M&C Interview: Animation Supervisor Kenn McDonald talks Beowulf

Director Robert Zemeckis takes the old English heroic epic poem and re-imagines it with the most advanced technology, dressing the characters through the magic of digitally enhanced live action.

This anonymously penned work of Anglo-Saxon literature dates to between the 8th and the 11th century.

The cast is led by Ray Winstone in the title role. Anthony Hopkins as the cursed King Hrothgar, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Crispin Glover, Alison Lohman and Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother who seeks revenge.

Animation supervisor Kenn McDonald worked closely with director Robert Zemeckis on  Beowulf .  He was responsible for overseeing all aspects of digital character performance from the moment performance capture is completed through to final animation.  In addition he works closely with the character modeling and rigging teams to develop the look of the characters.

Prior to Beowulf, McDonald was an animator on Open Season, the first feature from Sony Pictures Animation.   He came to that project after having been lead CG animator on Zemeckis’ The Polar Express, and before this project, McDonald was a lead animator on Stuart Little 2 and CG animator on The Matrix Reloaded.

McDonald’s other credits include CG animator on Pandemic Studios/THQ’s award-winning combat simulation video game Full Spectrum Warrior and animator on two Imageworks shorts, The ChubbChubbs! (winner of the 2003 Academy Award® for Best Animated Short Film) and Early Bloomer.

McDonald joined Sony Pictures Imageworks in 2001 from Saban Entertainment, where he was animation supervisor and supervising technical director on What’s with Andy and Micromaniacs webisodes in addition to handling story development and character design on Tae Kwon Do.

Cheetos fans take note: Prior to his stint at Saban, McDonald was at Renegade Animation where he was lead animator on dozens of commercials with notable characters such as Chester Cheetah.

McDonald was nominated in 2007 for a Satellite Award Best Visual Effects
for Beowulf (2007)  The Visual Effects Society Awards in 2008 nominated McDonald for a VES Award in Outstanding Animated Character in an Animated Motion Picture
for: Beowulf (2007)

Monsters and Critics had a chance to visit with Kenn and talk about Beowulf:

M&C: How many post-production people from Imageworks were employed for this film?  

McDonald: I’m not sure what the total number of artists was on Beowulf.  Certainly over 400.  The animation department alone had 60 people. For Beowulf, how did the motion capture affect the post-production: how much did they render from scratch, versus how much was simply added to the existing filmed performances?   Everything you see in the film had to be rendered. 

Every character was completely CG.  A lot of people weren’t sure what they were looking at when they saw Beowulf.  Were those real actors in a CG set and with CG monsters?  Were they somehow enhanced?  The truth is that they were completely digital. No actors physically appeared in the film.  Their performances were translated onto CG characters which were finished in animation then rendered with the CG environment.

M&C: Can you talk about the “pipeline” for Beowulf’s digital information — how many production houses were involved, and how was digital work coordinated and shuttled between the houses, etc. (if more than one)?  

McDonald: We did the entire film in house so we didn’t have to deal with moving information between FX houses.  The only work that was done off of the Sony lot was Director’s Layout which we called DLO. 

During this process Robert Zemekis used video game style representations of the characters and the sets to place his cameras in the scene and cut the movie together.  Once he had determined the cut for a sequence then we would take those cameras and do the final animation and rendering to finish the shot.  So we did have quite a bit of back and forth with his facility, but it was smooth and mostly invisible to us in animation.

M&C: Was there any proprietary software built for the project? Or were existing tools used? (Renderman, Nvidia, Maya, etc)  Some of the scenes in Beowulf were of enormous complexity, some had over 70 characters whose actions had to be editable and rendered in real time.   How did you manage to accomplish this?  

McDonald: We used Motion Builder and May in animation and the film was rendered in renderman, but everything was highly customized and we have many many custom tools and programs that we use every day to work on out projects.

M&C: What is the most stressful part of your job? Can you tell me about your key team you relied on?

McDonald: There is definitely stress involved in making these movies. The biggest stress inducer on Beowulf was the schedule and just getting the job done on time while still maintaining a high level of quality.

However, I think we managed it pretty well. I had an amazing team of animators, almost 60 at the peak of production, and they were really a joy to work with. We all tried to keep a very positive attitude through show, even when something broke or a surprise popped up.

There were 6 people in particular who I really leaned on. My leads. Keith Kellog was my right hand man and in the film is credited as Supervising Lead Animator. The other leads, in order of appearance, were, Stephane Couture, Alice Kaiserian, Les Major, Jeff Schu and Stephen Enticott. They were great dealing with much of the day to day stuff, allowing me to look at the bigger picture and concentrate on performance.

