Animation Design Disney Filmmaking

Imagining “Zootopia”

One of the things I liked about Zootopia was that it wasn’t a reboot or sequel. I enjoyed the story that had many of the best classic Disney elements, but still seemed fresh. The hat tips to the Monorail (above) and Skyway (below) were nice touches. Here are stories, videos and art work that shows the artistic and technical work that went into this movie.

Zootopia is a world where humans don’t exist. It’s a big, crowded metropolis where anthropomorphic animals drive cars, fight crime, eat ice cream and ride trains. Prey and predators of varying shapes and sizes coexist in harmony until their prejudices get in the way.

Judy Hopps, a tiny rabbit, can’t be a cop. The police force is a place for rhinos, wolves, elephants and other bulky animals. Nick Wilde, a quick-witted fox, can’t be trusted. He’s presumed to be running a scam, even when he’s not. In a movie about mammals and their stereotypes, creating a diverse range of species is a necessity. The creators of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest adventure combined months of research with custom-made software to create the verisimilitude of an animal-only habitat.

The team comprising directors, engineers and animators spent about eight months studying animals. They went to San Diego’s Safari Park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and all the way to Kenya to observe their movements and mannerisms. But to make the characters look like their real-world counterparts, they needed an up close and personal look. The crew ended up at a Natural History Museum, where they studied fur under a microscope and even brought in lighting setups to see how the strands reacted to light.

Simulating the texture and density of animal fur is a daunting task for any animation studio. The last time Disney worked on a furry character was in Bolt, eight years ago. While the studio managed to create a soft, white layer of fluffiness on the superhero dog, the same tools wouldn’t work for the 800,000 mammal variants in Zootopia.

To make the animals look realistic, Disney’s trusty team of engineers introduced iGroom, a fur-controlling tool that had never been used before. The software helped shape about 2.5 million hairs on the leading bunny and about the same on the fox. A giraffe in the movie walks around with 9 million hairs, while a gerbil has about 480,000 (even the rodent in the movie beats Elsa’s 400,000 strands in Frozen).

During the research phase, the team paid close attention to the underlayer of animal fur that gives it plushness in real life. But the same detailing couldn’t be recreated on a computer. “It’s not practical for production to do it,” said senior software engineer David Aguilar as he displayed iGroom at a Zootopia presentation in Los Angeles. “We created an imaginary layer with under-coding so the animators could change the thickness and achieve the illusion of having that layer to create the density of fur.” That kind of trickery made it possible for them to create characters like Officer Clawhauser, a chubby cheetah with a massive head of spotted fur on his face.

The software gave the animators a ton of flexibility. They could play around with the fur — brush it, shape it and shade it — to create the stupendous range of animals for the movie. “The ability to iterate quickly makes all the difference,” said Michelle Robinson, character look supervisor. “You can push the fur around and find the form you want.” From the slick pouf on the shrew’s head to the puffy, dirty wool on the sheep, the grooming made it possible for them to stylize the characters with quirky features.

Before this tool, animators had to work with approximation. When creating the silhouettes or posing their creatures they had to predict the way their characters would change with the addition of fur. “We have to wait hours and hours for renders to come back to see how the characters looked,” said Kira Lehtomaki, animation supervisor. “That works for one character but not for Zootopia. Animators are obsessed with posing and silhouette, so if the render changes shape, any discrepancy can ruin the performances.”

To keep the performances intact, the engineers turned to Nitro, a real-time display software that’s been in development since Wreck-It Ralph (2012).The animators were then able to see realistic renders almost instantly to make decisions on the fly. The tool sped up the process, making it possible to keep subtle expressions on the furry faces in the movie.

While the animals were getting ready to inhabit their virtual world, a team of environment CG specialists put together the backdrops that made their lives believable. The modern-world setting in the movie captures the essence of a city designed for animals. When a train pulls up at a crowded stop, tall mammals step off the train through high doors and tiny commuters scurry through little mouse doors. But the Zootopia zone has different districts to suit the peculiar needs of its many species. Tundratown supports polar bears, and Sahara Square is home to camels. While the rainforest isn’t marked by a specific species, the Amazonian density of the vegetation stands out.

