Come Sunday evening, we may or may not see Brave win an academy award for Best Animated Feature Film.
What we will almost certainly see, during whichever clip rolls on-screen at the ceremony, is the work of more than half a dozen alumni, all graduates of Penn’s Digital Media Design (DMD) program. Through their work at Pixar, Paul Kanyuk EAS’05, Ariela Nurko EAS’09, Nathan Zeichner EAS’11 GEng’12, Emily Weihrich EAS’10, Samantha Raja EAS’10 GEng’10 and Nadim Sinno GEng’10 all helped bring Brave to fruition.
We spoke with Kanyuk earlier this week about his role as the “crowds technical lead” for Brave — and first found out exactly what that title means.
“Normally, a professional animator can take weeks to animate a single character,” he says. “When you have hundreds on screen, you can’t just do things the same old way. I was in charge of overseeing the technical aspects of how to animate and render those crowd shots.”
Once you start looking for them, you’ll find crowds everywhere in Brave. In fact, nearly one in five shots in the 2012 film featured a crowd, according to Kanyuk. This short trailer includes one of his major crowd-animation scenes:
As does this one:
So in Pixar-world, what constitutes a crowd? “My joke is, ‘Three is a crowd,’” Kanyuk says with a chuckle. “All our software and techniques tend to be built toward small personal moments and as a result, a crowd can be as small as three — but usually they’ll kick it my way when it’s 10 or more. It’s the 10 to 50 range that’s most challenging. You can’t get away with the same tricks you can for bigger groups, like reusing the same characters in multiple places.”
While they may not garner the same attention as a main character, crowds boost an animated film’s realism, Kanyuk says. “With computer animation, you have to build everything. You have to create an environment, but unless it’s inhabited, you’ll notice it’s fake instantly. Part of the role of crowds is not to be noticed and to make things look alive. At the same time, the stakes are very high.”
Kanyuk’s work at Pixar dates back to 2004, when he interned there and created “chipped paint, rust and dust” for Cars. He returned for a full-time job directly after graduation and has been working there ever since. Over the years, he’s developed crowd scenes for several Best Animated Feature Oscar-winners, including Ratatouille (2007), WALL*E (2008) and Up (2009).
“Ratatouille was one of the first times I got to work on group pack movement,” he says. “It was very fun. We made little brains for the rats and then had a program that told them what to do based on information in their environment.” The film also resulted in one of Kanyuk’s favorite crowd shots: a colony of rats falling through an elderly woman’s ceiling. (We couldn’t find a video online, but trust us — it’s a memorable moment.)
After spending two-and-a-half years creating Brave’s crowds — his small team of six included fellow alumni Zeichner and Weihrich — Kanyuk began work on Monsters University, due out this summer. (Crowd scenes in the trailer below start around 0:37.)
So will he be watching this weekend to see if Brave wins the Oscar? “Absolutely.” And so will crowds across the country.