All the Moos That's Fit to Print
"It's a Vicon system. We're running at 120 frames per second, which is what we capture at. That's typical of most studios. And we have anywhere from a 16-camera system to a 22-camera system setup. The stage you're currently standing at, if you look at the grid on the floor here, gives you an approximate area of the capture size. The actors cannot go outside of that space. This is the target range. Typically we have these [cameras] spaced out wider.
"We also have a projection system. You can see it located up in the top rack up there. It allows us to project up onto a wall; we have the skylight blacked out. It allows the director, the supervisors and the actors to see the animation in real time. It's projected up onto the wall as they're actually acting out shots in a scene.
"Now, the performance capture stage we're using only for the background animation for this movie. We have over 180 characters for this movie. A large percentage of those are considered background characters. Now in this movie—instead of actually capturing actors on all four legs acting out grazing in the field—what's the point of it, right?
"For some of the outdoor shots—we want to see some of these characters doing strange things like tai chi, for example. We want two sheep to give each other a massage in the background. So, a lot of these, you'll notice the second or third time you see this movie. Really, we've taken the background characters for a crowd scene and made them more mid-ground characters, so you'll notice a lot going on in these background scenes.
"Really, it's taking all of the talented people that we have here at Omation, putting them into a suit. We normally capture two people at a time on this stage right here, and we plug that into our system, and for our system we brought in some really talented programmers to develop a database that allows them to map the animation from the Vicon system onto hundreds of thousands of characters. And we have some ingenious programs that will actually mirror the animation as well.
"Let's say you do a hundred captures in a day. You can have another hundred by mirroring the animation. The left arm becomes the right arm of a person. You need tricks like that to pull it off.
"We actually see these characters stand up, hanging on the fence. 'Hey, how'd it go last night?' 'Oh, we had a great time. Great party.' Those are the kinds of things that go on so when the humans turn around, they all stand up and they're now normal everyday characters with human traits."
Our next stop: director Steve Oedekirk's office, upstairs. We clustered around his desk, tape recorders in hand, as he discussed the genesis of his project. "I was ultimately pitching CG projects before Toy Story came out, and everybody thought I was an insane person," he told us.
An energetic fellow, he would frequently change topics as he answered questions. To wit:
"I think maybe the story structure that I'm on with this movie is a little bit of a throwback to earlier animated features. On the front end, it'll be marketed as a high-energy, fun movie. More like a Bruce Almighty, or probably an earlier Bambi or Lion King. We really do have a core—it's a character-driven story. It's not as much fluff or pop culture references. That's what I like. If you look at the stuff you've seen so far, the character designs are not a copy of anything but they're not unlike early Warner Bros., early Disney character designs. Very clean lines. Very simple. I just love that. So, getting back to your question, when I was first envisioning what this could be before there was any CG work to see or template off of, in my head I was picturing an incredibly simplified world much like early animation, but with great detail. So rather than going for incredibly complicated character designs that are greatly detailed, it was really about having these interesting simple shapes, even down to our swirling clouds and some design elements in our trees. Just going with a very simple palette of shapes and planning. But then to give it a texture that makes it feel like it's a real place. That's what excited me about it, doing Barnyard."
Next, the Omation folks led us into the screening room next to Oedekirk's office. We settled down in some geometric seat cushions as Jason Barlow and others presented slides and work-in-progress clips, and explained the making of the film, after which we asked questions.
Oedekirk wrapped up the presentation, answering final questions. One of his answers dealt with the recording process, in which he expressed preference for ensemble voice recording.
"I would get the full cast together and perform together with the main characters, because there's an authenticity I didn't want to lose. It's not that common in animation," he said incredulously. "People are put in separate booths; they're all separate. One person says their line and the next person says their line and they don't get to overlap. [But I prefer] when everybody is together and people overlap. I'm like always everybody's nightmare. 'No, overlap, overlap. Good, good.' ... That was really important to me. I wish we could have done it more."
When asked about doing hand-drawn animation, he remarked, "I'd do a 2D animated film here, especially now, when everybody's thrown an artform out the window, which is insane. I was never a 2D guy, and I'm becoming one. It's weird seeing that take place. But it's easier to say '2D animation is dead' rather than 'We've been making crappy movies'."
By the end of the presentation it was lunchtime, and we were led downstairs to the studio's commissary, where we were fed pizzas. It was also an opportunity to ask the filmmakers more questions. I sat with an animation supervisor, who discussed the problem of doing an animated feature in a location remote from Los Angeles. The crew would have to relocate themselves and their families to work on Barnyard, with no work announced beyond that. Once the project was over, they'd have to scramble on to find other work, back in Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York, and once again relocate themselves. So, when artists learned in advance when their layoff would be, they made plans for future employment elsewhere—which became a headache for Barnyard's production when they needed the artists beyond the scheduled layoff date.
Around 1:00 we were rounded up to board the bus. At this point we were allowed to take pictures. I took one of Oedekirk, one of Perry, and some exterior shots of the studio. I was told not to take a shot where the studio's address was visible on the side of the building, which was fine. We can't have all these rabid Barnyard fans track down where the film was made, now, can we? Meanwhile, the bus carrying Group #2 had arrived, and their studio tour began.
We boarded our bus, and we were driven back to Paramount Studios, a tired but fed and informed group. We now had the means of giving Barnyard early publicity, as well as extensive on-the-set coverage. A clever strategy for Paramount and Omation.
I had enough material for two articles (or three, counting this one), which was posted online for Animation World Magazine the week of its premiere (August 4, moved up in the schedule from July 28) and the week following.
But there was one more push for publicity.