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A Look Inside Free Birds 3D Production
Creating The Turkeys And Their Performances

It was no simple "turkey trot" for the Free Birds crew that was tasked with bringing feathered characters to life for the big screen. First and foremost, the challenge was to make turkeys - which are not typically considered the most attractive of birds -- look appealing.

Writer/director Jimmy Hayward contends, "It was important for the audience to care about our turkeys and believe that they could actually be thrown into a big sci-fi adventure. But first we had to make sure the audience would want to look at them for the length of a feature film." 

To begin their education about turkey-kind, the animators and designers researched the look of real turkeys. They visited turkey farms in East Texas to get up close and personal with their feathered subjects.

Modeling Supervisor Tom Jordan says, "Turkeys have nice, pretty feathers and their plumage is good, but knowing we wanted our characters to be attractive and have real emotions come through, we needed to step away from reality and endow these creatures with a bit more beauty. That's where the art comes in." Hayward continues, "We veered away from reality when it came to character designs but went for realistic textures as much as possible."

Beyond visiting a turkey farm, the Modeling department went even further into research mode to understand how the turkey body works. In fact, they bought a frozen turkey, thawed it out, took it apart and tried to reconstruct it to understand how turkeys actually are built. Then the team ran a variety of motion tests in the computer using the frozen turkeys as reference. This was certainly a non-traditional way to go about the learning process, but since the Modelers develop the first representation of the characters and objects in the computer and are charged with putting them into 3D space, it is crucial that they have thorough knowledge about the mechanics of the body or object they create. 

Next, the Rigging team took the models and worked with the animators to figure out how they were hoping to move and manipulate the turkeys. The Riggers put joints onto the models in a process called "skinning," which is much like giving the characters muscles. These joints are assigned controls that are essentially "the strings on the puppet" that the animators will use to bring the characters to life. Rigging Supervisor Josh Carey sums it up by saying "once we pass a rigged character on to the animators, they then have the ability to bend a wing, pose the face, open the mouth and make the characters talk. They can make the characters run, flip, jump, dance...basically anything they need to do to create a performance."

Initial growth point sampling using Avian's Point Repulsion distribution

The innovative software system at Reel FX contains a modulate rigger, which allows the rigging information created for one character to be transferable to 60 - 80 additional characters. That way, when all the rigged characters get to animation, they are consistent in their construction and animators will not have to learn new controls with each character they are trying to manipulate. "With Reggie, we spent more than six months developing his rig, trying to figure out who his character is and how he needs to move. We spent a lot of time specifically on the hand and the wing, calculating the mechanics of how a wing might be able to grab something. Once we figured that out for Reggie, we built that information into Jake, Ranger, and all the rest of the turkeys," recalls Carey.

Feathers displayed as polygonal geometry allows the Fur Artist a quick feather silhouette view during grooming

Given that turkeys make up most of the cast of characters in Free Birds, the team developed a proprietary software system known as Avian to handle how these complicated characters would be groomed with feathers. Avian dictates the look of each individual feather as well as how the feathers are placed on the characters and how they would deform when the characters walked, talked and moved. Feather and Fur Supervisor Monika Sawyer, who had worked with Hayward on Horton Hears a Who! in a similar capacity, was brought in to oversee the grooming process. With feathers constantly colliding and stretching whenever any of the turkeys moved, Sawyer's team of six artists needed to construct a very complex, yet easily manageable solution to handle the 96 characters that were feathered or furred in the film. They developed the look and style for everything from feathers on turkeys, chickens, ducks and dogs, to kids, pilgrims and Presidents. 
Sawyer explains, "To 'groom' something means to basically sculpt hair, fur and feathers in 3D space, taking it a step beyond the modeling stage." The grooming process using Avian starts by sampling points onto geometry. Through its proprietary tool sets, the Feather and Fur team generated several master feathers by defining their "rachis" or quill attributes, barb attributes, and feather shapes. They then propagated these feathers onto the sampled points. Once propagated, they were able to refine their position, rotation, curvature, feather density, barb density, randomness, and other attributes through point-based painting, curve-based manipulations and vector-based interpolations. "We use a lot of flow and volume to create the shape of a hairdo and create the breakup of turkey plumage, meaning how the feathers actually lay on the body, how they orient, how they appear and what their default standard pose should look like. Avian is capable of all of that in a very artist-friendly way, applied to any type of feather or such element that Jimmy wanted to see, given any shape, size, or level of detail," she adds.

