Interview with ‘Zootopia’ Look Supervisor Lance Summers

Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.

Before the behind the scenes presentation of “Zootopia” last Thursday, the Technique had the opportunity to sit down with Environment Look Supervisor Lance Summers.

A graduate of Full Sail University in Computer Animation, Summers joined Disney in 2009 at age 20 as a look development trainee. His first Disney feature was 2010’s “Tangled.” His credits also include 2011’s “The Lion King 3D” in the stereo department;  the short film production “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice, for ABC television; ”Disney’s arcade-game-hopping hit “Wreck-It Ralph”; and Oscar winners “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6.” He is currently working on “Moana” and “Gigantic.”

Summers’ team works interdisciplinarily, starting with the visual development department before moving on through lighting, effects and even stereo to ensure everything looks good.

Technique: Were there any challenges during “Zootopia” that needed to be tackled through technology?

Lance Summers: Absolutely. We switched over to Hyperion (Disney’s rendering software) from Renderman during “Big Hero Six” mid-production. Naturally, every movie has new challenges. We had to figure out how to create certain shaders or be able to do certain things technically.

For example, we had to figure out how we wanted to do the snow and how much scatter we wanted. Things like that, that deal technically with the shader and how it works with Hyperion.

Also, a lot of the fur shading was actually a huge challenge. We were developing a fur shader. We had a hair shader on “Big Hero Six,” but obviously fur is much different, so we went through many iterations trying to figure out how to create this shader. We ran it on something we really like.

Technique: Could you go over the differences between Hyperion and the old technology?

Summers: Hyperion is kind of like a ray trace renderer. It’s similar in the way that V-Ray and all those other renders work — have photons that bounce around the room and pick up color and dispersed amount that sort of a thing.

The difference between Hyperion and Renderman is also how Hyperion can consume geometry. Hyperion is able to consume vast[ly] more geometry than we were able to do in the past. That’s why now, we’re able to build out the city more and use CityEngine, like we did it in “Big Hero Six,” to create more of the outlying city for faraway shots.

We are able to render foliage and  trees and instance things better and more efficiently. It creates a richer image. It also allows us to just add more geometry into the scene.

Technique: You mention that there was a switch from Renderman to Hyperion mid-”Big Hero Six.” How did you deal with the change in technology during the design process?

Summers: We started Hyperion almost right when we started “Big Hero Six.” We were developing assets and testing out Hyperion very early on. It was one of the challenges; we didn’t know [Hyperion] yet. We’re all trying to figure it out — there’s bugs, everything doesn’t quite work right and then halfway through we’re trying to decide if Hyperion is actually going to be renderable. Are we actually going to be able to get a frame that has limited noise to it? [Would] we be able to render out scenes without fireflies in them?

Working with our software developers, our CTO made the decision — let’s go on with Hyperion. It’s the best decision we could’ve made because we were able to render and finish the film. The film was in a huge crunch story-wise, so that made it even worse. Luckily, we made the switch because we created the “Frozen” short using Hyperion, and now “Zootopia” is using Hyperion; “Moana”’s using Hyperion; “Gigantic” is using Hyperion. We’re on board the whole way now.

Technique: You’re head of the Environment Look’s Department. How do you decide how things look or what is your thought process? How do you iterate?

Summers: I work with the Production Designer Dave Goetz and the Art Director Matthias Lechner. They’re designing it in a 2D form, so they’re looking at me to translate their vision to the sets that you actually see in CG on screen. That’s kind of challenging in and of itself because they are going to want to iterate even in our [3D] world, not just their 2D world.

Matthias works with the modeling department, who I partner with and watch as that comes down to us … we get the models, and we’re looking at the visual development. Through the first pass, we do rough define.

Then at a certain point, the art is shown to me, and I get it to the point that I think that the production designer and art direction will like it, and we show it to them. They give notes and then we iterate on it and show it again, then send it to lighting.

Ultimately in lighting, the director is going to see it, and then if he has any changes we make them. That’s kind of the iterative loops we go through to go through for the environments.

Technique: The technology has changed since you started at Disney working on “Tangled.” Is there anything else that has changed?

Summers: That was my first feature film, so obviously I was learning the process of it, so of course, I had no idea what was going on because I haven’t really worked on a huge production before, and so that was brand new.

Now, I do have an understanding. The gears are moving, so I can predict things now. “Tangled” was my first time working with our director Byron [Howard]. The first time working with our art director and our production designer and co-production designer Dave Goetz and Dan Cooper — they both worked on Tangled. I was able to work with them again on “Zootopia,” and it was nice because we already had that relationship built.

Everything [on “Tangled”] was kinda brand new, and I had to feel my way through it, while in this one, I was able to anticipate things a little more.

Technique: You mentioned earlier that fur is a little different than human hair. There is so much more fur in “Zootopia,” and you have to deal with so much hair in “Tangled.” What is the difference between the technology?

Summers: Other than the new renderer, in “Tangled” we had to deal the director having a very specific vision on how he wanted the hair to look, and we had to design shaders in Renderman to actually get that look.

It’s really long hair too, which creates difficulties too. Mistakes that many have been hidden by shorter hair — it comes out. You just see it when you have forty something feet of hair.

On “Zootopia,” it’s not just the fact that there’s fur, but it’s the fact that there’s so many different types of fur. Polar bear fur is completely different than fox or rabbit fur. Does it have an undercoat, or how long is it? Also, you have little mice that have little furs as well, so you’re dealing with lots of different types, but [you] want it to be driven by only one shader.

Technique: You mentioned subtle mistakes. What are some mistakes that we may not have noticed that you may have encountered?

Summers: So when we first started trying to wrap our heads about [the fur in “Zootopia”], we were using techniques from Renderman. For example, we were using opacity to hide the tips a bit and had them a little thicker so we wouldn’t have to have the count as high, because obviously rendering the exact amount of fur is hard to do.

However, the fur wasn’t looking right in Hyperion. We were like, “What is it?” because we were using techniques from the past. We had to rethink how we’re doing this because it’s a more physically accurate renderer, so we actually had to make the fur how it is in real life.

We took a one-by-one inch square and counted out how many hairs are in that one-by-one inch square for everything. We wanted to know how many lines to put on the character to represent the amount of fur, so that was a huge process. Then we realized that we didn’t have to use opacity because the tip will come to a point as it does in real life, and things started looking more accurate.

Technique: What’s something that most people get wrong or don’t really understand about the field of animation?

Summers: Something I heard earlier today is that there is a divide between 2D and 3D animation. The thing is, the art drives the tech. I think a lot of artists, they’re divided between 2D and 3D, but ultimately it comes down to having an eye and having to know what you want to put up on the screen.

Even if you change mediums, you just to relearn the tech behind it or how you do it changes throughout life. If you want to be an artist, it’s your eye that’s really important, and pushing buttons doesn’t matter as much. You can relearn that anyways.

Technique: Students at Tech are looking to get into animation, do you have any recommendations for them?

Summers: If you’re wanting to get into animation, the biggest things is just drawing and painting. That’s step number one. Step number two is if you are in college to get into animation, think of it as an A plus in any college is not enough.

Say you’re taking a class for animation, and you want to do modeling or look or compositing. Go ahead and make sure you’re doing good in learning that animation class because that’s still valuable, but on your own time, you have to be doing what you really want to do. That part of the animation process.

If that’s your dream, you have to focus in your own time because what you do in school is
never enough.