Blue Sky Steps into the Ring with 'Ferdinand'
Karen Moltenbrey
March 7, 2018

Blue Sky Steps into the Ring with 'Ferdinand'

Ferdinand the bull is a lover, not a fighter. A peace-loving beast, he is adopted by a loving farmer and daughter, and grows to enjoy his idyllic life. That is, until one day he is mistaken for a vicious beast and hauled off to a bull training camp where he is expected to prove himself in the ring. 

But bullfighting is not in his blood: Ferdinand prefers flowers to fighting, and is determined to return home to those he loves. But will he stay true to his peaceful nature when he is forced to face the matador El Primero in a packed arena? The answer can be found in the climactic scene of the animated feature Ferdinand, from Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox Animation, and directed by Academy Award-nominee Carlos Saldanha, creator and director of the Blue Sky Rio series and many of the Ice Age movies.

The film is based on the 1936 book “The Story of Ferdinand” by author Munro Leaf and illustrator Robert Lawson, a charming tale about how appearances can be deceptive, along with the message of love and acceptance.

“You can’t judge a bull by its cover,” says Saldanha about the theme of the film. 

This project excited Saldanha and Co-producers Lori Forte and John Davis. “I had fallen in love with the story and its wonderful message of acceptance and diversity,” says Saldanha. 

And, the book was a bedtime favorite of Davis’s children. It was also a household favorite of Producer Bruce Anderson.

But turning a beloved albeit very brief book into a feature-length film required greatly expanding the story line and introducing new characters to accompany the central character on his journey. “The story has a very strong beginning and ending, so we took those very powerful components and created this middle part that helped us really get attached to Ferdinand,” says Anderson. “We also had the freedom to introduce all these other colorful and memorable characters that weren’t in the book. However, they had to fit into this world and echo the message and sensibilities of the piece.”

As a result, it took quite some time to bring Ferdinand to the screen – approximately four years to nail down the story and develop the design, especially for Ferdinand the bull. “Those two things happened side by side,” says Saldanha. “I needed time to develop Ferdinand’s look and how he was going to move, how we would rig him, his facial expressions…. I needed him to feel big and impressive, but also he needed an endearing face so the audience could connect with him.”

In particular, the crew raised the bar in terms of character development, lighting and rendering, and construction of the environments, requiring the artists to make the most of its in-house tools.

Bullish on Style

Ferdinand is set in colorful and historic locales in Spain, where Saldanha and some of his colleagues visited for visual inspiration and for authentic backdrops to use in the film. There, the filmmakers followed Ferdinand’s footsteps to Madrid, Seville, and the farmlands in the south of the country, enabling them to create an authentic world for the characters.

Unlike Rio, with its strong, rich, primary colors, Ferdinand’s color palette is warmer, with earth tones of oranges, browns, and reds. To achieve this look, the group decided to try something different and use full radiosity, achieved through the latest upgrade of the studio’s longtime proprietary renderer, CGI Studio.

“We’ve always used bits and pieces, but this is the first time we were able to use the full power of radiosity in one of our movies,” Saldanha points out. “We made the best use of the technology to make a big artistic impression. Ferdinand is not a movie with huge special effects. Our goal was to use the best technology to create the right look that helps serve the art direction and the lighting. Everything has been raytraced meticulously, and it looks beautiful.”

As Saldanha explains, radiosity in CGI Studio simulates reality, but the Blue Sky team wanted a stylized look for Ferdinand. Initially, they were concerned that using radiosity for the entire film would be too expensive. But in the end, it made the process easier, as the group was able to minimize the lighting setup because radiosity took care of a lot of that work by producing rich imagery. 

Friendly Ferdinand

The main character in the film is the very large bull Ferdinand, and Saldanha wanted to play up his size, contrasting him with the other characters, but wanted to be sure he also projected a warm feel. “He is curvy. His shape mimics the curves of the mountains in the landscape of the south of Spain. I wanted his lines to be fluid because he is gentle,” says Saldanha. 

Scott Carroll, senior animation supervisor, adds that the overall design philosophy for Ferdinand was that the shapes and movement that harmonize with nature would be horizontal and have “swoopy” lines. “We associate that with Ferdinand,” he says. In contrast, the characters and elements that are adversarial to nature are more vertical and hard.

For the film, the animation style aligned with the design style. “Ferdinand’s overall shape and silhouette is very graphic, with those swoopy lines. He is very large and heavy, and the weight comes through, but at the same time, his movement had to flow with his design. He is a gentle giant who loves nature, beauty, and life, and that is reflected in the way he moves and behaves,” explains Carroll. 

