Animation Director David Schaub Journeys to Narnia for Sony Pictures Imageworks

For someone like David Schaub, going to work must be like stepping through C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe every day. As an animation director and supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks, he visits fantastic worlds and spends time with some truly amazing characters and strange creatures. Currently at work on Sony’s fully animated penguin surfing comedy, Surf’s Up, Schaub took some time out to talk to us about The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for which he served as animation director for the Mr. & Mrs. Beaver characters, as well as the fox and wolves. The film will be released by Disney on Dec. 9.

Animation Magazine Online: What were some of the prime directives for character animation in this movie?

David Schaub: The animation needs to be believable in all regards. This is a tall order since we are dealing with talking animals. Animals don’t talk, and it is a stretch for most people to suspend their disbelief in that area. Part of the solution is to make the animals believable in all other regards. For example, the wolves need to be wolves. The wolf needs to behave like a wolf with all of the little nuances and mannerisms that you would expect in a wolf, but timed in such a way that supports the dialog. The natural physiology of the animal is never to be broken. There is no caricature involved. It needs to be a real animal and it cannot look like animation as we’ve come to know it. That is the goal.

Was it helpful to have a director (Andrew Adamson) who knows animation?

Andrew has very sharp performance instincts. Not only does he know animation, but also he has an extensive background as a vfx supervisor. He knows what is possible, as well as where the boundaries are. He obviously wants to push those boundaries but it is not a pie-in-the-sky sort of directive. He can speak intelligently about what he knows is possible, and where there is room for much improvement. He knows the language of this medium and is able to express himself in the language that we know. It is rare to find a director with these qualities. He is also very down-to-earth, and has a real passion for bringing this particular story to the screen. His turnovers are generally very broad-stroke with a focus on the attitude of the characters and the intent of the sequence, along with any special screen direction notes. Beyond that, he allowed us to set sail and discover who these characters are in the animation that we pitched back to him. It was a very rewarding and collaborative experience.

Describe your role as an animation director, and did you do any animation yourself?

I did quite a bit of hands-on work. With such a tight schedule and lack of any real development time, it was truly all-hands-on-deck. Even so, I think it is really important for anyone in a supervisory position to get in the trenches and produce at least some shots along with the crew. It allows you to identify, or at least relate to the problems that the crew might be experiencing with the models or rigs. The supervisor has the most authority when it comes to actually initiating changes and assessing whether a change is truly necessary from first-hand experience. It is also the best opportunity a supervisor/director has to define the animation style for the benefit of the crew. You can set the bar as high as you like and it becomes the ‘gold-standard’ for others to follow. While our first small crew of about five animators moved ahead with clearly defined production shots (Mr. Tumnus and reindeer), I moved onto the task of character development in the Beavers’ house sequence. The dialog had been recorded, but the editorial breakdown of shots had not yet been solidified. Therefore, I animated extended performances from a locked-off camera, and then later split them into multiple shots once the editorial cut was delivered. This resulted in a string of about 25 shots (about 75% of the sequence). Andrew and I worked together closely throughout this phase, and the performances became somewhat of a template for these characters.

From a supervisory perspective, the challenge was to capitalize on the strengths of the animators and cast shots appropriately. There were wonderful surprises along the way. It was great to see some of the younger talent, fresh out of school, quickly graduate to more complicated shots that would normally be reserved for only the most seasoned animators. There were only a handful of cases where I had to tinker with or redo shots that were not cast appropriately. In general I try to avoid physically manipulating another animator’s work. They pour their soul into this craft, and I want them to be able to retain ownership and call a shot their own.

The routine was dailies each morning with ongoing rounds throughout the day. One-on-one time with the animators proved to be the most productive. Meetings with the director were scheduled each day at his production office in Hollywood. If I were presenting only a few shots, a video conference would be set up instead. Animation was presented in three rounds: Blocking (usually presented as an entire sequence), Primary (with all performance elements in place), and Secondary (final animation with all the final nuances). The rest of my time was spent bidding new shots and sequences, casting out new work to animators and animating my own shots as time permitted.

Which characters proved to be the most challenging? How were those challenges met?

The Beavers were probably the most challenging because there was more creative license involved’which should make it easier, but really makes it more difficult. We knew exactly what the target was for the wolves and fox because they are supposed to be absolutely real and match their live-action counterparts. The beavers are humanized, but still needed to behave like beavers. It required more development effort to find the sweet spot where the beavers are human-like but still beaver-like (or is it the other way around?).

From a technical perspective, the beavers were especially challenging because the same beaver rig needed to function as a quadruped as well as a biped character. That means that all the internal muscles and deformations needed to work in both cases, which is a tall order for any CG character. Most other directors would be frustrated and baffled as to why that would be a problem. But again, Andrew has been around long enough to be well aware of this problem. With Puss-In-Boots in Shrek 2, for example, two separate rigs were required to handle the biped and quad scenarios. Our character rigging supervisor, Rick Grandy, was able to pull it off with controls that allowed animators to blend deformations smoothly during the transition from biped to quad mode, and vice versa.