Jake's Final Fur Groom contains over 40 different feather clubs and approximately 3 million individual hairs

Specifically for the turkeys, Sawyer and her team went to work putting together a reference kit of real turkey tails, wings and individual feathers that they kept handy for daily reference. "References are the artist's best friend, and it helped to always have real feathers handy to make sure what we were doing was based in reality. We developed hundreds of options for the feather system in order to create very distinct characters."  

After individual feather appearance details were created, the next step involved getting the right amount of space between the feathers on each character. As supervising technical director Harry Michalakeas explains, "On one hand, you want some randomness in how the feathers are placed, so that the characters don't appear too perfect. But on the other hand, you don't want them too random, where two feathers might be right on top of one another, or where there might be an obvious gap. We used a point repulsion algorithm to solve this. The feathers were initially placed randomly, but then the point repulsion algorithm made each feather push its neighbors away from it until we got a nice result where there was some randomness, but with smoothly varying spacing between the feathers, with nothing looking too 'bunched up'."

Deforming Guides were created for Jake's wings and tail to blend the motion of the hero and body feathers

The look of Jake and Reggie required even greater focus from Sawyer and her team, knowing these two birds appear in practically every scene of the film and need to look great close-up as well as from a distance. Sawyer's group worked with the animation team intensely, running tests to make sure the feathers deformed in an appealing way under any action conditions, and to ensure that from a distance they still looked like feathers. Sawyer recalls, "We started with Reggie. Reggie is very different from Jake because Reggie's silhouette is smooth, but his groom is pretty rough. From a distance you will only barely see breakup in Reggie's silhouette, but up-close, you will notice that every barb has some wave, and that the barbs on the feathers are a different color. With Jake being a factory-grown turkey, he's a much bigger guy, so we wanted him to look smoother at any distance, shinier and a bit more suave than his free-range pal, Reggie."

The Feather and Fur team faced particularly unique challenges with their turkeys having hands and fingers that could actually grip things. Sawyer contends, "Jimmy very much wanted to make sure that when Jake grabs Reggie's neck and shakes him, it looks like there's strength and thickness in those feathers. If you look at most bird feathers, they're very thin, and when you turn them to the side, they almost disappear. On turkeys, all of the flight feathers have some thickness and some strength. That was something that we definitely had to resolve in order to get the characters to gesture clearly and to feel the strength in the hands of our turkeys." Avian allowed the team to stack multiple feathers on top of each other to create a single, more robust feather that exhibited more volume. 

Feathers in motion are often difficult to manage, but the Free Birds artists started off on the right foot by having a solid build from the skinning level up. "Feathers tend to be a magnifier of any imperfections in a character's body skinning. If a few points on a character's body get a bit mangled due to an extreme animation pose, the feathers will freak out and cause a real mess.

Aim Mesh geometry was applied as a final step to each feather groom. This was used later by rigging as a hook up for their relax deformer technology

Rigging Supervisor Josh Carey and his team did a great job skinning the characters so that they hold up in a wide variety of animation poses, but to address the most extreme situations, we wrote a custom relax deformer plug-in for Maya which measures the amount of stretch and compression in the characters skin and then relaxes the points when a threshold is passed, all while preserving volume," explains Michalakeas.

The Feather and Fur team also needed to develop tools to make sure the wing feathers deformed naturally when the characters moved. This was achieved by creating Deformation Guides, which allowed the team to create key areas within the wing that had a volumetric fall-off that would then deform each wing feather in relationship to their underlying feathers. The Feather and Fur team also utilized "Aim Mesh," a proxy geometry that ensured that all the feathers kept an appealing relationship between their deformed growth and deformed proxy surfaces. This helped solve body penetration issues which otherwise would have needed expensive calculations through dynamic simulations. "Aim Mesh also enabled us to run dynamics to create effects on the feathers including wind, jiggle, and other such movements," adds Michalakeas.

Working hand in hand with Sawyer's department, Surfacing Supervisor Todd Harper and the Texture department took the surface details of each character one step further in order to bring a level of realism to each scene. To inform this work, Harper also visited turkey farms and observed such nuances as "how light reacts on a beak and on the feet and where plumage is shiny and oily versus dull.  All these little details helped to inform our work in the texture department. Jimmy established that he really wanted something that felt really gritty and real, but yet could live within that cartoon world. So we found this kind of fine balance between how much detail is not too much detail," notes Harper.

The Texture team also took into account the lifestyles and backgrounds of the turkeys when designing the textures for their feathers. "With Jake, for example, we considered who this guy was at his core. He hasn't necessarily lived the good "free-range" life, and has really had a lot of struggles to contend with over the years. So our intent was to make him look gruff and grungy, like he's been through a lot. We purposely made sure his beak didn't look too clean, adding little scratches and scrapes to indicate that he's been out in the environment. It's fun to dig in and put in little nuances onto the surfaces, letting the textures sing," says Harper.

