Rhythm & Hues’ animation puts ‘Hop’ on Top

By AMRITA VALECHA | 18 April, 2011 - 10:41

Image Courtesy Universal Pictures

Universal and Illumination Entertainment's recently released feature film HOP, which has grossed a whopping USD $100 Million worldwide in just 16 days, is yet another brilliant showcase of Rhythm & Hues’ amazing CGI animation and VFX prowess. With work divided between its US, India and Malaysia facilities a total of over different 500 digital artists worked on the movie over a period of around 6 months.

Hop is an Easter–themed animated feature. Blending state-of-the-art animation with live action, Hop tells the comic tale of Fred, an out-of-work slacker who accidentally injures the Easter Bunny and must take him in as he recovers. As Fred struggles with the world's worst house guest, both will learn what it takes to finally grow up.

Talking about the work done at R&H’s India & Malaysia facilities, Prashant Buyyala, Head of International Operations, shared, “Hop was a landmark project for all the employees at our International studios.  We were entrusted with a very significant portion of the work in the movie and had to seamlessly integrate the imagery with the tremendous work being produced by our colleagues in Los Angeles. "

"We had well over 200 digital artists and support staff at our International facilities that worked on pretty much all stages of the production including Modeling, Look Development, BG Prep, Matchmoving, Layout, Character Animation, Technical Animation, Lighting and final Compositing. We are particularly proud that all this work was collaboratively produced on an incredibly tight deadline with data and imagery whizzing all around the world in a true 24 hour production cycle. It is an amazing process to be involved in and it effectively allowed us to deliver very high quality work.”

Producer Michele Imperato Stabile shares how it’s possible for R&H’s team to make this world look so incredibly detailed.  “Tim Hill (Director) and the animators have systematically and carefully created all the characters that live and work in this space all digitally. They’ve painstakingly ensured that the clothing and the fur look real but they’re a bit exaggerated.  They made them just a little bit bigger than normal-sized rabbits and chicks so it’s easier to see their expressions as they play off one another,” she says.   

For R&H the challenge in Hop was constructing a true-to-life rabbit that would look as real interacting with friends and family on Easter Island as he would harassing the people of Fred’s world. 

     Image Courtesy Universal Pictures

Designing Easter Bunny (E.B.):
The signature characters of E.B., the Easter Bunny, Carlos and Phil were designed by Emmy Award-winning and Annie-nominated artist Peter Deseve. In order for DeSève and the animators to bring E.B. to life, they began to conceive the character by studying Russell Brand’s vocal performance.  Footage of Brand reading E.B.’s lines was recorded, and the artists used his facial expressions, movements and eccentricities as reference points to build E.B. 

When not leading the storyboarding stage or designing Young E.B., animation supervisor Chris Bailey spent a great deal of time with his team blending Brand’s recorded performance with the body language and mannerisms of a teenager. As they drew E.B., they would also incorporate specific animal characteristics, such as the wiggling of a rabbit’s nose as it sniffs or the quick movements of a bunny’s hind leg when it scratches an itch.

Because it was crucial to make it seem as if E.B. and his family and friends were interacting with humans, a great deal of attention had to be paid to fur styles.  When E.B. was picked up or physically “on” an actor, his fur condition and quality (e.g. matting, flattening) would change.  Style, color and flexible textures were particularly belabored upon until Hill and his team found just the right look for each of the creatures.

To digitally create the CG character of E.B., artists went through a build process in which they modeled the character in a neutral pose.  States Chen, “We then put in a rig to allow E.B. to move—to get his facial expressions correct and allow him to move his limbs.  On top of all that, we have his clothing: his T-shirt and his flannel shirt.  For this, we ran cloth simulations to have it look like his clothes were moving like real pieces of cloth.”

In order to get this digital interaction perfect, the animation team had to “track” each of the performers who interacted with E.B.  By creating a digital head-to-toe model of these performers, the animators were able to put avatars of the actors in each “E.B. interaction scene” into the digital world and to create a “digital double,” also known as a “match move.”  Once the movements were matched up, the artists had a 3D object on top of which they could put the character of E.B.  After this extensive process was completed, the full scene went into the next stage of animation.


Image Courtesy Universal Pictures

Blocking and Animation

 Beginning with a plate that has an actor interacting with dummy E.B. (a beanbag), R&H would take E.B. in the scene (e.g., one in which he is resting in Sam’s hands) and roughly block the different phases that E.B. would go through in the sequence. Since the blocking was signed off, the animation team created a rough pass of the general facial expressions and movements that E.B. would have with the performer.   Taking the digital double of the performer who interacted with E.B., the animators in charge of this sequence would then move that “actor’s” hands to pick up, put down, push or pull E.B.  This allowed a reference for the next step of fitting E.B.’s personality—from eye rolls to squints and other affectations—into the scene, as well as making his movements flush with the real-life human with whom he was interacting.

In the ever-evolving world of comedy, the final sequences the animators delivered were often quite different than those initially storyboarded.  Shares Bailey, “When you cut a movie together, you find surprises that come up, such as this scene is more dramatic than we thought or that scene is funnier than we imagined.  After the scene was cut together, we all talked about what we wanted out of E.B.’s performance and what we wanted him to communicate to the audience. ”

When the entire team was comfortable that what they wanted to have communicated was accomplished, then the final animation occurred.  Bailey compliments his fellow artists saying, “These people are performers. I like to keep the emphasis on the individuals behind creating the characters, because they’re the ones that make the characters funny.”

Lighting Hop

When it came time to lighting the scenes with E.B. on set, a curious chrome ball was used.  Senior animation supervisor, Andy Arnett explains, “This was for lighting reference, so when the lighters were ready to put the CG lights into our scenes to light E.B. and make it look like he was part of the set that was being filmed, they looked at the reflections that showed up in the photographs of that chrome sphere.  It showed where all the different light sources were placed, as well as the colors and textures of all the different pieces in the room that would reflect light off of E.B. ”

After Hill and DP Collister shot key scenes, R&H put a camera in the middle of the set, took a 360-degree picture of the entire environment and mapped the inside of it.  Discusses Bailey, “I like to think of it as a big ball surrounding the set, because when you light actors or a set, they’re not just being lit by the lights on the set.  They’re actually being lit by the reflections of everything that’s on the other side of those lights—the ceiling and the crew standing around.”

 “We took a high-dynamic range imagery image of the lighting setup,” Rodahl elaborates.  “This calculated the lowest and the darkest lights in the room.  It was a camera rig set up to provide a 360-degree, fish-eye lens of the environment.  Then we used that inside of the computer to map out what the strongest lights and their positions, so that you see the same lighting influences on E.B. as you see on Fred.  All that helped to make E.B. fit perfectly into the scene.”

With R&H’s work on Hop being well appreciated by audiences worldwide, the digital artists are already busy coming up with creative ideas to enthrall everyone on their upcoming productions. Today R&H is working on six major Hollywood feature films including X-Men First Class, Mr. Poppers Penguins, Moneyball, Everybody Loves Whales, Alvin & the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, and Life of Pi.