Ruhi Sinha - TD & Lighting Artist "The Croods" - DreamWorks Animation
In this ever changing world today, where the existence of man is centered to a comfortable survival, comes a movie that takes you through the journey of evolution and existence ... And no one but the folks at DreamWorks could have shown you that in a believable manner. Yes, we are talking about 'The Croods' and while CGTantra was just thinking to do a cover story, we had a chance to catch up with Ruhi and here we are covering her special experience in making this spectacular flick.
'The Croods' is a 3D animated adventure that follows the world's first modern family's journey of survival and discovery. When their cave is destroyed, they are thrown into the dreaded 'outside' world with dangers lurking in every corner. In their quest for finding a safe home, they discover spectacular landscapes and fantastic creatures and their outlook are changed forever.
Ruhi Sinha, who grew up in Mumbai and Goa, worked both as Technical Director and Lighting artist on 'The Croods'. She has been working at DreamWorks Animation Studios since 2008 and her earlier films include 'Kung Fu Panda 2' and 'Monsters Vs. Aliens'. Prior to this, she also interned as a game programmer for 'DeadSpace' at Electronic Arts.
Q. Please tell us a little bit about your journey as an artist to be a part of the DreamWorks Crew.
I had always wanted to pursue a career where I could apply both my intellectual and creative sides. I feel fortunate to have been brought up by a journalist father and an artist mother because that created a fine balance of two worlds during my childhood. I almost had too many hobbies - from drawing to dancing. After college in 2004, I started working as a software engineer in India, and soon enough, felt like a misfit. Then one day, I happened to watch 'Finding Nemo' and something shifted inside me. Soon after, I began learning some CG tools in my spare time, quit my job and went to pursue masters in computer graphics and game technology at the University of Pennsylvania. I was lucky to get hired at DreamWorks while I was finishing my last semester there.
Q. What does your usual work - day look like?
On most work days, we are looking at things at a microscopic level. As a lighting artist, I could be looking for hours at the reflection in the eye of a character or fussing over the shape and softness of a shadow trying to put it all together for a review at dailies with art directors. As technical director, I could usually be writing tools or finding solutions for improving render times or automating the artists' workflow. It's almost easy to forget the larger picture of working on a feature film. To me, the most interesting part of being here is meeting the immensely talented and diverse group of individuals from every corner of the world, everyday. It's an enriching human experience and very humbling.
Q. Congratulations for the successful release of the animated film 'The Croods'. How was the journey till now?
Thank you so much. I think we are doing well at the box office. I spotted a lot of kids laughing or reaching out their hands with their 3D glasses on, trying to catch objects in the air. That makes everything worthwhile. My family in India will be watching it when it hits theaters on Friday, April 19th. I hope they will like it too.
Q. So what is 'The Croods' about? What inspired Dreamworks to make an animated feature on a pre-historic time?
To me, the film is about a family's journey, both external - into the hostile and unknown world, and internal - their growth as human beings. The story was originally conceived as 'Crood Awakening' several years ago and although I can't speak for the story team's personal inspiration, I imagine that the pre-historic era serves ideally as it allows you to build a world full of fantasy, wonder and curiosity, while still associating on some level with present times. Our directors Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco have created a truly magical world where there's ought to be something for everyone.
Q. Can you explain the pre-production process and the stylization of the Homo sapiens characters, creatures and the environment?
While I'm not directly involved in the pre-production process, I can say that it's really where the true vision of the film comes from. It is an iterative process where the writers and directors work closely with the production design team (led on 'The Croods' by Christophe Lautrette) developing the characters and the world. It's amazing what they come up with by applying their imagination on top of whatever inspires them from the real world. Every character and environment could go through several changes in its life-cycle of development until it is finally ready to be taken on for production.
The Croods are supposed to be Neanderthals, and so they are deliberately designed with slightly different body proportions than Homo sapiens and are also physically much stronger. The creatures are my favorite part because they are wildly imaginary and with the exception of a sloth (called 'Belt'), all of them are hybrids of two or more present-day animals.
