by Paul Hellard
In the same fold as animated features like Big Hero 6, NextGen and perhaps The Mitchells versus the Machines, DNEG’s first Feature Animation film Ron’s Gone Wrong revolves around Barney, a socially awkward middle-schooler, and Ron, his new walking, talking, digitally connected device. Just like the ones his friends have – well, maybe not so much. Barney’s “Best Friend out of the Box. (B*Bot)” hilariously malfunctions, right out of the box. Set against the backdrop of our social media age, Barney and Ron go on an action-packed journey in which boy and robot come to terms with the wonderful messiness of true friendship.
DNEG Animation implemented some brand-new tools and techniques to deliver the Locksmith Animation and Twentieth Century Studios co-production. One of the first challenges that the team faced was the adaptation of DNEG’s mature VFX pipeline to create a new and robust animation pipeline that could deliver a full animated feature.
DNEG also created a sequence versus shot-based workflow; the advancement of character performance rigs and tools; USD development for character pipeline sustainability; and procedurally generated vector graphics for facial and costume rigs.
DNEG Animation was the sole digital production partner on the Ron’s Gone Wrong movie, producing 100 minutes of animation. DNEG teams created over 1,600 final shots for the film, including 168 robot character variants, and over 1,900 human character variants and extensive stylised environments.
I spoke with Phillipe Denis, the VFX Supervisor at DNEG Animation about his role in this collaboration with Locksmith Animation and asked him about preparing for the challenges. “Yes, this was a very close collaboration with the Locksmith team,” he says. “They pitched us the story when I was still in LA and we continued the conversation after I went back to London, together with Andrew Gordon, the Head of Animation.” As VFX Supervisor, during the pre-production period, Denis worked half of his time within the team at Locksmith and the other half with the team at DNEG. “With their own Art Department, Locksmith was in charge of the design. I had the chance to be involved at an early stage of visual development which offered me the possibility to participate in the discussion made about visual and design choices. It also offered the opportunity to start planning the execution with all the departments’ heads at DNEG (Layout, Modelling, Surfacing, etc…)”.
Apart from DNEG Animation’s new tools at play here in the production of Ron’s Gone Wrong, they adapted the mature VFX pipeline at DNEG to work with the show. There was still a bit of modification of some of the practices and processes.
“Unlike a VFX show, everything that appears in an animated feature needs to be created from scratch, which is a lot of assets to manage both from a creative and organisational point of view,” explains Denis. “Now, VFX has also the type of shots that are full CG so there is more and more similarity between the two types of movies and the process we are using to make them. Knowing that, it was interesting to look at what could be leveraged from the VFX pipeline and what needed to be adapted for the making of an animated movie.”
“One of the big differences is that, with the production of visual effects, the metric is often the shot, whereas in animation, the basis is the sequence, if you get my meaning,” explains Denis. “In animation, you design, model, surface, animate and light for a sequence. For that reason, one area that needed some adaptation was the Lighting pipeline. In Lighting, the lead lighters establish the look of a sequence by working on a few key shots and then the production Lighters can light the rest of the sequence using the Lighting rig developed during key Lighting. With that process in mind, we decided to adopt Katana and Renderman as it gave us more flexibility and the capability to propagate and leverage the different lighting setups more easily.”
“The study was in the characters of the B•Bots,” Denis continues. “If you think of the B•Bots in general, they are geometrically very simple characters. They are elongated balls, tall, with simple arms and two wheels. But each of these ‘bots’, each functioning normally, unlike Ron, well, they have ‘skins’, which the kids can download. If they want a superhero, the skin is downloaded so it is a super hero. If they want a race car, they get a race car. Pretty much like in real life here where you can change the look of your phone to make it look more personal for you.”
“Now, these skins on the B•Bots needed to be animate-able. And this presented us with a whole new challenge because we had to drive the animation of these skins, which were, ‘motion graphics’. We needed to have the animators be in control of this, and this is not a small challenge if you think about it because traditionally animators control the arms and legs, and the facial expressions, lip-sync, etc; respecting the design of the character, but this is the whole skin of a character. Usually, perhaps the texturing, design and colouring would be a later stage, but with this addition, the animators needed to be working with the motion graphics very early. DNEG’s Motion Graphics team created the B•Bots emotive (inter)faces, which had to convey the emotions of the 168 robot variants in pixels!
