Inspired by the new Jungle Book movie, Addison Capper goes in search of the fluffy truth
Advertisers love animals. They can be cute, funny or fierce but they tap into the emotional centres in our brain like nothing else. But rather than work with real animals, they’re increasingly turning to the VFX industry to work their magic and conjure up fluffy animals convincing enough to captivate audiences.
In some ways, though, digital beasts can be just as tricky to tame as their real world counterparts – largely because of the intricacies involved in creating their fur and hair. But as we’ve seen in Disney’s recent Jungle Book film, where MPC brought Baloo, Bagheera and Akela the wolf to life in dazzling digital style, the industry is making tremendous breakthroughs when it comes to CG fur.
A bit of background
“You just have to look at the person sitting or standing next to you and see how complex their hair is,” says Mike Chapman, VFX Supervisor / CG Lead at The Mill, the company that brought us Maya, the fully CG Orangutan for SSE Southern Electric.
Which is why creating animals and their fur is so difficult for artists. There is a near infinite level of detail within the hair of animal – and it’s the artist’s job to approximate that detail, as Mike’s colleague Adam Droy, also a CG Lead at The Mill, notes: “With fur there are so many aspects from an artistic level that contribute to what the fur looks like,” he says. “From the flow of the groom, number of hairs, thickness of hair, colour, reflectiveness, clumping, parting and simulation; they are all intertwined and contribute to how the fur looks. If you change one, it has a knock on effect to the other elements. It’s a constant cycle of tweaks, consulting references and improvements.”
Over the past decade or so, the ad industry has been seeing more and more CGI fur. Just a handful of examples include Maya (mentioned above), Toyota’s ‘Call of the Wild’ (crafted by Alt.vfx), Center Parcs’ family of bears (crafted by Electric Theatre Collective) and John Lewis’ Monty The Penguin (crafted by MPC).
One of the reasons for this is the improvement in technology. The tools used to design the style of the fur, as well as the shading algorithms for the look of the hair, have advanced over the year which, according to Harin Hirani, Senior 3D Lead at Finish, “allows you to create a look much faster and more photo realistic than before”.
Alt.vfx’s Head of 3D, Nick Angus, notes how these technological advancements have made the CGI fur field a more democratic playing field. “The price of entry has come down exponentially, so what we have left is creativity that sets us apart,” he says. “An artist who has a good, experienced eye, some technical knowledge and passion for what they do is a priceless asset.”
On top of that, the rendering times involving fur have significantly fallen in recent years. One of the biggest problems involving CGI fur is the amount of data that it takes to create such a detailed picture – “fur is one of the most power-hungry tasks,” says Electric Theatre Collective’s VFX Supervisor, Dean Robinson.
But as computing power increases, VFX artists are able to send very complicated scenes to render and have a better estimate of when they are going to receive the first frame back, meaning more opportunity to revise the work, which ultimately improves the final production. “In this case, technology hasn’t so much made fur easier; we just get more attempts at making it look more believable,” says Sam Driscoll, CG Lead at The Mill, who worked on bringing Maya to life.
That’s not to say that rendering fur is a quick job, as Dean of Electric Theatre Collective (ETC) notes: “We did most of the Center Parcs bear renders in low quality to begin with. Every frame took 10 minutes to render, but that went up to an hour for a good quality render. That means about 5000 hours to render all the bears once in the 60-second spot! We rendered them a lot more than once.”
Grooming – the digital haircut and all before it
“The term groom is essentially a digital haircut.” Mike Chapman, VFX Supervisor / CG Lead, The Mill.
An essential stage in the creation of CGI fur is the groom. As Mike mentions above, it’s akin to a digital haircut; it’s where you brush, cut, fluff, frizz, back comb and so on within the relevant software, so it matches the reference an artist is aiming for. In a more simplified sense, the term covers the overall flow and look of the hair an artist is brushing, for example how the eye region of an animal blends into its head. It’s something that has to match a reference extremely accurately and requires studying references meticulously.
