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Feathers, Fur and Fire in Free Birds

By Henry Winchester

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Date Added: 5th November 2013

Free Birds is an unlikely tale of two talking turkeys brought to life by Texan production company, ReelFX – we caught up with them to discuss their first solo venture.


All images copyright (as supplied by PR): ReelFX


Dallas, Texas-based studio Reel FX has, until now, served some of Hollywood's biggest animation studios. It's worked on big films such as The Wild, for which it created the opening sequence, and the Open Season sequels, which were developed in conjunction with Sony Pictures Animation. But the studio felt the need to create a feature-length theatrical project for itself, and it did so with the unlikeliest of stars: turkeys.

Free Birds' protagonists are no ordinary turkeys, though. Reggie (Owen Wilson) enjoys a life of luxury at Camp David, but his laid-back lifestyle is rudely interrupted by Jake (Woody Harrelson), who wishes to go back in time and permanently remove his species from the Thanksgiving menu.

The artist delivered renders, volume dtex renders, and electricity geometry to the lighting and compositing team for final tweaks

In order to travel back to the past, the turkeys must steal a time machine from an underground base, which proved to be one of the film's most challenging effects, according to effects supervisor Walter Behrnes.

"The direction was to have this time pod sitting in the middle of this big room, and then there's this swirling vortex, which eventually grows off of the egg, and around all that there's a bunch of fog that's also spinning as well,” says Walter. "The technical challenge of the effect was; how do you render something volumetric that big?”

An artist created the electrical elements for the time travel sequence

Once lighting was approved, ReelFX layered in the background fog with a rough composite to start testing illumination

Initially, Walter and his team tried point based rendering (PBR) in the latest beta version of Side Effect's Houdini animation software. When that failed to give the effect they wanted, they switched to a shader to generate a point cloud, which was then used to change the colour of the volume. It worked, but Walter was still unhappy with the effect.

"We went back to the drawing board and then we re-optimised a couple of things, introduced a new volume type; we tried that and we ended up working out a way to get the PBR to work,” says Walter "It just took a matter of about five months to get it working.”

"We had thirty or forty individual fires, and these are all volumetric, and getting that to work with the memory was quite challenging"

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