DNEG presents its very first feature animation film Ron’s Gone Wrong for Locksmith Animation and Twentieth Century Studios, co-produced by DNEG animation president Tom Jacomb

Ron’s Gone Wrong is an animated feature film about a schoolboy and his malfunctioning robot friend, a “Best Friend out of the Box” (BBot).

DNEG Animation was the sole digital production partner on the movie, producing over 1,600 final shots for the film, including 168 robot character variants, over 1,900 human character variants and extensive stylised environments, as well as developing a motion graphics-driven character performance system for the robot characters.

One of the first challenges the team faced was the adaptation of DNEG’s mature VFX pipeline to create a new and robust animation pipeline that could deliver a full animated feature. The team also collaborated closely with DNEG’s Motion Graphics (MGFX) team from day one to create the BBots emotive faces.

Phillipe Denis, VFX supervisor at DNEG Animation, and Crosby Clyse, head of production at DNEG Animation and digital producer of Ron’s Gone Wrong, explain the technical and artistic challenges of producing this film:

How did the filmmakers present their vision for this film? What did they want to achieve and what did they ask of you?

Philippe Denis: I had the chance to participate in the visual development of the movie with the Directors and Production Designer really early on. It was really informative for me to hear how the story beats were translated into art, what kind of discussion it triggered, and what the Directors reacted positively or negatively to. Having that kind of information so early in the process was really valuable to get fully immersed in the project and it also gave me the opportunity to give my point of view both from a design standpoint but also in terms of complexity and feasibility. It also helped me lead our DNEG Animation team right from the beginning.

Once the design phase had sufficiently progressed we also made sure that the heads of departments at DNEG Animation attended the Art review so that they could hear directly from the Directors what was their artistic sensibility.

One of the big visual challenges we faced was to make two types of look work together. Obviously, the B*Bots were a really important part of the movie and their design influenced the design of the Bubble Headquarter and the Bubble Store. For anything related to technology we adopted a very minimalistic design approach with simple shapes such as spheres (a clear reference to bubbles) or cylindrical shapes but also high-tech materials (screen, glass, plexiglass, high finish concrete,…). The idea was to represent Bubble in a slightly cold and aseptic kind of way.

In opposition, the rest of the world had to be much more graphic to humanise it. The idea was to obtain a great contrast between the two worlds. Barney’s world was even pushed a little further in terms of graphic design and in order to underline his upbringing and his difference with his schoolmates.

One of the Directors’ concerns was to make sure these two worlds could live side by side and that our characters could go from one to another without raising any questions. To avoid this particular problem we decided to maintain the graphic language of modelling and texturing but pushed the materials and lighting response to a more physical one, therefore having a common language for both worlds from a Lighting and shading standpoint.

In order to vet this theory, for any big sets such as the (Donka’s kitchen, Barney’s bedroom, shed, or Bubble HQ and Bubble Store and the Cloud), as soon as we had the models close to being approved, we did an early pass of Lighting that we called “set exploration”. It first allowed us to test the sets to make sure they worked as intended before doing any surfacing but more importantly it also gave the Directors the opportunity to verify that the design was sound. We took advantage of these developments to give Surfacing access to these Lighting rigs when they started working on the given sets. It had the advantage to let us review the progress of surfacing in the proper lighting context, helping us make better creative decisions. These lighting setups were then usually the starting point of the sequence key lighting occurring in the same sets.

How did you approach the work of animating the BBots?

Crosby Clyse: The BBots are billed as your “best friend out of the box”. They are designed like slick, mobile iPhones that follow you around. Of course, we’d need to create the physical performance of their arms and wheels moving, but we also wanted to make the screen possibilities of the BBot endless. We generated hundreds of different personality “skins”. A BBot could be styled as a superhero, a bunny, a zombie, a football player, graphic art, you name it. On top of that, each BBot needed to interact with other BBots—sending messages and posts, streaming videos, playing video games, and more.

Philippe Denis: BBots use motion graphics as their primary tool of communication, which is A) very cool, and B) very different from how most animated characters communicate. From early story concept and design, it became clear that Ron and the BBots weren’t going to be like other animated characters.

How did you go about creating facial expressions and conveying emotion?

Crosby Clyse: Upon first meet, a BBot downloads everything about you. It learns your likes, dislikes, daily routine, everything! But Ron isn’t able to do any of that. Ron’s incomplete download makes him naive, he’s trying to understand the world around him. That naivety, mixed with Ron’s brokenness, is where our Animators really found his charm. They took what would usually be a clean sleek BBot, and gave him a broken posture. Where a normal B*Bot would move around gracefully, Ron’s arm slips, one wheel is looser than the other, and he has isolated movements with long pauses for when he is thinking. This “less is more” approach was brought further to life by Zach Galifiankis’s voice performance. Zach’s robotic line reads were punctuated by clean simple line shapes for Ron’s mouth. As Ron learns new things throughout the film, he starts mimicking Barney’s speech, striving to become Barney’s “Best Friend Out of the Box.” For these fun moments, the Animators pushed Ron’s expressions further with broad mouth shapes to exaggerate vowels/syllables: “Run! RUNAWAY! Go, go, go!”

What new tools and techniques did you develop for this project?