Each environment was meticulously crafted on Bonsai, a tree-and-plant-generation tool that was first used for Frozen in 2013. Once the software learned how to make a tree, it regenerated many different variations to create a rainforest with intricately layered foliage.

It takes a powerful tool to create a universe of complex creatures and detailed environments. Disney’s secret animation weapon is the Hyperion rendering system. It’s an in-house software that has changed the way scenes have been simulated in the past couple of years.

What makes the image generator unique is that it traces a ray from the camera as it bounces around objects in a virtual scene before hitting a source of light. This allows the engineers to replicate the natural movement of light to create photorealistic shots. Disney first introduced the renderer with Big Hero 6 (2014). But with Zootopia, the engineers had to add a new fur paradigm to the existing software. So the renderer also followed the rays as they moved through dense animal fur.

“One of the problems before Hyperion was that you had no idea what the lighting in your scene was going to look like,” says Byron Howard, co-director of the movie. “Now, very early on, almost as soon as we have the layout of the scene with a camera set up, we can get an idea of what that scene is going to look like and do intensely complex calculations. It’s made making films at Disney so much easier.”

[Image credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios]

From Engadget

From Inside Zootopia: An interview with visual development artist Nick Orsi

From Animation Scoop.

Design Filmmaking

Kodak and Yves Béhar Revive the Super 8 Camera

The charm of Super 8 film, according to Yves Béhar, has a lot to do with its texture. “Film is essential and not replaceable with digital, not for all things,” the industrial designer and founder of Fuseproject says. Take Argo’s Tehran U.S. Embassy scenes. Argo editor William Goldenberg said the segments were meant to feel “like you were watching newsreel footage.” Had the scenes been shot with crystal-clear digital footage, instead of the grainy Super 8 film the movie’s editors used, the effect would have been lost.

This year, Béhar partnered with Kodak to bring the Super 8 back, for the first time since 1982, as a film-digital hybrid camera updated for modern filmmakers. A (non-working) prototype is showing this week at the Consumer Electronics Show, and Kodak expects to put the camera on the market in September. It’ll cost between $400 and $750, but Kodak expects the final figure to skew closer to $400.

The new camera marries some old filmmaking functionality—namely, the use of film—with newer technologies essential to making a movie in 2016. For instance, the new Super 8 includes an LCD screen that lets the user watch his footage while capturing it, rather than after the fact. It also has a rechargeable battery, where the old cameras would have relied on electrical sockets.

Those seeing the new camera at CES have been quick to call it “old-school,” but Béhar dismisses the descriptor. “This is not a retro design job,” he says. “I was not interested in being directly inspired in what was done back then. The reason it looks retro is the size and the mechanical restraint of using a [film] cartridge.” As with the three-in-one Zolt charger and the French Le Cube S set-top box, Béhar’s job description with the Super 8 was to fit the necessary technology into as petite a package as possible—and, unlike other tech, the size of Super 8 film doesn’t slim down with the times. Outside of that, Béhar says everything, from the materials (steel and metal) to the “ergonomic” form factors used for attachments like the handle and pistol grip are thoroughly modern. The result is meant to be what Béhar calls “a high-end DSLR camera case, rather than a less robust 1960s-type of product.”


In a press release Jeff Clarke, Eastman Kodak’s CEO, described the Kodak Super 8 Revival Initiative as an “ecosystem” for film. It’s an apt description: At one end, you have Hollywood heavyweights like Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams—both got their starts as teenagers using Super 8 cameras—throwing their weight behind Kodak’s initiative. On the other, you have Kodak’s newly launching service to develop and deliver Super 8 footage to its users, in both film and digital formats. The hope, at Kodak and according to Béhar, is for the new Super 8 to be something of a bridge, not just between film and digital, but between entry-level and professional movie-making.

From Wired

Learn more at Kodak’s official site. Below, a few of the industry’s best filmmakers share their thoughts on why this Super 8 revival is so necessary. (All quotes taken from Kodak’s site.)

