This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #149 (October-November). In February, Brave won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
Re-writing the rules of animation is no small task but for the team at Pixar, it is a regular occurrence. With Scottish-set animation Brave, the 80-strong team of animators immersed themselves in the Scottish way of life as part of their method-acting approach to creating authentic characters.
They even wore kilts and visited local zoos to observe the behaviour of native animals. Director Mark Andrews, in particular, was obsessed with organising bi-weekly lessons in swordplay. The regular animation reviews would often end with an invitation to pick up a sword and act out a specific shot move-for-move.
Character rigging and modeling supervisor, Bill Sheffler, says this was important because ultimately, the physical performance came from the animators. "We videotape ourselves doing activities like archery and horse-riding and then caricatured that. It’s most successful when you put a bit of yourself in with the other elements."
Once had the real life material in place, they set about overcoming the technical challenges of bringing the digital characters, animals and environments to life. The story follows Merida, an aspiring archer and impetuous daughter of royalty, who makes a reckless choice that unleashes unintended peril which she must set right. The complex story required Sheffler's team to create 130 characters that had to interact convincingly with each other. New software was invented internally to make this happen.
"Brave is the first Pixar film to use the new, proprietary software, called the PRESTO Animation System,” says Steve May, one of the supervising technical directors. “It allows us to animate complexity we couldn't handle before. In animation, it's difficult to control many characters that are connected and dependent upon each other.
"In one scene, Merida is riding her trusty steed Angus while sewing the tapestry and carrying her triplet brothers along for the ride. The animation of all of the characters is dependent upon one another – if one moves, the others have to react, and the way they depend on each other changes throughout the shot. The connections are dynamic and making this simple for animators required new animation technology.”
Supervising animator, Steven Hunter, says the subtlety of the acting with Merida and her mother made it very challenging for the technicians. “There’s a delicacy to it – the slightest head tilt the wrong way can really throw things off. The attention to detail and keeping the characters looking like they were meant to look was incredibly difficult.”
Bill Wise, one of the other supervising technical directors on the production, says the new software also enabled them to animate an important but difficult scene between a bear and a horse.
"These are big, heavy, muscular characters, and we wanted to integrate simulation into the articulation process in order to get that secondary motion – the shake of the muscle and flesh on impact.
"We wanted to feel the weight and the mass. You can see the results when Angus is plodding along – his chest and muscles move with each step. PRESTO offered more control and power in terms of wiring that up. In particular, on this film, it allowed us to integrate simulation into the animation process. It was a huge breakthrough.”
Even when the movement and physical interaction of the characters is right, there is still a risk of distracting the audience if the hair, fur and clothing is not tightly integrated with the rest of the animation.
The Pixar team created a new process for dealing with this problem, which involved changing these external elements on the characters as they were being animated, instead of at the end.
“This produced a more cohesive performance," explains supervising animator, Alan Barillaro. "Getting the hair right was such a balance between the actual physics and the artistic side of where the hair needed to be for the pose, aesthetically, graphically and for the performance.
“We had to know what the real physics of the movement were. Then we found ourselves in the difficult place of deciding what’s real and what looks better. The animators have to be mindful of where the hair’s going to be and how the body will interact with it.”
The team from Pixar were constantly looking for new ways to add realism to the characters. Directing animator, David DeVan, even took inspiration from his six-year old son, Henry, when it came to animating the mischievous triplets.
He was given free reign at the studio, so his every movement could be observed. “He just ran around the atrium and started climbing on stuff. Instantly, we knew what we’d been doing was all wrong. Watching a kid with that kind of energy – how much fun he could have doing something as simple as sitting on a chair – was a revelation."
Despite Pixar's incredible successes in the past with Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Cars, John Lasseter, the chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, says Brave represents Pixar’s most daring, sophisticated and complex feature film to date.
"It raises the bar for the art form on every level – human animation, hair and clothing; animation of animals, including bears and horses; believability of organic, natural environments and historical settings."
Twenty-six years and 12 consecutive groundbreaking features later, Pixar hopes Brave will once again leave behind a long-lasting legacy for the industry. Thanks to the new technology, it will definitely be used by future animators as a benchmark for measuring the authenticity of their digital characters.