Alpha and Omega: From Concept to Reality
After making an impact in television production, the team at Crest was ready to take animation to the next level. Diving into the creation and delivery of an S3D animated movie to compete with other Hollywood animated titles was a logical next step. Crest partnered with Lions Gate to co-produce, market, and distribute three films. Alpha and Omega has been released worldwide, and is the first of the 3, marking Crest’s first full-length animated film production and the first S3D feature to come out of Asia.
Over the course of 24 months and with a budget of under $20 million—one-fifth the traditional budget of an average animated Hollywood film—Crest’s team of 250 professionals collaborated to bring Alpha and Omega to life. Despite the tight budget, bonding restrictions, and technical hurdles that accompany all S3D productions, Crest’s team forged ahead.
Co-directed by Anthony Bell and Ben Gluck, Alpha and Omega takes place in Canada’s Jasper National Park and follows two wolves from opposite ends of the western pack’s social structure. Kate (the Alpha) and Humphrey (the Omega) find themselves relocated to Idaho after being captured by park rangers. On their journey home, Kate and Humphrey fall in love, complicating their return. Kate is expected to enter into an arranged marriage with another wolf of her own station.
Crest enlisted Steve Moore, writer of the hit S3D film Open Season, to develop a compelling script, before tapping Hollywood talents including Justin Long, Hayden Panettiere, Christina Ricci, Dennis Hopper, and Danny Glover to voice the film’s characters. The studio’s U.S.- and India-based teams collaborated closely with Moore to create a tale capable of competing with other major studio animated blockbusters. After numerous script drafts were completed and character designs ironed out, the storyboards, voices, and animatics were created out of the Burbank office. Richard Rich, a former Disney apprentice and co-director of animated classics such as The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Fox and the Hound (1981), helped to guide the aesthetic of the film, infusing a classic quality to the movie’s characters and environments.
While the character designs were conceived in the Burbank studio, modeling, rigging, texturing, and effects were completed in Mumbai. The film called for the design and animation of 10 to 12 primary hero-characters, together with a plethora of crowd scenes. Artists spent many months constructing lushly detailed park scenes, crafting more than 40 unique sets.
Crest has experimented with a range of animation solutions since its inception, but the team has now standardized on Autodesk Maya, chosen for its flexibility, performance, reliability, and the programming team’s background and familiarity with MEL scripting. “Over the years we’ve tried other software, proprietary tools, and scripts, but Maya has proven to be the best tool to serve our projects across the board,” says Madhavan.
All assets generated in Maya were fed into Crest’s asset management system. As a result, all models, rigs, textures, and large layout animation files were available to Crest’s teams in both Mumbai and Burbank from preproduction through to post.
“We’ve developed an entire pipeline based on Maya, and it has been a huge asset to our studio on a number of projects, including Alpha and Omega,” says Mehul Hirani, creative director at Crest Animation. “With MEL scripts in Maya, we can simplify and automate certain features, bypassing many of the laborious and lengthy production processes.”
On a film like Alpha and Omega, flexibility and time efficiency are essential. Crest’s first step was to model, animate, and render a 30-second clip to establish how the pipeline works and where the production bottlenecks might occur. The next step is to develop scripts and workflows to automate and simplify as many of the pieces of the production workflow as possible.
“At any given time, the director might approach us with a request for a new option or change, and we had to be prepared. The flexibility of Maya means we can customize our pipeline to work on any given asset across all departments, at any time. It would have been impossible to deliver this film in 24 months without that capability,” continues Hirani.
The wolves in Alpha and Omega had to be carefully designed, with particular attention to geometry, rigging, and animation of the furry manes. Once the correct naming conventions were established, the team could use the Crest asset management system combined with Maya to automate the rigging process and secondary animation of the mane across multiple wolf hero characters, all of whom shared a similar gait.
Another custom MEL script called FaceLift enabled Crest’s animators to access an organized library of character poses, features, and facial expressions for use across multiple scenes. The script is also an important starting point for camera layouts, enabling artists to quickly block out a sequence using banked poses, which in turn help layout artists focus more on camera moves and staging, as opposed to animating poses.
Crest’s team approached set development for Alpha and Omega differently than in past projects. No two sets were alike in scale and volume. Since all the environments were multilayered jungle and wilderness, set development and the camera layout team built low-resolution set proxies to begin blocking out scenes. Once the scenes were blocked out, the camera and set development teams determined how to optimize and reuse areas of a broad set, preventing unnecessary creation of high-resolution textures for sections of a set that wouldn’t be featured prominently in a scene. Maya referencing was also used extensively in set development and across many other production tasks.
Each animation sequence came with its own set of scaling and range challenges—long camera movements, building of sets, and developing character effects. “In the film, there is a snow sequence where wolves are migrating from one area to the next,” says Hirani. Crest deployed Maya particle effects to animate realistic interactions between fur and snow, and rain and fur.
“Working with multiple layers, effects, and extravagant sets also posed huge integration and rendering challenges,” continues Hirani. “With such complicated sets also came large amounts of data. We made extensive use of Mipmap, a feature in Maya, which enabled us to work out the level of detail based on camera distance with high-quality texture previews.”
Crowd sequences were another hurdle for Crest to overcome. In shots where Crest had 20 to 40 wolves interacting simultaneously, the team was tasked with hand-animating each action as a separate layer. The team used Maya to optimize mattes and render multiple characters with geometry caching. “We used it for all of the crowd sequences with over 20 characters present,” says Hirani. “Caching let us take multiple characters in a scene, light them, and manipulate them all at once.”