Pushing the (Technical) Envelope in ‘Hotel Transylvania 2’

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Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

Drac’s back. Along with the whole gang. And a few new faces. This weekend sees the release of Hotel Transylvania 2, which takes us beyond the hotel and expands on the monster world established in the 2012 film.

The entire ensemble cast from the first film is back, including the voices of Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, and Steve Buscemi. Also back is composer Mark Mothersbaugh (of Devo fame) and writer Robert Smigel (of Saturday Night Live “TV Funhouse” fame).

Speaking of SNL, if you’re a fan of it 1990s incarnation, you’ll probably feel right at home here. In addition to Sandler and Samberg, the cast also includes Dana Carvey, David Spade, Chris Kattan, Jon Lovitz, and Molly Shannon.

Other new additions to the cast include Keegan Michael-Key and the inspired casting of Megan Mullaly and Nick Offerman as Grandma Linda and Grandpa Mike.

Most importantly, however, is that Genndy Tartakovsky is back to direct. Along with his uniquely stylized visuals. And this time, he’s pushing the boundaries a bit further. The first Hotel Transylvania was not only Tartakovsky’s feature-length debut but also his first major foray into CG animation. It was a huge learning experience for him.

This time around, he felt a little more comfortable flexing his creative muscles and was able to take a few more risks with the animation. (Look for our interview with Genndy next week.)

Today, we caught up with Karl Herbst, Visual Effects Supervisor on both Hotel Transylvania films (and who has filled similar roles on films such as Edge of Tomorrow, The Smurfs, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and Monster House) to chat about the new film and the new technology they were able to implement in it.

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation


GeekDad: On the surface, how does Hotel Transylvania 2 compare to the first film? What’s familiar? What’s new? 

karl_herbst_2Karl Herbst: The first film mostly took place in and around the hotel; this one explores more of the monster world and also includes a trip to the human world. Pretty much the whole cast from the first Hotel Transylvania is back and joined by many fun new additions. The interactions of the monsters and humans opens up for a lot more contrast between what we saw in the first film and this one. It’s also a step forward  in terms of animation style and techniques to achieve that look.

GD: The new film uses a “pushed” animation style. What exactly does this mean?

KH: It means that proportions and anatomy are not expected to be maintained during the performances of our characters. The animation team is not held to lengths of arms or legs, the skull of a character can change its shape and size in a shot as an example. Parts of bodies move very fast and stop on a dime. It also means that we never really see the same pose of a character twice, Genndy is always reinventing their poses and expressions. This adds a lot of work for the animation team and also causes the rest of the pipeline to adapt their methodologies from shot to shot. It also means that even though we approached the movie as if it was shot live action in terms of lighting, we would go very graphic when needed to support a moment or the performance of a character.

GD: Why was the decision made to change the animation style from what was used on the first film? Will the “average” audience member even notice a difference? Are you worried that fans of the first film might not like the change?

KH: I would not call it a change but a step forward. Everyone was learning on the first film about Genndy’s style, and even he was not sure how far he could push his style in CG. He held back a bit. Going into this one we adapted out software, our techniques, and could educate our artists on how to approach this style. Genndy took advantage of that and pushed forward. I feel fans of the first film will see how much of a step forward this is and love the fact there is more of what they loved in the first film.

GD: I’ve read that this film pushes shapes and plays with proportions in ways that no one has seen before. I’m naturally skeptical of claims such as this, so can you shed some light on what that really means?

KH: I would say that is true to a degree. Using a mouth as an example, it could go from as small as you can make it, which stretches the cheeks to 3 times their default, to a smile that now has the cheeks as small as you can make them and the jaw and mouth 3 times bigger than their default. There is a tendency in CG animated films to not push shapes and proportions as far as we are here. It adds complexity and puts stress on all parts of the pipeline. It takes a special level of artistry to make it happen from performance all the way through lighting. Many of the techniques we use rely on physics; when things are changing their lengths and volume from pose to pose, it breaks those things we rely on.

GD: On a technical level, what distinguishes Hotel Transylvania 2 from other animated films released this year?

KH: It’s hard to say; all animated film take so much work and everyone is always looking for ways to improve their work. The things that I really can point to are a combination of things you can see on screen and things you can’t. For the animation team, getting Genndy’s draw overs are very important. On the first film, the animators would see the result of that drawing over their older work as just a frame. For Hotel Transylvania 2, we added a tool set that imports the lines of that drawing into the animators’ working file so they could line up right on it in their 3D viewer.

It also played back how Genndy drew it so they could get a feel on what lines were the ones he felt were the most important. With this style of animation, our cloth and hair simulation teams had a hard time dealing with all of the proportional and volumetric changes. So for this second movie, we created tools for the cloth team that would dynamically look at those changes and adapt the simulation to it. This would keep the cuff of a shirt at the right distance from the wrist even though the arm is getting longer and shorter from pose to pose as an example. Those are just a few examples of things that I feel set us apart.

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation

GD: You’ve done VFX for a number of animated films as well as live-action films. Is the approach similar for both? Do you prefer one over the other?

KH: It really depends on the content in terms of the approach. For a hybrid film, many of the techniques are the same. For action/fantasy films, things are very different since they rely heavily on compositing. Here at Imageworks, we use the same general pipeline for both and then augment as needed based on the goals of each film. We do this so we can keep a focus on where developments are needed and allow the artists/technical teams to go back and forth between the two.

As for me, I like both. I feel each gives me an opportunity to see different techniques and also different management approaches in creating the imagery. I get to take those things with me to the next film. Also, by going back and forth I feel I get to keep up to date on things as they change. Animated films take so long to make that you end up feeling a little cut off from developments until after they are finished.

GD: How fast is the industry changing? How much work is it just to stay on top of the latest technology and software? As an outsider, it sometimes seems as if the technology used on a film is obsolete by the time that film is released. How much truth is there to that perception?

KH: I think it’s slower than people think. Some of these films take up to two years and large teams of people to make, so you lock into a moment of time, technology-wise, and then use that until the film is finished. You can’t take on changes that would make it hard to keep the look consistent and cause a re-education of your team while you’re in the middle of the film. Here at Imageworks, we use a combination of off-the-shelf and proprietary software, and we are always looking at all of the changes that are out there and seeing what we feel would help our approach. As for me, this is why I like to go back and forth between live action and fully CG. I also really like to get back on the box between films so I can try things first-hand that help me keep up to date.

GD: What’s next for you?

KH: I’m working on a Warner Bros. Pictures animated feature called Storks which will be released next fall.

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation
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