The most important decision that Glen Keane made as director of “Over the Moon,” Netflix’s exquisite update of the ancient Chinese Moon Goddess fable, was going with Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver as the animation studio. And he did so primarily because of their Oscar-winning work on “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
“We really benefited by them having just done ‘Into the Spider-Verse,’” Keane said. “They were approaching the subtlety in animation, celebrating a realism in that acting that really was just the best. I built on that whole team’s performance. We leaned heavily into drawing on ‘Over the Moon.'”
In “Over the Moon,” the Disney legend faced his most daunting challenge yet because the level of detail in the character animation was very new to him. But he was immediately drawn to Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), the 12-year-old girl obsessed with building a rocket to the enchanting and phosphorescent Lunaria to meet the nine-foot goddess Chang’e (Phillipa Soo of “Moana” and “Hamilton”). There was an anatomical realism and subtlety of expression required of Fei Fei that contrasted with the more fantastical Chang’e, whose tears of grief light up the entire Lunaria planet and its citizenry.
Keane was specific, of course, with Fei-Fei, particularly the beautiful curl of her mouth, her lips, and the curve of her eyelids. And the Imageworks team (led by character animation director Sacha Kapijimpanga) focused first and foremost on getting her right.
s”She was challenging because she was our learning curve character,” said Kapijimpanga. “She was obviously well thought out. Glen is a master of the craft and gave us many drawings and did many 2D draw overs, and it was difficult and there were a lot of iterations, but we achieved a level of detail in CG that’s very beautiful.”
One of the first and most difficult scenes they animated was when Fei Fei confronts her dad (Robert G. Chiu) after touching the hand of widow Mrs. Zhong (Sandra Oh). “At first, she seemed too angry but at the end of the sequence, we did all of the blocking and several passes,” Kapijimpanga said. “We had to go back and change the eyebrows so we could sympathize with her a little bit more and where she was coming from.”
The legendary Moon Goddess, Chang’e, posed her own set of unique challenges in keeping with her Diva-like persona for the movie. She possesses long, flowing hair and a series of exotic hairdos required its own simulation tool in Maya from Imageworks to fill the volume. But Sony’s greatest tech challenge for her was animating the eye-popping, intricate gowns designed by fashion star Guo Pei. They were super silky, constantly floating around her. The cloth team used the Marvelous Designer software to construct the CG wardrobe.
“She had many different, elaborate outfits, and they had to fit in various scales,” Kapijimpanga said. “And she has a pretty broad range of performances. There are moments in the Chamber of Exquisite Sadness where she’s almost like a motherly figure with very subtle stuff. And then there are some really broad, exaggerated stuff where we really pushed expressions.”
Meanwhile, the Lunarians that inhabit Chang’e’s phosphorescent planet required special rigging and lighting needs. “What are these characters born of tears gonna look like?,” Keane said. “They’re see-through, glowing from the inside.” The animators first tried putting the eyes on the surface but they looked too much like gummy bears, so they were formed from the inside in such a way that they conveyed expression. It was a steep learning curve for Sony.
“What happens when a character like that turns around? Do you still see their eyes and mouths?,” added Kapijimpanga.
As a result of the liquid quality, Sony used the Houdini software to separate the body parts and then blend them together with necessary controls. “One rig created all the crowd characters so the animators could manipulate shapes and add or remove limbs or little droplets on the top of their heads,” said Kapijimpanga. “The older characters were more solid and developed, so we could use a traditional rig.”
The characters also emitted their own light source, so the Sony lighting team figured out a way of rendering their glowing, gaseous quality separate from their watery property. Once again, Sony came up with a creative blend of CG and 2D techniques. “It was grounded more in fantasy and imagination,” said Kapijimpanga.