Computer Graphics World

Edition 1 2021

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j a n • f e b • m a r c h 2 0 2 1 c g w 2 9 My-Makers Storyteller synchronizes the various processes and enables the team to combine handcraed animation with procedural animation, inspired by the AI, to uniquely complement the viewer's actions within the adventure. This enables the animation team to elicit as much character empathy from the audience as possible. Character and Envirmental Ccerns Within the chosen design conceit for Baba Yaga, viewers will see a lot of simple graphic shapes, especially in the environments. In fact, the graphic, stylized look of Baba Yaga translated throughout the production, even to the characters – though they are more volumetric, which allows them to integrate well into the environments. "They may not look like real people in the real world, but they needed to act like real people in the real world," points out Darnell. Baba Yaga marks the first time the studio has created human characters in one of its VR films. While craing a believable human character in computer animation is never easy, to do it in VR – where it has to run at a high frame rate and the characters have to achieve subtle, nuanced facial movements necessary to convey information to the player and be responsive to where the player is and what the person is doing at all times – requires a great deal of complexity. Magda appears throughout most of the film, and her facial performance is important as she has to influence the player assuming the role of her sister. "Magda features a lot of work that is new and difficult to do well in real time, such as cloth and really nuanced facial expressions," says lead rigger Justin Fischer. In addition, texturing and surfacing of hair, skin, and clothing is an important detail to consider in VR, since the viewer can be standing close to the characters and can take time to note how the hair falls or how the fabric looks and moves. "Our pipeline can handle pretty complex deformation, but instead of relying on cloth simulation, we chose to muscle through and hand-animate her clothing, and it gives it a really nice tactile feel," says Fountain. The character Baba Yaga wasn't without challenges either, with her unusual shape and layers of clothing modeled on top, which deliver her striking silhouette. Yet, she needed to move in a believable way so that her performance could be understood, despite her mostly tubular shape, making animation and rigging fairly difficult. "We had to be careful about how we pushed and pulled controls to avoid collapsing her midsection or creating creases in her neck," adds Fountain. Add to that the fact that Baba Yaga wears a mask which covers her facial expressions, making her body motions that much more an important part of her performance. "We put all this painstaking work into this straight-ahead character animation, where you can believe there is a living, breathing thought going on behind the eyes, that there's this illusion of life," adds Cutler. "I've spent my whole career in animation, and Eric [Darnell] is an animator at heart. For us, having a strong character performance that combines really broad emotions and really subtle, heartfelt moments were important but something we hadn't seen before in VR." Moving e Craft Fward With each new project, Baobab Studios builds on the experiences that came before, forging new inroads within virtual reality. As Darnell points out, not many people are working in VR right now, so it's not like there's a rule book to follow for making good VR experiences. Interestingly, most of the Baobab staff came from the film world, including Darnell (DreamWorks) and Cutler (Pixar, Dream- Works). And even they were surprised at how different the process was. When they first looked at VR, their initial thought was that creating a VR experience would be akin to creating a film in 360. "We were so wrong," says Cutler. But, they figured things out and have produced some amazing work in this genre since, tackling new challenges and continu- ing to build their VR tool set. "Someone once asked me what it was like to give up the control that I used to have as a director on flat-screen projects. I told them I don't feel as if I gave up control. I gave up the tool kit I had for making cin- ema, but gained the tool kit for working in VR," says Darnell. He continues: "The problem is, I'm not sure what's in that tool kit yet. I have to dig down into this vast, dark cavern and find the tools because I don't know what they are or what they can do. Rather, we're slowly adding those tools, and each time we add them, everything gets a little easier. That, combined with the work the team has been doing under Larry's guidance to build out a pipeline for efficiently producing VR content, [are things] we didn't have when we started. At that time, everything we did was trial and error." Despite the pandemic that affected most of the production of Baba Yaga and continues to plague studios, the award-win- ning Baobab has continued to push forward, releasing yet another production (Paper Birds with Latin America animation studio 3DAR) this past December, with another, Namoo, set to debut at Sundance. In effect, this group is becoming somewhat legends themselves in the world of VR films. Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW. Baba Yaga marks the studio's first VR film to include human characters.

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