Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Shadow Play with Potter's Tale of Three Brothers

via AWN Animation World Network

Ben Hibon discusses his acclaimed animated sequence in the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
Posted In | Site Categories: CG, Films, People, Visual Effects
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Hibon merged the influences of Lotte Reiniger and Asian puppetry with a 3D camera style. Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

In a daring move, we momentarily leave the tense world of Harry Potter in Deathly Hallows: Part 1, and enter a stylized animated one, when Hermione (Emma Watson) narrates The Tale of Three Brothers. Conveyed imaginatively in silhouettes and shadows and sepia tones, she describes how three wizard brothers try to outwit Death: a metaphor for the eventual battle with Voldermort.
Ben Hibon (Heavenly Sword), the director of the nearly three-minute sequence, tells us what it was like collaborating with Potter helmer David Yates and Framestore (led by Dale Newton) on this fascinating six-month project. Hibon recently joined Nexus for commercials and other short-form projects, and will also direct a new live-action re-imagining of Pan.
Bill Desowitz: Congratulations: It's quite a feat to pull off such an imaginative sequence without drawing us out of the movie.
Ben Hibon: Yeah, absolutely. These were always the two things, really. It was the look and feel of it because interpretation has never really been done fully animated before in the Harry Potter franchise. This was a big question mark when I first met with David Yates, the director. We tried to define the look. What does the Harry Potter world look like when it's animated? And, as you said, not breaking the flow of the movie was important. And not having seen the movie, it was important to have a back and forth with David about the expectation at that moment in the film when it happens. I think also at that point in the franchise, there is a feeling that when you try new things, there is a greater purpose behind what you're doing because there's a worry of self-indulgence. It was not like that at all. The meaning behind the animation and why it is animated -- the need to break the storytelling formula at that stage of the movie -- was very much on everybody's mind for the very start. It was not about creating artifice but throwing the audience into a narration. I was always felt that you need that break and that Harry, Ron and Hermoine need the refuge. It's a warm and comforting and familiar magical tale that Hermoine reads.

BD: How did you arrive at the shadow puppet style?
BH: That happened in stages. I had preliminary meetings with David and Stuart Craig, the production designer. I dug up a couple of images and one of the early references that we responded to was from Lotte Reiniger for her scissor cut out, silhouette style of animation. And there was something naïve and very graphical that David responded to. So I came away with that and was already fascinated with Asian shadow plays and puppetry -- very crudely articulated puppets on sticks. I thought that merging the two things would look wonderful. But there was always something that bugged me a little bit about all of these references. They were heavily 2D in their craft and I was very aware of breaking the flow of the movie, and so it was very important that we keep the language of cameras and not lose the motion of the cinematic experience as a Potter movie. I tried to devise a way to think of that visual style but in 3D. So we worked on some concepts and once the look was locked, Framestore came on board to produce the piece and we refined the look with their illustrators and made it work with the tools we needed to use because obviously the floating camera through layers of paper and transposing shadows and having 360-degree cameras became quite a challenge.

BD: So, how did you then pull this off with Framestore?
 BH: We had to create a number of things, but most importantly the feel of the shadow puppetry and the pulsing light, the quality and texture of the canvas, if you like. Those things are obviously 2D physical things which we could not use because of our ever-moving cameras, so we devised some 3D grain with the camera flying through. It was important to have an eerie feel of something that looks like it's unfolding: you're very much a voyeur of this tale. Dale Newton and the team at Framestore did an amazing job and embraced it with such freedom.

BD: So, technically, I understand that creating a Nuke workflow in 3D space was crucial?
BH: Yeah, it was because of the grain and because of the continuous nature of the cameras. We were able to import the cameras and really integrate all of that and being able to modify that and having great control as long as we could. It allowed us to focus on shadows and shadow passes and things like that. We were not completely sure until we almost had a final image what would be seen and not seen of the characters and of the textures.

BD: Modeling and animation were done in ZBrush and Maya. Pretty straightforward?
BH: Yeah, in terms of the animation it was a pretty standard affair. I think the creative take on the animation style, again, was to keep that slightly older feel to the puppets. At some point we talked about animating on 2s but that didn't work because of all the camera moves. But we ventured in those areas where it is about expressing everything we can with the hands and the heads and body positions, as opposed to facial expressions, because, again, it was all about silhouettes.

BD: And what about the lighting and rendering done in mental ray?
BH: The lighting came about later in the process, which can be tricky for an animator, but we had quite a bit of back and forth. How should the cloth look? You have to go back in there and recode the stuff [for such a stylized look]. It's very exciting because you're misusing the tools, but you might have some surprises along the way. If you have time, you test and experiment -- it's a great thing to have on your side.

BD: Tell me about your new feature project, Pan.
BH: We just finished redoing the script with Ben Magid and it's a re-imagining of it borrowing loose concepts -- not a retelling. And it's simply the story of Captain Hook, who is an ex-detective following the case of kids disappearing and chasing Peter Pan, who appears to be the villain. It's very much a ghost story. He's not a monster or anything, but it's very much going back to this very basic, universal fear of the dark.

BD: And what part will visual effects play?
BH: Funnily enough, there is a great element of light and shadow.

BD: We're back to shadows again, appropriately enough.
BH: We are -- that is an obsession of mine. But shadows have a great role in the story. But we're using it in a way to disrupt reality, if you see what I mean. There's going to be a great amount of very subtle effect that will twist that real world and throw things around in odd ways. There will be some really cool effects, and, obviously, we have quite a crazy Neverland.

BD: Well, I'm sure your friends at Framestore will be thrilled at the opportunity.
BH: Yeah, sure, I have to talk to them about it.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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