Taking the Fright out of Animating Monster House

November 13, 2006 11:09 pm

Monster House combines performance capture techniques and animation in a dynamic 3-D universe.

Halloween came early this year with the release of hit CG animated film Monster House from Columbia Pictures. Now out on DVD in time to spook trick or treaters anew, this movie engages its audience with a scary, funny, sad tale of three kids who must battle a living, breathing ramshackle house determined to eat everything that comes within its reach. Directed by Gil Kenan, "Monster House" is a innovative blend of fantasy and reality, combining the details and subtleties of the performance-capture techniques developed by Sony Pictures Imageworks and first used in Robert Zemeckis 2004 " The Polar Express" with the magic of animation in a dynamic, expressive 3-D universe. Imageworks artist Dave Bleich, lead matte painter on Monster House talked to us about his experience working on the film and how Cinema 4D helped solve some of the unique challenges the film presented.

The title monster is a living, breathing shingled house with windows for eyes and a dangerous carpet tongue that stalks its neighborhood on tree legs.

In terms of process, all shows vary, and all visual effects supervisors have different ways they want to work. The pipeline is developing as we go, and we learn from other shows and are starting to dial in what the creative directors and visual effects supervisors prefer. On Monster House, we were developing environments that would be used as a lighting tool. The process was that wed get all the information from Maya and go to our set up in Photoshop and CINEMA 4D then work back and forth between these applications. We used scripts to take layout environments, camera work, and information out of Maya, then wed export the environment once and bring it into CINEMA 4D.

With lighting, we worked with the look development and effects supervisor to develop what environments were going to look like as far as the color gradients, with the sky gradient to be used as a lighting tool, as ambient light for fill, not sunlight. Once established, we handed that off and worked on the skies using these colors. We painted 360-degree skies actually projected onto a dome, which we would eventually be rendering. We painted 12 of these, from early in the morning to the middle of the night, which were always changing.

Three kids, DJ (Mitchel Musso), Chowder (Sam Lerner), and Jenny (Spencer Locke) discover that the house across the street from DJ's is alive.

I was doing a lot of technical set ups, since we had to render all these backgrounds, and I was training some of the assistant technical directors how to use CINEMA 4D to run things in the pipeline along a lot faster. It streamlined the process and allowed me to work on other things rather than rendering out over 1000 shots of the sky. Four of the assistant technical directors were trained in how to use the software, setting up environments with CINEMA 4D. For them it took only a few weeks to learn because the interface is very intuitive, and because technical directors are technically inclined anyway. A few of them got so crafty that they wrote out a bunch of scripts and piped it in for themselves to render out environments. It allowed them to take care of the painting of the skies.

Having the assistant technical directors learn the application and be able to run these environments out for us was fantastic. The assistant technical directors were surprised how easy it was to run, not heavy like some lighting packages, so they were able to drop it in and go. Some really push CINEMA 4D, working with shaders and lighting, and some just use the bare minimum of what they need. Some have more of a 2D background, and some have no background, and are just learning, but pick it up real fast. Ive had the opportunity to see a couple of the artists I work with learn the software and really enjoy working with it

"Monster House" comprises 1,200 shots.

One shot in Monster House in which it was essential to have the Projection Man tools in CINEMA 4D was quite a challenge, probably one of the greatest challenges I had on the movie. It involved a time transition, where the camera goes up above the clouds and you see the moon and it comes back down, but you dont see anything change until you go back to the clouds. When we first looked at the shot, we didnt get it, but in the context of the film it works great.

On Monster House, the decision was made to give the character and look a stop motion feel.

After we figured out the time transition shot, Jay (Jay Redd, Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor ["Babe," "Stuart Little"]) wanted the clouds to move. So I slowly animated those like they were breezing behind the moon. There are five different camera projection set ups to solve that shot. Once you get the technical parts and PhotoShop all set up you can start painting and really start to understand 3D that way, including how the camera works and field of view.

I was solving a lot of problems as the lead matte painter on the show, and working with the visual effects supervisor and the digital effects supervisors. I was interacting with them regularly and got to show them what this tool can do, as far as previsualization, making tricky shots possible, and in some cases being able to pull off a shot in half the time. Weve had the opportunity to push the software and show CG supervisors and the rest of the facility how we can use this application. The visual effects supervisor was able to call us in right before they wanted to final a shot, in order to touch it up here and there. We could quickly do lighting and create shaders for objects. We made full use of the render speed, which was extremely fast and sharp.

Innovative Monster House is the sum of all its collaborators and multiple teams of artists at Imageworks.

We first started using CINEMA 4D around Polar Express for projection matte painting. The pipeline supervisors showed us BodyPaint as far as a texture painting application, and we thought it was pretty interesting. The engineers at MAXON asked us to come up with a wish list of capabilities, and in a few weeks they had a prototype. They started building and have been building on top of that since, as theyve been working with us and getting our feedback. Theyve worked on making the software very artist friendly. The fact that we can customize it to how we like to work, and its not buried so we can open it up and be ready to go is invaluable. CINEMA 4D is extremely flexible, which means I can spend more time painting than dealing with the technical side of things.

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Shelby Swatek is a freelance writer based in Buena Vista, Colorado who specializes in hightech communications. To learn more about Shelby, please visit her website at:


November 13, 2006
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