Steven Spielberg, writer, director, producer, multiple Academy Award® winner
“When I watch the news, I expect and want it to look like live television. However, I don’t want that in my movies. I want our century-plus medium to keep its filmic look and I like seeing very fine, swimming grain up there on the screen. To me, it’s just more alive and it imbues an image with mystery, so it’s never literal. I love movies that aren’t literally up in my face with images so clear there is nothing left to our imaginations. Had I shot it on a digital camera, the Omaha Beach landings in Saving Private Ryan would have crossed the line for those that found them almost unbearable. Paintings done on a computer and paintings done on canvas require an artist to make us feel something. To be the curser or the brush, that is the question and certainly both can produce remarkable results. But doesn’t the same hold true for the cinematic arts? Digital or celluloid? Vive la difference! Shouldn’t both be made available for an artist to choose?”

J.J. Abrams, writer and director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
“While any technology that allows for visual storytelling must be embraced, nothing beats film. The fact that Kodak is building a brand new Super 8 camera is a dream come true. With a gorgeous new design, interchangeable lenses and a brilliant scheme for development and delivery of footage, this camera appears to be the perfect bridge between the efficiency of the digital world and the warmth and quality of analog.”

Quentin Tarantino, writer, director, producer, multiple Academy Award® winner
“On film, there’s a special magic on a set when you say ‘action’ and to the point that the take runs until you say ‘cut,’ that’s a sacred time. I’ve always believed in the magic of movies and to me the magic is connected to film. When you’re filming something on film you aren’t recording movement, you’re taking a series of still pictures and when shown at 24 frames per second through a lightbulb, THAT creates the illusion of movement. That illusion is connected to the magic of making movies. The fact that Kodak is giving a new generation of filmmakers the opportunity to shoot on Super 8 is truly an incredible gift.”

Animation Art Design Technology

Watch: How Andy Warhol’s Lost Computer Art Was Finally Found

Andy Warhol with Debbie Harry at the 1985 Amiga Launch at Lincoln Center. Photo Computer History Museum

From Warhol & The Computer.

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he describes Sean Lennon’s ninth birthday party at the Dakota Apartments in New York. Dozens of significant figures in the arts and entertainment industry were there to attend the birthday of the son of the late John Lennon, including artists Louise Nevelson and Keith Haring. Warhol was in attendance, as he was at a great many New York society parties, but a slightly surprising guest was Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer. Jobs brought with him a Macintosh computer. At first, Warhol and Haring watched as Jobs showed Sean how to work with the machine. After a while, Warhol took Sean’s place in front of the Mac while Jobs tried to explain how to use a mouse. It took a while, but finally Warhol used the Pencil tool to draw.

“Look! Keith! I drew a circle!” Warhol said to Haring.

This was Warhol’s introduction to creating art with computers, though Jobs had called him previously trying to give him a Macintosh. Warhol had never returned his calls, seeing no reason to consider computers.

From  Lost and Found: Andy Warhol’s Amiga Artworks at the Computer History Museum.

Scattered on floppy disks and hard drives around the world, there may be millions of works of art created on now-archaic computer systems. Most of these are personal treasures, perhaps of value only to their creators or to their immediate circle of friends and family. Some computer art is of interest to researchers as an example of the progression of artistic tools that were used at a given time. Still others are just bad art, best forgotten.

What happens when a major figure in the art world has created works on a system that is decades-old and whose images are stored on potentially unreadable media? That was exactly the problem that faced a team of student researchers, curators, and perhaps most significantly, artist Cory Arcangel, in relation to the files created by the legendary Pop Artist Andy Warhol on the Amiga.

One of the forty-one disks disks containing Andy Warhol's Amiga files.
One of the forty-one disks disks containing Andy Warhol’s Amiga files.

Cory Arcangel describes himself as an ‘Acolyte of Andy Warhol.’ “Between DuChamp and Warhol, those are the two big influences for the kind of art I make,” says Arcangel.  Arcangel’s works span both physical and digital realms, as well as static and moving pieces, much like Warhol’s own works. Videos such asA couple of thousand short films about Glenn Gould and Sans Simon, as well as web-based works like Punk Rock 101, and even Nintendo cartridge hacks like Super Mario Clouds, make arcangel a multi-dimensional artist whose works can be seen as inhabiting areas that Warhol himself likely would have waded into had he not died in 1987.

