In Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, swashbuckling skeletons, a miniature zoo and menacing mutant animals await siblings Carmen and Juni Cortez, thanks to the visual effects wizards at ComputerCafé.
Like the movie’s mad scientist, Professor Romero, ComputerCafé’s Santa Maria studio created a menagerie of wildly imaginative mutant animals to run amok on a mysterious island.
Under Digital Effects Producer Vicki Galloway Weimer and Digital Effects Supervisor David Ebner, the team devoted three months to devising approximately 16 photoreal CG animals for 35 shots lasting two to 10 seconds each. Many scenes feature multiple animals, some as many as 50.
“We spent a good bit of time studying African wildlife documentaries and referencing real animals to match key moves with the right walks and gaits for more believable personalities,” notes Animation Supervisor Domenic DiGiorgio.
Animators modeled all the animals with LightWave 3D using subdivision surfaces. This allowed the animators to work with low-resolution models, then render at any resolution desired. “That let us animate very quickly because there’s less data to manipulate. We can increase the surface subdivisions when ready to render the final imagery,” DiGiorgio explains. “We could preview chunky, boxy animals on screen but render them smooth and clean. The technique was also helpful in controlling scene complexity by decreasing resolution for animals blurred by depth of field."
Character animation was done with project:messiah, a LightWave module, which offers additional animator controls to the basic LightWave package used for lighting, texturing and rendering. “Because 90% of the animals had fur, and fur is traditionally tricky, we used Worley Labs’ Sasquatch, a LightWave plug in and fur shader, which we pushed to the extent of its abilities,” DiGiorgio adds.
While ComputerCafé lit the creatures to match the live-action plates into which they would be composited, Director Robert Rodriguez often asked animators to enhance the lighting to make it more menacing or mysterious, and so the animals would stand out better against the background plates.
The team used eyeon’s Digital Fusion as its primary compositing package. 5D’s Cyborg was employed for keying greenscreen elements, which were shot in 24p HD.
“There is compression in the HD image. So when you pull mattes, the blue video channel is very noisy, making it difficult to get a good key,” Ebner explains. “Out of all the compositing packages we have, Cyborg has the best keyer and allowed our animators to build frames together and play them at high resolution and full 2K resolution, revealing more detail before we finished out.”
Rodriguez also charged ComputerCafé’s Santa Monica studio with the task of creating an army of skeletons to battle the Spy Kids.
“We received an animatic that was originally done in Alias|Wavefront Maya, by Animator Chris Olivia,” says Jonathan Stone, associate producer at ComputerCafé, Santa Monica. “The scene data came on CD and was integrated it into our studio’s Maya to LightWave pipeline. The animatic was low-resolution, with initial animation and simple textures. Chris did a wonderful job of articulating the skeletons and establishing the character animation. However, once we received the scene data, we had to polish the animation, tweaking and smoothing motion and actions in conjunction with Robert’s requests.”
Animation Supervisor David Lombardi led a team of Maya animators in continuing with animation and later incorporating all new high-resolution models and textures into the scenes. They also added new skeletons to guarantee continuity from scene to scene. “We hand animated 63 characters,” says Lombardi. “Over 28 shots feature multiple skeletons.”
“Working on Spy Kids 2 was fun because Robert had such a strong vision and was so involved with the visual effects,” notes Galloway Weimer. “Everyone on the Rodriguez team was professional, great to work with, and collaborative.”
Studio: Dimension Films
Production company: Sleeping Shark Productions, Inc.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Executive Producer: Elizabeth Avellan
Producer: Brian McNulty
Visual Effects Supervisor: Keefe Boerner
Effects facility: ComputerCafé
Digital Effects Supervisor: David Ebner
Digital Effects Producer: Vicki Galloway Weimer
Executive Producer: Jeff Barnes
Zoo and Zoo2 Sequences
Animation Supervisor: Domenic DiGiorgio
Animators: Akira Orikasa, Gabriel Vargas, Steve Arguello, Taron, Jim Clark, Shannon Wegner, Trevor Harder, Victor Grant, Bruce Harris
Compositors: Jeff Goldman, David Ebner, Mike Bozulich
Digital I/O: Ntana Key
Data I/O: Ron Honn
Associate Producer: Jonathan Stone
Animation Supervisor: David Lombardi
Maya Animators: Daniel Loeb, Robert Bardy
Lighting & Texturing: Brad Hayes, Jeff Dierstein
Compositors: Ben Grossman
Wire Removal: Andy Edwards, Glenn Bennett
Flame Artist: Tim Bird, Andy Edwards
Digital I/O: Ntana Key
Data I/O: Ron Honn