Saturday, June 13, 2015

Hugo - 3D Background

The feature Jungledyret Hugo (a.k.a. Jungle Jack, Amazon Jack or Jungo) included the first appearance of CGI animation in a Danish full-length animated movie.

As mentioned, the film was conceived and executed as a low-budget project. That meant that all the shots were generally planned in the simplest and cheapest way possible. Even so, when we were well into the production, I felt an urge to push the envelope a bit. To do something just a little bit extraordinary or extravagant. Something that would challenge us and perhaps raise an eyebrow or two. I presented the thought to the director, Stefan Fjeldmark, and volunteered to do the extra work.

As usual Stefan was quick with an idea. He had this sequence towards the end of the movie, in which Hugo and Rita had to swim through a sewage pipe under the city, in order to escape to the harbor so that Hugo could go back to the jungle. The sequence was already planned and storyboarded in the regular way, using something like 10 or 12 shots. Instead, Stefan now suggested that we do the entire swim in one long shot, which would enhance the experience of Hugo and Rita holding their breaths under the water. Since they were swimming around corners etc. it would require me to animate the changing perspective of the background by hand as well as the characters. I liked the idea, and Stefan re-boarded the sequence with the same action, only this time all in one continuous shot.

But then I had another thought. Shortly before starting on the Hugo movie I had done a bit of very simple computer animation at a
Silicon Graphics Personal Iris
studio called Nielsen & Nielsen (owned by brothers
Lars and Thomas Borch Nielsen). They had a state-of-the-art computer system from Silicon Graphics, and
were surely capable of animating a camera moving through such a sewer pipe and then placing the hand-drawn characters on top of that. I approached them with the idea. There wansn't much money to offer, other than what was otherwise allocated for xeroxing and painting the animation on regular cels. But of course there was always the reward of participating in something new and exciting! They agreed and we dove into it.

I drew a quick sketch of the shape of the sewer pipe,
which was then built in 3D. We designed the camara's movement through the tube according to the storyboard, while imagining how the characters would look on top. In order to have a precise background reference for doing the 2D animation, we placed a simple black and white texture with some grid lines inside the tube, and then used a regular office printer to print the almost 2000 frames on A4 paper. The prints had small crosses in the corners, so we could register them by taping them onto actual animation paper with peg holes.

Back at A.Film's studio I would work my way through this huge pile of background prints, pick out the keys and animate the characters on top. It was really good fun! As usual, I cleaned up my own keys (in the movie's rough style). Due to the slow and smooth nature of the underwater movements, this scene required an enormous amount of inbetweens, which was not really in the budget. So in order to reduce this expense we decided to put the slow sections of the scene on threes (i.e. reuse the same drawings for three frames of film). I don't think it really shows too much, it kinda fits the rough style of the movie.

When the animation and inbetweening was done, all drawings were scanned at Nielsen & Nielsen and colored in the computer. I believe this was in itself a first for Danish animation. The checkered background texture inside the sewer pipe was replaced by a greenish watercolor texture that Stefan made, resembling some corrosion of the sewer pipe. This small piece of texture was cycled like twenty times through the tube. But it worked perfectly once the computer guys applied some "distance que" so that both background and characters faded into a dark green haze the further away they got from the camera. Finally, a ripple glass water effect was added in the computer, tying all the elements together.

As it happened, this scene was among the first examples of animated and textured CGI backgrounds in 2D animation. Of course, Disney had put the computer to wonderful use several years before inside the clockwork of Big Ben in the Great Mouse Detective. And both Disney and Bluth
The Solitaire film recorder was also
used on productions such as Forrest
Gump, Jurassic Park, Terminator 2
and Toy Story.
were using 3D for various lifeless geometric objects such as ships and cars, but they used an approach which today seems both archaic and backwards: they printed the computer-generated images on paper, then xeroxed them onto cels which were then painted by hand and finally shot in an old-fashioned camera! In contrast, we were scanning the drawings into the computer and coloring them in a paint box program, compositing the frames digitally, and finally using a Solitaire 35 mm film printer to output the images to film.

Interestingly, at about the same time that we did the Hugo scene, Disney was doing the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, which used more or less the same technique. But that movie hadn't yet been released in Denmark, so we didn't know about it. In retrospect, we probably weren't quite the first to do it, but it certainly felt very cutting-edge at the time.

These are some keys from a linetest dated June 1, 1992. See the actual linetest at the bottom of this post.

Here is the inbetweened pencil test of the characters combined with the CGI animation of the sewer pipe in the background. I only have the first part of the shot, so it fades into the final movie after some 20 seconds. The entire CGI shot was 1.896 frames long, or 79 seconds (118 feet).


  1. Very cool! I like that you had a solid story-driven reasoning for doing this. It totally works for me - the long shot got me anxious about them holding their breath for so long. Awesome work!

  2. Dan, the best animator I''ve ever known. I love the weightless feeling, when they swim around. Like.

  3. Replies
    1. Hey Jean, nice to hear from you. I'm having a ball with my new animation blog! As you can see, I've got plenty of Asterix animation. Now I need to look for some of that old Bluth stuff. Could be fun! Anyway, stick around, I've got plenty of strange things in the archives.

  4. So cool! It's so interesting to see and read about where "all this" comes from and how it was when things was being pioneered.

  5. So this sequence was originally storyboarded in 10-12 different shots? It'd certainly be fun to compare the two versions! 😁

    1. Absolutely! Unfortunately, as mentioned in another blogpost about the Hugo movie, hardly any material from the making of the film exists today. A real shame.