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Creating A World Of Rhythm
"In making ‘Happy Feet,' it was one thing to make a few penguins dance, but George envisioned grand musical sequences in the film, with tens of thousands of penguins moving at once. And since dance is a very personal form of expression, he was explicit in his desire to have those moves look as individualized as possible,” states producer Doug Mitchell.

"I had to think with a very different level of my brain,” says Abbey. "Dance doesn't usually involve complex mathematical equations.”

To produce the thousands of penguins and the various dancing styles in the film, a relatively small number of dancers needed to be replicated many times. "Before ‘Happy Feet' went into production, we were able to gather the motion capture information for maybe five dancers on one set,” says digital supervisor Brett Feeney. "By the time we wrapped, we tripled that number. We could have up to 17 dancers on stage wearing the motion capture suits.”

To achieve the mass of penguins dancing on the vast Antarctica-based virtual sets, Abbey had to divide her soundstage dance floor into a defined grid. Each grid-block was roughly the size of a tennis court, which would represent a section of the penguin habitat in the equivalent computer-animated world. She estimates that it took approximately 50 "tennis courts” to fill those virtual sets with thousands of penguin extras for a particular sequence. Abbey would choreograph one grid at a time and the dancers would move within the limited space.

"The way the motion capture technology works, the dancers and I were essentially driving the penguin model,” states Abbey. "So I had dancers arriving at one part of the music on specific marks of longitude and latitude in the grid, almost like a street directory or a reference map. I'd tell them, ‘By the end of this bar, you need to land on nine and eleven.' Then in the next number, they'd pick up from nine and eleven and continue into the next court section. The action was taking place on the same physical stage, but in the computer-generated world, it's being placed somewhere in Emperor Land.” The information provided by Abbey's dancers was then manipulated and enhanced by various digital artists (including motion editors, animators, surfacers and lighters) at Animal Logic. The resulting effect looked like thousands of penguins dancing at once.

"Despite their numbers, the extras dancing in the larger production pieces needed to look like they were moving individually,” says executive producer and managing director of Animal Logic Zareh Nalbandian. "And since you can't realistically choreograph many thousands of performances in detail on a production schedule, we developed a system we called ‘Horde.'”

"Horde essentially took the information from the smaller blocks of dancers Kelley was choreographing and randomized their movement,” explains Feeney. "It's a retiming trick that organically offsets the motions. Using a key piece of software, you can assemble 30 or 40 pieces of motion capture and replicate it to represent upwards of half a million pieces. The effect is such that the penguins look like they are doing the same dance steps with their own individual style. Initially, we were quite proud of producing around 10,000 penguins. Once George saw that sequence he asked us to double the number. Then, in each subsequent viewing, he asked us to double and double again…basically the more penguins George saw, the more he wanted.”

Not only does "Happy Feet” have a cast numbering in the tens of thousands, but "that cast is essentially made up of black and white birds that potentially look very much the same,” notes Miller.

Character supervisor Aidan Sarsfield offers, "It became apparent that one of our first hurdles was going to be how we create distinct characters and personalities out of a cast that, if<

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