Friday Flashback #234

Customer story from 2001: Giant Killer Robots and Monkeybone

PAGING DR. FREUD: Giant Killer Robots Give You Nightmares with Monkeybone
by Michael Abraham


First off: get your mind out of the gutter. Director Henry Selick’s Monkeybone is not the latest offering from the purveyors of porno out there. Sure, Dr. Freud would have a field day with the title alone, but Monkeybone is actually a light-hearted – if occasionally puerile – love story with a particularly imaginative look at the mysteries of the unconscious. The performances are solid, the story is wonderfully twisted, and the visual effects, created by San Francisco’s Giant Killer Robots with more than a little help from SOFTIMAGE®|XSI™, are nothing short of mind-blowing.

All of this does not detract from the fact that the good doctor, were he still breathing, would probably write yet another book solely about this movie. But I digress.

Monkeybone opens into the blissful life of cartoonist Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser), whose wisecracking, decidedly risqué comic strip features a mischievous monkey who is typically doing something disgusting. The strip is a huge hit, of course, and is about to be turned into a national TV show. Stu is finally ready to propose to Julie (the beautiful Bridget Fonda) but is the victim of a freak accident before he can pop the question.

Lying in a coma, Stu’s spirit ends up in purgatorial Downtown, a nightmarish, carnival landscape populated by mythical gods and creatures that revel in the nightmares of the living. As the nefarious Monkeybone prepares to move from Stu’s psyche into reality using the poor guy’s body to make the trip, Stu realizes that he must outwit none other than Death herself (Whoopi Goldberg in some inspired casting).

The team at Giant Killer Robots was initially approached in early 2000 about contributing a short sequence of shots to the picture, but soon found themselves being awarded an increasing numbers of shots as the movie unfolded. Lead by founders Peter Oberdorfer, Michael Schmitt and John Vegher, each of whom assumed the visual effects lead for different parts of Monkeybone, the project was fully up and running by April 2000.

“We essentially spent the summer working on a very elaborate nightmare sequence involving 18 shots,” says Oberdorfer, the Visual Effects Supervisor who was in charge of texture and lighting on the nightmare sequence, and of animation and compositing of some wild rollercoaster shots. “It also involved a speeding rollercoaster, a ‘brain-eye,’ and a very creepy operating room. After that was complete, we had a brief break from Monkeybone, but were soon called back to do more. I guess we must have done something right.”

“We were provided with creative guidelines for the nightmare sequence, but within those guidelines we were allowed huge flexibility,” says Schmitt, who was Technical Director for tracking, modeling, rendering and final compositing of the Bull bartender shots, which we’ll talk about soon. “They basically said, ‘This is the painting – bring it to life.’ And that’s just what we did.”

One challenging scene from Downtown involved a curmudgeonly bartender appropriately named Bull. Initially, an actor wore a bull-like animatronic mask in the live-action scene, but Selick didn’t care for the final look. Giant Killer Robots offered a decidedly digital solution.


“We erased Bull’s head,” says a casual Vegher, who served as modeling Technical Director and character animator for the shots involving Bull. “We replaced it with a much wilder CG version. There were a great many challenging shots in Monkeybone but, on a per shot basis, this had to have been the toughest one. That was one thing that was really fun about this project. There was a really wide variety of effects being used, so we got to flex our creative muscles. Each shot was a little different from the others, and there were four or five different directions that we had to go in. We used a beta version of SOFTIMAGE|XSI for all the shots we created, then rendered everything in mental ray. By the time we got to modeling, texturing, rendering and animating the Bull mask, we were using SOFTIMAGE|XSI version 1.5.

To simplify the animation and lip synch process, they devised sliders for each phoneme and expression. The sliders worked like the strings of a marionette; each one could be pushed or pulled depending on the desired expression. Of particular help on the Bull mask, according to Oberdorfer, were the new modeling tools in SOFTIMAGE|XSI version 1.5, which allowed them to turn the puppet like mask into a fully expressive CG character.

