“The Art and Technology of Disney’s Dinosaur”

   One of the fabulous offerings at SIGGRAPH was a wide range of Paper and Panel presentations. The only problem was there were so many choices and so little time to see it all, as they say. I chose to attend a Paper on “The Art and Technology of Disney’s ‘DINOSAUR'”. I figured that I had seen the movie and even if the material was a bit heady, there would probably be cool slides. Besides, it was rated in the beginning level on the handy SIGGRAPH guide to Papers and Panels.

   The lecture took place in one of the large halls at the lovely Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Attendees, students and press people milled about nicely waiting for the doors to open, and as the crowd continued to grow I was worried that there either wouldn’t be enough seats or the back seats would provide a poor chance to see and hear the information. My fears were totally unfounded though, as the auditorium was equipped with state of the art, super-sized monitors and an amazing sound system that provided clearly audible sound from the speakers. These tech people have it down.

   From the opening of the lecture it was clear that as much work had gone into DINOSAUR as had gone into any major period piece in the last ten years. While everyone admitted that the major accomplishment of the film was the software that was created to produce the desired look of the film, it became more and more apparent with each speaker that the physical and non-digital creative demands the production faced and overcame were also stupendous.

   The film was to be animated, but with real live landscapes and backgrounds added in to give the film a more organic quality. Unlike most animated films, this meant location scouting and film crews for the locations. This was a first of its kind production and almost all of the software and protocol were being made up as the team went along. Sometimes the software needed for a slated scene had not even been written when the time came to shoot it.

   First speaker up from the production team was art director, Christy Maltese. Her main preoccupation on the film was the overall visual development. The dinosaur’s texture, colors and habitats fell under Malthese’s domain. In animated film, the live action as well as the backgrounds are all part of visual development. The CG characters will eventually be dropped into a CG world. In the case of DINOSAUR, the habitats were all going to be a combination of computer generated images and live action locations so Malthese had to work on creating scenes that were possible in the real world.

   Using the script, Malthese created 2-D images based on the sketches and painted them. The sketches were presented to location scouts who went out into the wilds of Africa and beyond to find live locations to film and bring back to the production team. The animators and visual effects team would use the material from the location shoots as backgrounds for the characters that the 3-D guys were busy working on even as the location scouts were trudging through the tundra.

   For the live action landscapes, a team was sent out with cameras and equipment from “Maui to the LA Arboretum” according to Terry Moews, the visual effects supervisor. The shoots were difficult, Moews read the opening entry of his location shoot diary: “July 8, 1997, First day of photography…set underwater from rain.” The crew was on the road for 20 months.

   They decided to do everything in natural light, so consequently a lot of reflectors were used. All of the locations had to be shot from the point of view of the character in the scene they were shooting for. These were not just stills that had to be shot. The crew had to shoot POV, moving shots of trails that the characters would take. Several non-digital advancements were invented by the dino location team to make their work easier. A “Dino-Cam” was created using 2-70 foot towers that allowed a 35 mile per hour run through trees for their camera, which could be controlled by radio. Another problem was the lack of electricity available in the far out locations, so they devised the first battery controlled motion control camera.

   When the problem arose of how to combine the artwork, the physical work and the plate/photographic work, of course they created a 3D workbook software that laid out every shot in the script for the whole team. This made an impossible job almost practical.

   The other issue that the art production team had to work on was the physical look of the dinosaurs. Malthese joked that she thought they would be free to choose any colors they wanted to represent the dinosaurs so she considered using very bright colors to make them fun. However, they realized that the human eye is not used to such large brightly colored characters against a realistic landscape such as the ones chosen for the film. “It looks very cartoonish,” she said, then added humorously, “but this is Disney.”

