Here’s how DreamWorks lent a whole new brand of stylized look and feel to ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish’

If there’s one trend stirring up the feature animated film industry right now, it’s stylization. DreamWorks Animation has certainly always brought a level of stylization into their films–think Madagascar and the much more recent The Bad Guys.

Now, with Joel Crawford’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, the studio has combined some of the stunning photoreal work they’ve accomplished in animation with more illustrative qualities.

At the VIEW Conference in Italy, befores & afters caught up with The Last Wish visual effects supervisor Mark Edwards to break down these particular stylized approaches, and how they were intertwined in the existing pipeline for animation development.

You’ll also learn the amazing term: ‘crap encapsulating objects’ and how it’s now one of DreamWorks’ go-to tools.

b&a: I’m one of those people who loves the ‘art of’ books that come out for animated films, and I have to say, until recently, the concept art in the books sometimes look nothing like the film. It often looks more stylized. Obviously they are realized for inspiration and mood and color scripts, but I always wanted the film to look like the art. Now it seems that’s happening more, which I love. I feel like this new Puss in Boots film jumped on that stylized look a lot more.

Mark Edwards: I think so. And it’s an interesting challenge anyway, because even the art team is a bunch of different artists and every artist has their own style. As much as you say, ‘Hey, here’s the look of the film,’ some of them were more inspirational than final, and some of them are really close to it, because you could find the elements to say, ‘Yes, this totally fits with our look. Let’s try and match that exactly.’

b&a: On some other films, I feel like I may have seen that some of the background paintings are ‘painterly’–partly because they are paintings!–and then there’d be the CG characters over the top. On this film, I really felt like there was much integration between both background and foreground painterly looks. How hard was that to do?

Mark Edwards: It was a challenge. We didn’t want to be so strict on layout that we couldn’t do dynamic moves, for instance. I mean, you can do a painted watercolor film. There’s that great The Old Man and the Sea animated short by Aleksandr Petrov which was painted on glass for each frame. But it’s noisy, that’s what you get. There is not a lot of temporal coherence. It’s an interesting style, but we need to stay with these characters, and so we can’t have stuff shifting on the edges and all this kind of noise all the time.

We wanted it to feel like these were painted assets, but we didn’t want to feel like it was just a Photoshop filter applied to it. Then with all those rules in place, there were all these challenges of, how do we deal with cameras being anywhere? That was where making sure a lot of our tools were more procedural, than it was layering that effect. That meant every shot we could actually have some control downstream to go, ‘Okay. Yeah, the CEO on this table, it’s just too big for this camera. Let’s just scale it down in lighting.’


b&a: You just said the word CEO. What does CEO mean at DreamWorks Animation?

Mark Edwards: The name is based off of ‘CIA’, which is an old system that we’ve used forever, and it stands for ‘crap in the air’. So for all of our particulates and things that are just floating, that’s a system called CIA. Our head of look, Baptiste Van Opstal, came up with ‘CEO’, which is ‘crap encapsulating objects.’ And it is a similar particle-based system that has some of the same toolset.

b&a: I love it. But what actually is it?

Mark Edwards: Well, at its core, it’s basically a particle set and a shader hook. So in fact, it’s mostly what’s in the particles. We store all of this data so at render time we know exactly what all the material properties are, what it should be looking up in terms of color. A lot of those controls can be adjusted at render time. The toolset itself is all in Houdini to actually generate that point cloud.

b&a: In terms of props and backgrounds, what was your methodology in modeling things, but then still giving them a stylized look?

Mark Edwards: That was interesting, because we started at an even more stylized place. I think we’ve always thought about that with our design of assets. So if you look at the Madagascar world, even their character design, everything, you have certain shapes and a design aesthetic, and we always have that wonkiness–nothing is ‘straight’.

We started there for this film, but as we did more and more tests, and had the rest of the style come together, we realized we didn’t go far enough. And I think, once you aesthetically break away from things needing to feel absolutely physical, there is huge freedom. For example, we had a lantern model where we basically have breaks in the lines, that was something I think modeling would never try. And we said, ‘You know what? It’s okay, because everything fits around it.’ It was really fun to push that far and build up from there.


b&a: In your presentation you mentioned something about a ‘stamp map’–how did that work?

Mark Edwards: That was actually prototyped in look of picture test. Baptiste had done certain prototypes and we were working together daily on what things would work and what wouldn’t. The stamp map was a way of building a point cloud around an object at whatever density you want. It has all the same kind of scale orientation controls as a regular projection. Then you can project an image or a set of images onto the surface.

It’s temporally coherent, because it’s in reference space. For certain things like normals, we did the work to make sure it could form, so we could put it on characters, which is critical. It effectively allowed us to layer in another set of stylization such as brush strokes or really abstract maps for reflections, or whatever we needed, into any kind of shader component.

We really liked that idea, because we had looked at, how much do we want to build into the material? And we did do material work, some toon map setups and things for some stylization. But when you build it all into your shading model, you’re a little bit locked to that. But here, we could say, ‘Hey, let’s plug it into just the refraction.’ We might want reflections to be normal, but then everything refracted is going to be completely warped.

All this was procedural, so if the stamps were too big or too prominent, we had all the controls downstream to dial it. And that happened all the time. His guitar had some really pushed normal stamp maps, and you would get all that breakup. And that was fine at a distance, but then we just dialed it back when we used close-ups.