Stylization: a state of play

Christos Obretenov from Lollipop Shaders on where stylization, illustrative looks and the ‘2D’ feel is headed in 3D animation.

Lollipop Shaders provides production ready plugin software & Look Development for Look of Picture in the world of 3D rendering, catering specifically to the realm of stylized non-photorealistic rendering (NPR) in feature film.

Right now, stylization is big news in major animated features, short films and on streaming. Lollipop Shaders Founder and Shader Architect Christos Obretenov is immersed in the field, recently contributing with early lookdev on such projects as Across the Spider-Verse and Nimona and being a major contributor to RenderMan’s Stylized Looks toolset.

Here, he sits down with befores & afters to chat about the state of play of the industry, looking at the latest releases and where things might be heading. Plus, Obretenov is part of the Stylized Rendering Techniques Talks session at SIGGRAPH 2023. Find out below more about what he’ll be speaking on at the conference.

b&a: Christos, how would you summarize right now where we’re at, and perhaps where Hollywood is at, in terms of incorporating stylization into its content?

Christos Obretenov: Well, I’ve always said that when the first Spider-Verse came out, that changed everything. The second installment of Spider-Verse is out now. I worked on the early look development with the team at Sony Imageworks, on the Look Of Picture tests for it. It is just amazing work by everybody there. The state of play in the industry is that we’re seeing a lot more experimentation in those Stylized areas of rendering now.

b&a: I have observed the same thing, it feels like projects really are informed by Spider-Verse, but then there are now so many things. I was so excited to see something like the new Puss in Boots film from DreamWorks which it just did used stylization where it needed to do it in terms of stylized backgrounds and some fight scenes in terms of animation frame rates. There’s also the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated film coming out.

Christos Obretenov: I’m really excited about that one, too. Seeing the trailer, it appears very illustrative, and just the line work and then the motion blur looks really creative. I was pausing the frames in the trailer, how they did the motion blur. It’s always interesting to think about, how will this feel for an hour and a half? Across the Spider-Verse was so dynamic. There was not a static thing going on there. There was so much variety. I liked that.

b&a: There wasn’t a single same shot in Across the Spider-Verse I felt across the Spider-Verse, yeah, that was almost deliberate. I will say this though, and I wonder if you agree, that there is something about Spider-Verse where a lot of the stylization feels properly motivated because it’s based on the comic books. It’s intended to look like a drawing, like a comic book. It might be harder in some films to maintain that look when it’s for a different reason.

Christos Obretenov: Yes, exactly and there’s only one way to test that is go watch the movie. Also, this is a new direction with 3D movies. I’m sure people said that of the first animated films,‘This is cool, but I don’t know if we can watch it for an hour and a half.’ but the audience did, it’s just something to get used to.

b&a: Yes, agree. We’re also using, or I’m using, the term ‘stylization’, but there’s so many incarnations of that. I just saw some of Nimona and Elemental, which definitely has a stylized look to the fire and water where needed, not all the time. I think Nimona you could say on one hand has this 2D look, but it’s also a 3D look because they’re 3D animated characters. Do you have a way of thinking about whether something is stylized or whether it’s got a 2D look or whether they’re all lumped in together?

Christos Obretenov: Yes, that’s a good point because on the one hand, everything is stylized. Even things that we think are more of the traditional Disney/Pixar look, it’s still stylized. There’s a color scheme, stylized simulation, it’s not photoreal.

The thing is, if it’s rendered with a 3D photoreal path tracer, which nowadays a lot of the renders are pretty similar and they’re built for doing more or less photoreal work, then it’s hard to break out of that unless you completely break it, which is what Spider-Verse is doing. Once you start breaking that, like in Spider-Verse where they are going totally off geometry doing more sophisticated two-dimensional things with 3D objects, that’s where I think of it being more stylized.

Then I think you touched on the more 2D look in Elemental where there’s volume effects–that’s very stylized as well. Another word to describe the work is illustrative–more on the Spider-Verse side–where there’s a deliberate use of certain pencils and wash and ink.

b&a: And there’s even a new Walt Disney Animation Studios film coming out called Wish which has that painterly feel to the backgrounds.

Christos Obretenov: Wish, yes, watercolor, and linework.

b&a: It’s clear also the industry has moved on to embrace somewhat more of a retro feel because the audience I think is embracing it. Also, artists who are behind this concept art and behind the look and the feel of the picture, they want to embrace it, too, I think.

Christos Obretenov: Definitely. When I worked at the Disney/Zemeckis studio ImageMovers Digital, Doug Chiang was the main art department concept artist. I remember he’d come to my desk and have a character design. I always wanted the final imagery to look like his illustrations, and now we are doing that with current and future feature film projects.

b&a: One other side of it, not just movies, is that something like Love, Death + and Robots has been getting that same kind of attention for its style of short animation.

Christos Obretenov: Very different, yes.

b&a: And I would also say there’s the Star Wars: Visions short films that have been released. They have some nice stylized looks. But I will also mention that artists who have worked in television animation for a long time, say in Los Angeles or anywhere around the world, they sometimes think this Spider-Verse conversation is quite funny, since they often have 2D painterly illustrated looks in their projects.