   In the end they chose to use what she called a “dynamic symmetry.” The team decided on using the personality of the character as a color wheel to pick the color of the characters; a subtle color. Blue would be cool, red angry and so on. The texture, they decided, would also reflect personality, with the harsher textures reflecting a more dangerous personality. Once the 2-D info was approved, it was sent on to the 3-D guys who made dino-models, which would then be scanned, and the 3-D info would be used to determine dino-movement.


   However, these are not your parent’s cartoons, and dino-movement to Disney’s team meant a little more than the whistling of a mouse this time. Muscle, fleshiness, and jiggle were all a big concern for the animators. Consequently, the shape of the dinos that the modeling team, lead by Bruce Buckley, had to consider were things like the location of joints and muscles so that the animators would have accurate shapes to model movement on.

   Using SoftImage body animation software, the imagineers also created a program that simulated the organic looking inertia of muscle and flesh jiggle. Building from the bones up, and animating muscle onto the bone, animators were able to create realistic movement on animated characters. In the film, the effect is subtle, but the amount of work that went into refining the ability of the software to mimic real movement was astounding.

   One of the amusing moments in the presentation came when Belzer showed a “blooper reel” of the muscle and jiggle software gone wrong. If the animators put in the wrong parameters for movement the characters animation would go crazy like a bowl of jello flung across the screen. Heads exploded, feet grew to huge proportions and eyes flew out of their heads. I’m not sure if they made the reel for humor’s sake, but it was incredibly entertaining.

   Animator Mike Belzer said that he had lunch with Joan Plowright while he was doing the animation on her character and barely listened to a word she said because he spent all of his time watching the way she spoke. “As an animator,” he said, “you pray for a voice with so much quality and character.” And he wanted to give the animated version equal quality and character.

Rumor has it that the dinos weren’t originally supposed to talk, but Michael Eisner wanted them to, and like good little mice, the animators said, “Sure Mr. Eisner, we’ll make them talk,” adding another layer of work to the already full slate of the dino-team.

Once again, special software was created for the facial movement of each dinosaur. There was a page for eyes, lips, teeth, tongue, etc. to control the face. The mouth section had a special “x-ray” tool so the animators could see what the tongue was doing during the other facial manipulations.

Of special importance were the shape of the lips, teeth and gums in relation to how the animators would want the face and mouth to move. The level of menace or kindness shows a lot in the mouth. In some cases the animators modeled the facial movement on the actors who gave them their voices. The character of Baylene, voiced by Joan Plowright, has a wide mouth, but since English ladies, like Ms. Plowright, speak out of small, pursed lips, the animators adapted Baylene’s movements to mirror those of her actress.

There was also software for hair created with a software program called Maya. The Lemurs created an especially difficult problem because their hair is so lush and had to be shown both wet and dry. A similar program was created for water that simulated ripples and curves, and one was also made for grass, which the animators joked was like green hair on the ground. They wanted to make sure that when the characters ran or walked through the grass the push movement looked as real as possible. In some cases CG water was inserted into live shots of landscapes with a skill I wish my hairdresser had for highlights.

DINOSAUR also used real, live action effects to produce a combination of live action and animated action in the film. The meteor storm that decimates the Lemur’s island in the beginning of the film was based on live action shots of flares fired from the back of a truck to simulate a “storm” of meteors. Things like the dust puffs, meteor landings and extra large dust clouds were added digitally, and poof meteor storm.

Live action cinematography also called for new software in order to simulate the action of light and shadows on the animated characters just like it acts on real life characters. A system called “foam and chrome” was used in the field to measure light angles on the live action footage that the field team brought back. The information was used to create a program called WrapLight that allows CG light would wrap around the dinosaurs just like it would a real life animal.

When the final scenes were edited together the film took up 45 terabytes of information space. How many G4’s is that? Who knows? But the effect is fascinating and entertaining at the same time. The time and digital information that went into making what was essentially a children’s movie is staggering and the software developed to make it possible will change the face of future animated films. Is that important? What if as much time was spent developing amazing scripts as it was amazing software? No one knows that either. For now we will have to settle for really good animated hair days.