Arcangel noted Warhol’s influence, “…when I first moved to New York and started becoming an artist, you know, I read his diaries, and for me, they were really helpful because they taught me, in a way, how to be an artist. Not in the poetic sense, but in the day-to-day sense, like ‘I went to work today. I made three paintings. Then I went to an opening.’ like a real kind of ‘this is what you do if you’re an artist. The life of an artist’”

Warhol’s interaction with the Amiga started with the introduction of the Amiga 1000 computer in 1985. He took part in a launch event at New York’s Lincoln Center, creating a piece of very Warholian art, using a scanned image of Debbie Harry of the New Wave act Blondie. “I’m going to do this ‘How to Paint’ thing that this computer company wants me to do,” Warhol noted in his diaries. It was a video of the event uploaded to YouTube, along with the mention in the Warhol diaries, that caught the attention of arcangel, who has used obsolete technology in many of his works. He became interested in Warhol’s work with the Amiga, in particular, whether any of Warhol’s floppy disks had survived. He contacted the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in a quest to find out more about the condition of Warhol’s Amiga works and equipment.

Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol 1985-86
Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol 1985-86.

Warhol was given at least one full Amiga 1000 system with a drawing pad, camera, and various pieces of drawing software. He created several works on the Amiga, often using familiar subjects such as Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans, but giving them a new sensibility harnessing the techniques that the Amiga provided. Using the GraphiCraft painting system and other software, for example, Warhol created images that emulated techniques similar to his silkscreen creations of the 1960s, such as bright colors layered over black and white photos of celebrities and newspaper photos.

After his death, Warhol’s works, as well as a great deal of other material, eventually went to the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Commenting on this massive amount of material, Arcangel told Themed for Your Pleasure podcast host Vanessa Applegate, “Warhol was a hoarder. A maximum, a hundred and twenty percent hoarder, so the amount of material that the Warhol Museum has is mind-boggling.” This led to much of the material being little examined; not lost, but over-looked among hundreds and thousands of other items relating to Warhol’s life and art.

“The (Warhol) museum has so much stuff, they’re still going through it.” Arcangel noted. Among the items were 41 floppy disks, Warhol used to store the works he created on the Amiga. These disks contained many pieces, and while Museum archivist Matt Wrbican knew of their existence, no attempt had been made to read the disks or recover the images.

Wrbican noted, “Really, we didn’t have any clue what was on the disks. At that point, I only knew of two images that Warhol had made (on the Amiga). I assumed there were lots of other images because Andy’s assistant Jay (Shriver) told me that he had played around with the images for a while, but exactly what those images were I had no idea.”

The two images Wrbican had seen, the Debby Harry photo manipulation done at the Amiga Launch and a self-portrait created for the cover of Amiga World Magazine, were widely-known, but no one was certain about the contents of the disks the museum held.”They were as well taken-care of as they could be. They were in incredible shape,” arcangel noted.

In 2011, Arcangel connected with the Carnegie Mellon University Computer Club, known for a great many retro-technology feats. Working with Arcangel, Wrbican and others, members of  the club began reading the disks, using the best digital archival practices. The Kryoflux, an interface that allowed them to read disks from the Amiga and bring the files into a modern PC, way key. One rule was that each disk should only be handled and read only once. “They were like ‘we need to do it with the Kryoflux. We need to do it at the lowest level. They were the people pushing, making sure everything was at a very high level, [an] archival preservation project. I can’t say enough nice things about the Carnegie Computer Club,” arcangel said, “there is nothing cooler than a retro-computing hacking club in my mind! Especially at a place like Carnegie Mellon.”

