Cinesite discusses its role on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.
In part one of the befores & afters coverage of Jeff Rowe’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, we talked to Mikros Animation about their approach to the film’s stylized look and feel.
Now we turn to Cinesite and its role in also handling animation duties on the film.
Cinesite visual effects supervisor Chris Kazmier and Cinesite animation supervisor Eric Cheung break down their studio’s art and tech in realizing 2D and illustrative sensibilities into the 3D animation.
They also discuss new tools and workflows incorporated into the Cinesite pipeline, and what their toughest scene to complete was.
b&a: From an overall point of view, what were some of the key considerations that came from the director/producers and creative team in terms of the ‘look and feel’ of Mutant Mayhem that you knew you’d have to address in this film?
Eric Cheung (animation supervisor, Cinesite): Mutant Mayhem strives to distinguish itself by accentuating the youthful essence of the turtles. This goes beyond merely casting teenage actors as the heroes; it’s evident in the very visual portrayal. The character designs we worked with showcase a more youthful interpretation, featuring slightly leaner versions of the Turtles compared to what audiences have seen before–a sort of more teenage physique.
When tackling the animation, our approach needed to encapsulate the overall sense of adolescence that the filmmakers aimed to convey. This translated to more naturalistic action choices, minimising clichéd gestures and overacting. Jeff Rowe drew inspiration from movies like Attack The Block, a film where a group of armed teenagers confront an alien invasion, he emphasised on the group’s relationship and dynamics. This influence is noticeable in the action and fighting style, which heavily draws from Jackie Chan’s techniques–making use of props in the environment to gain an edge in various situations and ensuring genuine effort is portrayed in the moves and choreography.
b&a: Early on, what kind of R&D or any tests did Cinesite do that helped establish the look, while also establishing ‘how’ you might tackle this particular illustrative and stylized look for the characters, environments and backgrounds? How did you also work with Mikros here?
Eric Cheung: Mutant Mayhem boasts a distinct style all its own, drawing inspiration from the sketches of a teenager’s notebook–a ‘design philosophy’ articulated by production designer Yashar Kassai as ‘draw like you’re 15’. The visual style for TMNT was crafted by Mikros, who also furnished textures and models for the shared assets.
Cinesite, in turn, utilized this information to recreate shaders and achieve the final appearance of the characters, aligning with the predetermined visual style and language set by the filmmakers. Some characters, props, and settings were exclusive to our sequences, prompting us to independently create these assets while receiving guidance from the Nickelodeon art team to ensure consistency with the established style.
Furthermore, we received a couple of animation sequences from Mikros at an early stage. Internally, we conducted several animation tests to ensure parity with the remarkable work produced by Mikros. Subsequently, we presented various iterations to Jeff Rowe and co-director Kyler Spears for feedback, and the overall process went quite smoothly.
Chris Kazmier (visual effects supervisor, Cinesite): Incredible detail was devoted to the color scheme and robust design of the toys, capturing their distinctive chunkiness. The color palette from the original cartoon series also wielded significant impact on the movie’s aesthetic. Notably, in the TCRI lab scene, the initial toy Technodrone served as both an inspiration for the set and a reference point for the surfacing process.
b&a: Can you describe the ultimate approach Cinesite took to taking what I assume was more traditional 3D animation and giving it this fantastic stylized feel? What were the particular challenges of that in terms of say breaking the models, or rendering things a certain way, or adding layers a certain way?
Eric Cheung: Cinesite’s overarching approach in achieving this stylized aesthetic involved a combination of techniques. Notably, we embraced traditional 3D animation techniques, while infusing the unique stylistic essence inspired by a teenager’s sketchbook. The challenges inherent in this endeavor encompassed aspects such as adapting models to evoke a certain breakaway from realism, devising specific rendering methods to align with the desired look, and layering elements in a manner that encapsulated the intended artistic vision. This amalgamation of traditional animation principles and stylized embellishments was fundamental in capturing the fantastic feel that defines Mutant Mayhem.
