Developed and produced at Flying Bark Productions in Sydney from a feature film concept originating at a company in Denmark, a full series of 26 24-minute episodes was completed and aired during 2009 and 2010 in Australia on Channel 7 and in northern Europe. The production team, composed mainly of freelance artists, at Flying Bark that created the distinctive characters, assets and environments has since broken up, but we met and spoke to three members, still very enthusiastic and ready to share information about how this unusual project was made.
Research at Mungo
Producer Avrill Stark explained that Flying Bark suggested transferring the film idea into a series, and divided it into separate stories. The team produced artwork for the look and further developed it into a dramatic, epic style production, and German broadcaster ZDF also checked the story for validity and potential. Major story themes are topical, including the environment, spirituality and human relationships. The main character Enyo is a young boy striving to become a skilled hunter who discovers that he is in fact a shaman destined to lead his tribe, the Doodjies, on their long, often dangerous journey.
Art Director on the project was Piero Sgro, who worked on look development for the sparse, arid landscapes of Enyo's world. "Early in production, a small team made up of myself, the director and the key lighter took a short research trip out to Lake Mungo National Park in central NSW for reference," said Piero. "While the Doodjie environment had to be quite distinct from anything humans could relate to, we here in Australia are very fortunate to have country like the area around Mungo that closely resembles the world we were envisioning. The desolate, alien looking land forms range from wide and sweeping to tall and brittle, visually fitting perfectly with the story's conditions."
Environments were a combination of 2D and 3D elements blended together. After the Art Department painted skies and distant landscapes in Photoshop, set elements for each environment were modelled and textured using Zbrush, Hedus UVLayout, Photoshop and Maya. Most of the texturing was based on photographic reference, stylized yet lifelike. As well as Lake Mungo, a key reference location was the Gobi Desert of China and Mongolia.
"Generally, the blocking stages were created using Maya. After receiving colour concept artwork from me or a layout design from the Art Department, the modeller would first complete the basic geometry and correct scale, which the director and I would view in progress stages. Typically, we'd place cameras around the sets and look at the location through the eyes of a Doodjie. If we had prepared storyboards, the modeller would try to match sets for the key shots to the boards as closely as possible. Depending on the artist, ZBrush might be used for a more organic final structure."
Enyo's deteriorating world is only able to support a tenuous existence for the Doodjie tribe, explaining why they are trying to find the Hidden Valley where life is as it was many years ago, lush and plentiful. "Because the majority of the series is set in dry, bleak landscapes, we had to keep the vegetation, needed to provide people with food, to a minimum as a story point," Piero explained. "However, we introduced at least one new plant form per episode to show that the tribe was actually covering large distances across different lands. There is more than meets the eye to some of these plants, some of which, unlike plants on our Earth, are capable of eating animals the size of large horses. The skies were kept fairly earth-like, to keep the story from becoming too unrealistic, though you'll observe extra moons now and then."
The environments and backgrounds in the project – skies and clouds, trees, buildings and furnishings - have a photoreal quality. Lights of all kinds are among the standout features of the images, including sunlight and shadow, the moonlight, firelight, reflections in eyes and water. Piero comes from long experience in 2D environment design and colour styling, and was keen to use theatrical, sometimes abstract lighting. "I feel a lot of 3D production reference realistic lighting too often, which at times lacks mood and drama. This may have challenged our experienced 3D lighter, but he handled it well. Again, I'd present a colour sketch concept with lighting, roughly indicating how I thought the shot or location would work. As we developed the Doodjie world and it gradually became familiar to the artists, the lighters were able to light locations on their own without concepts.
Lighting TD Tim Kenyon worked with a team of lighters and compositors working out of Global Digital Creations in China. "It's easy in CGI animation to try to push the technical boundaries of the medium and forget that the goal is telling a story. Though we aimed to create lifelike, natural lighting, this never interfered with setting the best mood for a scene. During early discussions with the Series Creator, Director and Art Director we decided that the atmosphere should evolve and grow starker as the series progressed."
Tim drew inspiration from cinematographers Conrad C Hall, Robert Elswit and Tom Stern. "Some inspiration also comes from the light and colour techniques of painters from Rembrandt to contemporary Australian artists such as Phillip Wolfhagen. For one episode we even chose a painting by surrealist Salvador Dali as reference. Each time I started working on a new episode, I would meet with the Director and Art Director to discuss the tone and mood we wanted to create, and what references to draw from for that episode. Although we always progressed and evolved the style, I always ensured the lighting concepts still fit within the show's original framework.
During development, the team created looks for the primary times of day - mid-day, sunrise/sunset, twilight and night. Tim said, "Most of the show takes place in very open environments under full sunlight so it was important to get the look of these key times correct, both technically and as a stylistic point. Once the look was established, character and location light rigs were created and locked off to maintain continuity throughout the show."
These rigs could be adjusted to suit the scene. A character's light rig could produce either very harsh midday lighting or adjusted to a softer diffused early morning light. During the series the characters encounter new locations and scenarios requiring a customized approach. For each new situation, key lighting concepts were created and translated into rigs and rendering setups. In several episodes, lighting styles for the times of day were almost completely replaced to suit the story.
"We were lighting and rendering using Mental Ray for Maya then compositing in Nuke. The setups used a mixture of Image Based Lighting and custom-made reusable light rigs. They needed to be flexible to keep the amount of time spent adjusting each shot down to a minimum. We also used Nuke to make final adjustments to the lighting in comp."
Most shots would have between five and 15 render passes, and character passes were rendered separately from the environment to be able to light them independently and gain additional control over the grading of both. Occlusion passes gave subtle shadow details on the characters and character/environment interactions. For example, when a character touches a wall in diffused lighting, the occlusion pass would create a slight darkness where the character's hand came in contact with the wall. They also used a normals pass for additional rim and fill light tweaks in compositing. The depth pass produced fog and depth haze, and a mask for creating depth of field in the composite.