lot of other things like services architecture and dealing with getting data from one part of the pipeline to the other.

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fxg: The studio had used for a long time a lighting tool called Light from the PDI days. How was Torch made differently?

Walvoord: The UI is the biggest difference. Light was heavily scripted and spreadsheet based, but it wasn’t a one-stop shop. We had a lot of external processes we had to follow. For example, our dependency graph tool was a separate tool, our lighting tool was separate. Our complexity management tools were all outside. You couldn’t say ‘re-region’ something. If you were trying to break a complex crowd down into multiple regions to, say, render it in passes, you couldn’t do that inside the lighting tool. You had to do that outside of the lighting tool, then launch the lighting tool and bring in that data.

So the new Torch tool lets you do all of that work together. We don’t have a separate dependency graph tool. As you build your dependency graph inside the Torch application - the lighting application - that has all the instructions to be able to send the job to the farm and read it and send it back to you. So in terms of complexity it was a huge jump forward, and in terms of UI it was much more modern. It has more of the feel of Katana or Maya, and a much more powerful 3D viewer. There’s also a new renderer which is basically the same architecture but optimized from the previous one.

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fxg: Similarly, what advancements did the new animation toolset bring?

Walvoord: Emo - our old software - was, much like Light, a spreadsheet based tool. To evaluate the rig, it was basically a batch rendering operation. The animator would type in a bunch of values, hit render and re-calculate and they could wait 20 seconds for the pose. So imagine going from that to the new Premo and suddenly you can take your stylus and you can literally drag the pose. No more spreadsheets, it was direct manipulation with a stylus. They have different levels they can dial into just to control the skeleton, or they can dial down into the stylus to shift points around on the model. It’s incredibly interactive and entirely parallelized with hierarchal levels of controls.

It also has a system called Premonition which - if you’re using the stylus and as soon as you let go so you’re not telling it to do something, the thing starts calculating all of your animation so it’s cached in memory so you can just scrub back and forth. It’s constantly doing that and pounding these boxes with 24 cores.

Watch the dragon race.

fxg: In addition to Apollo, Dreamworks seems to have been constantly innovating with tools like OpenVDB and also integrating other parts of your pipe with proprietary tools like Houdini - did that continue on this film?

Walvoord: Yes, Apollo is a new thing that was just recently done. We’ve got a new hair styling system (not used on Dragon 2) and we’ve developed OpenVDB. With effects we still use Houdini as a base platform - there we’ve got all kinds of proprietary water solvers and volume renderers that plug into that and find solutions that fit the problems we’re encountering.

We used to be entirely proprietary and you can fall behind in certain places because there are things you might not focus on. Our 3D paint package was one of the ones that happened with. So for Dragons 2, we switched to MARI for its 3D paint package. If you look at the surfacing on this film, I think it’s extraordinary. So we can pick the best tool for the job and it doesn’t have to be the one we wrote necessarily. We’re doing a lot more of that now than we used to.

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fxg: On Dragon 2 you were able to again collaborate with DOP Roger Deakins - can you talk about that?

Walvoord: In terms of how we lit the film, we had an extremely collaborative approach between Roger Deakins and myself and our production designer Pierre Olivier Vincent. We also had a director in Dean DeBlois who had a good idea of what he wanted and he really pushed the art. He wanted to make a visually striking film - and he didn’t want to make a film that would be called an animated film. He wanted to make a film that just happened to be done with animation.

We were really allowed to bring in a lot of the visual language from live action, in terms of how Roger lights and how live action films are lit. But at the same time, I feel like the movie is far more stylized, because we took these live action principles and applied them in a way that only animation can, where we can push further. We’re not trying to make something that looks real-world.

To give you an example, there’s a shot early in the film in the dragon race where the dragons fly around a weather vane, and the sun’s behind them. The sun’s not in the shot but in normal animation the sky would have been perfectly exposed and the dragons would have been exposed and all the detail made readable. In a live action film, the DP probably would have said well let’s expose for the sky and the dragons would have gone dark. He could have also gone the opposite way and expose for the dragons and make the sky blow out.

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The way we pushed it further was to expose in between - the dragons are under exposed and the sky overexposed so it’s a live action language we’re using but the way we pushed it so our exposure range was even more limited than it would have been in live action. The result is you get these beautiful silhouettes with beautiful dark dragons over super bright sky - and it just makes for an incredibly graphic image, which is really a trademark of animation.

In the film, we didn’t push color - we pushed light. So people feel like they’re seeing something live action-like but at the same time isn’t trying to be live action. It’s trying to be a romanticized version of what live action is. The great thing is that, with Roger being a live action cinematographer, he understands the language but he’s also a very stylized cinematographer, so in a lot of ways he embraced this approach.

fxg: What would be one of your favorite shots or scenes from the film in terms of lighting?

Walvoord: One of my favorite scenes is when Stoick (Gerard Butler) is reunited with Valka (Cate Blanchett) in the ice cave and he kisses her for the first time. That little sequence of shots has incredibly soft lighting. She looks beautiful. The light is very natural and it’s a giant soft light that should feel very natural, but yet it’s an incredibly unusual setting with ice. To light it, we stuck lights inside of the ice so it’s pretty much glowing. It’s not like we shined the light on the ice - we lit it through the ice. You just get this wonderful series of shots where the lighting on the characters is beautiful - very soft and very romantic - and oftentimes out of focus in the background. Even the tear running down her cheek has little droplets and breaks up and catches the light.

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All images copyright 2014 Dreamworks Animation.


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