Chris Kazmier: Trying to bring together all these ideas–the style of live-action cameras, the youthful sketchbook appearance, and the perspective of a much younger version of the Turtles–turned out to be quite a test. Or, at least, a unique kind of challenge. We described it as if you took drawings from a school notebook and filmed them with a high-quality movie camera using a special lens and a full team of lighting experts. The goal was to make it look cinematic and expansive, but with an intentionally imperfect touch. By ‘imperfect,’ we mean that nothing is perfectly outlined, and there are rough lines everywhere, resembling sketches. There’s also the addition of film grain, noise, lens flares, and even dust on the camera lens.
Moreover, colors weren’t just picked from a regular color wheel; they were mixed, creating a somewhat messy and smudged effect, often in shades of gray with a textured brush-like quality in the transitions. This was quite the opposite of what modern computer renderers usually do, which posed a challenge for all the departments involved in the production process. Additionally, we established a traditional 2D FX team within the larger FX department, resulting in a lot of ‘hybrid’ looks, including fully hand-drawn effects that we could use in the final shots.
b&a: Any particular tools or workflows you established at Cinesite for dealing with this film, say, for animation approaches, DMP generation, linework generation, crowds, textures, compositing, or particular FX?
Eric Cheung: For TMNT, the animation was primarily done on 2s, which means each pose is held for an additional frame, with a few exceptions. The choice of animating on 2s offers a charming and classic quality, allowing for greater focus on spacing and careful consideration of breakdowns. This approach was selected to impart a traditional cartoon appearance to the film. However, it marked our first instance of using this particular workflow.
Additionally, the integration of 2D line work was novel for us, necessitating Cinesite’s pipeline team to develop an in-house tool to adapt to this fresh method of working. The development of 2D line tools was crucial to achieve Cinesite’s desired look. To meet TMNT’s tight schedule, existing Maya Paint Effects tools were enhanced with a user interface and brush preset manager. This streamlined the process of storing presets, selecting painting surfaces, and exporting Maya Paint Effects as USD curves for rendering and shading in Gaffer. The interface also allowed animation and keyframing of lines, as well as cleanup and export.
Another challenge was managing data from Mikros, involving the reverse engineering of brush and color details from their curves. This resulted in Maya Paint Effects compatible with our pipeline, facilitating efficient data ingestion.
Chris Kazmier: We introduced new methods to the pipeline earlier than planned, surprising the development team. Some of the tools used eventually became part of the next release, showing how the team worked to support the show’s progress. These tools included animation tools and improved data management.
We added a 2D FX team, using Toon Boom in our pipeline. It started as a manual process but later became automated, providing compositing artists with the necessary FX layers automatically.
We also integrated assets from another vendor, working with different grooming software from Mikros. Our CG supervisor and their team managed to bring guide curves from one software and reproduce the final look in Houdini, making it compatible with our Gaffer workflow. We even simulated grooms in this process. Mikros had a unique hair rendering approach that we had to replicate on our end to match the visual style.
b&a: Could you discuss one particular scene or even shot that Cinesite found one of the toughest to solve in the film, and why.
Eric Cheung: The Splinter rescue sequence presented us with a notable challenge–devising compelling choreography for the fight scenes. Although we were supplied with storyboards outlining the actions, we were also granted creative freedom to shape the choreography. To tackle this task, we delved into extensive research and drew inspiration from a multitude of Jackie Chan’s movies. This involved compiling various clips from these films and intricately melding them into cohesive sequences, which we then presented to Jeff and Kyler for their input. To illustrate, consider the initial interaction where the protagonist engages multiple guards; this sequence was composed of approximately eight distinct clips sourced from various Jackie Chan movies. Our animators adeptly wove these movements together, and adapted the choreography to suit a rat’s movements.
Chris Kazmier: Animation emerged as the realm of creative exploration within our departments, while other teams faced the task of emulating the Mikros aesthetic solely relying on visual references. The process involved a myriad of shader techniques, particularly in a heavily compositing-oriented production, reminiscent of the approach seen in Spider-Verse. Once this aspect was successfully tackled, the focus shifted to maintaining the project timeline and ensuring timely deliverables. Notably, the endeavour engaged four different Cinesite group locations across the project’s span.