Q&A with MONIKA SAWYER
FEATHER AND FUR SUPERVISOR FOR "FREE BIRDS"
From Relativity Media and Reel FX Animation Studios, Free Birds is the first theatrical full-length computer-animated film to be made at the award-winning Reel FX studios in Dallas, Texas. Free Birds tells the story of two turkeys from opposite sides of the tracks who much put aside their differences and team up to travel back in time to change the course of history -- and get turkey off the Thanksgiving menu for good. The film opens nationwide on November 1st.
Q: What does a Feather and Fur Supervisor do on a film like Free Birds?
A: The Feather and Fur Supervisor is basically in charge of all the grooms in the show, so hairs on human heads, feathers on birds. And oftentimes, although not on this particular show, we would also deal with grass and trees.
Q: What does it mean to "groom" a character?
A: To groom something means to basically sculpt hair, fur and feathers in 3D space, taking it a step beyond the modeling stage. On Free Birds, we developed a proprietary software system known as Avian to handle how these complicated characters would be groomed with feathers. Avian dictates the look of each individual feather as well as how the feathers are placed on the characters and how they would deform when the characters walked, talked and moved.
Q: How does Avian work?
A: The grooming process using Avian starts by sampling points onto geometry. Through its proprietary tool sets, our team generated several master feathers by defining their "rachis," or quill attributes, barb attributes, and feather shapes. We then propagated these feathers onto the sampled points, making it possible to refine their position, rotation, curvature, feather density, barb density, randomness, and other attributes through point-based painting, curve-based manipulations and vector-based interpolations. We use a lot of flow and volume to create the shape of a hairdo and create the breakup of turkey plumage, meaning how the feathers actually lay on the body, how they orient, how they appear and what their default standard pose should look like. Avian is capable of all of that in a very artist-friendly way, applied to any type of feather or such element that our director wanted to see, given any shape, size, or level of detail.
Top Three (left to right)
Bottom 3 (left to right)
Q: What kind of research goes into creating the right look and feel for turkey feathers?
A: We basically put together a reference kit of real turkey tails, wings and individual feathers that they kept handy for daily reference. References are the artist's best friend, and it helped to always have real feathers handy to make sure what we were doing was based in reality. We developed hundreds of options for the feather system in order to create very distinct characters.
Q: How many characters did you have to "groom" for this film?
A: Over 96 characters had to be feathered or furred for the film. We had a team of 6 people, and they all did a great job.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in creating the feathers for the turkeys?
A: One of the biggest challenges was that the turkeys had to have hands and fingers and actually be able to grip things. Jimmy very much wanted to make sure that when Jake grabs Reggie's neck and shakes him, it looks like there's strength and thickness in those feathers. If you look at most bird feathers, they're very thin, and when you turn them to the side, they almost disappear. On turkeys, all of the flight feathers have some thickness and some strength. That was something that we definitely had to resolve in order to get the characters to gesture clearly and to feel the strength in the hands of our turkeys. Avian allowed us to stack multiple feathers on top of each other to create a single, more robust feather that exhibited more volume.
Q: What was it like working with Jimmy Hayward again?
A: The great thing about working with Jimmy in the fur department is that he really loves the art of the feathers and the fur. He'll definitely express what he likes and also is really great when it comes to direction. We built the characters really quickly on this film based on the fact that he knows exactly what he wants. He always says that he really loves how Jake and Reggie and all the turkeys turned out, so I think we've succeeded.
Q: What do you like most about what you do?
A: My favorite thing about being a fur artist is that every character is completely unique from one another. The detail involved in each character is so different. I really enjoy looking at all the reference and trying to figure out the structure and component of an object, how to build that in the system, make it look good in 3D space and also how it's going to light and move. There's so much involved in grooming characters, especially ones with feathers, because they are so distinct and unique and you can see every single feather. At Reel FX, we're innovating every day. Every character is something different from the one we worked on before and we constantly have to come up with new solutions.
Q: What can audiences expect from this film?
A: I think audiences are going to be really surprised and excited when they see Free Birds. It's definitely a really cute buddy story, but it's also funny and smart.
Q: What do you like most about Thanksgiving?
A: Pie, of course! Thanksgiving is a huge deal with my family, and every year we all meet up in the woods at my grandmother's house in Wisconsin where she has been cooking for three days. It's chaotic fun and it's great to catch up with everyone.