Unlocking Emotion in the Age of Photoreal CG Animals
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Creature experts from Alt.vfx, BETC, Framestore, The Mill and MPC tell LBB’s Alex Reeves how they build critters that will make you feel
Humans are a soppy bunch. Our capacity for empathy is the cornerstone of society and the key to how we relate to one another and this is never clearer than in the power a good story has to move us. It’s why advertising is always trying to make us laugh, cry or (in some of its less admirable incarnations) feel a sense of inadequacy.
When stories featuring animals appear on our screens, we demand the same level of emotion from them as stories about humans. But as Jorge Montiel Meurer, creative director at The Mill puts it, bluntly, “animals don’t do human things. They do animal things.” And this includes the way they convey emotions. Which gives people like him, who create the often photoreal animals, difficult decisions to make. “In animation we know people will apply emotion. It’s just guiding what sort of emotion they need to put on it.”
Colin Renshaw, VFX supervisor and founder of Alt.vfx, shares Jorge’s interest in emotional perception. His company spends a lot of time crafting emotional stories with CG animals and he recognises the complex set of questions it poses. “I think it relates a lot to human perception and our cognitive need to recognise emotion,” he says. “It’s like that part of your brain that recognises faces in inanimate objects, like the arrangement of light fittings or a letterbox (that’s an actual thing! Pareidolia it’s called). Animals show a lot of emotions, or at least, as humans we project a lot of emotion onto the animals around us.”
Animals don't show emotions in the same way that humans do. So, in a world where photorealistic animals have become something of an expectation from clients and viewers, what's the key to getting the right level of emotion for a human audience? As a VFX specialist or animator, when do you take the decision to break with reality in order to get more emotion out of an animal? “These are THE questions that we’re constantly trying to answer every day,” says Grant Walker, joint head of CG at Framestore – a company that’s moved us with creatures like Paddington Bear, Winnie the Pooh and friends in Christopher Robin and Santa’s sadly malnourished reindeer in McDonald’s 2018 Christmas ad.
“It is a fine line of adding personality and staying true to reality,” says Fabian Frank, head of creature development at MPC – the company that brought us animal antics such as the photoreal remake of the Jungle Book, Buster the Boxer and Samsung’s flying ostrich. “Exaggerating the animation will lead to a cartoonish, stylised look and too little might mean that the audience doesn't engage with our character,” he adds.
One trick available to animators is the magic of artistic licence – a tool that goes back to the earliest animated films. 91 years ago the world met Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie. He seemed happy (ecstatic, even!) to be at the wheel of that boat. People understood that he was a mouse because of his ears and his little bootlace tail. But his emotions were utterly human – a broad crescent smile, a jaunty whistle and a tapping foot. Mickey was anthropomorphised to the extreme. But that was fine. Nobody expected realism from him back then – animation was always cartoonish.
The techniques available to the Walt Disneys of today present a different universe of options. Last year, the team at BETC Paris were tasked with creating a campaign for Disneyland Paris. In telling a story of an adorable duckling who idolises Donald Duck, they had the option to make that duckling look totally realistic – if they thought that was the right decision. Any level of anthropomorphising, from the original Donald Duck cartoon to a nature documentary, was on the table.
They had some tough decisions then. “Getting the right balance between human emotion and realistic response was absolutely key for us,” say executive creative director Antoinette Beatson and creative director Christophe Clapier. They knew the story would end up in the real world of Disneyland Paris, so the duck had to look like it belonged in that setting. “An animated duck encountering a live character wouldn’t have been as effective,” they decided. And this level of realism has definitely done its job. “People are writing in hoping they will get a chance to see the duckling the next time they go to the park,” say Antoinette and Christophe.
But although it managed to convince some excited children, BETC’s duck wasn’t exactly a nature documentary. It had to be a moving tale, worthy of Disney’s history. They had the challenge of producing a Disney fairy tale in less than a minute. So they strayed from realism where they felt it was appropriate. “We tried to keep anthropomorphism to a minimum, a very slight curl of the beak, a little more body mobility,” they say. “We didn’t give into the temptation of having his eyes face us: we kept the eyes on the sides, but we did dilate the duckling’s pupils in the frame just before the Donald Duck encounter. This enhances identification and emotional tension.” They even have a name for this technique: Cognitive Special Effects (CFX).
Colin at Alt.fx has a similar balancing act tale. One Toyota project involved a selection of photoreal wild animals talking alongside real humans. “That was a challenge because they had to be very real, in their natural environment, but talking without being overly anthropomorphized,” he says. “That is the biggest challenge with many projects.”
“It’s always a balance how much of a real animal you want to get and how much the story needs an animal doing something no animal can do,” says Jorge. “It’s about establishing what is going to be the style.” The work he’s been involved with demonstrates this range of styles – from the game-changing photoreal orangutan, Maya for SSE to Three’s ‘Puggerfly’ (yes, a pug with butterfly wings) or Smithwick’s cheeky, beer-drinking squirrel.