Q. How much research and development is done to create a look and feel of this quality?
R&D is a constant ongoing process at the studio. We are always looking to improve the image quality in all our films, be it more realistic light scattering on fur or better translucency on the skin. Every movie can have its own specific needs and the team of technical directors plays a crucial role in fulfilling these. For example, on 'The Croods', we had so many characters all dressed in fur coats along with furry creatures and heavy environments which are very expensive to render, especially when you want so much detail. Our team created various tools to optimize every shot by culling out any fur and other objects that are outside a certain threshold of the camera's frustum. We had a lot of level of detail control on the environments, so we could have finer texture and shadow details in the foreground and broader strokes in the background.
Q. What kind of production pipe-line did DreamWorks Animation follow for 'The Croods'? Can you elaborate on the animation style of the film?
The core production pipeline remains pretty much the same from movie to movie. But there's always an effort to refine our tools and processes based on past pitfalls. For example, on 'The Croods' we created a lot of validation tools to ensure seamless deliveries, as far as possible, from one end of the pipeline to the other.
The animation style of 'The Croods' is very interesting. I love that the human characters have non-conventional, animal-like movements, like they stoop and use their knuckles while running or have an instinct to grab things by their teeth. The animals have their own unique characteristics. Like the bear that can turn his head around nearly 360 degrees because he's also a half owl. Or the whales that walk heavily because they are half elephants.
Q. What kind of Lighting pipeline did you follow for The Croods? Were there any special challenges or improvement you had to do specially for the film?
Lighting for the Croods was very special and exciting for me. Along with the talented leadership and team at the studio, we had Roger Deakins (ten times Oscar nominee for cinematography, most recently for 'Skyfall') as a visual consultant and there was much enthusiasm to work with him. We went a little bolder with our contrast of lights and darks in some parts of the film and that interplay could really enhance the visual storytelling. There was special attention given to having realistic ambient occlusion on everything. Most significantly, we adopted image based lighting for all our characters using environment mapping for skin and eye reflections and there was plenty of development for finessing this look.
In terms of some of the improvements, we wrote special plugins on top of our tools to make it easier to set up the image based lighting per shot. We also created a mechanism to break up our rendered layers into multiple lighting passes, much like they do in visual effects for live action, so the artists could have more control while compositing.
Q. Could you please tell us the rendering process and challenges faced for the film?
There were multiple rendering challenges on the film, but I can talk about the more significant ones. We had to create these large point data sets for the purpose of global illumination. By large, I mean hundreds of millions of points given the vastness of our environments. We spent a lot of time figuring out ways to optimize this data. One of the bigger challenges we had was the rendering of this 40,000 strong flock of birds in a couple of our sequences. With all their motion and heavy geometry, the renders just wouldn't finish. We eventually found some clever ways to make it much cheaper and faster without compromising the look.
Q. What was the duration of making the film, and how many artists was part of it?
I would say five years. That's how long ago the artistic development team started working on it. Usually, the crew size is around 200 including artists, technicians and production staff.
Q. Which are the upcoming future works of DreamWorks we should wait for?
The next upcoming release is 'Turbo' which is about a snail who dreams of becoming a professional race car driver. I am currently lighting on the film and I think it's a heartfelt story. It's releasing world-wide on July 17th. After that, we have "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" and "How To Train Your Dragon 2" coming out next year.
Q. What would you like to say to the CGTantra Community?
That I feel a solidarity with all the members of this community because we are all here for our love of this medium of expression, to tell our own little stories in our own little ways. It might cost a lot of blood, sweat and tears to create something and to constantly learn and grow to keep pace with the industry, but when something you make, brings someone a smile or a tear, it is all worth it.
And finally, please go watch 'The Croods'!
We are really thankful to Ruhi Sinha - Technical Director and Lighting Artist from DreamWorks Animation, who supported and helped us with getting the images and visuals and sparing some time for providing answers.