For Justin K. Thompson, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 represents the greatest thrill of his career as a production designer. Larger in scope and more fantastical than the original, he got to push his imagination further while retaining more of his illustrative emphasis.
The conceit Thompson envisioned from the beginning was: What if Flint Lockwood's lab, which is a metaphor for his boundless imagination, fell over, and, like an egg, all of its contents spilled out and created this magical landscape?
"What I liked was that it was a way of letting the audience know we were in a magical place," Thompson explains. "And the early developmental artwork was dark because you're in a spooky forest, but once I added all the bioluminescence and the colorful plants, it brightened everything up and gave it life."
The foundation of Cloudy 2 was the invention of nearly 40 foodimals by character designer Craig Kellman: lovable social misfits that are created by Lockwood's machine, which are closely tied to the new ecosystem of his home, Swallow Falls.
"In the very beginning, playing around with ideas, I realized that in order to believe there are these fantastic food creatures that come to life, we needed to help the audience suspend their disbelief and make it a fantasy world," Thompson continues. "I drew strange plants and searched for things that were analogous in nature and so I looked at vegetable gardens and came up with an organic shape language.
"At first, I tried a normal scale jungle, even with strange shapes that I found in my vegetable garden, it felt too normal, so I started scaling everything up. I thought it was a nice metaphor anyway because I liked having the environment describe how big this adventure was.
"The environments became organic to the foodimals. For example, the Tacodile belonged to the Mexican food environment, which takes over Flint's old house and lab, with a salsa river flowing nearby with pico de gallo plants made out of tortilla shells. Then in the breakfast bog there are pancakes and syrup and bacon and waffles and buttoads [a buttery frog-like critter who lives on pancake lily pads]. And there's a whole ecology: the buttoads eat the toast flies and they try to suck out the butter from the buttoads to butter their bread. And in the larger watering hole section, there are a slew of water-based foodimals based on Africa. Wild scallions, fruit cockatiels, cucumbirds, peanut butter and jelly fish, and shrimpanzees."
However, to make it economically feasible, Thompson encouraged Pete Travers, the VFX supervisor of Sony Pictures Imageworks/Sony Pictures Animation, to come up with a nursery system for the jungle. "I wanted variety everywhere so we made a nursery of plants that are almost like LEGOs, that are plug-and-play. Once we went from previs images, my design team could draw over it, and give them the plants we all agreed upon, and place the foliage into the shot in 2D, and then they would rebuild it using the nursery of three-dimensional plants. It allowed layout and the animators to move forward while we could design within the shots they were still animating and the modeling team could construct the environments around the animation."
But to bring out more of the painterly essence of his backgrounds, Thompson additionally asked Travers to figure out a technique for rendering objects that weren't dependent on blur, lighting, and shading. The VFX team therefore devised "Depth Styling," which skipped the full 2D to CG translation process.
"Once you add all [of the eye candy], it strips away a lot of the illustrative qualities, so what he figured out was, as objects move away from us in Z space, he would strip off all the atmospheric information that the computer normally wants to put there and let the model revert to just texture. And because our textures applied to plants that were based on watercolor, gouache, and acrylic paintings, it allowed us to blend seamlessly into the matte painting behind it."
Thus the backgrounds gained or lost fidelity as they moved toward or away from camera. "After the first couple of tests, I literally stood up and clapped," Thompson concludes.