February 5, 2007 8:20 am
SOME SPIDER: Rising Sun Pictures Brings Out Inner Beauty for Charlotte’s Web
By Julie Miller
Spiders are icky. Let’s just agree there. They’re not the Shrek-ish, face-only-a-mother-could-love kind of ugly either. For starters, they really have no faces to speak of. How do you know what they’re thinking? Or if they’re planning a quick scoot up your pant leg? Yecch.
Yet somehow, director Gary Winick makes even small children love the arachnid heroine of his big holiday movie in the same way generations have fallen in love with her -- by staying true to E.B. White’s classic story. A large part of the achievement can be attributed to VFX supervisor John Berton Jr. (Terminator 2), animation supervisor Eric Leighton (King Kong), and the artists at Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures (RSP), who delivered an incredibly realistic yet loveable spider for Paramount Pictures’ Charlotte’s Web. The film stars Dakota Fanning and features Julia Roberts as the voice of Charlotte, along with an all-star cast including Steve Buscemi and Oprah Winfrey.
The 60 artists at RSP used SOFTIMAGE|XSI on all 240 shots of Charlotte and her webs – everything from the initial pitch which won RSP the lead VFX house role to the final finished shots nearly two years later.
“Charlotte went through three major design phases,” said Raffaele Fragapane, RSP’s lead character technical director on Charlotte. “Above all else, our assignment was to make her as realistic as possible. We had many references, actors, and even spider tamers that we drew from.” That major undertaking took nearly a year, and as soon as it was accomplished, RSP embarked on the second phase, adding more ‘evolutionary’ elements. “She goes through several pregnancy stages and starts aging. Textures, colors and shading all change. Her hair gets whiter and more sparse. She has a bigger belly and her stance is sloppier.” But her face was still very similar to the original ‘spidery’ one. “It was getting in the way of the storytelling,” Fragapane said. VFX supervisor Berton needed more emotion, and the team embarked on a third design phase focused around Charlotte’s head and face.
The Eyes Have It
Fragapane explained, “She couldn’t have a real mouth or a nose, but we got more leeway with the eyes. We relocated her minor eyes, gave her more of a brow, and made her prettier so the audience could relate better.” RSP used some traditional animation techniques on top of realistic 3D deformations to help the spider’s eyelids move consistently, adding tear ducts and connecting her upper and lower eyelids to make them work as human eyes do. “We changed their shape and animated them so the angle of the shot would capture a definite shape – angled if she was angry, round if she was surprised. The rig took care of those things to make sure they worked against the actual eyeballs.”
At one point RSP had 870 shapes driving all of the facial animations and it was here where RSP realized some of SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s major advantages. “XSI is the only software that can handle that amount of data without dragging down performance.” Fragapane said. “We could throw anything at it.” XSI’s animation mixer also helped the artists work more efficiently. “We used it a lot in the rigging phase. It has a really nice way of allowing us to encapsulate the interface between parts of the rig – constraints and expressions – so that we could work on different parts simultaneously.”
With RSP’s team-based approach, that ability was important. “We can’t just hack everything. We need forced consistency. The way XSI works with corners, models, curves, and rigging let us split off the work between five different TD’s working on five different parts of the face, and bring it all together consistently. That’s one of the best things about XSI. You can play with ideas quickly, but it still gives you a framework to keep things consistent so you can use all of that experimentation.”
While Charlotte is an achievement on her own, her full spiderly wonderfulness isn’t evident until you place her in a web. And not just any web; one so complex that it’s a character all on its own. While remaining true to their marching orders of keepin’ it real, RSP also created a visually powerful web that conveys the magic of the mystical medium. As with Charlotte, the web’s “character” revealed itself in stages. First the realism. “Webs in the real world are constantly in motion,” said Fragapane. “They react constantly to wind, and to insects being trapped in them. In our case, the web also needed to react to Charlotte and all eight of her legs. All of these had to be two-way interactions.”
RSP developed an XSI plug-in called Sticky Feet, which monitored an averaged surface of the web continually and made the web strands bend and give in at arbitrary points whenever one of Charlotte’s feet intersected with a strand. The bend followed the tip of her leg upward until it left the surface and then bounced it back with a ‘twang.’ Fragapane said that while the problem wasn’t too hard to solve, “We had to make sure that the whole process was intuitive to use for a large number of non-technical animators, and it had to be real time.” The tool was extremely successful and has become one of RSP’s standard XSI plug-ins for all animation instances.
Another XSI plug-in, WebSolver, was written to codify the web’s reaction to environmental dynamics like wind and turbulence. Fragapane explained, “The basic solution supporting the tool was an improved Perlin noise. Before tackling a character shot that included the web, we would set up the web dynamics and use another part of the web toolset to create an animator-friendly version of the web with dynamics on it, cache some data (default tension and length of the strands), and then hand it to artistic animation. Once that was done the web would be converted into a renderable web.”
Next came the magic, in the form of dewdrops which gave the webs a shimmery, magical feel. RSP did a lot of shading work to develop the look of realistic droplets. They also developed dynamics to enable the different drops to respond to animation. “If they’re on the web they wobble, or stretch. If they’re on a vertical strand they slide down. When Charlotte steps on them they break on the web. That kind of thing brings together all of the dynamics and rigging, and typically you can run into some real mathematical issues, but with XSI we had no problems handling the data.”
Having native support for the Python scripting language in SOFTIMAGE|XSI was convenient, as it is the language of choice for RSP developers. Fragapane said, “The natural object orientation of Python went hand in hand with XSI's consistency between scripted and compiled APIs, and with the object oriented programming nature of the SDK, this made for hassle-free and relatively fast ports of our code when we had to squeeze more performance out of a plug-in.”
Fragapane, who has been a Softimage user for nearly a decade explains why SOFTIMAGE|XSI is his 3D software of choice. “My focus is characters – everything from design to technical issues to implementation and deployment. To do character design is to be in constant evolution. The whole workflow is fluid, and I need a package that accommodates that workflow, with a consistent interface that allows me to experiment and revise things quickly. Softimage has always handled character tasks better than any other package.”
When RSP created the initial Charlotte design sequence for its pitch to win the job, the team used SOFTIMAGE|XSI with built-in mental ray rendering. But when designing the pipeline for the actual project after they’d won it, RSP developer Moritz Moeller used the SDK in XSI to develop a brand new interface called Affogato between SOFTIMAGE|XSI and Renderman, the studio’s preferred rendering package.
As SOFTIMAGE|XSI has become more prominent within RSP, Affogato has become a part of the studio’s standard VFX pipeline. RSP is also working on making Affogato an open source software product and expects to make it publicly available soon under an extension of the GPL license. RSP developers are looking forward to rendering core API changes in SOFTIMAGE|XSI v6 as an opportunity to refactor Affogato into an even friendlier, more tightly integrated product.
Over the course of the Charlotte’s Web project, Rising Sun Pictures’ staff – both permanent and freelancers – grew significantly, and the company purchased an additional building in Adelaide to house its expanded team. Said Fragapane, “When Charlotte’s Web came in it was the biggest project we’d ever had. We made the decision to use XSI from the beginning and it turned out to be a very good choice. It gives us an ideal balance of out-of-the-box functionality and ability to develop using the SDK and API. It’s very friendly to experimentation.”
Learn more about Rising Sun Pictures at www.rsp.com.au.
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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.