I think the biggest thing we had going for us on Beowulf was that most of the crew were genuinely excited about the movie. We were all working at an exceptional level and I was amazed at the quality of animation that each and every animator was turning out and they were amazing each other. That went a long way toward getting us through the crunch.

I didn’t work on hair and cloth or any of the look development of skin textures and rendering.  My department was strictly in the performance capture and animation

M&C: How did you fix the so-called “eye problem” from The Polar Express to the much improved Beowulf?

McDonald: The eyes were an aspect of the animation that we really concentrated on. I wanted to make sure they were really alive in the animation. We approached the task from three directions.

The look dev team did a lot of work creating the textures and shaders and working out just how to light the eyes to make them convincing. They made major advances compared to what has been done in previous films.

In animation we spent a terrific amount of time in research. We also had in a guest speaker who is an expert in the physiology of the eye and has also done a lot of research on the psychology of eye movement. What we came away with was the understanding that it’s not the large eye movements that create the feeling of life. It’s the small movements called saccads and micro saccads. These are small adjustments to the eye that are both voluntary and involuntary. They are often almost imperceptible.

A few months earlier a small team of technical wizards had started development of the ElectroOccularoGraphy system to capture the actors’ eye movements on performance capture set. We called it EOG for short.

The EOG system uses 4 small electrodes placed around one eye to capture the electrical impulse of the muscles that move the eye. The data is converted into curves that we applied to the eyes of the digital characters. The EOG data really showed us just how much the eyes are moving all the time.

Like the performance capture, the EOG was a great starting place for the animators. Sometimes we were able to use it right out of the box with minor adjustment to the eyeline. Other times the EOG was more of a guide to the performance, but we always tried to use the data on some level to keep that subtle life in the eyes.

When all of these elements came together I think that we made a big leap forward in the look of the eye animation.

M&C: Was it an easy transition moving from the style and method of animation in “Open Season” to the one in Beowulf?   

McDonald: I didn’t really find it hard switching gears between Open Season and Beowulf. My background is in 2d animation and I come from the Warner Bros. school of what’s funny. My favorite Warner director is Robert McKimmson followed closely by Chuck Jones, so Open Season was a treat for me after rolling off of Polar Express.
Since I had done Polar Express, going onto Beowulf after Open Season wasn’t a big leap.

The only time I felt a little schizophrenic was at the beginning when I was splitting my time between the two shows as Open Season wrapped up and Beowulf got started. Once Beowulf was rolling it felt very comfortable.

M&C: The film was actor-driven. What kind of preparation did they have to go through for a Mocap shot? Did you work with them directly?

I personally didn’t have a lot of face to face time with the actors. I met many of them and had a memorable night drinking with Ray Winstone, but my on set time was very limited. Bob Zemekis worked very closely with the actors.

Capturing a scene was very much like a run through for a stage play. The entire scene was captured in one take. They might do a scene 3 or 4 or 5 times then move on. No need for pickups. Bob would place the cameras later.

Many of the actors really liked this approach. Anthony Hopkins was the first person I heard who likened it to being in a stage play. Angelina Jolie in particular enjoyed the process. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically she said that it was freeing. She didn’t have to worry about where the camera was or how the light was hitting her. She could focus entirely on the other actors and her performance.

Bob worked very closely with the actors. Instead of being behind a bank of monitors, he was sitting just a few feet outside of the capture volume. He watched the performances first hand. After a take he could just step into the volume, talk with the actors, give notes, whatever, and then they could go again very quickly.

A set could also be struck very quickly and a new environment put together. No moving cameras around or relighting a scene. All of that came later. It was really amazing to watch the actors work on the days that I was on the set. They were acting for the whole day. There was very little sitting around and waiting.

M&C: What was the greatest CG animation achievement in Beowulf in terms of realism and technology?

McDonald: Everyone loves Grendal and the Dragon, and I do too, but I really think the most successful moments were the very quiet subtle performances.  Particularly with Beowulf of between Beowulf and Wealthow.  Grendal’s mother in here human form was also a great challenge and I think we pulled it off. 

It was really just looking at the actors’ performances very closely, over and over again to uncover every nuance and then have an animator, using the performance capture as a base, just animate the heck out of it.

M&C: Who was your favorite character to work on, and why?

McDonald: I’ll go with Beowulf on this one.  I really enjoyed Ray Winstone’s performance of Beowulf and we had a great time translating that performance onto the Beowulf character, which didn’t look anything like Ray.  It made for an interesting and exciting challenge and allowed us to stretch ourselves as animators.

Beowulf is now available at Amazon. It is available for pre-order at AmazonUK for a March 17th release. Visit the DVD database for more information. Click Here to read M&C’s review of the DVD.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.