Hatchling Studios Creates Crusty, Curmudgeonly Character in The Toll
August 14, 2006 12:47 am
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Summary: Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Hatchling Studios creates a colorful, put-upon troll for animated short through extensive use of SOFTIMAGE|XSI modeling, rigging and animation tools.
Hatchling Studios Creates Crusty, Curmudgeonly Character in The Toll
By Michael Abraham
“Under the bridge lived a great ugly troll, with a nose as long as a poker.”
Doesn’t sound very nice, does it? I mean, how d’you think a description like that makes the poor troll feel? Isn’t it bad enough that he has to live under a bridge? Do people really need to point out his physical imperfections as well? What, like you’re freaking Brad Pitt?
The insensitive description comes in the opening lines of the time-honored children’s story “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and the troll in question would like you to know that his feelings are more than a little bit bruised. In The Toll, a new animated short created by Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Hatchling Studios (http://www.hatchling.com/), the troll has six minutes to share his feelings with a world that’s clearly done him some terrible wrongs.
“The Toll originated on a list of ideas for festival shorts,” explains Marc Dole, Producer and Editor at Hatchling. “We wanted to tell a familiar story from a new perspective, and thought we could interview the bridge troll while the billy goats slipped past him. Early in development, though, the troll’s personality just took over, so we ditched the goats.”
It turns out that the beastly troll is a lot like the rest of us: he just wants people to accept him as he is. Sure, he tends to messily devour whatever or whomever tries to walk over his precious bridge (little blue Smurfs are particularly delicious), but we’ve all got to eat, don’t we? Sadly, whenever the troll approaches self-realization, he descends once more into his own sense of victimhood. A vicious circle if ever there was one.
It’s obvious to anyone watching that the troll is a complex character and, as Dole will be quick to tell you, we don’t know the half of it:
“We’d never created a character as complex as the troll,” he says. “Not only does he have this peculiar personality, but he has this bizarre face, spindly limbs and weird fingers to boot. We knew in advance that each and every step of the production would have particular challenges. SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s robust and flexible animation tools helped make the troll possible.”
Hatchling adopted SOFTIMAGE|XSI as its 3D system of choice two years ago, a change that Hatchling Animator/Writer/Director Zack Pike describes as “a huge step up from our previous package.” After an intense, but relatively brief learning curve was overcome, the creative and technical talents at the company became committed.
“We switched to XSI and it was like our old system on steroids,” says Pike. “There was a lot of new information to absorb, but as our knowledge grew, so did our commitment. SOFTIMAGE|XSI is now our 3D animation software package, period. We model, rig, surface, light, animate, and prepare for rendering all in XSI. Brian Day, our technical director was particularly adamant about the switch. I think he was the first to fall in love with XSI.”
One reason for that might be Pike’s self-described aversion to all things technical:
“Our tech guys know that if I try to get technical, things will get ugly,” he says with a smile. “Once they get me set up with XSI, though, they know they can generally keep me out of trouble.”
A born character animator, Pike largely taught himself 3D in an era when animation courses were in short supply. It was only when he saw Pixar’s Toy Story, however, that he truly found his calling and the realization of just how far 3D CGI had come. Now, he lives to create characters:
“When I’m working, it’s just me and the character,” he says with palpable enthusiasm. “Sometimes I fell like the performance is already there, and I’m just tweaking the character until his actions are exposed. There’s little that can compare with the satisfaction of nailing a gesture or an expression. I feel like I know the troll better than anybody. We worked with him for so many hours -- writing his dialogue, animating his gestures, crafting his home – that he really is like an old friend. When people suggest new animations or pictures with the troll, I don’t think about the scope of the work or our technical capabilities. The first thought that pops into my head is either ‘Nah, the troll wouldn’t do that,’ or ‘That is totally him!’”
Creating the complex character, however, was a formidable task that was made considerably easier with SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s rigging and animation capabilities, particularly when it came to facial expressions:
“From the start, we knew that the troll’s face was going to be really important, and we didn’t want to use typical phoneme morphs for his lip sync and facial expressions,” Pike explains. “Our old system had nowhere near enough control to make the kind of face we wanted. With SOFTIMAGE|XSI, however, Brian was able to create a facial rig that allowed us an incredible amount of control and a quick and intuitive interface. This was before FaceRobot, which I hear is amazing, but it was still XSI’s rigging capabilities that helped give the troll so much personality.”
When he’s asked to describe his favorite features in SOFTIMAGE|XSI, Pike quickly points to the system’s intuitive interface and begins using the word “robust” a lot:
“There are so many things to like about XSI,” he says. “It’s a powerful, robust system that allows for a lot of varied skill sets to work in the same program. I love that the interface is so customizable. At Hatchling, we like to export HTML dope sheets and set them up in one of our viewports. We also like that you can script in several different languages. SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s modeling and rigging features were great for setting our troll up, but it was the system’s powerful animation features that really let us bring out his personality.”
Technical talk aside, however, Pike likes SOFTIMAGE|XSI because it helps him do what he does best,
“I just need to animate,” he says matter-of-factly. “I need a rig that’s intuitive and robust, because if I have to go snooping around in the program’s guts, something is going to get busted. There’s no doubt about that. SOFTIMAGE|XSI gives me the confidence of knowing I have the capability to do anything I can imagine, without being limited by my software. That’s an incredible feeling.”
Asked if he has any career tips for budding animators and artists, Pike is succinct but profound:
“Work hard, study hard, and make sure you love what you do.”
Amen to that.
All images are copyright © 2006 Hatchling Studios. Use without written permission is prohibited.
About Softimage Co.
Softimage Co., a subsidiary of Avid Technology, Inc., delivers innovative, artist-friendly character creation and effects tools to animators and digital artists in the film, broadcast, post-production and games industries. Its product line includes SOFTIMAGE|XSI, the industry's only non-destructive digital character production software, and SOFTIMAGE|Face Robot, the first production toolset that multiplies face animation productivity by simplifying the complex process of preparing the face for animation and by giving artists precise control over the results.
August 14, 2006