Cinesite Vancouver Animates a New World For ‘The Addams Family’
‘The Addams Family’ is Cinesite Vancouver’s first full-length animated feature. The team of 240 artists served as sole vendor on the production, working over a two-year period to create the entire film from storyboarding and design to final delivery, adding up to 1,173 shots and 86 minutes of film.
Cinesite’s production designer Patricia Atchison was responsible for developing a new look for the project, and worked directly with directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan. She said, “Greg and Conrad had a strong vision of how they wanted the Addams mansion house to look and feel. We did a lot of research into Charles Addams' original Addams Family cartoons and comics that appeared in The New Yorker magazine from 1938. We were under immense pressure to get it right, while at the same time put a new spin on it and in the end make all audiences happy.”
The production placed a great deal of confidence in the team, and were pleased and frequently surprised with what what they were creating and the direction they took to build the Addams world. The 1964 live action television series ‘The Addams Family’ was another strong reference for design and look. To start designing the house, for example, Patricia’s team picked out signature furniture pieces such as Morticia's chair, the furniture in the foyer and Gomez's reclining leather chair.
Patricia said, “It felt great to be able to create a world in which the Addams Family lives in dilapidated elegance. Ultimately, however, we were limited by the animated production itself, and so the house became quite distinct from earlier TV or movie renditions.
“It was more about making sure we were continuously going back to the original artwork and infusing as much of it as possible into the film. For example, we built the witch's broom tree swing and the street signs in Pugsley's bedroom, and hoped that people would recognise them. You can't not have fun with Charles Addams' artwork. Throughout the house are many paintings and specific items paying homage to his original work.”
From Flat to 3D
For Cinesite’s artists, re-creating Charles Addams’ world in CG was a chance to take his single panel vignettes, small stories in themselves, and turn them into fully realised shots and sequences. “3D animation was the means to give a fuller existence to the Family, which is difficult to do in a single panel,” said Laura Brousseau, head of lighting. “Like the family mansion, the designs of the main characters were based on the original comics, so fans should immediately recognise the look of each family member.
“Our philosophy concerning character design grew from the original shapes and designs, from our characters through to our pieces of furniture – they were new, but we used the same shapes and silhouettes as their foundation. Our aim was to capture and pay tribute to the aesthetic of the comic panels.”
Animation supervisor Mike Linton said, “For the most part, design and pre-production happened well ahead of animation. The directors themselves did have an idea how they wanted the animation style to look, and this was factored into the designs somewhat. But, after receiving the director’s pitch on the animation style, it would evolve from there as we got our hands on the early rig builds and started exploring the acting further. We would then work hand in hand with rigging to get the flexibility needed in the character rigs. In some ways, the character designs helped shape the personality and performance of the characters.
Shape, Silhouette and Motion
“Shape language and silhouette played a big part in identifying each character. Fester is a good example of this. Early on, the directors and art director instructed us to maintain his bell shape throughout our performances. Some technical workarounds and custom rig set ups were needed to help us achieve this look, and the animators in turn had to be mindful of maintaining that shape in their posing. These limitations helped to organically give a distinct look and feel to Fester’s acting.
“We did plenty of animation tests while working with the directors to try and lock down the family’s personalities and overall animation style. They allowed the animation team a lot of freedom to develop their own performances. If an artist came up with a novel idea about a character that the directors liked, we would build that into future performances.”
For performance reference, the animators explored a few different resources. For example, as a starting point, the directors wanted to see a bit of [actor] John Astin’s Gomez performance from the original TV show in Cinesite’s version. “We created a Character Bible for each character, and in there was a breakdown of his or her personality and references to use. In production, the animators shot video reference quite often, which is a good first step to help you quickly block out the performance in your shot,” Mike said. “Most of the voice actors were filmed during their recording sessions as well, and this was also a great source for the animators.”
Some characters have stand-out faces. Lurch, for example, has a wonderfully expressive face that makes up for his few words. Facial and body motion was completely integrated in all shots. Mike said, “It’s very important that the same artist creates the entire performance. Not only do we want the one artist’s vision for the whole performance - if we find an artist has a very strong affinity for a particular character, we’d also try to cast out more shots of that character to him or her.”
Hair is another identifying feature for several of the characters, especially Cousin It who is almost entirely composed of 85,000 hairs, according to VFX Supervisor Neil Eskuri. Margaux the TV personality has a huge 165,000 hairs and even Wednesday has 57,000.
