Tuesday, 4 June 2019

ILM Explains How to Animate Dinosaurs

Fallen Kingdom
One of the highlights of today's VFX Festival at Escape Studios in London was the presentation by Jance Rubinchik, animation supervisor at ILM, on the making of Jurassic World, and Fallen Kingdom.

Animating animals and creatures is something that ILM has pioneered since the first Jurassic Park movie. Each new Jurassic film has sought to raise the bar for animal and creature work.

Animators who do this kind of work have to become experts in animal and creature locomotion, understanding how the animals would have moved, in order to create a believable performance.

Not a documentary
However, the Jurassic World series of movies are not documentaries. The animation needs to be believable, but not necessarily scientifically accurate. The films are a "balance between science and entertainment", as the film-makers try to keep both audiences and paleontologists happy.

From the point of view of animators looking to tackle realistic dinosaur animation, the lesson is simple: use as much reference as you can, and make sure you use live action reference that is as close as possible to the anatomy of the creatures you are trying to animate. 

Baby Emu
How do dinosaurs move?
Of course, no-one knows how dinosaurs actually moved. But, dinosaurs have plenty of living relatives, such as ostriches and emus, so useful reference material can be found throughout the natural world.

The ILM animators got hold of a baby emu and filmed it, using the performance as source material for the baby raptors. So when you are watching the baby raptors in Fallen Kingdom, you are basically looking at a baby emu.

Live action reference
Animators did early run cycles on "Blue", one of the raptors, keeping Blue's head almost completely still, while the rest of the body is running, its eyes constantly focusing on its prey.  The animation was based on motion studies of a cheetah, a fast predator whose head remains locked in position to enable to cheetah to keep its prey constantly in its line of sight. 


The Importance of Research
The animators did lots of research, looking at alligators and lizards, and recording sounds and capturing footage. Alligators, for example, vibrate their throats when they make threatening sounds, and this animation was used to help create the Indominus Rex.

The indoraptor was a genetically engineered animal that "needed to feel abused and neglected". The  dinosaur's skin textures needed to be damaged and beaten up, and the idea behind the character was that it had been a caged animal, poorly treated.

The animators did early animation tests to help create a nervous, anxious character, with twitchy head movements. His head bobs like a bird, he has shudders in his knees and hips as he walks.

The run cycle on "Indo" was based in part on ostriches, though when matched too closely to an ostrich run it "looked ridiculous".  Live action reference should be used as source material, but usually cannot be followed too literally.

Anatomically, Indo was very different to earlier Jurassic World dinosaurs, and each new dinosaur has to be discovered as a fresh character, with a unique way of moving and behaving.

Animation is an iterative process. Animators get feedback from their colleagues, from animation leads, from animation supervisors. Everyone is trying to "get inside the director's head" and try to find the perfect performance that the director will be looking for.

Tail animation on the dinosaurs is a "long and painful process", but the ILM animators have in-house tools to help get the tail animation right. It's not exactly a simulation, but a physics-based approach that saves the animators from having to hand keyframe the overlapping action frame by frame.

Komodo dragon - great reference
Komodo dragons
The animators also researched komodo dragons, in part for their reptilian surface textures, but also to see how they move.  Komodo dragons fight one another for mating rights, and these fights can be extremely vicious.

Komodo dragons also have nasty strings of saliva dangling from their mouths, so the animators borrowed this for a close-up of the carnosaur in Jurassic World to get an especially disgusting look.

Research is important because nature can be complex and unexpected. Even apparently basic things - such as a simple blink - can be full of complexity.

Skin and body textures
No-one knows exactly what dinosaur skin looks like, though surviving fragments suggest skin much like modern lizards. So the team researched modern reptiles such as geckos and monitor lizards to get the surface textures right.

Dynamics -v- key frame animation
And just in case you were thinking that the muscles and skin were all animated with dynamics and simulations, in fact much of the work was done by the keyframe animators, hand-animating the fat and muscles using a variety of control curves.

Dinosaurs at Animation Apprentice
We're no strangers to dinosaurs here at Bucks New University. To see some excellent dinosaur animation, check out "Tokyo Rex" by MA animation student Lee Caller, below.

For more on the experience of studying at Bucks New University, come and visit us at one of our Open Days,  take a virtual tour of one of our animation studios, check out what our students think of our course, and see why we're ranked in the top 12 creative universities in the UK.

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