Philippe Denis: Our standard pipeline doesn’t introduce motion graphics until the final phase, which is compositing. In order to match the art direction, we needed the Animators to actually animate the motion graphics. We focused on how we could bring the Motion Graphics team into the fold from the beginning, partnering them with Rigging and Animation. The Rigging team created new technology that allowed us to embed a low-resolution version of the motion graphics into the Maya rig. The Riggers then added controls so the Animators could control the placement, performance and timing of the graphics. This gave the Animators the autonomy to ‘character animate’, even though the character wasn’t a physical body but a screen with moving images. We also created a bespoke pipeline to align each graphic to the cylinder shape of the BBot, ensuring the graphics didn’t get distorted around the curves. Our goal was to provide Animation with the freedom to do their thing while ensuring they could control all the shapes, expressions, and bits and pieces that they needed.

How did you go about adapting your VFX pipeline to create an animation pipeline? What were the trickiest aspects of doing this?

Crosby Clyse: DNEG has crafted some of the finest VFX work over the past 20 plus years. We’ve constructed our DNEG Animation pipeline alongside VFX, leveraging the existing technology and experience on hand.

To figure out how to adapt a VFX pipeline, first and foremost you have to find the right talent. Our President Tom Jacomb began by finding a supervision team from diverse production backgrounds, many of whom spent time in the American animation houses. Everyone brought their experiences together, along with new ideas, to see how we could expand the VFX pipeline for Animation.

Crosby Clyse/Philippe Denis: The initial focus was on expanding the existing production tooling to handle the scale of assets and shot data generated on an animated feature. To produce an animated film, you have to create absolutely everything from scratch. Every element is art directed—every character, set, prop, effect, character performance, cloth simulation. Ron’s Gone Wrong had 100 minutes of animation, over 1900 human character variants, over 160 B*Bot variants—and it all culminates in over 1600 fully CG shots. It’s a lot of design and a lot of data!

Philippe Denis: One key area of focus was our generic character and crowd systems. To help with the large volume of character variants mixing, we switched our pipeline over to a Universal Scene Description (USD) platform. USD allowed us to establish the widest range of characters. DNEG is very used to generating large crowds, but the existing toolsets were designed for a thousand-member crowd. A crowd of fifty to eighty characters is more art directed. Each pointed element can be seen for itself, and they may not always fit well together. For Ron’s Gone Wrong, we needed to group kids together with similar interests, aligning specific character costumes to the appropriate BBot skin (scientists, football players, zombies, sports cars). Each costume design had a corresponding skin. USD helped drive the selection of these character segments into the appropriate groupings and offered the possibility to visualise the different variants throughout the pipeline almost instantaneously.

Crosby Clyse/Philippe Denis: VFX’s approach is more shot based, so another area of focus was aligning the DNEG Animation pipeline for sequence-based workflows. We knew we had to leverage environment builds, effects, and lighting setups across multiple shots to ensure continuity, and to allow for iteration. To achieve this, we adopted Katana and Renderman as they gave us the most flexibility and capability to propagate and leverage setups across multiple shots more easily.

Tell us about how you transitioned from a shot-based to a sequence-based workflow.

Philippe Denis/Crosby Clyse: To allow for maximum iteration, and to ensure continuity across a sequence, we knew we had to be looking at entire sequences, not only shots. Adopting USD was a great way to make changes flow down the pipe frictionless. With USD, the pipeline is able to move away from the traditional linear path between departments, and become more circular. It allows all the departments to collaborate simultaneously. To further these efforts, we adopted Katana and Renderman for our backend, to maximise efficiency.

What was most challenging on this project, artistically and technically?

Philippe Denis: From a very general point of view the fact that “Ron’s Gone Wrong” was the first production both for Locksmith and for DNEG Animation represented a great challenge on its own. Both studios had to build a team of talents and develop their tools and process. Locksmith was starting from a blank canvas while we at DNEG Animation needed to adjust the VFX pipeline to the need of a Feature Animation production. Both studios worked hard at their specific development while also developing a methodology for tracking and exchanging data and assets.

Of course, the Bots and Ron, in general, offered a great challenge both artistically and technically. Because of their importance in the movie, the idea of having motion graphics being integral to the Animation and performance of our characters was quite new. We invested a lot of time from the get go in order to be ready for production.

The sheer amount of environments, characters and the specificity of creating a world of B*Bots was definitely a challenge but what we focused on first was the look of “Bubble”. From an early phase, it was clear that all the architecture and design associated with “Bubble” would be minimalist both from a shape language (variation of bubble shapes) but also from a material point of view (the bubbles architecture is mostly made of glass, either transparent, tinted or translucent). Doing anything minimalist in CG is anything but simple. To avoid looking cheap and simple, It requires subtle nuances on the modelling and surfacing and demands also elaborate lighting rigs that convey that the rays of lights have traveled through different glassy materials resulting in interesting, bounce lights, refractions, reflections and caustics. Obviously the more we push this level the complexity the more the renders become expensive and it is something we monitored as soon as we developed the look of bubbles in order to keep it in control.

The Bubble Store as well as the Bubble HQ Control Room was also made of giant screens (think video wall) that would change from sequence to sequence and were able to display various motion graphics as well as picture in picture. These motion graphics “walls” not only needed to look good, but they also brought up very important story points that the audience needed to see and understand. That required quite a bit of thinking, time and visual development to figure out the different look and graphics needed for the control room throughout the movie.

Because the look of the motion graphics was so prominent in the control room it had a huge impact on the lighting so it was not something we could add at the end in compositing (like it is often the case). Motion graphics had to be accessible and integrated way earlier in the pipeline in order to be present for Rigging, Surfacing as Lighting needed to use these images as an important source of light. That was quite a technical achievement to do so during production.

From a purely technical point of view, the adoption of Katana and Renderman was a success in the end but to do so in such a short period of time as we were actively surfacing and lighting is to the credit of our rendering team who kept improving the pipeline up to the end of production.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.