Bringing an animated music group to light with Katana

Image courtesy of Brazen Animation

Behind a game-changing pipeline integration.

Want to update your playlist? Meet the furriest music group which might just become your new—and cutest—favorite band, The Meeps. A tiger, a giraffe, a moose, a fox, and a sheep just released their first music video, ‘Love Louder’. And only a couple of months since its release, their single already has over 54 million views on YouTube. Besides playing this song on repeat for the foreseeable future, we also wanted to get behind the scenes of the animated music video. 

Based in Dallas, Texas, Brazen Animation took on the task of working on the production of The Meeps project. We sat down with Technical Look Development Leads Ethan Crossno and Jessica Hogan to discover how they used Katana, Foundry’s powerful look development and lighting tool, to introduce the new animated music group to the world. 

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Q: What made The Meeps project unique and what challenge did this present?

EC: There were over 90 shots that had to be completed in a short timeframe. The characters had a lot of fur and lighting artists needed to be able to navigate and work quickly in their scenes. The project had a neat style with anamorphic lenses and focus pulls that made it really fun to light and composite. 

JH: Look-wise, this project was unique: the Director knew right off the bat he wanted realistic cameras and lensing, including the blooms, over and underexposure, as well as camera flares and distortion that come with that. With most CG work, that's typically shied away from in favor of more traditional ‘perfect’-looking lighting that 3D can deliver.

On the production side of things, the edit had a large number of quick cuts, meaning more shots to get through for us. With the schedule, this could prove to be a challenge to get going and iterate quickly. 

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Q: How did the visual effects on this project differ from projects you’ve taken on before?

EC: We were able to establish a lot of new tools and workflows that I believe will make future projects we work on even better. The scenes were pretty large and some shots had a lot of characters with fur. With previous tools [before adopting Katana], working on scenes with so much data would have been really slow.

JH: Mostly in what we referred to as the Camera FX—lens breathing with focus shifts, blooming, flares, chromatic aberration. Everything that happens naturally when you point at a real camera that we often forget is lost in a virtual camera. We knew early on we wanted the flexibility of controlling as much of that as possible in compositing rather than in the actual renders—what may look correct for a given camera may not be what actually looks best. Renders can take time to iterate but compositing can be very quick to turnaround.

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Q: Did you learn or develop any new techniques and were there any new technologies that helped with this?

EC: Katana made our lighting process really flexible and easy to share. We were able to prepare shots for artists much faster than we had on former projects. This allowed us to think on more of a sequence level than we have previously. We developed things like a Camera node in Nuke, [Foundry’s industry-standard tool for compositing, editorial and review], to apply overall anamorphic lens effects, glows, and distortions that could be tweaked per sequence.

JH: On the camera FX side, even with the Director open to a much more realistic approach, we still needed flexibility available to us to dial in that look per shot. Ethan came up with a really robust LiveGroup in Nuke that controlled various standard nodes, as well as custom-created camera-driven group nodes that we found ourselves using often. We used this to give artists a baseline to start with that could be dialed in per shot. Both Katana and Nuke's LiveGroups afford us the ability to push changes out to everyone on our team with minimal negative impact.

Q: What was the most complex sequence or shot you had to complete? 

EC: There was one dance sequence that we were able to get animated as one long sequence. Katana made it a lot easier to split this single sequence into multiple shots with shared lighting. We were able to save a lot of file space and keep things simple, something we wouldn't have been able to accomplish previously.

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JH: One of the final shots of the video features all the characters sitting on a ledge at sunset along with a lot of fuzzy birds. The shot itself was quite long and, with so many fully furred characters (and a very close camera), it proved incredibly challenging to get it to render. This wasn't a limitation of Katana or Arnold—there was just too much information going on with all that fur! We worked around this by caching out the grooms for each character to make them easier to work with and by being smart in how we broke up character layers, setting specific frame ranges for each pass. We also hid grooms in the Viewer in Katana to make it so the scene was still workable. Katana really saved us a ton of time when working on this shot.

Q: Can you give insights into your lighting and look development workflow with The Meeps video and how Katana supported this?

EC: Katana is a game changer in how we handle lighting. For The Meeps, we were able to create per-character light rigs and master lighting that could propagate to every shot in a sequence with ease. Sharing complex setups was almost as simple as copying and pasting. Having most of the complex settings handled at a sequence level meant that artists could spend more time focusing on their lighting, and less time debugging render issues.

