Interview With ?io?Animation Supervisor Galen Chu

Galen Chu talks about how the characters of "Rio," a 3-D animated adventure, came to life.

Excitement in the bird community  has been brewing with the anticipated April 15, 2011, release date of the 3-D animated movie “Rio” (20th Century Fox/Blue Sky Studios), which stars Blu, a rare blue macaw. An assortment of animal characters offer supporting roles, including a villainous cockatoo, a toucan and Blu’s love interest, another rare blue macaw. The challenge of animating Blu and his cast mates was given to Galen Chu, lead animator for “Rio” whose past work includes all three “Ice Age” animated features, as well as the animated feature “Robots.” Chu has been an animator for almost 12 years, since working on the first “Ice Age” movie.

To capture a parrot’s movements and expressions, Chu and his colleagues in the animation department took a field trip to the Bronx Zoo, where they were given an up-close look at the zoo’s macaws. “We were really able to see their anatomy and how they moved,” Chu said. “We also saw a partially feathered bird, which really helped because we could see how their legs are put together.” That initial zoo visit was the animator’s springboard for how they animated the parrot characters in the movie. “It was our jumping off point,” Chu said.

The zoo’s trainer explained the macaws’ diets and how she interacts with them for Chu and his collegues.  “We took our video camera to document how the birds moved and interacted, and we also hired a biomechanics expert to explain how parrots move.” Chu’s team also studied National Geographic videos of the Spix’s macaw, which Blu bears a striking resemblance to.

Chu explained that the animation duties are broken down into departments, with each tackling a different part of the animation process. For example, the rigging department is responsible for adding the bones/muscles to the character build, so it was crucial for these artists to know where these elements are on a real bird so that the characters move like birds should move.

Birds were also brought into the studio for the various artists to study to further capture the essence. “The animators, modelers and riggers all took turns hanging out with a blue-and-gold macaw and a cockatoo for an afternoon. ”The modelers would come and spend time with the bird; the feather guys would look at feather quality, how the feathers might be longer/shorter in different areas of the bird,” Chu said.

Chu noted that the birds weren’t super loud but he was a bit intimidated by the parrots’ beaks. “I tried to handle one of the birds, but having his beak inches away from my eye … I didn’t realize how powerful they are. After the trainer explained how formable their beaks can be, I was a little more cautious.” He was also in awe of their talons and the birds feel on his hand. “They feel a little floppy, there’s a type of ‘gumminess’ to them.” He was also surprised that the birds felt heavier than he imagined.”Being that they are optimized for flight, I thought they would be lighter.”

When asked if it was a challenge to give human expressions to an animal that is so un-human-like, Chu replied, “You have to find creative ways to enunciate certain sounds with the anatomy given you. If you’re licking the corner of your lip or enunciate an “L”, it’s not quite as long. Also, a grimace would be hard to convey; even to some extent, from an animator’s point of view. I think we relied more on the birds’ eyes [for expression]. We took liberties on their eyes; they are a lot bigger.”

The characters in “Rio” had to convey a wide array of emotions, which Chu said posed a creative challenge because the birds used their wings as their hands. “A real anatomical wing doesn’t do [hand gestures] so we had to find ways so you could recognize that gesture.” Chu said that to design and technically rig something recognizable as a real wing for flying and then turning that into a wing that could do human-like hand gestures took months to perfect. “The wingspan is pretty large; imagine trying to use that long wing span to gesture; obviously we had to scale that in a bit. Again, we had to take some liberties with the anatomy, [especially] to have the bird’s wing do a palm face down. To have a wing that could do both [flying and gestures] took about a year.”

Many movie goers are unaware of the tedious processes involved with bringing animation to life. Chu explained that the first pages of design for the movie began three or four years ago. “The actual animation took about a year. For every 10 seconds of footage, it would probably take three weeks of one-person animating. It goes by so quickly for the viewer, but it takes  three weeks of someone to build; that’s just to build [the character models] , not animate.”

At its peak, Chu’s department  had about 70 animators. “We take care of the movement and performance, not the modelers — think of them as digital sculptors — or the riggers, which are the articulators that lay down the joints so that the characters are moving in all the right ways (the joints pivot in the right places); or when you have a closed wing on a bird, all the feathers are collapsed. And when you open that wing, the feathers are spread … someone has to solve how long the feathers should be; how it looks collapsed and spread open, etc.”

The main characters are voiced by some well-known actors: Blu is voiced by Academy Award nominee (“Social Network”) Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway voices his love interest and others include George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, Jamie Foxx, and Jemaine Clement. Chu said that they filmed the actors while they did their voice performances so they could incorporate the actors’ nuances into their animated counterparts.

“Rio” is the first parrot-character driven movie in 3-D. Chu said that the 3-D process is something they have to keep in mind when animating.

“Imagine watching a movie with one eye. With 3-D, it’s like you’re able to open both eyes, so we have to be depth accurate. If Blu is flying at you, it has to be spatially accurate. There’s a lot less ”cheating,” Chu said. “Even something as small as eye direction; if the character is looking at something next to him; you should be looking at that character in terms of space. We need to be accurate enough so that it doesn’t look unrealistic in 3-D.” 

Check out the trailer below:

Learn more at the official “Rio” movie website.

Read an exclusive interview with the director of “Rio” in the May 2011 issue of BIRD TALK Magazine.

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