The Making of Shrek
By Iain Blair


"Shrek, a bad-tempered ogre, is not having a good day. His precious solitude has been shattered by an invasion of annoying fairytale characters. There are blind mice in his food, a big, bad wolf in his bed, three little homeless pigs and more, all banished from their kingdom by the evil Lord Farquaad." By Iain Blair

Welcome to the wonderful world of Shrek, a world also populated by a beautiful princess, a talking donkey, and, of course, a fire-breathing dragon. Based on the children’s book by William Steig, Shrek is the big new release from PDI/DreamWorks, the team that created the 1998 blockbuster Antz. A visually rich and technically challenging computer animated film, Shrek is an irreverent comedy featuring the vocal talents of Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow married to the work of over 275 artists, computer animators, software developers and engineers at PDI/Dreamworks who spent almost three years completing the film.

Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, Shrek was produced by Aron Warner, John H. Williams and Jeffrey Katzenberg. “It was a very tough project, and for all the obvious reasons,” noted Warner. “No one had ever done this before in terms of the number of characters, the complexity of the environment, the number of effects that had to be integrated, and the level of stylized human animation and facial animation — the list goes on.”

Indeed, Shrek features what CG artists consider to be the Holy Grails of CG animation — realistic, believable human characters; rich, organic natural environments; mixtures of fluids (especially interacting with characters); clothing with detailed textures and movement; and realistic hair, fur and fire.

Warner noted that creating “realistic yet stylized” human characters is one of the most important technical and artistic advances in Shrek.

Visual effects supervisor Ken Bielenberg, who was the effects supervisor on Antz reported that, “We were still in production on Antz when Aron asked me to start development for Shrek. So, I overlapped for about six months when I was finishing up Antz and getting Shrek off the ground. As the visual effects supervisor, I had global responsibility for figuring out how to achieve the directors’ and production designer’s view for what the film should look like, and for getting that final picture up on the screen.

“The big challenge at the beginning was that we didn’t really know how to achieve the complexity in the background, especially the complexity of doing human characters... and having a PG animated film starring human characters,” he noted. “We had to somewhat take it on faith that we would be successful at doing that, and the success or failure of the project would to a great extent. hinge on creating believable human characters that the audience would empathize with.”

Shrek and Donkey

He went on to stress that, “There are so many things that go into creating believable humans. The audience is not terribly forgiving of human characters because everyone consciously or not is studying human behavior everyday. And if we don’t get the major aspects correct, something is going to feel wrong. One of the things we have to do is figure out what those future items are and we had to find the level of stylization that would be appropriate for the design of the film. It seems like it would be obvious looking at the end product, but it wasn’t obvious at the time what level stylization we would want. We weren’t trying to make a photoreal movie, it was a stylized realism.”

According to Bielenberg, technically and creatively there were three major challenges; the human characters, the complex environment and then the traditional visual effects — “things like fire and water and the elements,” he explained. “For human characters, some of the challenges were rendering skin. Computers are really good at rendering things like plastic and metal, as they love hard surfaces, but to date they haven’t been as successful dealing with translucent softer surfaces and we didn’t find real applicable computer graphics research for rendering skin that we would use.”

“You have hundreds of thousands of blades of grass in a scene and millions of leaves and an inordinate amount of data… So the rendering computation times were much greater than they had been on Antz.” — Ken Bielenberg

Instead, the team started off with studying papers that had been written for dermatology and laser surgery. “They were very useful research in as far as how skin reacts to light and as a mathematical model that we were then able to adapt,” he said. “If the skin didn’t feel right we could easily end up with characters that look like plastic mannequins. So we spent quite a bit of time developing that and then also the degree of detail that we would paint into the surfacing of the characters.

“At times there was a point at which we had actually gone too realistic with Fiona and Farquaad and needed to pull them back in order for them to work with Shrek and Donkey and with the overall style of the film,” he added.

Other technical challenges with the characters were, the character animation system and deformation, he reported. “The character set-up people start and the characters are basically deformed from the inside out. The character set-up people start to actually build a skeleton that you never see, but then they built muscles on top of the skeleton. Then there is layer of fat, skin and finally the clothing layer.

“The clothing was a big challenge as well,” he noted. “We decided to do tight fitting clothing using our propietary tool layering clothing is fairly difficult. We had to figure out getting the right things to wrinkle as the characters move.”

For the flowing clothing like Fiona’s dress and the kilts that the male characters wear the team decided to use Maya. “It’s a really good cloth simulator and we worked that into our pipeline,” reported Bielenberg. “And then hair was another thing that needed significant development to figure out how would we move it. We wanted to make sure animators had control over the hair, but then we didn’t want to move each individual hair. So we had some aspects of the hair which would be moved somewhat automatically based on the physics of the motion and the kind of hair we put into the characters.”

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