“Cousin It is one big long length of hair,” Laura Brousseau said. “We used the XGen instancing tool inside Maya for hair grooming and focused on finding ways to be expressive and creating shapes with our lighting. The character Margaux was a major challenge due to her massive head of blonde hair that has to interact with her big dangling earrings. If she pushed her head backwards or forwards, her hair would get in the way and caused trouble with the inner penetration of her earrings and her collar. She was certainly tricky.”
Apart from the expected complexities of an animated film, the team faced an even bigger, underlying challenge. Previs supervisor Rav Grewal said, “Cinesite’s biggest hurdle was certainly the new pipeline we were developing, especially during the latter stages of production when the Montreal studio was supporting Vancouver on complex scenes with high character counts and lots of CFX shots involving hair and cloth. With the two, dispersed teams working on it together, it had to be solid and efficient. Although some initial issues emerged while getting it up and running, by the end of the film the pipeline was our saving grace because it helped us get the film done on budget and on time.”
As it does at many studios these days, the pipeline must adapt to the needs of the project, and for ‘The Addams Family’ they needed to make some significant adjustments. Moving from a Windows platform to Linux, for example, meant they were constructing a new digital environment for creating, saving, sharing and tracking data for a non-linear production workflow.
Neil Eskuri said, “The primary software was Maya for all of the character modelling, environments and props, as well as the animation rigs. Maya’s character FX and Tech Anim tools were used for finalling creature and prop animation as well. Houdini handled the environmental effects work.” The project’s story called for different levels of realism in the environments and associated effects including Pugsley’s projects and experiments and Fester’s adventures. To control the look exactly as required, all of the dust, debris, fire, explosions, fog, water and so on were created and simulated in Houdini and piped into Katana for render.
Making a Scene
“Large scenes with multiple characters were broken down into layers and levels - foreground, midground, background - that could be rendered individually. Because the interiors were dressed with a vast number of models, we constructed a spreadsheet, used as a manifest, to help ensure consistency from shot to shot or sequence to sequence as a scene was loaded into Maya.” Katana and RenderMan were used to light and render the scenes and Nuke for compositing.
The camera moves in expressive ways around the sets, sometimes at top speed, sometimes taking an interesting position in the scene. Rav Grewal remrked that, visually, it was important to maintain some of the familiar cinematography of the original ‘60s TV show and live action Addams Family films. “But to take it up a notch, we did add our own touch of flair to the cinematic language, for something fresh and new,” he said.
“The previs team had fun exploring and presenting many alternate staging options with additional camera coverage for various scenes to progress the overall narrative of the film. The atmosphere while working with the directors and the editing team was very creative and collaborative. Everything from film aspect ratio to custom lens kits and movement motivation was discussed in great detail to to make sure the camera work and composition supported the character designs, performances and emotion of the scene.”
Passion for Light
Some of the subtlest and most expressive environmental work done on the film concerns the lighting. As head of lighting, Laura Brousseau is passionate about this subject. “Lighting is an integral tool in supporting the story visually, conveying mood and expressing emotion. The impact our lighting choices have is truly wide-ranging. It can be effective in simple ways such as directing the viewer's eye by smartly placing our lights and shadows, or it can have a much larger and deeper effect by creating mood, reflecting what is happening in the story and expressing how our characters are feeling,” she said.
“Consider one of the more sombre sequences in the movie that we called ‘Sad Montage’, in which each member of the family is feeling low and reflecting on their relationships with each other and what they see as their own shortcomings. The directorial choices made for the action, animation and cinematography reflect this universally understood kind of sadness and loneliness.
“In Lighting, we aimed to support this important moment in the story with a predominantly cool tone from the night sky with small, soft, isolating pockets of slightly warm light. While setting that mood and atmosphere successfully required a holistic approach to the action and cinematography of the shot, it is in large part due to the lighting that we achieve a deeper cut of emotion in these moments.
“In contrast, consider a lighter section of the ‘Family Game Night’ sequence where we join our characters in their living room alive with a boisterous game of battleship. Lit with an array of candles and a cozy fireplace, the composition helps viewers to relax and experience the simple, joyful feeling of time spent with loved ones. While the two scenes are contrasting, both stories are told in part through lighting.”
‘The Addams Family’ also features an essential contrast between the town Assimilation, where the environment is uniformly bright, colourful and comical, and the Addams property, which is much darker with a very specific colour palette. “That contrast creates a total reversal of what you’d normally expect in movies, where good guys are bright and colourful and the bad guys are dark and scary,” said Laura. “We're turning that around in this film to emphasise the story point that families come in all different shapes and sizes– it doesn't matter what your family is like, they're still your family.” www.cinesite.com
Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: ® 2019 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved