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Cinema 4D provided the ideal toolset for this unique challenge
We felt it was essential to maintain the authenticity of the original artwork, yet we also needed to turn an extremely detailed, static illustration into a 20 second animation. A solution was required that would allow us to fly the dragon around our scene to tell a short story. As we started to think about all the individual components such as the dragon's body, claws, head, hair and whiskers, along with all the clouds in the scene, we realised Cinema 4D would provide us with the toolset required to create this project.
The wire-frame shows the incredible amount of detail in the supplied illustration. It would have been near impossible to work with this as a vector file, so we flattened the illustration to an 8K bitmap image to transfer over to Photoshop.
Photoshop for separation of elements
Once we had the rasterised file in Photoshop, we were able to separate all the elements and retouch the file where necessary. We went as far as deep etching each piece of hair, along with the whiskers, because we knew how much life the hair would have if it was moving once the dragon was in motion.
Cinema 4D for the heavy lifting
From this point we imported the different parts of the dragon into Cinema 4D for rigging and animation. We started with the body as this was one of the trickier elements due to the circular shape. We needed to find a way to rig the body so we had full control of being able to make it move and bend in any direction.
Body rigging version 1
Our initial approach was to cut the body into numerous pieces, then use a Cloner Object to spread the different pieces along a Spline. This idea worked well in theory, although the edges never lined up perfectly, and they also looked too jagged. It was crucial that the dragon look almost identical to the illustration so we needed an alternative solution.
Body rigging version 2
Our next approach was to use the Puppet tool in Photoshop to straighten out the body, then map the straightened body onto a polygon with a high edge count in C4D and use a Spline Wrap to be able to bend the body in any direction. This approach worked well and the new version rendered much truer to the original illustration than our first attempt.
The rig we developed allowed full control when animating the Spline. We built a nifty Xpresso solution which constrained the vertices of the Spline to Null Objects. By keyframing the position of the Null Objects, we essentially created animation curves for each vertex of the Spline giving us precise control over every point, something not possible if we had animated the Spline with Point Level Animation.
Animating the dragon's hair
To rig and animate the dragon's head, including the whiskers and every single strand of hair, we mapped all the parts onto separate polygons in C4D. We used the Jiggle Deformer to create secondary motion when the dragon's head was animated. By painting vertex maps on each section, we restricted the deformation to the tips of the hair and whiskers.
Once we attached the head to the body, again using Xpresso, one of the challenges we faced was that the Jiggle Deformer on the hair was affected by the position of the body, so as we moved the body around the hair was pulled away from the dragon's head and became overly distorted. We wanted the hair to be affected by the rotation only, so we solved this problem by placing the dragon's head into an Xref, then baked the cache of the Jiggle Deformer within the Xref for each shot.
Rigging and animating the whiskers
We rigged and animated the whiskers the same way we treated the body, with Spline Wraps and Nulls constrained to the vertices on each Spline. Then each whisker was hand animated. To straighten out each whisker, rather than use the Puppet tool in Photoshop, we redrew each whisker in Illustrator as the design was much simpler.
Rigging and animating the claws
We kept the claw rig nice and simple, parenting the talons to the wrist, the wrist to the elbow and the elbow to the shoulder. Then a little Xpresso was used to attach the shoulder to the body, which was in a Spline Wrap as explained above.
Cloud recreation in Cinema 4D
We needed a way to recreate the feeling of the wispy and billowy clouds in the 3D environment as we wanted them to feel alive. To achieve a result we were happy with, each cloud was completely redrawn in Cinema 4D, with a separate Spline for each different coloured stroke. This was an incredibly time consuming part of the process with some of the clouds consisting of up to almost one hundred Splines.
To create each wisp, the paint strokes were mapped onto polygon strips using the alpha to cut out the shape. Each polygon strip was cloned to create multiple copies and then deformed and animated along each spline to create hundreds of individual brush strokes which continually drew themselves on and off. A Displace Deformer was used with soft noise to create further undulation to the group of splines.
Frame by frame fire
The look of the fire animation needed to be created from scratch and we wanted it to compliment the style of the illustration. Traditional frame by frame animation was the approach we used and each frame was drawn by hand in Illustrator to create an image sequence with an alpha. We then imported the sequence onto a plane in C4D and positioned it to work with our camera for that particular shot.
Rendering and final compositing
Due to the flat 2D look we were going for to match the style of the illustration, we were able to render out each shot from Cinema 4D quite quickly using the Standard Renderer. We also exported a Depth Pass with each shot and used Frischluft Lenscare for Depth of Field.
To summarise this whole process into one minute, we cut together a short and punchy Process Reel. Check it out below.