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Canada’s first animated 3D feature

Feature length animation Sarila is Canada’s first stereoscopic animated feature, and relies on several key technologies developed at Montreal’s Modus FX.

Feature length animation Sarila is Canada’s first stereoscopic animated feature, and relies on several key technologies developed at Montreal’s Modus FX. Directed by Nancy Florence Savard, Sarila is a coming-of-age story set among the Inuit people of the Arctic, in production now for release in 2012. Modus FX boarded as an investment partner late last year, and began working with the film’s art director Philippe Arsenault Bussières to translate his water colour concept art into 3D geometry that could be rendered stereoscopically. “In our VFX work we usually mimic reality, but with this project we are creating something different,” said visual effects supervisor Eric Clément. “Our goal is to capture the essence of the original concept art. We want to push the look of stereo 3D, instead of going in the photoreal direction that a lot of current animation is doing.” Working with the art director, the texture team at Modus developed a technique for mixing colours with a custom brush in Photoshop. Surfaces, such as the characters’ clothing blend a watercolour look with photographic references to create the final result. The desolate landscapes of the Arctic play an important role in the narrative and atmosphere of the story. The process of creating these landscapes is more complex than with traditional matte painting. “The old-school tricks of doing ‘2D cheats’ in compositing, like doing a matte painting to extend the background – those don’t work in stereo,” said Clément. “You need to include the geometry with the images.” To solve the problem, the Modus team developed a pipeline for creating 3D maps of matte paintings. The spatial coordinates for each landscape are built in Softimage XSI, allowing the team to create and render left and right eye cameras. The shots are then assembled in Nuke, again using custom tools developed at Modus. “This way of building our 3D geometry is very effective for working out backgrounds, such as skies,” explained Clément. Another challenge for stereo 3D animations is the volume of data to be managed. Modus has developed a number of technologies for this, including the Modus FX SceneBuilder. This tool enables artists to load ‘subsets’ of a scene, in order to work on one particular element without the overhead of the whole scene. “The film includes 30 different environments, so the MFX SceneBuilder has become a critical tool in keeping our shot pipeline moving efficiently,” noted Clément. The Modus FX AutoRigger, developed specially for Sarila, allows artists to generate biped and quadruped bones structures. With this artists can apply movement patterns to their characters automatically and then manually adjust the movements for each shot.  “For example, for a sled pulled by five dogs, we want our animator to be able to start with the basic running movements and refine the work from there,” explained Clément. The film is being entirely keyframe animated and lipsynched by hand. The voice tracks were recorded by the cast at Technicolor and assembled at Studio Expression in Qubec City. “Our AutoRigger buys us extra time, for work like this,” said Clément. “Being efficient up front means the artists can afford to spend time on the small timing details that make animation come alive on the screen.” Modus has also created a system for automating compositing work. This uses templates which can be applied to similar shots automatically from the 3D data. “A script is generated and a pre-comp is sent to our dailies for review,” said Clément. “This gives the compositors a good starting point if further work on the comp is needed. We first created this system a few years ago. Like the AutoRigger, it allows our artists to produce better shots more quickly.” Modus has a team of 85 artists on the project. Produced by Carpe Diem Film & TV Inc. and 10th Ave. Productions, and executive produced by Marie-Claude Beauchamp, Normand Thauvette, Paul Risacher & Nancy Florence Savard.