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Quiet Man 3D animator Dave Shirk, whose work is regularly featured in commercials for Pepsi, Kodak and IBM, recently tackled one of the most challenging projects of his career for the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund.
Part anatomy lesson, part fur styling session, the process involved bringing a panda bear to life for the WWF fund-raising campaign.
The: 60 spot, scheduled to air this spring, encourages contributions for the protection of endangered species by employing a straightforward concept. "It takes place in limbo," Shirk says. "The panda walks across the frame, a large contribution envelope falls to the ground; we hear Shelter from the Storm in the background, and the bear takes cover inside the envelope. He crawls in, curls up and peacefully goes to sleep."
Producing the spot with a live panda was out of the question so the WWF decided to use computer graphics. "Animators generally rely on two approaches to creating the illusion of life. You can make the character so stunningly real," Shirk says, "that people will say, 'Oh, it's a real bear.' Or you can make it come to life through performance, capturing nuances so it feels real although it doesn't look real."
"The bear was not intended to be photo-realistic," Shirk explained. "It had to be artwork but the character still must generate empathy. No matter what the look, if the performance doesn't ring true, I have failed as an animator. We spent a great deal of time creating a stylized look and tuning the panda's performance."
Evolving a style of motion for a character begins by studying anatomy to determine how its real life counterpart moves. Shirk developed an understanding of the anatomic details by looking at film footage. After watching the best footage he could find, Shirk began to draw pandas, figuring out how they move and what goes on underneath their skin.
An animated character's motion is driven by its skeleton, but it is the interaction between the skeleton and the surface defines what we see. "It's important to develop the skeleton simultaneous with the skin," he says, "so you properly define the muscles, how the shoulders move, where you need more or less geometry to create a robust character in terms of the way it performs in the computer."
and Skeleton Together
It became clear during tests that the best result would be obtained with a single-surface model, which guided Shirk's thinking on modeling with NURBS, or polygons."The advantage of NURBS is that you can get a complex, curved surface with few control points. So when you attach the character to the skeleton, there are less points to manage," he says.
Working with polygons allowed Shirk to create a single unbroken surface, to which to apply fur. "You have a mesh entirely created from one continuous surface so you don't have to worry about the parts coming apart but you do have to manage numerous control points. Up to this point in the modeling, Shirk has essentially been looking at a bald bear. The process of growing hair began by creating texture maps to control the application of fur parameters to the model's surface. The maps are referred to by the main tool for creating the hair, Phoenix's FurGen plug-in.
"One of the drawbacks to modeling with a polygon mesh," Shirk says, "is that the implicit mapping one normally uses on a NURBS object is not available. So Shirk used YouMap, the texture fitting plug-in from Cineframe, to make a simplified NURBS surface that acted as a UV coordinate "proxy," allowing areas of the object to be mapped in a single projection.
The mapping itself was painted in Deep Paint 3D by Right Hemisphere. "I exported models to Deep Paint," Shirk says, "and painted directly to the surface of the model. It was like painting on the skin of a panda bear and the colors, white or black, were propagated onto the hair. Deep Paint plugs into Photoshop, so I can use Photoshop tools. When I'm happy with everything, I send the maps back into Softimage.
"Next we examine how the fur is going to look on the surface," Shirk continues. "We paint several additional maps to control the length of the fur at different places on the animal's body and maps to control the thickness of the hairs. On the face, for instance, we make the hairs much finer than on the stomach. On the belly, the hairs are coarse and fewer are required so you have to up the density."
For a bear to star in a commercial, its fur must be appropriately groomed. This was accomplished with Phoenix's FurComb plug-in "On the face, you don't want the hair to grow straight up; it should lay back against the muzzle."
Having the fur elegantly styled, Shirk finessed the animation, finalizing lighting on a shot-by-shot basis. "With client approval, we applied animation to the final model," said Shirk. "Rather than rendering all at once, the animation is rendered in a series of passes, generating Softimage PIC files for compositing in inferno.
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