The influence of “Into the Spider-Verse” continues to infiltrate the Hollywood mainstream, with DreamWorks’ latest heist comedy, “The Bad Guys,” following in the footsteps of “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” “Luca,” and “Turning Red” to subvert CG animation with a handmade, illustrated look. First-time feature director Pierre Perifel definitely wanted to break through the “boring” with more stylization for his adaptation of the popular Scholastic book series by Aaron Blabey.
Perifel previously worked as an animator on “Kung Fu Panda 2” (which contained a 2D-animated sequence) and co-directed the DreamWorks short “Bilby” (which had some graphic touches). But after the handmade fur and felt vibe for the “Trolls” films, DreamWorks was ready to double down on 2D stylization for “The Bad Guys.”
Best described as “Zootopia” meets “Oceans 11,” “The Bad Guys” features a crew of animal outlaws attempting to go straight — until they’re framed for the heist of a rare meteorite. The cast of characters includes suave George Clooney-like pickpocket Mr. Wolf (Sam Rockwell), safecracker Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), master-of-disguise Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), muscle guy Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos), and hacker Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina). Added to the menagerie are red fox governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz) and guinea pig philanthropist Prof. Rupert Marmalade IV (Richard Ayoade).
The visual goal of “The Bad Guys” was “to create images that look handmade and illustrated while still maintaining a sense of physical light and volume,” VFX supervisor and “Trolls” alum Matt Baer told IndieWire. “Our design philosophy was to use simplification to achieve our stylized look. We created workflows and techniques that allowed our artists to remove all superfluous details from each frame, leaving just enough visual information to help define the shape and material.”
Of course, this runs counterintuitive to physically based CG animation, so DreamWorks built a series of line work and dry brush techniques across every department to remove rich detail in an effort to generate flatter, more abstract versions of details we see in the real world. “Our motion departments also embraced the idea of reductionism — removing specific details in the character timing and effects animation,” Baer continued. “In practice, this meant animating on 2s, 3s, or 4s — always working in concert with the textural details in the shot.”
The experimentation began with a short test in the art department, which led to the process of adapting a painterly look to the animation. “Steve Wood, head of effects, was originally head of 2D effects at DreamWorks, and we worked on ‘Trolls: World Tour’ together,” said Baer. “And we ended up helping design a lot of the model sheets and shape language for the 2D effects.”
For characters, they made specific rigging controls that allowed the animators to move expression lines on the characters’ faces to enhance various emotions. For example, when Wolf snarled, his nose bunched up, and the animators wanted that to be represented by hash lines across his cheek. But because of the fur, those lines had to translate through different lengths and directions depending on the pose. As a result, they devised tricks in shading models and how the fur was colored to allow expression lines to be placed throughout the pipeline.
In addition, they placed lines around the eyes similar to those seen in anime, while the eyes themselves are cartoony with tiny pupils and a gradient of color at the bottom applied by a brushstroke tool. DreamWorks animators leveraged the Primo software drawing function for greater use here, creating multi-limb effects and a 2D version of motion blur. Working with technical directors, they were able to export the 2D work throughout the pipeline so the 2D could live in 3D space.
“For general lighting, we would still use our physically based [Moonray] renderer and would still set up lights to make sure that foreground and background were integrated,” Baer said. “But the assets had controls for the lighter to simplify the volume of the object. In addition, we created a painterly filter that allowed us to remove selected detail on a per asset, per shot basis. We used brushtrokes or line work to represent an illustrated version.”
All of this came together in a thrilling, post-bank heist getaway chase through downtown LA, which also included a new library of 2D-animated sprites for dust and smoke around the bad guys’ black car, along with light streaks inside the car and action lines that created the sense of motion blur to sell the speed of the car. “You see this a lot in anime and in Pierre’s art work,” Baer said. “The camera’s whipping or shooting the car from the side and you see the buildings moving by very quickly. A tool allowed us to modify the vanishing point of where these lines might be aimed, and we could leave them as black-and-white lines or we could use them as a way of smearing parts of the background.”
The takeaway for Baer was that DreamWorks “got to build on top of some of these modules that work for us, spinning off slightly different versions of it in a new direction.”