Disney’s Onward is quite a looker of a 3D movie with its awesome blend of CGI Pixar art style and near-photorealistic backgrounds and vistas. The show also has pretty awesome hair and fur physics as portrayed by Ian Lightfoot’s curly hair and the Manticore’s lion-esque fur. Both effects did keep folks in awe at how high the bar for animation has been raised.
Part of this is attributed to Pixar’s Malaysian export Kiki Poh, whose official role in the film is Shading and Grooming Technical Director. Yes, the film is so massive with its art direction and production, there’s actually a specific person needed to make sure the tufts of hair and fur on the show’s key characters move and render the right way.
She was responsible for setting up the hair shading and hair inherited pipeline for the entire show, while also grooming main characters like Ian Lightfoot the blue elf, Inspector Gore the centaur, and the Manticore. Even if it sounds like something minor, it was anything but.
Part of Kiki’s job is to make sure the design language of Ian’s hair “speaks correctly” from the long curls to the short ones. “I had to make sure his hair appears well-presented in all different angles in many different situations and conditions; to give out appropriate rhythms when on-screen.
On top of that, we had to imagine lighting and portraying blue hair, which is pretty unusual. Finding references for real blue hair was tough, so it took us a while to get the “correct” shading and illumination.”
Her other task is to also make her animator colleagues’ life easier when it comes to hair rendering and physics. Since Onward features different furry fantasy creatures with different hair physics, Kiki helps create one pipeline for a species so that other animators can use it as a base template for a character they’re tasked with.
The show has many satyrs running around, so she creates a specific hair pipeline for that species so that their bobbing hair physics and shading are in line with every other satyr in the show, background characters and otherwise. Thus, the workflow goes by faster to make Onward reach its shipping date.
Speaking of mane attractions, Kiki took it upon herself to make sure the hair on the Manticore is portrayed and rendered right. Her biggest challenge is getting her head hair right. “It’s a really tight curly specific kind of hair, she said. “Because I’m grooming her in two different hairstyles; the first part is her “tavern” hairstyle, and the second part is her “wild style” halfway in the film.”
“I needed to create a simple way for the hairstyle to meet the scene criteria without manually adjusting every strand & curve, as well as easier to control. That way, if I get design notes for changes, it’ll be easier for me to make the adjustments while maintaining the curls that add to her personality & current mood”.
The second part of her challenge is the Manticore’s body hair. “Her body is big,” she added, “so there’s a lot of hair memory. We had to create a balance so that she exuberates the look of a lion without looking too scary.”
Given that Octavia Spencer’s voice and the look of the Manticore was one of Onward’s many highlights, it wasn’t surprising to say that this experiment was a success. Kiki and the whole of Pixar learned a lot about how to portray fantasy creature hair efficiently and spectacularly. “With our current in-house tools, we can use what we did in Onward for future projects that require us to create hair pipeline and rigs for non-human species.”
It still didn’t answer the elephant in the room: the reason why the show’s elves are blue. “It’s a creative and character design choice,” said Kiki.
Taking The Cake
Sometimes, the stars need to align to get what you really want, even with the hard work you put in. So how did Kiki land her job at Pixar back in 2010? It’s the case of “right render, right time” as Pixar was looking for someone who can showcase and create convincing food items in 3D.
Kiki’s portfolio at the time was, of all things, cupcakes.
“I studied at Savannah College of Art and Design since 2007,” she said. “In 2008, Pixar came down to our college to check on our year-end portfolio; they were looking for interns. So I applied for it.”
She stressed at the time that rendering food in loving detail during her course was “incredibly tough”, but it paid off as it got their attention of the company’s then-Lighting Director of Photography, who then proceeded to show it to the higher-ups.
Because of this, she was picked for the internship in 2009 and eventually worked full-time with them. It also helped that she was labelled “Cupcake Girl” by Pixar; it was easier for them to remember standout works using nicknames.
Food indeed does bring people together, even if it’s in inedible CGI. Onward is currently showing in Malaysia right now; check out our review of the film here.