Once the level or anthropomorphism is set though, you should stick to it, even if clients or collaborators come along and ask for a wink or a cute smile. “Quite often the client will insist on the CG animal being absolutely real, yet they want it to do a Happy Feet dance,” says Colin.
There are shortcuts, but animation experts like Jorge are more about the destination. “Maybe they want to feel that emotion and they think the way to make that happen is in a human way. If you need emotion, the easiest way is just to make it cartoony because then you can do all the stuff a human does. It’s an easier path to those emotions.”
As is so often the case, sometimes the hard way is the best way. This much was obvious to Fabian when he was part of MPC’s team bringing out the character of a rambunctious young ram for a VW ad. “For the performance to be as realistic as possible, we struck a balance between natural, realistic behaviour and storytelling, deliberately avoiding over-acting, which would break the realism,” he explains.
The main task was to deliver a performance full of confidence and personality, while keeping the animation believable throughout. “Creating a hyper-realistic ram, one that has a physically challenging anatomy is no easy feat,” says Fabian. But the emotional element was the real challenge and it was all down to the way ‘Bam’ moved.
This challenge was especially difficult as Bam was to be born with noticeably large horns, adding an extra consideration of physical weight to the head of the young ram. “The exaggerated anatomy would also mean that its performance would have to be perfect for the believability to sustain,” remembers Fabian.
Getting personality across through realistic actions relies on understanding zoology and animal anatomy, which is why today’s animators bury themselves in references. For the ram, the team at MPC studied heaps of footage and photos, not only of sheep or lambs, but also of different animals like bulls, wolves, dogs. For Framestore’s reindeer, the team went to a reindeer park to study a real herd.
“You need to understand body language, actions, expressions, but sometimes you realise with so little you get much more emotion, rather than winking or laughing, from maybe understanding the essence of the animal,” says Jorge. “Once you understand the physicality of the creature then you can use that to your advantage for the story to bring out the personality.”
Because animals communicate differently to humans, the key is careful attention to movement and strong posing, rather than facial expressions. You don’t even need a face to create emotion – as Fabian points out, one of the best examples in CG history is the iconic Pixar lamp from 1986. “Conveying emotions through an animated desk lamp is quite a challenge,” he concedes, but that film has remained a darling of animators and film fans alike for more than 30 years. That’s good to know, because as Grant points out: “most animals don’t emote with their face. It’s mostly in their performance.”
When you’ve got a face to play with (as you do with pretty much all animals), you can use them to devastating emotional effect. One key trick is that sometimes very real animal expressions can look like human emotions to us. “When you see a reindeer, it can look like it’s smiling – the corners of its mouth will curl up,” says Grant. “It might be because it’s knackered and it’s tongue’s just hanging out, but because it’s a physical reality of what that character can do, we can use that as an emotion.”
“It’s all in the eyes! You can give so much emotion with beautifully rendered eyes,” adds Colin. Alt.vfx put this to good use in a touching story for the Tile commercial ‘Lost Panda’. Their hero was a photoreal teddy bear, with very little movement possible, except simple posture and direction of the head, but Colin was pleased with what his team pulled off: “We still managed to pull at the heart strings! That was due largely to his large, expressive eyes in which we managed to create depth,” he says.
Grant recognises this secret weapon too: “Certain things are going to make it easier for a character to emote. Things that can draw attention to the eyes, like lighter points around them, mean that when that area moves, you’re going to be drawn to it a bit more.”
Tile’s panda is a prime example of ‘less is more’ – something Jorge knows is a powerful impulse to maintain when animating animals, especially with all the technological bells and whistles available to filmmakers like him these days. “At every level you have so many options and resources and you risk putting everything in. Sometimes less is better,” he says. “A shot has a specific purpose and all the other stuff is too distracting.”
When The Mill were working on photoreal teddy bears of their own – for Heathrow’s Christmas ads - Jorge and his team put this to use. “If you think about the animation it’s very minimalistic. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. You need to get the realism. It’s not easy to animate because you need to stick to the body mechanics, weight and emotions, but you don’t have many resources to show emotions. You need to be clever. Maybe it’s just a little nod of the head. You invite people to put their emotions onto those characters, leaving the audience to fill a blank.”
Ultimately, you can count on humans to find films emotional, if you give them gentle guidance. “The close ups on the teddy bears and [SSE’s] Maya, they’re lovely shots,” says Jorge. “But not much is happening. Just moving a little, a shuffle. Close ups still really work. They invite the audience to get into a character’s mind or emotions.”
You don’t need a smile or a wink because the context can do the heavy lifting, says Grant: “If you change the run-up, the emotion of that face could mean something different. But the story is fighting half the battle for you.”
It’s taken a long time for the industry to reach this level of emotional complexity. Since it first became possible make realistic-looking CG animals. “You’ve got to go through the process quite a few times. It takes experience,” says Grant. “You take on that information from every show and character and make fewer mistakes every time.”
It takes a delicate balance. “We always want to be very aware of when we’re making it up,” says Grant. “We stick to nature. But nature won’t give you an emotive performance. So we need to inject that but stay aware of when we’re veering from nature. It’s a big mix of technical and creative processes.”