When it came to the main B•Bot character, Ron, this was a whole level up again. DNEG needed him to be able to express himself widely. Remember, his face falls apart quite frequently. Pixelated features, dropping parts everywhere. This all had to be controlled in animation. “And I knew the talents of my creative team were up to it. It required several brainstorms and a long development from Motion Graphics, Rigging, Animation, Surfacing and even Lighting to come up with a satisfying solution” says Philippe. “It was also a very organic and very evolutive process as we developed Ron’s character throughout the pre-production and the early month of production with Animators constantly finding new ideas. At the dailies, of course, the director Jean-Philippe Vine would react to it and suggest extra features and clever ideas. The key component was the fact that any feature added needed to be controllable by the animators and review during animation dailies.”
The company headquarters where the Bots are made was designed to be one great big bubble. And of course, there were bubbles inside of that big bubble. All are made of glass. The crew made an early model of it, way back when Philippe started the pre-production with Locksmith Animation. “There were varying degrees of transparency in the material of the different bubble constituting headquarters,” he says. “The Production Designer Nathan Crowley and Aurelien Predal made an amazing range of images of the headquarters but of course it was from one angle. We needed to explore the different camera angles, to play with the refracted light coming from behind or inside the Orb to see if we could obtain some nice composition from different points of view and not be constrained to only a few. So, we made a model and then passed that to our Lighting team, so they could light the space and assign simple glass materials following the art concept. This was to get some sense of the look of the surface space, and determine both the overall aesthetic but also how we would be able to render such an amazing structure.”
“That was a huge challenge, but going through this process quite early on, reassured us of the feasibility of the task,” explains Denis. “It helped us in pushing the visual by generating Lighting rig that was then used by Surfacing during the look-dev time.” When looking from inside the void of the headquarters, the bubbles, or walls of this void could be fully transparent, or they could dial that back and be fully opaque so they could become screens. In the film, there is a control room where all the B•Bots are controlled.
“You could think of this as a conference room with a 360-degree screen,” Denis suggests.
This screen, needed to be designed, with all these pertinent actions going on, screens within screens, it had to be interesting, and it needed to tell the story. “That on its own, was also a huge challenge, on a design stand-point first, then on a processing stand-point as Lighting needed the design (particularly the colour) of the motion graphic in place before starting their work as these huge video walls were a big source of light; and finally on a rendering standpoint,” he adds. “Multiply this over a sequence and there is a lot of rendering to do.”
“Right up until we all went home during COVID, Locksmith was working from inside DNEG,” says Philippe.
In the development stage, a random mix in a crowd has to be focused and designed well, otherwise, they will not be believable as a tribe of like-minded characters, and that is important in a story.
There were the B•Bots, Ron’s pixelated look, all the adults, school kids, the Grandma, the father and the dogs. In the locations, like the school, there were kids everywhere. In the shopping strip, the B•Bot factory and headquarters. The crowded bus and the groups of kids with corresponding Bots that also might have the same visual traits as their owners.
DNEG is very used to generating huge crowds. Their tools were designed for that thousand-member crowd, but it is a slightly different task to coordinate with a crowd of fifty to eighty characters because each pointed element can be seen for itself, and they may not fit well together. “To do so we needed to develop a more deterministic approach to design the generic characters and we asked the Art department using Photoshop layers to only construct a library of characters they liked,” Denis explains. “Once the design choices were made and approved, we ingested the Photoshop file and rebuilt the characters with the proper models (including clothing) in Houdini as well as the textures and colours in Katana. That is when we started relying on USD as it gave us more control on how to organise and visualise (via USDview), the different assembly choices we were making without having to open a DCC. We wanted to make sure they came with the right heads, bodies, hair, the right clothes, the proper textures and colours and that they corresponded to the Art department desire.”
As a general point adopting USD ended up being a great way to make changes flow in a very flexible manner throughout the pipeline.
About the crowd, one of the particularities of Ron’s Gone Wrong is that the crowd of kids in the school had to be highly choreographed in terms of grouping. “We had different kids’ identities such as scientists, football players, zombies, sports cars,” Denis adds. “They all had a different look with a certain range of clothing design (mainly patterns and colours). And of course, they had Bots with a corresponding skin. That meant that for each layout, the Crowd department had to create a certain number of rules to make sure we respected a certain logic in the grouping and the layout of the crowd.