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JH: The shot count for the music video combined with a relatively quick turnaround, presented the perfect opportunity to make a studio-wide leap over to Katana. Our in-house Look Development Leads created light rigs for each unique lighting setup and, thanks to Katana, were easily able to check it in multiple shots before pushing it out to shot artists. 

Sequence-level lighting was approved and pushed out to shot artists much more quickly than in past shows because of this. We heavily utilized LiveGroups in Katana to house our light rigs as well as any global render settings. If a global change was requested, rather than going through the slow and arduous process of asking each artist to manually apply the same changes, we were able to easily make a change to a given light rig or setting in its LiveGroup then push that out to all the shots at once.

Each shot artist was given ‘chunks’ of similar shots to work on at once. Thanks to Katana, they were able to build one file for all of their shots and, in one convenient location, make adjustments, set up their render layer and ultimately render multiple shots at once. The time saving there was enormous.

Q: What were the main lighting challenges you faced?

EC: One of the biggest challenges was this was our first project using Katana and we had a very short amount of time to integrate it into our pipeline. Foundry's weekly support and readiness to help was crucial to us being able to get up and running so fast. The Meeps had a lot of characters with fur and some of the environments were rather large. The deferred loading capability of Katana and its support for USD made it so that we could open scenes quickly and work fast, even with heavy assets.

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JH: There were incredibly detailed color keys for this project. The Art Director on The Meeps really did a great job nailing what he wanted on these but, as beautiful as the color keys were, the result wasn’t always what you'd get when you attempted to match it out the box in 3D. 

For instance, there were a few shots in an alleyway that had gorgeous color keys but in order to match one building to the key colors meant the others might be way off. In fact, those shots had very intentional shadow placement on the ground from the buildings around it. The problem was that having to match the lighting angles on the buildings meant the ground was completely in shadow.

We tried to get the lighting out of Katana as close to the keys we're provided as possible so that we're not ending up overcomping later on in Nuke. To get that result for these shots often meant heavily utilizing Light Linking. Thank goodness Katana handles that so well—we were able to create shadow cards to match the shadows in the art for the ground and link lights to each building as needed to match to light angles and colors in the art. For smaller details, we dialed in values in Nuke afterward.

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Q: And what about look development? What challenges did you face and overcome? 

JH: The main challenge, from my perspective setting up light rigs, was mostly surrounding matching the art provided. Our job, if done well, is to as closely match the Art Director's vision as possible. It's typically not as simple as just throwing a key light and an environment light in a set and calling it a day.

Color keys are a goal to shoot for and not necessarily true representations of how these lights in these scenes would react. We often turned to Light and Shadow Linking to manipulate what color or angle of a given light would hit a particular object. We render with Arnold, so we worked a good deal with Light Filters to manipulate light as well. All of these combined enabled us to match colors, values and shadows for characters, sets, and props independently if needed. We were able to start compositing in Nuke with renders that already looked great and just got a bit of polish on top of them in comp.


Q: Can you talk about some of the features shipped in Katana that you found most useful on The Meeps project?

EC: Something I didn't expect would be so useful is being able to view and track every attribute on an object at any given point. It was easy to see what settings had been changed and how things were being described behind the scenes and nothing was hidden from me. As a Technical Look Development Lead, this made it so much easier to quickly look at an artist's scene and find exactly what the issue was.

JH: LiveGroups are my new best friend! We relied heavily on Katana's ability to set up LiveGroups to control higher-level light rigs, global settings, and more. We could push changes out to everyone at the push of a button.

With The Meeps being our first project at Brazen to utilize Katana, there was a bit of a slight learning curve getting going and, with experience under our belts now, our team can better utilize LiveGroups in conjunction with VariableEnabledGroups to tackle large sequences.

The GafferThree node is incredibly user-friendly for lighters. It made setting up, editing, viewing, and just generally working with lights and their linking so much more streamlined. I'm a big fan of Light Filters and the Light Filter Reference option made sharing Light Filters between lights so simple. Plus, its ability to constrain lights—for instance, rim lights on moving characters—to face the camera is such a small but so useful feature other software doesn't offer.

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I also love Nuke and the node-based workflow, so I naturally preferred the open-endedness of Katana's Node Graph. Having something as simple as being able to copy and paste nodes not only in a shot, but across any Katana scene files, was invaluable. The flexibility Katana provides in that regard is just unmatched.

Q: How did Katana help you manage complexity on this project?

EC: Our Tech team developed a really amazing workflow to pull in all the components of a given shot from previous stages of our pipeline—animation cache, surfacing publishes and model publishes. This made it very fast to essentially set up entire sequences in seconds as opposed to likely hours of building individual shots in other softwares. The tool even creates a Graph State Variable for each shot it brings in, making it easy to flip between shots in one scene.

We templated out our basic lighting setup for each sequence and housed in each our LiveGroups to control higher-level changes so every lighter started with the same, easy to work with setup.

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Q: What is your favorite feature of Katana?

EC: I love how easy it is to create Macros and tools to share with artists. There were a lot of times artists expressed their desire for a certain function or process and I was able to quickly put together a macro to handle it for everyone. Making it easy to share these sorts of tools really helps inspire and encourage collaboration as a team.

JH: We relied on Katana's VariableEnabledGroups often. It's not uncommon in a production to get requests for changes as a production moves along. This can be moving props around, adding additional set dressing pieces or overriding surfacing for specific assets. 

At one point, I recall we had a list of shots that needed cables added to the ground of a set. We also needed palm trees moved around in a few other shots, dumpsters nudged around a bit in others. Rather than push that note to each individual lighting artist, we added into one of our LiveGroups a number of VariableEnable Groups that were dependent on the shots specified in them being present in the scene. When that Graph State Variable was enabled, the corresponding VariableEnabledGroups would as well, giving them the changes needed under the hood. Lighters would just ‘magically’ get these fixes. It takes a lot of that human error component out of production, which is so helpful.

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Q: What does Katana allow you to do that would be impossible or much more difficult in other tools?

EC: Katana gives us access to tools and features of a much larger studio. It would take a lot to integrate these features into other DCC's like Maya. And since our tools and future innovations can be shared and improved from project to project, we will only get better from here.

JH: I think the node-based setup of Katana is just so useful in so many ways. It is so much more visual than most other 3D softwares, allowing you to easily organize a scene with colored Backdrops and to see the exact order of operations happening at any point in a scene. As a Look Development Lead, I often find myself jumping into other artists' shots to debug issues. Katana makes it so simple to work down the Node Graph to find exactly where an issue is being introduced. I found myself debugging issues much more quickly throughout the show.

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Q: Are there any must-have features that made you want to use Katana?

EC: What made Katana so appealing to us initially was its ability to share lighting between shots, work at a sequence level, and share complex lighting setups between several artists with ease.

JH: Hands down, the number one reason we made the switch was Katana's ability to let us work on a sequence or multi-shot level. Shots in Katana feel more fluid or malleable, whereas other softwares will box you in. Once that file is built, it is what it is and it will take someone manually making adjustments over a lot of shots to make a big change. This can open the door for many potential errors or oversights over the course of a production. In Katana that same scope of change can be made in seconds by one person and easily be pushed out to as many shots as specified.

Q: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to integrate Katana into their pipeline?

EC: Take advantage of Katana's support. We had a little over a month to integrate Katana into our pipeline and I don't think we could have done it without their help.

JH: Do it! Seriously, this has been a game-changer. We still feel like we're just getting started with Katana and there's so much more we can do to streamline and be even more productive with it as we grow. That said, having a tech team or at least someone comfortable with code and tool generation can go lightyears. 

Out of the box, Katana does great things but we found that many things we would do repetitively—adding surfaced and animated assets to a scene or setting up our render layer— were easily doable in Katana but may take a handful of nodes and steps to accomplish. Once you know how to do what you need to do, it's incredibly worth the time to develop some custom tools to make the process more streamlined for your studio's needs.

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Less waiting. More creating.

Super-fast, intuitive and scalable, Katana was the powerful look development and lighting tool Brazen Animation needed in order to accompany a catchy tune with appealing visuals. Choosing to integrate Katana into their pipeline was game-changing and allowed them to streamline their workflows, as well as enhance their productivity by saving them time. 

We look forward to seeing what future projects Brazen Animation will work on and how they’ll use the new tools and workflows they developed thanks to Katana.

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