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NUKE is the purrfect partner for DreamWorks Animation

DreamWorks Animation is one of the most renowned names in CG animation. To date the company has released over 20 animated feature films in theaters, including the hugely successful Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.

The studio releases five films every two years, delivering breath-taking visual imagery, heartfelt storytelling and a sensibility that appeals to both children and adults.

Demand for CG animated feature films continues to grow. The format draws huge crowds and garners record takings in the worldwide box office. DreamWorks Animation has four of the top 10 highest grossing animated films of all time on a worldwide basis (Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After and Kung Fu Panda 2).

Changing a compositing solution in a studio of this scale with such a tight production schedule is no easy feat. The studio ran The Foundry’s NUKE compositing system in production for about 18 months in preparation for its full integration into the pipeline, which came on their 2011 release Puss in Boots.

Set before the feisty feline stumbled across Shrek, the story gives Puss in Boots the limelight he deserves. The film is a jam-packed fairy-tale extravaganza complete with magic beans, a giant’s castle, a golden goose, some particularly mean incarnations of Jack and Jill and the hilarious Humpty Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). The addition of sparkling chemistry between Antonio Banderas (Puss himself) and Salma Hayek (love interest, Kitty Softpaws), and some truly stunning CG animation really delivers a delight.

Lighting takes center stage

DreamWorks Animation employs quite a unique approach to its visual effects pipeline. Unlike most VFX houses it doesn't have a separate compositing department. Instead collaboration is very much the order of the day, with lighters and VFX artists closely working together to develop each full composite.

Lighters are responsible for lighting, rendering and compositing. Furthermore, all of the studio’s films are now developed in stereo-3D so the lighting artists must also have a strong ability to understand and work in stereo.

Mark Fattibene is Head of Lighting at DreamWorks Animation. Over the course of eight years at the company he has held roles as lighter, lead lighter and CG Supervisor before taking his current position. He has worked on a total of eight projects for DreamWorks including Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens, and most recently Puss In Boots.

Fattibene was part of the team responsible for the integration of NUKE and other new software into the feature animation pipeline. “NUKE gave us the functionality we needed to unify the disparate workflows of several departments - Matte Painting, VFX, Lighting and Paintfix - into one tool,” he explains. “Many workflows went from multiple steps across differing OS platforms to being done all within NUKE thanks to the broad functionality of the tool.”

Using gizmos in NUKE

The process of integrating NUKE into this unique pipeline was an interesting one. As Puss In Boots was the first DreamWorks Animation film to fully adopt NUKE, the team had to try a few methods of working before perfecting how the process would work best.

The basis of the pipeline revolved around the use of gizmos in NUKE. The lighting team created character and environment gizmos which composited render layers (such as beauty, reflection and atmosphere) to achieve an approved visual development look.

Initially the lead lighters created gizmos with a set of specific controls exposed. These gizmos could then be easily tweaked and customized by the individual lighters according to the specific needs of each sequence. The premise was good but the first attempt highlighted some issues with the system.

Fattibene explains: “We found that the lead lighters couldn't predict every shot-needed control. In those cases, lighters would expand a gizmo that would break the connection with the gizmo and any future sequence changes. To avoid this, we added a number of operations after the gizmo for shot work. Lighters could then go in and modify these nodes or add to them without ever needing to break open the gizmo. This maintained the connection to sequence gizmos and provided lighters with the ability to address notes quickly.”

Additionally, the team used gizmos as a delivery mechanism to upstream department work into lighting. Fattibene continues: “Matte Painting and FX would create and install empty or work-in-progress gizmos into sequence NUKE scripts. As they made additions or adjustments to their gizmos, we would automatically pick them up in lighting.”

Focusing on the shots

The team at DreamWorks Animation found the NUKE gizmos to be a simple and customizable method of distributing complex compositing networks across lighting teams.

“Simply put, gizmo usage allowed lighters to spend less time on construction of NUKE scripts and more time addressing shot-specific notes,” affirms Fattibene. “After their development, no artist had to build a script from scratch or wonder how rendered layers were meant to be composited together. It also provided greater standardization of NUKE scripts, making it easier for multiple artists to find their way around shared NUKE composites,” he concludes.

A giant goose

On Puss in Boots, one of the last sequences in production was one of the most complex. Fattibene comments: “In this climatic scene the main characters’ quest comes to a head as they encounter the giant goose on a huge crumbling bridge. The challenge for the team was to combine so many complex elements - the goose, the crumbling bridge, dust and environment effects – within extremely tight production time constraints."

Lead lighter, Pietro Materossi, tackled it head on by devising a render pass scheme that allowed for numerous lighting adjustments to be made in NUKE. 

“To do this he created two main gizmos; one for the bridge and another for the goose," continues Fattibene. "These gizmos were comprised of nodes that combined the passes required for each element, as well as the mattes for the color correction nodes.”

Cat dance off

Another key scene that benefited from the team’s use of NUKE was the dance off scene where Puss in Boots first comes to blows with Kitty Softpaws early on in the film. The scene, which takes place in the cat cantina and involves an expertly choreographed dance off, was created using multi-pass rendering and compositing in NUKE. Fattibene comments: “Our production time was compressed on this sequence. In order to balance multiple lighting setups within the cantina, separate light renders were balanced in NUKE for the entrance, stage and dance floor.”

How it all came together

Fattibene explains: “The requirements of modern day feature animation projects mean that we need to handle ever-increasing shot complexity and offer more and more stereo-specific compositing capability. Our biggest concern when integrating NUKE was ramping up an entire facility on a new piece of software. The Foundry’s support and documentation really helped us to meet those needs.”

Going forward they will be looking for ways that NUKE can continue to help them as they strive for greater efficiency in their pipeline and work to meet higher and higher creative goals.

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