Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is a 97-minute animated adventure with a star-studded cast. Hank (Michael Cera) is a picked-upon dachshund who decides to defend himself by embarking on his dream of becoming a great samurai. In setting off in search of his destiny, Hank ventures to the town of Kakamucho, a rather unwelcoming place, given that it’s populated exclusively by dog-wary cats. Nevertheless, Hank succeeds in commencing his samurai training under the auspices of the once-mighty Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson). However, when Hank becomes embroiled in Ika Chu’s (Ricky Gervais) plans for world domination, things unravel like a ball of yarn under a cat’s claws.
Paws of Fury’s fish out of water (or more to the point, dog out of kennel) adventure is equal parts Kurosawa, Leone, and Brooks, where beautiful Japanese-inspired backdrops and architecture play host to katana-wielding catfights, stunning FX-led action sequences, and a few fart jokes for good measure.
“Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is packed with humour and comments on the serious prejudices that reflect on our society right now,” says Mark Koetsier, one of the film’s two directors with previous experience on productions like Minions, Big Hero 6, and Madagascar. “The film is intertwined with a lot of love, heart and hope. We have an incredible cast of actors who bring a unique richness to the characters, each of whom will put a grin on your face and bring a skip to your step.”
Bringing these characters and the world they inhabit to life was the responsibility of Cinesite. Like Hank in Kakamucho, Cinesite was initially a project outsider. Paws of Fury was originally conceived in 2010 when it was known as Blazing Samurai. It was in 2019 that Cinesite’s Montreal and Vancouver facilities stepped in and took the reins, reanimating the production with new concepts, storyboards, animation, choreography, cinematography and more.
Read on to learn how Cinesite leveraged its 3D animation expertise to modernise a decade-old concept for a new age and a new audience.
At the time of Cinesite’s initial involvement, Paws of Fury had only one director: Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little). So, although the production had animatics, concept artwork and some 3D models, much needed to be created from scratch, as Chris Kazmier, Cinesite’s FX Supervisor on Paws of Fury, remembers. “Rob thought the style previously created felt too 2D and flat,” he says. “He was much more interested in volumetric lighting and a fuller, richer 3D style. So, at Cinesite, we got to work taking things in that direction!”
Olaf Skjenna, Cinesite’s Director of Cinematography on Paws of Fury, remembers receiving the film’s initial materials. “Although much of the rough groundwork was complete and we had some animatics, the work was from many years ago. By 2019, many of the ideas behind the film had evolved – not to mention that the creative process naturally changes over time. So, upon receiving boards or a panel, the directors would usually talk to us about how they wanted to update things. It was then up to us to work through that process and deliver the film’s new vision.”
Directors with experience
The directing duo of Rob Minkoff and Mark Koetsier, and Chris Bailey came from an impressive animation background, which helped to drive the new direction for Paws of Fury. “Rob and Mark were 2D animators at Disney once upon a time, so their thinking and’ draw overs’ on top of production images helped to embellish and evolve the new direction we were to take,” says Jason Ryan, Cinesite’s Animation Director. “Rob’s drawings always pushed the appeal of the characters and strengthened their poses. Mark also storyboarded some full sequences himself. When he did so, he almost animated the characters, so his direction to us as a team was always clear.”
The duo of directors also worked closely with Skjenna on updating the film’s cinematography and provided insight and feedback on every shot and sequence. “When it came to executing the scene, as we went along, a lot of the shots, we tried to take Sergio Leone’s style of filmmaking,” says Koetsier. “Those really tight shots of the eyes and low camera angles.”
“We spent a lot of time looking at storyboards and discussing them,” says Skjenna on working with the directors. “Once happy, we’d launch on the sequence and think about cinematography, discussing things like the cameras we should use and what movement they should have. I’d pass on Rob and Mark’s feedback to the artists, who could then build out the sequence as a rough staging pass. They’d find the emotion in the framing and context and use that to drive the camera’s language: making Ika Chu look powerful and grand, or Kakamucho feel poorer and more down to earth, for example.
“Once we were sure everything jived and the camera movement felt good, we’d present to the directors again,” Skjenna continues. “The sequence would then go downstream so the visual effects and animation teams could put the proper action in place, after which we’d pick up the shots for final layout. Through every stage, the directors were there, giving us feedback and making sure everything stayed true to their vision; it was a positive and collaborative relationship – the directors were always open to suggestions, and their feedback was clear and valuable.”
Elaine Martin, Cinesite’s Lighting Supervisor on Paws of Fury, remembers the challenges early on when trying to lock down the film’s aesthetic. “At the start of production, we didn’t have many colour keys or concepts to work from, and what we did have were very monochromatic,” she says. “However, the cool thing is that we have a superbly creative and talented team at Cinesite: even without the colour key, our artists dove in and started to build out ideas. Also, the directors knew their stuff. They understood the theories behind animation and how to create a strong sense of character. Alongside Rob and Chris, we dialled in the new look. Everyone found their rhythm, and the direction we needed to take became obvious.”
