Pip’s Island: A Closer Look at Creating “Moving Illustrations”

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

By Walter Krudop, Co-Creator and Creative Director of Pip’s Island

Pip’s Island is an immersive theater experience for families that combines animation, live actors, live-size puppetry and interactive sets. During this 60-minute interactive adventure, the lines between physical and digital blur and kids must rely on their own creativity, imagination and ingenuity to make their way through the story.

With this in mind, Pip’s Island couldn’t approach animations like other projects. Our first challenge, how do you design animated characters that suspend disbelief so the audience can talk to them? It’s different from most animated entertainment where the audience sits passively on a couch or in a movie seat. During our show, the audience is active -- running through sets, interacting with the characters and influencing the direction of the production.

Our second challenge: characters in the show must be able to believably go from animations to real actors and back. How do you move seamlessly between the two so the audience isn’t brought out of the experience emotionally? We created an environment through sets and animation, where the audience feels like they have entered a storybook that’s come to life. A style we call “moving illustrations,” that’s apparent across the entire production.

To create consistency between animations and live-action, the starting point for all the Pip’s Island graphics is a crosshatched pencil line sketched texture. That texture is used in everything from theatrical set painting to animated set painting. It’s even part of the character’s textures.

Our distinct crosshatch also gives the art a hand painted look that’s often found in picture books— another important aesthetic that we’ve incorporated into our graphics.

The Process

Once the script was finalized, we started production of character sketches and design boards. Colors, atmosphere, and mood were all laid out in these preliminary graphics. We also created an animatic.

Our character modeling usually began in Zbrush. Normal maps were exported, and the models were retoplogized in Maya. From there, the model was brought into Substance Painter and the textures were painted using a brush that’s created from our crosshatch texture.

While the textures were being painted and the characters were being rigged, the art department worked on the sets. Because our sets are 2.5D, much of the work was done in Photoshop. The mood boards were broken up into sections: foreground, middleground and background. Each section was painted, then graphic elements – like trees or boulders – were separated out into parts.

From there, animation was blocked in and brought to final in Maya. This is where we started to veer off a normal 3D production. Every animated background element is a 2D textured plane or sky dome. Those planes were moved around to match the initial design boards. If there was a lot of camera motion, the planes were rendered in Maya.

For most shots, the cameras and nulls were brought into After Effects where the final textures were applied, arranged and rendered. For character rendering in Maya, we used little to no diffuse lighting. In fact, most scenes use one ambient light for the whole scene. If we needed a character that’s lit with a rim light, we created the look in After Effects. Other rendering qualities, like ambient occlusion were hand painted into the textures.

Then we moved onto projection design. For shots that incorporate two screens in the show, we rendered out double-wide shots and then exported each screen separately for output. Some animated elements were rendered as separate layers to be played back in real-time during the show over other animated elements using Watchout.

The final composite is a combination of 3D characters and 2.5D sets that blend together to create the final look that we like to call “moving illustrations” -- a style we’ve pioneered and found a successful means to blend fantasy and reality.  Children and adults retain a sense of wonder and awe as they progress through our series of sets and jump between animation and actors.

An industry veteran, Walter has collaborated on countless works that range from stories like Crossing The Delaware: A History in Many Voices and My Great-Grandmother’s Gourd to the digital platform Jumping Pages.

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