Christos Obretenov: Yes, there’s a lot of nice 2D animation. And of course there’s a ton of 3D work that’s made to look more 2D, including the stuff we’re doing with RenderMan Stylized Looks. It’s still physically based. We’re still running a path tracer and it’s so cool to see some illustrative hatching/pencil/watercolor on physically based lighting & shadow.

When you’re applying these illustrative techniques in 3D, you can still have photoreal things like refraction through glass, then, you get the interesting caustics. That’s physically based but then, maybe those caustics are now a different watercolor brush or something. Then, seeing that animated, it’s almost like concept art come to life.

b&a: You mentioned working with Pixar’s RenderMan and Stylized Looks and you mentioned contributing a little to Across the Spider-Verse. Are there other projects you can mention that Lollipop Shaders has been working on?

Christos Obretenov: With Pixar, we’re working on Stylized Looks constantly. We’re always adding new things there for painterly, illustrative, and linework. Then, we’re doing support on various Pixar productions. In the SIGGRAPH presentation that I’m doing, we’re going to be showing some stuff that Pixar artist Francisco DeLaTorre and I worked together for Cars On The Road (Disney+), which involved some really cool line work.

Then we are doing a number of Look Development projects on Look of Picture with our custom Nuke tools with Painterly and Illustrative approaches which I show in my presentation, in the context of how it’s making Cinematography with Stylization a whole new interesting creative landscape.

As you mentioned, Nimona just came out, and we worked with Blue Sky Studios on that years ago. We did some line work tests on that and some illustrative tests. Similarly with Across the Spider-Verse, we were doing early look development on line work and painterly methods during Look Of Picture.

b&a: What do you think is the future of what we could call stylization or illustrative styles? Do you think it’s going to be more and more projects embracing this, or do you think we’re actually going to move on to something different? I was going to say, in real-time, with game engines, there’s actually more stylization there that I’ve being seeing recently, too, but what are your thoughts about the future of that side of the industry?

Christos Obretenov: Well, there’s still a lot of unsolved problems, like technical challenges that we have on things especially when they go off-geometry. What happens technically and creatively to things that are way off geometry while rotating and animating? We still have a lot of technical problems to solve in the future, which is exciting because it’s a combination of a lot of math and computer graphics, but then also just really nice art.

As far as the bigger picture, I think it’s going to be about mixing these different styles. In some of the tests that we’ve done, we really mix it in with the photoreal from all the bells and whistles of a production path tracer like RenderMan, then bringing in stylization in different areas that have to relate to the story. Maybe part of a character is that they’re in a certain mood, so therefore their shadow just changes to something illustrative. There’s so many different directions it can take.

Some of the things that I will show in my SIGGRAPH talk are about keeping part of the photoreal render, but maybe there’s line work in the extreme foreground, and then in the background it’s painterly, but in the focus area it retains that photoreal look. I like that approach, and I think we’ll see more of that because there’s really no limit to what you can and can’t do there.

You can have photoreal light sources, and then you can take a different light source–it’s not just a materials thing. You can say, this light and anything that it shines on, it’s going to do only line work, and then that gets integrated over a photoreal area. Or, this light is only going to do this illustrative hatching, everything else is photoreal. This gives a lot of creativity to the lighting designer and cinematographer, in addition to the look development artist.

Another aspect we get asked about a lot is: what do we do in a 3d render vs compositing, so I talk about that during my presentations, there are pros and cons to both of course, and some things you have to do in-render 3d you can’t do in compositing, and live feedback vs final tweaks on shots, so that’s always a good discussion.

b&a: Perhaps another thing which we’re already dealing with but will come up further into the future is AI, particularly style transfer when it comes to animation. These things can be ethically challenging because they’re usually taking advantage of someone else’s artwork that the model has been trained on. I feel like there’s a rejection of that in some ways from the artists in the industry, but of course, people have been playing around with these ‘filters’.

Christos Obretenov: Yes, there is the ethics side of it that you mention, which is concerning. That’s there and that needs to be solved in a fair way for artists. But if we say that if the ethics and fairness would be solved: then on the technical side it’s another interesting tool to use.

I think the key for what we do is, it has to be art directable. It’s great to find a nice style, but what if we need to make a tweak by making the line work thicker in just one area. We’re finding that the tools that we’re using and writing need to have all these very specific controls to them so that we can go back and understand how to fully modify them, which of course we do since we wrote them.

If you look at Across the Spider-Verse, there’s so many different things going on and there’s so many different layers and that’s what I like, and then they’re art directable, because they’ve gone through so many iterations and were touched by the artists the whole way.

b&a: Awesome, great to talk about those things, Christos.

Christos Obretenov: You know, I wish I could go back to these animated movies that we worked on more than 10 years ago that had such cool artwork, but didn’t really end up looking like the artwork. Now, we are making the renders like the concept art, and bringing those artworks and paintings to life. But we have so many interesting projects now and the future, so we don’t have to go back, so it’s exciting times!

I’d like to thank Ian Failes for this interview, Ernst Janssen Groesbeek from 9to3Animation, Dylan Sisson from Pixar’s RenderMan team, the Sony Pictures Imageworks team, and Foundry’s Nuke and Katana teams.

Find more details on Obretenov’s SIGGRAPH Talks session on Stylized Rendering Techniques here.

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