“I’ve been working on this project for a very very long time and it’s been a rollercoaster! Up and down, back and forth & sideways and every way you can imagine. In some respects, at the very beginning, it was one of the most difficult things i’d ever done, but when Cinesite & Aniventure came aboard the project it has actually turned into one of my most favourite professional experiences of my career. ”
Rob Minkoff director & producer of Paws of Fury
Paws of Fury’s action covers a gamut of character animation challenges. The list includes tightly choreographed katana combat, all-out battle sequences with hundreds of characters, and characters squashed between the butt cheeks of giant sumo wrestling cats. Some shots required the careful timing of slapstick comedy, others subtle shades of emotional experience: no two shots were the same.
“All the characters were fun to animate – I enjoyed the Mel Brooks–voiced Shogun, as he has a great energy to his performance,” says Ryan. “One shot that I remember being a particular challenge was when the ninja cats jump on Sumo. We needed to animate Sumo without the ninjas first! Once the directors approved the animation, we refined the performance and added the attackers – about 50 of them in all.”
Cinesite’s animators would often approach the movements of the film’s characters by acting out the sequences first and then interpreting those live-action references to drive the more exaggerated animated character performances.
One challenge Cinesite often had to consider was the different shapes and sizes of Paws of Fury’s characters. “We played a lot with the scale of the characters,” says Minkoff. “Many of the cats in our movie are ten times as big as Hank!”
With his long torso and tiny legs, Hank posed a challenge, as Cinesite’s animators had to make him feel both believable and capable of the physical feats he performs, despite his odd shape. Meanwhile, Jimbo – the Sam L. Jackson-voiced samurai master – has a broad chest and body, which posed problems when the character had to bring his arms around his chest. (For example, when holding a samurai sword.) Cinesite’s rigging team addressed this by creating a sliding system, which enabled the animation team to slide Jimbo’s arm connection when required.
Building a world
The world of Kakamucho is a varied and beautiful place, influenced both by Japanese culture and films set in the Wild West. (Particularly those inspired by Japanese cinema themselves!)
“Working with all these different inspirations meant we got to wear all these different hats. One minute we’d be making nods to Blazing Saddles, the next referencing Akira Kurosawa or Sergio Leone,” says Skjenna. “We had free rein because we were not limited to one geographical place. Having all that sensory information allows you to cherry-pick different elements and create a new kind of mash-up – although, as Rob said throughout the production, whatever we were doing, comedy always came first!”
One of the themes that shines through this varied palette is that of the haves and the have-nots, or the Hanks and the Ika Chus. So, whereas Kakimocho exudes a dustier palette and a more Western feel, Ika Chu’s fortress opts for more grandeur and opulent splendour.
“There was a definite choice of their being a literal ‘rich’ colour palette versus a dull colour palette to reinforce the film’s themes,” says Martin. “In Ika Chu’s palace, the walls are a deep red; there are a lot of golden patterns throughout and jade statues. We wanted to communicate the vibrancy of those colours so people could feel the character’s richness and power. In Kakimocho, things are more humble and less saturated.”
Let There be Light
Lighting played was critical in setting Paws of Fury’s tone, differentiating sequences, and emphasising the performance and personality of the film’s cast.
“Emiko (Kylie Kuioka) is always so cute and full of energy, so she’s always light and bright like she’s in the spotlight. Ika Chu is always darker; more evil and cunning, so we’d light Ika Chu’s scenes almost as if we were telling a horror story, with lights coming from underneath.”
Elaine Martin, Lighting Supervisor
Indeed, many sequences throughout Paws of Fury were approached or lit differently to create a sense of variety and rhythm. “We strived to make every sequence look different,” says Martin. “One sequence might have a specific colour palette, and then the next would go for a completely different mood, which helped create a very dynamic rhythm throughout the movie.”
One standout sequence is Hank’s flashback sequence, where the character remembers life before Kakimocho in slabs of vibrant, sharply accented pop-art colour. Another sequence opts for a more natural feel, with a backdrop of softly falling cherry blossoms. “In the sequence on the bridge surrounded by gently shedding sakuras, we went for a pastel look that stands out from the rest of the film,” says Martin. “After all, when you have a scene like this, where the emotional cues need to be happy and cute, you don’t want darkness and shadow – you want everything to feel light.”
Whatever the scene, Cinesite made sure its characters stood out from the scenery and that each of the characters’ distinct silhouettes remained as recognisable as possible. “We created a bright, sharp rim light on the characters to detach them from the set, which made them pop from the screen. We also created sharp shadows on the sets,” says Martin. “The result was a distinct look that almost blended the film’s original 2D style with our fuller, more volumetric 3D approach.”
