Not surprisingly, the biggest technical advancement for Reel FX on its first animated feature, Free Birds, was a new feather system called Avian. Developed by two TDs — Harry Michalakeas and Tymon Pitts — along with fur and feather supervisor Monika Sawyer, Avian proved indispensable in achieving the believable look desired by director Jimmy Hayward.
Avian allowed Reel FX to create any type, size, scale or shape in a feather in two as well as three dimensions and provided real-time feedback. “So, during grooming, the fur artists could see every single feather down to every single barb,” Sawyer suggests. “This was important because it allowed us to groom faster. Whatever you saw in the Maya viewport is exactly what you saw in the render. So that allowed us create 97 characters with a team of six artists.”
Indeed, Hayward had very specific looks for the turkeys and wanted to see every feather, especially how they moved. He also wanted the turkeys to have hands as well as wings, which meant the hands had to be strong.
“That was a big challenge for us because most animated birds that we’ve reviewed from the past are birds with full wings that rarely use their primary feathers for hand gestures,” Sawyer adds. “Here they gesture for 50% of the time. In the end, we built a stacking system inside Avian, which allows the animators to fatten or skinny the hand feathers or finger feathers as they needed them. So if the turkeys were acting like birds, they could actually scale down the thickness of those feathers so they all blended in. If they had to do a human trait, like touch a door knob or grab a spear, they thickened those finger feathers so they had more strength and had more of that human quality.”
Of course, Owen Wilson’s Reggie and Woody Harrelson’s Jake have very different looks and personalities: Reggie is a brainiac and a free-range turkey, he’s potbellied and rougher in his design and silhouette. Jake is a factory turkey: he’s big, broad, and genetically engineered. His feathers are sleek and shiny compared to Reggie’s, who is a grungier groom.
“Jake’s pecs and buttocks had to be firm because they were central to some of the humor,” Sawyer continues. “So we had to create curves and snapping feathers to curves to get the distinct look for Jake. We even had to make a stunt butt for Jake when he first sits down in S.T.E.V.E.’s chair during the time travel sequence because it didn’t fit. It had to be regroomed later to conform to the chair.”
Amy Poehler’s Jenny was unique because she wasn’t as random in her feather placement as Reggie and Jake. Her groom needed to look cleaner and more organized with a soft, clean-lined silhouette. “We created curves and did the whole snap to curve thing for her entire body that was done for Jake’s chest. But they didn’t need to do a single fix for her.”
One of the challenges was not packing the wings with too many feathers that you couldn’t see them. But that limited the stretch ability of their wings. Sawyer says you’d start to see gaps in between feathers that were removed with the help of the animators. And if there was a relaxed deformer that couldn’t be fixed, the animators would go back to rigging.
A difficult scene proved to be when Jake and Ranger (voiced by Hayward), compete for sneakiness and end up dancing. At the end, Ranger gets thrown into the air and stretched to twice his normal size. “We thought it was going to look scary in render when you see what happens to those feathers, but the back and forth with animation worked.”
One scene that didn’t work out so well that they had to do thickness for occurs when Jake and Ranger “Hulk out” in another competition by popping their muscles. “We had to go back and refeather every single shot in the sequence because Jimmy liked the look but it was past what the feather groomer could hold up. We did not anticipate how it would turn out.”
But once again, Avian came to the rescue of the turkeys.