“Getting the flow of the hair is particularly important as it ties together so much of the look of the creature,” says The Mill’s Adam Droy. “How the light interacts with the hair, how the reflections roll across the fur, how it moves when it is simulated. It all comes down to the flow. If the flow is wrong from the start it has a knock on effect to all other aspects of making fur look real.”
Previous grooming technologies, such as Maya Fur and the more recent Shave And A Haircut, were quite restrictive in their possibilities. Maya allowed only for a purely map-based approach, while Shave And A Haircut omitted that problem but still fell short. More recently though was the introduction of ‘procedural grooming’, a technology that allows for each effect to be divided into separate steps and composited together via a “stack or nodal system”, a particular method of digital compositing (http://wolfcrow.com/blog/layer-based-vs-node-based-compositing/).
“More advanced fur tools involve creating nodes with every step in creating a groom,” says Tarkan Sarim, MPC Film’s Lead Groom Artist and lead artist on the recent Jungle Book film. “Scattering points on a surface, growing hair from those points, attracting those hairs to guide curves, adding noise, width and varying the attributes with maps to give them some breakup.”
The power of working in this way allows an artist to interconnect different layers to create new behaviours or reuse existing ones to open up a very complex base to achieve any type of look. “Multiple nodes can be layered on top of each other with varying settings and isolate to certain areas,” Tarkan adds. “On demand the artist can always go back to an earlier stage just by disabling the nodes and adjusting the others to find the right balance and to make it look right.”
Tarkan mentions that some studios have developed their own grooming tools for when a director requires a particularly specific look. Procedural grooming, as explained above, is fit to achieve 80 per cent of the final look, he says, but it gets particularly tricky to get more intricate because of the difficulty of isolating certain parts of a hair / fur style. “To overcome this some studios have developed a purely sculpt based grooming tool which enables the artist to get access to each individual hair and shape it with the combing tool,” he adds.
Tarkan also notes that, while grooming is a complex part of crafting animals, “what goes underneath is a much more complex topic”. Artists initially have to build the surface of an animal’s skin and build muscles underneath so that when it moves the muscles flex and the skin moves appropriately.
ETC’s Dean Robinson adds: “You need to find pictures of the animal butt naked with no fur so you know what they should look like without it. This can be quite hard but is pretty important as we’ll add the fur on top of the skin just like in real life. Then it’s also important to get the skeleton laid out correctly so the legs and arms move anatomically accurately. If this is wrong it doesn’t matter how good your animator is, it’ll be hard for them to make the creature move correctly.”
Photo-real vs. stylised
There are two different types of animal in the CGI world; the photo-real beast, intended to look exactly as its counterpart, and the more stylised being. There are difference and difficulties assigned to each type.
“Whenever you’re trying to create photo real CGI animals, you know you are creating something that people are going to be familiar with and relate to. It means it has to hold up against real scrutiny from the observers” says Finish’s Harin Hirani. “What does help though is being able to reference the real life counterpart and use it as a blueprint for the creation of the CG. With stylised creatures it can be a little more creative which can be a challenge in itself when you are trying to come up with a design. It can be more forgiving too but generally you are always looking for something in real life to refer to to help bed in some form of reality.”
The lack of reference when creating stylised creatures is something The Mill’s Mike Chapman sympathises with. “One of the most difficult parts is working out what the end goal is and what it should actually look like,” he says. “We normally spend quite some time up front with our concept department developing the look over a number of still frames before we start getting heavily into 3D.”
Overall though, the feeling between artists is that a photo-real brief will always present the bigger challenge. “They both use exactly the same techniques to create the fur,” says ETC’s Dean. “It’s just with the cartoon one you stop when it looks nice and with the photo real one you plough on endlessly trying to recreate the infinitely complex hair structures like on our Center Parcs bears!
“Creatures, and fur especially, are a pain in the ass. But we love doing it for some reason.