By the end of 2013, the club had read all of the disks and began working on recovering the individual files using emulators running on modern PCs. The recovered images were definitely Warhol creations, and while rather small by today’s standards (200 x 300 pixels), they show Warhol’s famous style. Using techniques and tools like the paint bucket and fill, he created images that felt like the silkscreened photograph-based works that have become beloved and highly collectable in the years since. A self-portrait, called Andy 2, features a photo of Warhol that has had fields of textured color layered over it. The effect is right in line with his self-portraits of the 1960s and 70s. “…They were really amazing,” arcangel says. “There’s one of Marilyn Monroe that he had sort of splashed all over… Fantastic!” and “he couldn’t have done any better.”

age: Andy Warhol, Campbell’s, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
Andy Warhol, Andy 2, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Not all of the pieces recovered were intended to be artworks. Some were test pieces used to discover the capabilities of the Amiga. In much the same way a painter may hone brush technique through practice on works never intended to see the light of day, Warhol apparently created similar images to allow himself to experiment with the Amiga environment.

Arcangel commented, “what is amazing to me is that he seemed to get it really quick, really quick… how to work with the computer, and how to work with the paint bucket. You can see a couple of them where he’s trying to learn the copy/paste [function] and he’s learning to use the paint bucket, and then all of a sudden, there are a couple that are just amazing.”

He also created images from scratch, including a Campbell’s soup can–the iconic image of his days as Pop Art’s leading practitioner and art world Bad Boy.  The mainstream art establishment had been slowly embracing works done with the aid of computers since the 1960s, but these works were created with large computers—including mainframes and supercomputers. Steve Jobs had made it something of a mission to bring the Macintosh to artists. The artist Keith Haring had been introduced to the Apple Macintosh computer at the same time as Warhol, but integrated it into his work much more. Graphic artists had also gravitated towards the Mac, but the Amiga was billed as a ‘Multi-Media Computer,” and that may have drawn Warhol towards it.“The thing that I like most about doing art on the computer is that it looks like my work.” Warhol once said.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
Andy Warhol, Campbell’s, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Arcangel’s passion for the project, the skill and technological know-how of the CMU Computer Club, and the background of the archivists and curators at the Andy Warhol Museum, all led to the extraction of twenty images. The disks, along with Andy’s Amiga 1000 computer, his software, graphics tablet, camera–as well as the images that the Carnegie Mellon Computer Club extracted from the disks–are in the permanent collection of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. A documentary, The Invisible Photograph: Part II (Trapped), chronicles the interactions between the Warhol Museum, the CMU Computer Club, and Arcangel, as well as the Warhol-Harry portion of the Amiga product launch. These materials show how one of the most significant artists of the 20th century expressed his artistic vision using one of the most important tools ever created, the computer. They also represent some of Warhol’s final art pieces, created over the last eighteen months of his life.

Click to enlarge.

Architecture Design Filmmaking People Technology World Fairs and Expos

IBM at the 1964 World’s Fair by Charles and Ray Eames


The entire IBM pavilion was designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen Associates.
Image: Eames Designs


The Eames Office curated the entire IBM Pavillion, with many movies and exhibits on the ground floor. The climactic feature was the movie THINK, shown in the egg-shaped structure which towered 90 feet overhead. This movie gives the viewer something of the entire pavilion experience, including THINK.

A multi-screen presentation at the Ovoid Theater of the IBM Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair, Think was projected on 22 separate screens (shaped in circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles), and included a live host. The 22 images were not projected simultaneously, and included live and still motion and animation. The IBM Pavilion, including the Ovoid Theater, was designed by Eames. Think is available in a single screen version titled View From the People Wall: A single screen condensation of the elaborate multi-image show at the IBM Pavilion in New York, aimed at showing that the complex problems of our times are solved in the same way as the simple problems, they are just more complicated. Musical score by Elmer Bernstein.

From IBM:

The husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames had an especially strong influence on IBM’s thinking. They were best known at the time for their molded-plastic and plywood chairs. But for IBM, the couple designed everything from the exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair, to the film Powers of 10, to the famous exhibit Mathematica, to dozens of educational films for school and television that helped teach generations about science, math and technology. As designers, Charles and Ray Eames were problem solvers. They dedicated themselves to making things better, not just different. “They taught that if you don’t understand something, you can’t design it,” says Lee Green, the vice president in charge of IBM’s Brand Experience and Strategic Design. “Design has to be purposeful. It’s not about cosmetics and decoration. It’s about substance.” Or, as Charles Eames put it, “Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.” By that definition, IBM’s researchers could be seen as designers, and its designers have been researchers and teachers.

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