The other bulls on the ranch (Valiente, Bones, Angus, Guapo, Maquina, and Raf) are more straightforward and realistic in their movement. In fact, the artists visited a local bull ranch and shot video reference and analyzed bull anatomy in order to make those bulls move convincingly. “They move differently than other quadrupeds, like a horse or even a cow,” says Carroll, noting he was surprised at how slowly bulls move. “They are well over 2,000 pounds, and it takes a lot of force to get that inertia going, but once they do, they begin to move quickly, but by the same token, it takes some time for them to stop their motion.”

Ferdinand has shorter legs than a real bull and a big, barrel chest, which made it difficult to get the range of motion from him and the other bulls, which also have short legs. His stylized design has his hindquarters smaller than his front, whereas on a real bull, the size is more balanced. “We were making him feel like a real bull, but honoring the character design was a challenge because you have to stylize him but still use all the elements of the bull mechanics,” explains Carroll. “For instance, we studied how a bull’s hindquarters moved, but tailored that to Ferdinand because of how much smaller they are compared to his chest, which is big and strong.” 

Ferdinand is a contradiction to the stereotypical aggressive bull, like Valiente, the antagonist on the ranch, who has a vertical shape and hard angles, with chiseled anatomy. Valiente moves more rigidly and stops more abruptly and with more force than Ferdinand, who moves lyrically, in flowing rhythm specific to the camera angle and pose he is in.  

To achieve this, the rigging department added a large number of controls to the model that enabled the animators to shape Ferdinand’s silhouette to hit specific and graphic shapes. “We put enough technology in there that allowed us to hand sculpt a lot of things when we needed to,” says Carroll. “Often the animators were sculpting the character on a pose-by-pose basis to get it to hit the aesthetic Carlos was looking for. There is a lot of handcrafted love that went into each of the poses.”

Weighty Matters

Making Ferdinand move in a flowing way was challenging; after all, he is a character with a lot of weight. One way to illustrate that size would be to use overlapping elements on the character, so when a large bull comes to a running stop, those pieces of anatomy continue moving. 

“We didn’t have those landmarks to show the weight, so we had to illustrate it more through timing and spacing, and how we control the silhouette across a number of frames to sell that weight,” Carroll adds. 

All the characters were modeled and animated within Autodesk’s Maya, though Pixologic’s ZBrush was used for the initial design work. Despite the characters’ strong look, the artists did not use a simulated muscle system to make Ferdinand and the other bulls move; instead, riggers used correctives to make it feel as though a joint was moving the muscular mass underneath. “It was up to the animators to make the motion feel correct,” says Carroll. “We used various controls on the rig and used rivets to help control the silhouette.”

The quadruped rig contained standard FK/IK appendages. The musculature is based on the joints and correctives, while the blendshapes are dialed on and off depending on the pose. Rivets were used along the surface or where the animators needed more underlying control. “They are independent of the underlying joint structure and ride more along the surface,” says Carroll. “You can control the falloff of the individual rivets, and we used that to control the silhouette, which helped shape the character.”

As Carroll points out, Ferdinand is a very different movie in terms of its animation than Rio or Ice Age. Whereas those two features were fun with a lot of zany movement, Ferdinand is more dramatic, with more genuine and heartfelt moments. “A lot of that came down to hitting those iconic poses and getting his expressions and emotions to read well,” he says.

That was made all the more difficult because Ferdinand is all black, with no markings or costumes. “I wanted him to look like this black stallion and have that richness and beauty,” Saldanha says. 

Ferdinand does have two tan areas around his eyes, which had to mimic the character’s eye and brow shapes to help in the emotive process. “Valiente is appealing too, but in a villain-ish sort of way. For instance, his brows have an angry design,” says Carroll. “You can give these bulls design and animation contrast, but it still has to work within the world of the film. It’s a balancing act.”

As Carroll notes, it was important for Ferdinand to be appealing and a character audiences could root for. To boost the bull’s level of appeal, the animators did 2D draw-overs on the 3D models using TVPaint Developpement’s TVPaint software in an attempt to maximize his appeal and convey the emotion that Saldanha wanted. Then they would use those 2D draw-overs as a guide, and manipulate the rig controls to hit the poses.

Seeing the Light

Whereas the animation was based more on aesthetic and performance, lighting and texturing was more about technology. The problem was with Ferdinand’s color. “It’s hard to keep the consistent look of a black bull, especially within the sunny fields and even the marketplace,” says Jeeyun Sung, lighting supervisor. “We had to keep the balance of the dark value to maintain Ferdinand’s hero look.” 

This is also the first time one of Blue Sky’s main characters did not have simulated hair. Instead, the shading department created Ferdinand’s body material, which resembles textured fur. Initially the group tried using fur, but it did not give them the look they wanted. Instead, they developed a material that simulates short hair but enables them to generate lighting that gives the sheen and lightness they needed for the character to stand out in the scenes. This was done using the studio’s proprietary renderer, CGI Studio.

“We had to be careful how much specular light we threw on the body so he didn’t look too sweaty and waxy, but we also had to preserve some textures on his body so he didn’t look too soft or plastic-like,” says Sung.