Once the characters are modeled, rigged, textured, furred and/or feathered, the animators start figuring out how they will create their performances. Writer/producer Scott Mosier recalls that in pre-production, "We did a lot of animation tests to figure out just how turkey-like our turkeys should act, showing the range of movement from full turkey mode to more upright and human-like, and then we settled on a blend between the two." The filmmakers developed the logic that the turkeys would revert to "turkey mode" when they were among humans, but they would act more human-like when they were with their own kind.

Supervising Animator Rich McKain explains, "when the turkeys get scared and are less conscious of their actions, they fall into turkey mode, that's when they can flap their wings and their tail feathers come out. But when they are interacting with other turkeys, they are more like people." Directing Animator Wes Mandell adds, "We tried to incorporate little nuances of real turkey behavior into the characters only when it made sense for a scene, like having their tails aim at each other when they're feeling aggressive. On the other hand, it's not like we're used to seeing turkeys everyday that travel back in time, so we had the freedom to suspend disbelief on many levels." 

Along the lines of making the turkeys act more like humans, one of the biggest challenges the animators faced was how they could make the turkeys use their wings like hands. Kyle Clark, Chief Operating Officer of Reel FX, recalls, "A lot of questions came up once we settled on the overall designs for the characters, such as 'How do we have these turkeys actually grab a hold of things? How could we make that look believable? How do we make a wing system that makes a turkey wing look like a hand when it gets folded in?' We tried our best to retain the core elements of a turkey but also bring human elements to them so that the audience would follow their performance."

Soon after the voice actors record the dialogue, the animators take the voice tracks along with writer/director Jimmy Hayward's direction on how the characters should act and what feelings they are trying to convey in each scene. Having an animation background gave Hayward excellent shorthand communication skills when giving direction to his team of animators. When launching an animator on a shot, Hayward would typically give him a list of questions to consider that would guide him toward understanding the scenes better, such as "How does this scene fit into the act? Why is this scene in the movie? What's the beginning and end of the scene, and within that, what's the beginning, middle and end of my shot?" "If they answer all of those questions, they will clearly understand the emotional intention, the context, the subtext-- basically everything they need to know to figure out the acting perspective and where to take their work," says Hayward. 

McKain describes the animation style of the movie as "very realistic. We relied heavily on video reference of animators acting out scenes themselves. We enjoyed getting those tiny details out of the animator's acting performance and finding a way to incorporate them into the character's performances." Directing Animator Ray Chase adds, "the video reference of the voice actors is also really helpful because it gives us a sense of what the actor was thinking when they were actually performing the line. We like to see the expressions on their faces and study their hand gestures as well to incorporate any nuances we can into our characters. Why not, they're all such great actors?" 

Another interesting challenge the animation team had to tackle was how to populate the modern-day farms and the turkey lair of the past with rafters and rafters of turkeys. 

Lead Character Animator Kent Alfred led the crowd work on the film and was really excited by the task. "This was brand new territory for us!  We had done a few crowd shots in the past here and there, but never for an entire movie. We pulled together an amazing crowd team, developed tools to streamline the process, and found a way to increase the amount of characters in a shot exponentially," he says. The crowds were done in Autodesk Maya with a new system Alfred and his team developed called "Tiling." Alfred continues, "Using our 'Cycle Dressing Tool,' we were able to browse through a huge library of animated cycles and use the cache data for each one to quickly populate them in each shot. We were also able to place each cache character, offset or reverse their timing, flip, make them larger or smaller, and so much more." Ultimately, the team built a library of 27 background characters that they were then able to turn into hundreds of variations of characters with different clothing, feathers, colors, body and facial types. Building on that, they were able to animate over 600 cycles of action for these characters. Alfred sums it up by saying "crowds are amazingly fun to work with. In our eyes, they are literally another character in the movie. They are naturalistic and can flow like a river, they can be funny or sad or the punch line of a joke. They give weight to the movie and add a level of believability to every scene, convincing the audience that the main characters live in a real world occupied by other beings."

At the same time the characters are being designed and modeled, the art department is hard at work designing the look of the world in which the story of Free Birds plays out. Production designer Kevin Adams and his team of artists had to design a variety of sets to take Jake and Reggie from their quaint farm life through space and time, and then ultimately to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. Since travel into space wasn't a research option, a group of visual development artists instead embarked on a trip to New England to photograph the fall foliage and the Plymouth Colony to inform their design efforts.

