Ani penguins hang ten with docu feel


Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's "Surf's Up" brings audiences into the competitive world of surfing -- surfing penguins, that is -- by using a documentary style.

In making the feature, which opens Friday, Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks infused such filmmaking elements as oncamera interviews, archival footage and hand-held coverage to the animation.

For inspiration, co-directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck paid homage to such surfing docus as "The Endless Summer," "Step Into Liquid" and "Riding Giants."

The filmmakers also pulled inspiration from "This Is Spinal Tap" -- that is, to create a docu feel.

A part of that challenge was to bring hand-held camerawork to the animation. "We had to come up with a new way of capturing the camera motion," layout supervisor James Williams says.

In animation, camera moves are typically set up in a computer with a keyboard and mouse. For "Surf's Up," the filmmakers wanted to go for something more organic and interactive, so they set up what was essentially a camera motion-capture system.

Motion capture is a method of digitally recording movement, which would then be applied, for instance, to an animated character. For the technique created for "Surf's Up," the team set up a space with a ceiling grid of LED lights, where below, a camera operator was free to move about with a camera. Sitting atop the camera was a sensor, enabling a computer to record where the camera was in space.

"Using a system like this, the operator really has a direct relationship with the environment," Williams says. "Whenever we are making animated movies, we feel somewhat distant from the actual subject. Here, you really do get the feeling that you are interacting with these characters, so the movie itself reflects this in many ways.

"There are any instances where little bumps and trips that we inadvertently did, we ended up capturing with the system and using because they were so natural," he says. "It was shot with the idea that we had a small crew, maybe one or two camera operators."

Another critical element of docus is archival footage, and that, too, was incorporated in the "Surf's Up" animation. Imageworks gave the animation the appearance of black-and-white footage from the era of the 1920s as well as the early color formats. The team brought to the animation such elements as lens distortion, imprecise focus pulling, grain and limited depth of field.

The performances also had to relate to the film's behind-the-scenes feel. That started in the voice-over sessions, where the filmmakers sometimes recorded dialogue with several actors -- notably leads Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges and Zooey Deschanel -- in the booth at once, where they had the flexibility to improvise. Typically, an actor is alone in the booth when recording lines.