The challenge Bardel overcame on the original Netflix series The Dragon Prince was in creating a 2D/3D hybrid show based on high-level character designs and environmental references with a hand painted feeling from Japanese animation. Our team worked relentlessly to get the animation perfect, while developing innovative solutions to optimize the CG workflow. The result?…a tidal wave of Dragon Prince fandom! Check it out.
Soo, let’s just say the bar was set really high the first time we heard the name Miyazaki! He’s arguably the world’s most iconic Japanese director. From these high-level references the team developed a unique look for the characters and environments. Since this is a traveling show we had oodles of detailed environments to create!! Ahem…a single flower was hand painted with a variety of water colors!! This is never done in TV. Just sayin’…
Because the series has layered, emotional storytelling, there was pressure on the storyboard team to convey a high level of detail from camera choices to the composition of shots to posing for emotion. And they did this on very tight deadlines. You don’t want to keep 50 animators waiting! Also, Storyboard artists don’t typically do backgrounds, buuuut, because the sets were so dynamic our board artists did that too, even sometimes referencing 3D models in their scenes! Wizards…I know.
A looot of research was done to achieve the desired chiseled toon-shaded look and feel. We tried a number of solutions, but ultimately had to develop and adapt new modeling techniques. We ended up using four different technologies before we loved our toonlines. One was a completely new 2D approach in Harmony. Because toon shading requires special care during surfacing, we outputted specific masks to cheat the termination line in lighting. Shhhhh! Trade secret!
The challenge in rigging was in transferring the toon lines on the face of the characters into animation. This is very expensive! Permalines were added when a specific character expression was desired. On another note, traditional animation is often worked on 2’s, meaning only half the frames are drawn. In 3D this is not an issue: the computer will take care of the in-betweens. But to mimic the feel of traditional 2D animation we had to develop many tools to help our 3D department work on 2’s.
One of the most amazing features of this pipeline was the ability to transfer the design work seamlessly into the 3D world. Design and assets worked closely with one another. A lot of the sets were built in 3D but the majority of them used advanced 2.5D techniques. This helped to maintain the 2D look with an ability to navigate with a 3D camera. The collaboration between design and assets using these technologies allowed us to achieve a better result, faster!
The animation style is a hybrid between CG and 2D. We wanted to leverage a 3D pipeline but also use 2D techniques to make the show feel hand-done and to eliminate the computer-like feeling. In leveraging the strengths of a CG pipeline we could achieve details on the character designs, costumes and sets that you can’t get in 2D animation. A lot of it was about achieving a style that would feel artful and hand-animated. Voila!
The 2D toon look required treatment for the FX elements. We had two teams working on it! Our 3D team looked after CG and figured out how to assetize FX that was hand-drawn in Harmony. Many 2D elements were reused in the 3D world, however some shots required hand-drawn FX. The 2D FX department also enhanced compositing by delicately perfecting toonlines, and adding shapes to the shadows on the face or body! A hybrid approach was used at times where the visual is given a CG element and enhanced by 2D. Complex effects like smoke were purely CG!
Many tools & techniques were developed in Lighting! Most of them were targeted at correcting toon lines on characters and sets. One of the challenges was automating the thinning of the line based on the distance of the camera. Multiple render engines were used to achieve the look. Because there were so many sets it was extremely complex! An incredible number of layers were rendered to give maximum versatility in compositing and to speed up the handoff to the client.
In comp we finalized the traditional 2D look using many tricks. For example, the 3D layers from lighting looked way too CG, so we had to create gizmos in Nuke to “toonize” the environment, while adding imperfections that only a brush could give. This helped us give the backgrounds a hand painted feeling. We also put the characters through treatment to remove unwanted toonlines which was very challenging! We deleted some and added others; and sometimes had to relight them entirely in the compositing suite. Phew!
“The great artists and animators at Bardel got our ambitious vision for this series and have consistently risen to the challenge. From the first animation test to the finished episodes, they have been great partners in helping us visually tell the story we wanted to share.”
“Bardel’s success has always come from pushing innovation and breaking new ground in animation. Partnering with Wonderstorm is a perfect marriage. They had an expansive vision for this project with big expectations, and we were happy to go down that creative path with them.”
It was during the development of the “look-of-picture” when Wonderstorm and Bardel began the collaboration for the series. One of the most intriguing aspects of the show is its combination of 2D and 3D animation. Bardel’s prior roots in 2D animation with The Prophet (produced by Salma Hayek) bridged the gap of artistic merit that Wonderstorm wanted in an animation studio. The result is a visually stunning 3D CG animated show with 2D traditional hand-drawn backgrounds.