The challenge with the wolves and fox was to replicate the anatomy of these creatures. Bones, tendons and muscles are sliding under the surface of the skin. In addition to that, there are controls that allow animators to manipulate fat and jiggle in all the appropriate areas of the body. There are several cases early in the film where our CG wolves are cut back-to-back with live-action wolves. In other cases, wolves that appear too playful and happy are painted out of the plate and replaced with angry CG versions. That means that there are CG wolves in the same plate as the live-action wolves and hopefully you can’t tell them apart. As I mentioned earlier, the challenge is to get the wolves to emote without destroying the natural physiology of a real wolf. It was even trickier with the fox because there is a greater depth to his character. While the wolves are simply mean all the time, the fox is more calculating and even a little ambiguous at first. The fox was animated almost exclusively by Patrick Osborne, and is fully CG throughout the film with no live-action counterpart. There is a lot more ‘thinking’ portrayed in the fox performance, which comes across in his eyes and the attitude in his ears and tail flourishes.

What was the percentage of mo-cap to keyframe?

The beavers, wolves, fox and reindeer were completely keyframed from the ground up. Mr. Tumnus was a vfx character whose human legs are replaced with goat legs, and motion-capture data was acquired on set for him. With the absence of reliable survey data, the motion-capture was a great starting point for our matchmovers, who needed to align the CG legs to the live-action plates. The motion-capture got them 75% of the way there in most cases, but the rest was a matchmove task that required a high degree of accuracy for a seamless blend at the hips. Once the hips were locked in place, the legs were reanimated because the physiology and dynamics of goat legs is simply very different than those of a human. It moves differently, and compression of the heel-to-hoof area had to be animated differently from shot to shot, depending upon the angle being viewed.

I have worked with motion-capture before, and I must say that the technology has its place. It can produce good results when applied to the right types of problems. On this film, there were very specific bits of business that needed to be executed by the animals. A wolf will rarely do exactly what you want, and that is why they are being animated (keyframed). I suppose you could put markers on these creatures and capture a catalog of behaviors. Various beats could be mixed and matched to create one cohesive performance, but would be limited to the source material captured. The most horrifying scenario would be to mo-cap humans acting out the animal parts in animal costumes. I’m sure that this approach will be attempted at some point, but the idea sends shivers down my spine.

By going the keyframed route, we are able to execute very specific performances that are intentional, crafted and designed by the director and the animators down to the last detail. It is this type of challenge that brings out the best in our animators.

When it comes to movies based on fantasy fiction, Weta set the vfx bar pretty high with its work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. How do you follow an act like that?

The work that Weta does is great’obviously. They set the bar high and in the process have motivated others to meet or exceed those high standards. Imageworks is equipped to handle this work, and we are certainly up for the challenge. We have some great talent here and, given the time and resources, I believe anything is possible. However, a lot can be delivered with limited resources and a tight schedule as well. Imageworks was commissioned to produce about 600 vfx shots on this show, which placed it in our ‘medium-size-show’ category. A total of 435 of those shots involved animating complex, photo-real animals’many of them rendered in broad daylight. This time last year I had no affiliation with this show at all. We built the characters and delivered all of that animation in less than a year (about 8 months in animation). It would have been great to have more time, but it just goes to show what is possible. I am happy with the results and feel that the work stands on it’s own as a force to be reckoned with.

Roughly how many animators worked on this production?

At full capacity there were 25 animators on the SPI portion of this project. The three big players were SPI, Rhythm & Hues and ILM, but there were also about eight other small houses involved with various aspects such as matte paintings, paint fixes, effects, CG breath, etc.

Which scene(s) in the film do you think moviegoers will be most impressed with?

I can only speak about the SPI contribution since I have not seen the film in all of its glory yet. Of the SPI work, I would say that the Frozen Waterfall sequence is pretty spectacular. This is where the standoff occurs between the wolves and the children while the ice is breaking around them and the waterfall crashes down. The introduction to Mr. Beaver is a fun sequence that was animated by Roger Vizard, and the animation inside the Beavers’ house provided most of the beaver character development. Another great moment is the standoff between the wolves and the fox, as well as the showdown between the Witch and the fox. There is a lot of great animation going on there’again walking that fine line of the canine/human hybrid.

What are you working on next?

I’ve just started work as the directing animator on Surf’s Up, Sony Pictures Animation’s second all-CG feature length animated film. It is a mockumentary that will take audiences behind the scenes of the most competitive, heartbreaking and dangerous display of surfing known: the Penguin World Surfing Championship. Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) enters his first pro competition, and ‘the Geek” (Jeff Bridges) is a washed-up, overweight and cantankerous King Penguin who becomes young Cody’s mentor. The film is scheduled for a summer 2007 release.