“SOFTIMAGE|XSI was perfect for what we had to do,” continues Schmitt. “After getting a complete cyber scan of the animatronic mask, we used it as a guideline for creating the new character. We could not have modeled the very intricate mask without XSI’s snap-to-surface tool. The Bull mask took a lot of research and development in all aspects: animation, modeling, rendering, etc. It was a very complex mask and a big challenge. Even with the very high-quality cyber scan, the detail of the mask was pretty rudimentary. We ended up putting the physical mask next to the person doing the modeling that day as a constant reference.”

“We also used the Animation Mixer pretty heavily,” says Vegher. “Being able to create our own custom interface and set up all the phonemes for the mouth and other facial parts was invaluable. Working with animator Jamee Houk, we were able to put together a bunch of shapes developed by Brett Miller and I. Jamee was able to set up a control panel, so that we were working independently, but always referencing the same scene. It made things a lot easier on us.”

Though the Bull mask may have been more complex, the nightmare sequence comprised a full 18 of the eventual 24 shots for which Giant Killer Robots was responsible.


“The nightmare sequence is really a mini-narrative within the film as a whole,” says Oberdorfer. “It was a shot-by-shot sequence that involved a lot of CG in each shot. That was probably the most difficult task in terms of quantity and in terms of deadline. Even then, we used only SOFTIMAGE|XSI for everything. This was really the perfect project for both using and developing SOFTIMAGE|XSI.”

Friday Flashback #233

Softimage demo reel from 2003

Including Studio 4C, UVPhactory, Liga_01 Computerfilm GmbH, Centre National D’Animation et de Design, Vancouver Film School, Spontaneous Combustion, ILM, Nintendo, Sega, PsyOp, Glassworks, Capcom, Buzz Image Group, Topix, Christophe SCHINCO, la maison, Janimation, Dimension Films, Microsoft Games Studios, Rising Sun Pictures, Konami, Studio AKA, Cinepix, Framestore CFC, So! Animation, wotomoro, and others.

Friday Flashback #232

Softimage Customer Story: Rising Sun Pictures Goes Big and Gets Fast On Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

“SOFTIMAGE|XSI is great to use in a rush. XSI lets me work in a hell-for-leather approach if I need to, and on Sky Captain, I needed to.”



Rising Sun Pictures Goes Big
and Gets Fast On Sky Captain
and the World of Tomorrow

SDK, Animation Editor,
Animation Mixer, Render
Passes, Render Tree and
mental ray to turn a big
job around extra fast.

To read more of our customer stories

When we last checked in on Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures (RSP), the
intrepid Australian team had just completed work on a film about the effects
of modernization on an old world. Thanks in large part to RSP’s work with
SOFTIMAGE®|XSI®, Edward Zwick’s epic The Last Samurai (2003) seamlessly
blended Samurai blades with Japanese army cannons to tell a poignant tale
of yesterday’s reluctant surrender to the world of tomorrow. With Kerry Conran’s
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), RSP has performed a similar
miracle on starkly different terms.

With undeniably talented eye candy comprising stars Jude Law (as Sky Captain), Gwyneth Paltrow (as intrepid reporter and damsel in distress Polly Perkins) and Angelina Jolie (as Capt. Francesca ‘Franky’ Cook), this was not a project hurting for scenery. Apparently not satisfied with the already lush look of their talent, however, director Conran and producer Jon Avnet elected to make Sky Captain the first film to be shot entirely on bluescreen. Ironically, the duo used the techniques of tomorrow to create a look and story reminiscent of the WWII serial adventures of 1940’s.

Although the film itself was shot over a four-week period back in 2002, VFX Supervisor Scott Anderson and Co-Producer Brooke Breton first approached RSP in February 2004, inviting the facility to work some of their magic on an exceptionally tight timeframe. In all, RSP delivered 150 shots in just nineteen weeks including the ambitious Rocket Interior (RI) sequence on which the RSP team made great use of SOFTIMAGE|XSI.

“This was a big production,” admits Ben Paschke, RSP’s Adelaide-based 3D Supervisor on Sky Captain. “RSP had some thirty-five people at work on Sky Captain, jointly overseen by our Senior Compositor and VFX Supervisor Tim Crosbie, and one of our fearless founders, VFX Supervisor Tony Clark. For this film our SOFTIMAGE|XSI team, however, numbered just four and we had a lot of work to do on the RI sequence.”

