Framestore's Commercials Dept Creates Hauntingly Beautiful Storybook Animation for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has received double-whammy input from Framestore: not only was the VFX powerhouse asked to take on some of the film's key visual effects, Framestore's shortform commercials know-how was additionally commissioned to create the haunting and delicate 2'40" The Tale of Three Brothers animation sequence. The commercials team was awarded the production on their creative approach to developing visuals and animation techniques as evidenced in their work for the storybook sequence in the 2007 film, The Tale of Despereaux.
Directed by Ben Hibon (A.D., Codehunters, Heavenly Sword), the captivating sequence inspired by oriental shadow puppetry, visually narrates Hermione's story about three wizard brothers who try to outwit Death. Led for Framestore by Dale Newton, the animation is created in sepia tones and its mysterious characters are conveyed through silhouettes and shadows, inspired by traditional eastern puppet theatre. The clip is so beautifully detailed and intricate that it required over six months of work by a team that peaked at 32 Framestore VFX artists.
Framestore's creative energy was put to good use in pre-production by designing all the characters and lighting concepts that would establish the all-important look and feel for the piece. One of the distinctive elements to come out of the design phase was a papery, grainy background which bound the images together well and added to the overall ethereal feel. This had to be translated into something that would work with moving cameras and not be 'pasted over the top' in comp. The sequence was composited by Nuke artists Russell Dodgson and Adam Rowland. Framestore commercials has been fast to embrace the power of Nuke as a compositing system, especially its ability to handle the vast amount of data types that can be generated in 3D. After a short period of R&D, a Nuke workflow was set up that would combine rendered elements with a dynamic, three dimensional paper fog at the end of the process. Nuke's powerful 3D space was also used to project the paper textures onto set geometry to gently degrade the environments whilst maintaining a constant aesthetic. Achieving a uniform grain and tonal balance in the paper noise proved beyond challenging; but allocating this task to the compositors, combined with Nuke's speed, made it possible to make changes to this effect quickly.
Maya was used for character animation. CG Supervisor James Healy enhanced Framestore's commercial department's character rigging pipeline for use on the show. The lighting and rendering pipeline was setup in Mental Ray. Character, prop and set assets were look developed in the standard way for commercial production, with a small team of texture and Zbrush artists working up the detail - renders were generated to produce a typical array of passes for comping in Nuke: RGB Light and shadow; depth; incidence; to name just a few. The compositors' greatest challenge was finding the best way to manipulate the full colour and beautifully detailed renders, and to combine the passes creatively to achieve the director's desired look whilst also maintaing the fine detail. The compositors were able to craft the final look in Nuke, starting with the lighting concepts created earlier in the production and then developing this further as the project continued. "The sequence was a compositors dream job," says Russell Dodgson, "technical, challenging and with an ever-evolving creative process that required a lot of 'out of the box' thinking." Nuke's faster workflow and tight integration with 3D applications aided artists and clients by being able to respond to director feedback and get more creative iterations before the deadline.
Due to the relatively long shot durations, cloth simulation on death's cloak and the bride's dress proved challenging. The brief in the case of Death was to create an ethereal otherworldly movement that felt natural in this stylised world. The team decided that the wizard characters' cloth would have a stiff puppet look to further distinguish them from Death. James Healy created a pipeline to deal with these elements using Maya's NCloth.
Martin Aufinger used Houdini for the magical bridge forming sequence. In order to further the gritty, hand made look; the team experimented with lowering the frames rate on elements in shots. Due to the moving cameras this was impossible as it generated excessive strobing. The only element that stayed on twos was the bridge.
Telecine artist, Simon Bourne, managed the sequence's signature sepia tones by grading in Baselight. This gave the director more latitude to create punchy and dramatic pictures whilst pushing certain elements within the grade.
The film's VFX producer, Emma Norton, reported that this production has been the easiest approval ever seen on any Potter Film. The film's director, David Yates, and Warner Brothers' producers were elated with the final result; A testament to the creative abilities, skill and hard work of the Framestore commercials crew.
Dale Newton, said: "The film itself gave Framestore a great opportunity to create more cutting edge visual effects. But this storybook sequence posed a different set of challenges: namely how do you create a delicate, papery animated sequence in CGI? How to create compelling poetic characters in a dramatic narrative when only using shadows and silhouettes? So rather than being the visual effects task that we've all become so accustomed to, this was more a creative voyage of discovery."
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