The texturing was generated using different procedural processes, including a layer that mimics the muscle structure of the body so it has some volume built into it. Thus, when a light is shot from some of the angles with extra rim light from the backside, it reveals the structure of the muscle. Although it is still related to the deformation that animation was using, it also helped with the material procedural process applied to the body, notes Sung.

Because CGI Studio is a raytracer, it is especially adept at capturing the way lighting bounces from surfaces, mimicking reality. “Ferdinand is the first movie where we used the radiosity function of our renderer on every single shot. It is a big moment for us,” says Sung. “It costs a little more for the rendering aspect because it is accurately percolating where we placed the lights. But when we started using the radiosity on the entire set, we could focus more on set-based lighting rather than shot-based lighting, so the consistency was a huge help. It was expensive initially but saved us as time went on.” 

For instance, setting the global lighting with the radiosity helped the team maintain the consistency of colors and value on sets, so when many lighters work on their individual shot, it was easier to maintain the continuity. 

Traveling through Spain

Like the bulls on the ranch, anything that opposes Ferdinand is more angular and vertical, including the man-made structures, says Production Designer Thomas Cardone. The same is true for his adversary, the matador. The humans in the film are thinner and taller than they would be in real life, so that dictated the height of the buildings, the doors, the cars, everything around them. “These two ideas, harmony and conflict, really influenced the whole shape and style of the movie,” Cardone adds.

Ferdinand’s inner emotions are also reflected in the choice of background locations. For instance, Ferdinand’s home is depicted as a green, happy place, with lots of flowers and vegetation. But the bull ranch where he is held against his will is dry and dusty. “We were able to re-create the way light hits the fields in Spain. Our lighting and production and engineering teams really took full advantage of everything that was available in their tool box to bring us the look and feel of that country,” says Anderson. 

Adds Saldanha, “We wanted the locations to express the possibilities of an animated movie but also be truthful to the art, history, and culture of Spain.”

As Sung explains, the group wanted to convey the natural landscapes inspired by Spain, but still had to integrate the black bull into those environments, which are under the bright, harsh Spanish sun. “When you add a black bull to the center of a naturally-lit pastoral environment, the visual contrast can look disconnected,” she says. So, adjustments were sometimes required.

“For example, there is a stadium sequence when they are doing the delicate animations of the bull running through the red cape. We carefully balanced the saturation to go with the stylized look of a very red and black graphic element in the frame,” Sung says. “We had similar challenges throughout the movie with the pastoral scenes and the city of Madrid. Ferdinand is such a strong visual character, with the black and skin tone of his muzzle, that we had to carefully balance the saturation level of any setting he was in and be sure no other element in the scene would have a stronger value than Ferdinand, and whenever he was in frame, that was where you were supposed to look.”

According to Sung, Ferdinand’s muzzle is more significant than one might think. The eyes are drawn to it – it’s right in the center of the face and quite large. Even casting a shadow on Ferdinand’s face was challenging. A significant feature is Ferdinand’s horns; he is often outside and the sun is high in the sky, casting a harsh shadow above his eyes and muzzle. But having no shadow would look unnatural. So the lighters had to be sure the shadow across his face was soft enough but not distracting. 

Hitting the Bull’s-Eye

Blue Sky is known for pushing technological boundaries, and the studio’s 12th feature, Ferdinand, is no exception. In fact, for 30 years now, the studio has been evolving its tools and making its productions look as distinctive and rich as possible. And it started with a still image of a half-filled glass of wine with a glass ball beside it. 

“That was the start of radiosity for us, and we still look at that image and say, ‘This is what we can do and achieve.’ Thirty years ago that was a breakthrough image, and it still works today,” says Saldanha. “Our movies have their own uniqueness, and we are constantly trying to push the boundary by upgrading our software and making it more user-friendly and accessible so we can continue to push the envelope on the movies we create.”

Adds Carroll, “We do not have a house style. We base the style on what the filmmaker wants. Even though we may be using most of the same crew from a previous film, they need to adapt and understand the differences required for each film.”

Insofar as technology is important to the filmmaking process, Saldanha believes that for Ferdinand, it was important to hide it behind the imagery. “The story is classic, and the character must feel endearing and warm, and we needed the technology to provide us with the tools that would capture that emotion without [the technology] taking center stage,” he adds. 

When describing a new film to his teams of lighters, TDs, and animators, Saldanha likes to use keywords to depict the mood he wants to capture. For instance, on Rio that was “vibrancy,” while for Ferdinand it was “warmth.” Then the studio takes stock of its technology – what needs to be built and what can be improved.

There are other words being used to describe Ferdinand, these by audiences. Among them: “Delightful.” Words the crew no doubt is happy to hear, especially since the film has found itself a finalist on awards lists.  

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.