“Being able to use Python
scripting on Linux, we can
directly and easily integrate
existing pipeline.”

The rocket in question turns out to be roughly twice the height of New York’s Empire State building and, as it happens, is hurtling from the silos of an evil villain to a destructive rendez-vous over that little blue planet third from the sun. It is up to Sky Captain and Polly to make sure the rocket is destroyed before the earth. In a scene that would make the SPCA proud, Polly manages to eject a series of containers from the rocket’s interior, each of which in turn release hundreds of small escape pods containing animals. It is, obviously, a scene of epic proportions.

“They wanted the scene to be huge!” says Paschke emphatically. “Much of the modeling was already completed by the time we got our hands on it, but the timeline and sheer volume of shots on the show was a big challenge.
Technically, it was up to us to efficiently turn around a huge number of shots by repurposing models to match our specific shots. This usually meant importing files, then using SOFTIMAGE|XSI to remodel and retexture shots so they could be properly used.”

Not that it was anything like a burden, according to Pashke:
“They were very particular about the final look and finish of the composite and design of the models, but they were also very open to how we might achieve the right look. We ended up having a lot of fun exploring different looks and textures using SOFTIMAGE|XSI. In turn, we were given very clear direction on
lighting and compositing, which really helped us turn the shots around very quickly.”

In addition to great direction and communication from the filmmakers, however, Paschke also credits the SOFTIMAGE|XSI Software Developer’s Kit (SDK) with providing some vital help in efficiently completing the production:

“On every one of our jobs, we end up adding to our custom tools,” says Paschke matter-of-factly. “Being able to use Python scripting on Linux, we can directly and easily integrate SOFTIMAGE|XSI into our existing pipeline. On Sky Captain, most of our geometry processing tasks were handled through very simple, easy-to-write scripts, but without them, we would have been extremely hard pressed to deliver on time.”

For a production this immense, what’s more, streamlined animation was an absolute must. Says Paschke:

“SOFTIMAGE|XSI’s Animation Editor provides a really comfortable interface for working with F-curves. It feels light when you use it and isn’t tedious when you have to perform simple maneuvers. We frequently use the Animation Mixer and ‘animation clips’ to version our work. With the Mixer, we can easily switch to previous versions of a shot’s animation or simultaneously play with multiple versions of the animation. Through it all, we always had to assume that our client would want to chop and change between animation versions at any given time. With the Mixer, we can confidently and quickly tear down and rebuild a shot in order to further experiment with its look.”

And everybody is talking about the look of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Despite its 1940’s style, the look of the film is decidedly futuristic and lush. No imposed grain or deliberate aging here. Which brings us, of course, to rendering:

“XSI’s integration of mental ray is really great,” says Paschke. “Managing multiple passes in a single scene with minimal rebuilding is very handy indeed. Render Passes are also a great innovation. I like to develop most of the look in a single pass, all the while keeping it light so I can play with it. Once we’re confident in the look and design, XSI makes it relatively simple to break down the integrated look into a series of component passes. Once the foundation passes are out and animation is locked off, it’s very simple process to build helper or matte passes for the composite.”

“The SOFTIMAGE|XSI Render Tree offers a fantastic method for building shaders,” Paschke continues. “On Sky Captain, we turned long renders into quick renders by using XSI’s Render Mapping tool to bake any ray-tracing or heavy parts of a render directly into texture maps on the geometry itself. It took some doing to create all the maps for all those pieces of geometry, but once we did it we were able to save a heap of render time. We were also able to render entirely in Scanline mode.”

In the end, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow required that unique blend of seamless artistry and blinding speed on which RSP has established its reputation on such projects as The Last Samurai, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Sky Captain and, coming in 2005, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It is a reputation of which Paschke and the entire RSP team are justifiably proud:

“It was a wild ride,” says Paschke with a smile. “SOFTIMAGE|XSI is great to use in a rush. XSI lets me work in a hell-for-leather approach if I need to, and on Sky Captain, I needed to.”