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Making Characters Fit
When we hear the word "sculptor,” clay and shaping tools come to mind. This centuries-old method of sculpting is still sometimes utilized in the world of animated films in the production of scale models of characters referred to as "maquettes.” But in the world of CG, model sculptors work with the director and the designer to develop the character from 2D concept drawings and advance them into a 3D model that can be "rigged” (or given an internal, computer-created framework) and animated. "Basically, we are sculptors, but not with clay — we sculpt inside the computer,” says model supervisor Henry Darnell. "We start with design sketches and work out a lot of ideas on paper. Then we create computer models that provide the surface dimensions of the character. We also provide different versions of the gray-shaded models that are either technically or aesthetically appropriate to what their particular department requires.”

Once the modelers provide the shell of a character, character setup artists create a skeleton or rig that moves that shell. "The skeleton has joints just like in the human body that allow for movement and articulation of the puppet,” says Michael Ford, character setup supervisor. "The rig then goes to animation.”

The animators define the movement of the character. To figure out the way that the characters should move on screen, the animators reference the way animals actually move in real life. "With the animators, we look at reality first but it is just a starting point,” says Ford. "We give the characters skeletons and muscles and then we put our own little spin on it. We give them the ability to move in a different manner from, say, the normal animal world. We're not really trying to mimic reality — we're trying to give the characters the ability to perform.”

Since movement is performance in a CG-animated film, every nuance of a character's body must be studied in great detail. "We test out the character to make sure that everything moves the way we need it to move,” says animation supervising animator Chris Hurtt. "We begin by exploring movements and poses that will define the character. Quite a few animators use web cams or video cameras to act out particular movements or mouth the words the characters are saying. This is a good jumping-off point for creating performance.”

For Open Season, the directors wanted very malleable characters that could be manipulated into kinds of action that had never been seen before. "Basically, we are taking arms and pulling them way out, or squishing faces, like when the rabbits get smashed up against the garage window,” says Ford. "We had to come up with new tools and techniques to accomplish that.”

"We created these line and shape tools that were totally unique and were the brainchild of Jill Culton,” says producer Murdocca. This ‘squash and stretch' factor had always been employed to provide moments where characters' shapes are altered by some physical force in 2D animation — but not until Open Season had the technique been explored within a computer-generated 3D world. "Squash and stretch is based on the idea that, instead of a rigid skeletal structure, characters have the ability to ‘squash and stretch' in an exaggerated fashion, so that even the motion in the film is caricatured,” explains Culton. "Culton pushed the character-setup guys to create a system called ‘shapers,' which basically allows the animators to define silhouette shapes when their characters hit poses,” Ikeler says, using the simplest language to explain a rather complicated piece of software.

The shapers tool was instrumental in creating moments of physical comedy in Open Season. "For example, when Boog is falling from the cliff, we wanted to show his fur and his fat jiggling in the wind,” says Hurtt. "Before we had this tool at our disposal, this sho

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