Creating the Turkeys and Their Performances
It was no simple "turkey trot" for the Free Birds crew tasked with bringing the
feathered characters to life on the big screen. Says Hayward, "The first challenge
was to make sure the audience would want to look at these birds for the length of
a feature film. They had to be appealing and likable and expressive. So we
veered away from reality when it came to character designs but we went for
realistic textures as much as possible."
The animators and designers visited turkey farms in East Texas to get up close
and personal with their feathered subjects. The modeling department even went
so far as taking apart frozen turkeys and reconstructing them, then running a
variety of motion tests in the computer to develop models. Next, the rigging team
put joints onto the models in a process called "skinning." These joints are
assigned controls that are essentially "the strings on the puppet" the animators
use to bring the characters to life. Explains rigging supervisor Josh Carey, "Once
we pass a rigged character on to the animators, they then have the ability to
bend a wing, pose the face, open the mouth and make the characters
talk...basically anything they need to do to create a performance. We spent a lot
of time specifically on the hands and the wings, calculating the mechanics of how
a wing might be able to grab something. Once we figured that out for Reggie, we
built that information into Jake, Ranger, and all the rest of the turkeys."
Given that turkeys make up most of the characters in Free Birds, the team
developed a proprietary software system known as Avian to handle how they
would be groomed with feathers. Feather and fur supervisor Monika Sawyer,
who had worked with Hayward on Horton Hears a Who! in a similar capacity, was
brought in to oversee the grooming process. With feathers constantly colliding
and stretching whenever any of the turkeys move, Sawyer's team of six artists
constructed a very complex yet easily manageable solution to handle the 96
characters that are feathered or furred in the film. They developed the look and
style for everything, including feathers on turkeys, fur on dogs, hair on children,
pilgrims and the President.
The look of Jake and Reggie required even greater focus from Sawyer and her
team since these two birds appear in practically every scene of the film and need
to look great close-up as well as from a distance. Says Sawyer, "Reggie is very
different from Jake because Reggie's silhouette is smooth, but his groom is
pretty rough. With Jake being a factory-grown turkey, he's a much bigger guy, so
we wanted him to look smoother at any distance, shinier and a bit more suave
than his free-range pal, Reggie."
Working hand in hand with Sawyer's department, surfacing supervisor Todd
Harper took the surface details of each character one step further, considering
how light reacts on a beak and on the feet, and where plumage is shiny and oily
versus dull. "Jimmy established that he wanted something that felt really gritty
and real, yet could live within that cartoon world," explains Harper. "So we found
this fine balance between detail and not too much detail."
Once the characters are modeled, rigged, and furred or feathered, the animators
have to create their performances. "We did a lot of animation tests in pre-
production to figure out just how turkey-like our turkeys should act," says
writer/producer Scott Mosier. The filmmakers developed the logic that the turkeys
would revert to "turkey mode" when they were among humans, but they would
act more human when they were with their own kind.
Soon after the voice actors record the dialogue, the animators begin creating
images for the voice tracks, all the while following Hayward's direction regarding
performance and the feelings being conveyed in each scene. "We relied heavily
on video reference of animators acting out scenes themselves," explains
supervising animator Rich McKain. "We enjoyed getting those tiny details out of
the animator's acting performance and finding a way to incorporate them into the
character's performances." Directing animator Ray Chase adds, "The video
reference of the voice actors was also really helpful because it gave us a sense
of what the actor was thinking when they were actually performing the line. We
liked seeing the expressions on their faces and studying their hand gestures to
incorporate any nuances into our characters. Why not? They're all such great
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