A cat-aclysmic flood
One of the most striking features of Ika Chu’s palace is a colossal golden toilet/throne. At one point during Paws of Fury, this gargantuan latrine suffers a monumental case of blockage and overflows. Jets of toilet water issues forth, burst from Ika Chu’s tower, and cascade down the mountainside with Hank and co caught up in the torrent. The scene is a big narrative beat and required the expertise of Kazmier and the Cinesite FX team to execute.
“The flood sequence required a lot of careful planning,” says Kazmier. “We thought about what we needed to show on-screen – like the different camera angles, the transitions from above water to below water and so on – and how to make our work cost-effective. We worked closely with the directors, Olaf and his crew in Layout and Jason in animation, to ensure everyone agreed on the approach.
“Once ready, our FX artists did a low-res pass on the flood’s water movement; this helped the animation team to know where the characters would be and how fast they were moving and work from there. After that, we went in with the full FX. Maybe four or five shots of the flood used a real water simulation. Many other shots featured caches, surfaces, particle combinations, etc., which helped keep a real feel while also supplying us with a level of art direction over the water’s movement. The final scene looks stunning and is a testament to Cinesite’s FX artists!”
Heading into battle
Another significant sequence occurs in the film’s third act, in which the inhabitants of Kakamucho go head to head with Ika Chu’s forces.
“There’s a lot of action going on in that sequence,” says Kazmier. “The directors were keen to mirror the atmosphere with the emotion of the scenes, so we had low camera angles, fire, embers drifting around like something out of Gladiator, and a lot of dark clouds. The sequence has a really overcast battle vibe.”
For Skjenna, the sequence was about communicating the battle’s scope. “I remember we spent a lot of time finding the staging for this battle – its scale was so large you can only storyboard it to a certain extent, so we spent a lot of time finding the action and getting the camera just right to capture the unfolding story,” he says. “One thing we added was this huge swooping action camera, akin to something you might expect from a film like The Hobbit.”
One tool that was useful throughout Paws of Fury, but especially during this battle sequence, was the newly implemented Gaffer. Gaffer is a node-based VFX application, initially developed at Cinesite’s sister company, Image Engine, that enables artists to build, tweak, iterate and render scenes efficiently.
Paws of Fury was just one of the many projects hit worldwide by COVID-19 lockdown. Mid-production, Cinesite’s animation team had to pack up, leave the office and transfer work on Paws of Fury to a highly remote model. The new status quo was a challenge – team leads had to wrangle whole departments without being in the same room (or even building) – but, as Martin says, all quickly adapted to the new status quo.
“I’m so proud of how the team adjusted to working from home; we just had to make it work, and we did,” she says. “Ultimately, I put our ability to adapt down to the amazing team we have here at Cinesite. 95% of the team on Paws of Fury had worked together for the past four years. We’re a team that’s grown up together and really knows one another. And the handful of people we did hire for this production gelled with the team so well. I’m amazed at how quickly they embedded into our established crew. I could give them notes on a shot, they would action them, and then bam, first pass, approved. Everyone was so professional and talented, and we had such amazing production support, which made my job much easier. The team truly made working remotely on Paws of Fury easy and fluid, despite the disruption.”
A bright future
With productions like The Addams Family, Extinct, Riverdance: The Animated Adventure, and, of course, Paws of Fury behind the studio, and films like HITPIG and Animal Farm on the horizon, Cinesite is building up a wealth of animated expertise. At this point, the team is ready to tackle any animation challenge, whatever the size.
“Working on animation is just so fun!” says Skjenna. “Just look at Paws of Fury and everything we accomplished. I find it so hard to pick a favourite scene! I loved working on the interactions with Hank and Jumbo, the action scenes, the training montage – even the sad scenes like toward the end when Hank despondently leaves town. The medium is so inventive and full of imagination; there’s so much you can do. And when I look back at the films Cinesite has produced over the past five years and compare them to where we’re at today, I think the studio has brought its game up to a new level of animation. Especially, on my part, when it came to accentuating the comedy through the camera.”
For Martin, it was partly due to working with such talented, animation-savvy directors that helped Cinesite push things further than ever. “We had so much trust from Mark and Rob,” she says. “I remember when our Lighting Artist, Francis Charbonneau, created this Godzilla look for a sequence just for fun, but we showed it anyway. The directors loved it, and it ended up in the movie! Our artists could take their shots and improvise, riff, and push them into new places. They were so inspired.
“And I think that’s so important – both on this project and everything we do at Cinesite on feature animation,” she concludes. “It’s all about ideas, inspiration, experimentation – pushing things and having fun. Those values show in every one of Paws of Fury’s 97 minutes.”