Without an animated feature release this year (“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” and “Abominable” bow in 2019 through Universal Pictures), DreamWorks will rely on its new shorts program for Oscar contention. Launched by studio president Chris deFaria, the program represents its own brand of inclusion and diversity.
With “Bird Karma,” director William Salazar (“Kung Fu Panda”) got to finish a short he started more than 20 years ago about a long-legged bird that takes a liking to a multi-colored fish. But instead of becoming friends, the bird eats the fish, which results in some really bad karma. Enhancing the Indian theme is a score by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum as part of an inclusion program, “Universal Film Music Composer Initiative: DreamWorks Animation.”
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“I didn’t want to make a cute movie for children and they pretty much went with it,” said Salazar, who pitched a completed animation reel and storyboards. “The first minute and a half was animated more than 20 years ago and the remaining three and a half minutes were completed in the last six months of 2017,” he added.
Salazar took inspiration from “The Scorpion and the Frog” fable: “The bird doesn’t change its nature.” Likewise, he insisted on keeping the hand-made, watercolor look, which DreamWorks embraced. The problem, though, was tweaking its pipeline to handle the digital demands of a 2D aesthetic.
“We were fortunate enough to have on staff here at DreamWorks, a number of people who are skilled in 2D pipeline,” said producer Jeffrey Hermann, who also produces the shorts program. “That allowed for us to reconstruct a 2D team to help complete the short from production design to the animators [using TVPaint] to After Effects artists. That being said, about 75 percent of the animation is all William’s.”
Added Salazar: “First, we decided not to do clean-up and keep the lines rough and sketch-like. For the paper texture, we used transparency, where the white of the paper comes through the painting and you have layers upon layers of water color. This is very different [from other 2D films] with flat characters because inside the characters you have the bleeding colors.”
By contrast, “Bilby” (produced by Kelly Cooney and Hermann) offers a friendlier survival story about a desert-dwelling marsupial (the bilby), who becomes parent to a cute little chick in the hostile Australian outback. The short (directed by animators Pierre Perifel, JP Sans, and Liron Topaz) grew out of the cancelled rock’n’roll “Larrikins” feature, which also centered on a bilby.
“You would think it would be the last type of friendship around there, but they find friendship from a new perspective,” said Topaz. The hardest part was figuring out the montage of escalating predatory attacks, which takes on “Looney Tunes”-style absurdity. “We were brainstorming for weeks on end, gradually going from this documentary-feel to this ridiculous barrage,” added Topaz.
Sans said they wanted to showcase the worst environment ever, throwing in a slew of predators (including a snake, scorpions, spiders, dingoes, piranhas, a flock of seagulls, and an eagle) along with fire, rain, and a sandstorm.
“We went from normal shots to four-frame flashes without the audience losing information,” added Sans. “So we didn’t change focus and pulled the two characters to the center of the screen. This was helped by the right color scheme.”
“Bilby” became a great testing ground not only for the studio’s innovative Moonray path trace renderer (resulting in naturalistic lighting for fur, grass, mud, fire, smoke, dust, and water), but also for the new Sprinkle and Locomotion systems. The former created rich and detailed debris and the latter allowed for varied animal locomotion during the stampedes.
“What I really liked was that the lighters were able to get an illustrative look to the film,” said Topaz. “It’s not just photo-real but very stylized, too.”