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

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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