Computer Graphics World

Edition 2 2018

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26 cgw | e d i t i o n 2 , 2 0 1 8 HAPPY ! Nick Sax (played by Christopher Meloni), an alcoholic ex-cop turned hit man, gets the full Roger Rabbit treatment in the Syfy se- ries Happy! When Nick is revived aer being shot and le for dead, he can see a small, blue, cartoon donkey-unicorn named Hap- py (voiced by Patton Oswalt). The goofy creature is the imaginary friend of Hailey, Nick's estranged daughter, who has been kidnapped by a deranged man dressed as Santa Claus. Happy "escapes" from captivi- ty to seek Nick's help in saving Hailey. One of four vendors working on the series, UK-based AxisVFX is responsible for the personification of Happy and his friends, transforming the blue donkey-unicorn from the pages of the cult graphic novel into a CGI character that is required to have "as much presence and personality as our protagonist, Nick," says Grant Hewlett, co-founder and VFX supervisor at AxisVFX. Close to 700 shots of Happy, the villainous three-headed patchwork dog Raspberry, and a gang of other imaginary friends were spread across AxisVFX studios in London, Bristol, and Glasgow. "New workflows were developed to increase cross-site efficiency across all departments," Hewlett says. "In the comic and the script, Happy has a huge range of abilities and emotions. This meant he had to be designed very thoughtfully, considering his anatomy and characteristic features," he continues. Hewlett remembers the "exciting mo- ment when the rig approached final and all of [Happy's] fur and shaders were applied. "We had our stretchy, crazy, lovable, blue, flying donkey-unicorn!" Since a flying donkey-unicorn isn't con- strained by the laws of nature, the anima- tors had some latitude in determining its movement. But, as Hewlett notes, Happy is a busy shape, with the four limbs, wings, horn, tail, and big head, so when animating the character, the artists had to pay close attention to getting his silhouette as clean as possible for clear lines of actions. "Before the project started, we did a lot of tests regarding how cartoony he would have to be; we had to balance photoreal- ism against his crazy squash-and-stretch nature," says Hewlett. "When Happy was on screen with Nick, we made sure that he shined when it was his time to shine, but when Nick was the focus, we made sure Happy would not distract from him." Animators were given "a lot of freedom" to bring emotion to Happy's performance. "Since he mainly flew, when he was sad, we could pose his limbs to be drooping down, even his nose would be slightly more down- turned and his movements would be slower, more lethargic. When he was happy, then he would be more perked up, front legs tucked up, hips pushed up so his body formed his classic bean shape, and his movements would be more energetic," Hewlett explains. Artists at AxisVFX primarily used Auto- desk's Maya for modeling and animation, with in-house tools for fur dynamics and caching. The texturing workflow was completed mostly in Allegorithmic's Sub- stance Painter, but the artists are free to use whichever package they prefer. Scene assembly and rendering is always done using Side Effects' Houdini, and the stu- dio has a proprietary lighting and shading pipeline utilizing Side Effects' Mantra as its renderer. Hewlett attributes the power of Houdini's digital assets as really helping the team meet its very tight deadlines on the show. In addition, Foundry's Nuke was used for compositing, and AxisVFX created tools for loading characters and picking up other 3D outputs, such as cameras and geometry. Happy! is shot on location in New York City, and AxisVFX worked with the show's VFX senior producing supervisor, Ajoy Mani, who coordinated the interaction among the director, editorial, and the studio. "Ajoy's team provided us with all the reference photos for photogrammetry, HDRs, and other lighting reference plates, including Macbeth [ColorChecker Color Rendition] charts, diffuse lighting ref, and a blue unicorn plush toy roughly represent- ing Happy's color and form," says Hewlett. "These were very helpful for getting an

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