Hayward's vision for all the different sets was based on the mood of each scene and the tone he was trying to convey with the story. "In the beginning, I wanted to make the scenes feel very pastoral in order to lull the audiences into thinking they are getting a nice animated film with talking animals, so when the story quickly turns into a sci-fi adventure where Jake and Reggie end up in an underground facility and then wind up in a space-time continuum, there is a stark contrast in the color palette, look and feel," says Hayward. Once the turkeys land in the year 1621, they meet the wild turkeys of the past and are taken to their underground lair. Their lair takes on a dark, dismal, dramatic color palette towards the end of the film, which then leads into a very grey battle sequence. "The biggest challenge was to take all those diverse environments and make them feel cohesive enough to be in one movie," contends Hayward.

With Jake and Reggie constantly on the move, the cinematography was challenged to keep up with them. Thankfully, in CG animation the virtual camera can be used to cover action from any angle. "On top of that flexibility, we use multiple cameras, so it gives us a lot of options," says Camera and Layout Supervisor Gerald McAleece." McAleece and his team were able to go into sequences and add booms, crane shots, whip pans and other fun camera moves very simply. "I really enjoy setting the mood in a sequence with camerawork. We can create anything from calm to anxiety to urgency with thoughtful control of the camera," McAleece adds. The cinematographers also had to take into account the size and perspective differences between the turkeys and the humans. McAleece recalls, "For the most part, we shot the turkeys as if they were people. But when we composed a shot with both humans and turkeys in it, we dropped the camera low and shot upwards toward the humans to make them look more menacing."

The scope of effects work in the film covered everything from fire and explosions to smoke, fog, dust, sparks and debris. In particular, the film leaned heavily on fire and fluid simulations, but the team had the most fun with the explosions, fireballs and flamethrowers. Effects supervisor Walter Behrnes jokes, "There is never a shortage of artists wanting to burn and blow stuff up when it comes to making a film!"  

One of the greatest challenges for the effects team was creating the massive vortex surrounding the time machine. Behrnes notes, "Just based on the amount of information that needs to render in that football field-sized spinning volumetric was daunting. It was about a five-month process to develop the right look and rhythm for that effect." He continues, "The massive fog volume effect was not hard to create, but due to the sheer size of the effect, it was very tricky to get manageable render times without dropping desired attributes such as light scatter and motion blur." The team experimented with various render techniques such as point cloud look-ups to adjust brightness and shading within volumetrics, but ultimately ended up using lightning geometry as a light source while physically-based rendering the fog, which gave a nice scattering throughout the volume.

Another interesting effects challenge was in the Tunnel Fire sequence, when a huge fire takes over the wild turkeys' lair towards the end of the film. Behrnes continues, "Population of the fires was achieved by pre-simulating multiple fire assets and developing a delayed load instancing placement and rendering tool set. The tool set allowed the artist to paint in pre-simulated fire as point data, visualize the placement in a proxy form, promote instanced points to geometry for hand placement and, if needed, push hand-manipulated assets data back into the instance point cloud for rendering, and finally render multiple passes and export animated proxy geometry to the lighting team."

The team primarily used Houdini software to generate effects and Nuke to create slap comps for compositing. Proprietary tool sets were created in Houdini and used to generate and animate the foliage on trees and bushes, and then to place the plant assets and populate vast amounts of grass. They also developed quite a few general tools to automate massive amounts of effects like torches, sparks and fuses.

Behrnes explains, "We strive to create great effects, but we don't want them to stand out to the point that they take away from the story. Of course, I do want audiences to think 'Wow, that is a great explosion!,' but not necessarily on a conscious level. My hope is that they will be so immersed in the film that the effects never distract from the story that Jimmy wants to tell."  

One of the final stages of creating the film involves lighting, wherein artists add depth and lights to a scene, balancing colors to make sure they are married together properly and look as good as possible in a final frame image. As for the approach to the lighting on the film, Digital Supervisor Dave Esneault explains, "Jimmy [Hayward] does a great job using lighting and look development to help set the mood and tell the story of the film." Lighting Supervisor Jeff Alcantara couldn't agree more. "The Lighting department is responsible for supporting the story, tone and mood in every way possible. For example, if you want a character to feel isolated, you don't want to have lights coming from all directions, you want to help focus the viewer's eye towards that character alone. So the mood or emotion in a scene is really driving the direction of the lighting more than anything."  On Free Birds, the art direction team enjoyed using live action film reference from big action movies to inspire the lighting work. Alcantara continues, "Integrating the style and lighting set-ups portrayed in memorable scenes from movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Braveheart is a task that makes our jobs challenging and fun." 

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