VFX Supervisor Kyle Odermatt Talks the Making of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

© 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Academy Award-nominated feature film “Raya and the Last Dragon” tells the story of a lone warrior who tracks down Kumandra’s last dragon to stop the Druun for good. After a fascinating SIGGRAPH 2021 Production Session, “Learning to Trust – The Making of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,'” our community still had some burning questions about the making of the film. That’s why we caught up with VFX Supervisor Kyle Odermatt to capture answers to community-submitted questions from conference participants.

SIGGRAPH: SIGGRAPH 2021 participants loved the cinematography and world-building in “Raya.” Talk a bit about the optical qualities, like the cat-eye effect, of the lenses used in the film. Does it simulate real-world lenses?

Kyle Odermatt (KO): Yes, when we are shooting a film that has the style of “Raya” — where we’re going for realistically inspired cinematography — we have developed more and more ways to simulate what happens in the real world, in terms of the optics. When it came to the shaped bokeh, the circles created from points of light, we did go for a real-world approach that gave the same effect as something that you would see with a refracting lens: the ability to decide the number of blades of the aperture and all the things that give you those kind of effects in real-world photography. Because the cinematic themes of the movie had shooting areas where the characters are feeling trust in a very shallow depth-of-focus way, as was discussed in the SIGGRAPH 2021 presentation, those circles of confusion, that bokeh, was very prevalent on screen. Having that ability to shape and have it feel like what you’ve seen before in live-action cinematography was important.

SIGGRAPH: Throughout the film, you exposed for light in camera, rather than relighting. How is this a different approach compared to other films?

KO: We’ve done it before, but [here] we took it to a further degree. Modern renders, like our proprietary render Hyperion, are amazing at light simulation that deliver information over a very wide dynamic range, like the best of modern digital cameras.

At the same time, we also have all the power in compositing, and you can make the analogy to digital still photography and post processing. With modern digital cameras, you get so much information from the sensors that using the exposure slider is one of the first most powerful adjustments you tend to make in post-processing software. This is because you can tune that image to have very different fields, depending on whether you’re underexposing or overexposing it. We found that when we used this approach, it gave us that sort of realism to the imagery that you don’t have when you fake things in post-processing or compositing.

Our eyes are amazing things, but they don’t do as well as cameras. We’re always making choices when we present something on screen about what range of exposure we choose to show. Doing that as our first step in this process of tuning the feel of every shot gave us one more nod to live-action cinematography — the dynamic feel that we really wanted in this picture.

SIGGRAPH: With lighters dressing atmospherics from a library, how fast was the artists’ iteration time? Was there a viewport representation of the volume, or were they using a live/interactive rendering session?  

KO: Certainly we were adding more burden to the lighters’ work because they were doing so much more by adding this, but the increase in production value was immeasurable. It was well beyond the additional effort. When it comes to the speed of our iterations, we’re always trying to do better. We did have an ability to do gross placement of the volumes within the viewport. For the last few films, our render has had the ability to make adjustments to parameters of lights or materials without having to go back and regenerate all the scene data, so you can get a relatively quick iteration. For this film, we added the ability to move those as well without having to go back and invoke a new instance of the render. We had a faster turnaround time, but, as anyone will know, rendering volumes is not a quick part of the job. The team did amazing work with the time they had and made those scenes look so rich, really evoking the regions that inspired the film.

SIGGRAPH: Were there any new hair simulation techniques used, specifically with long hair? How did the team establish setups and shots in ways that were different from past films?

KO: As I see the early iterations of the story, one component of my job is to figure out what things might be new and different from the problems we solved before. When you look at the earliest sketches of Raya, we meet her as an adult who’s been on a journey for years. I don’t think a hairbrush was a part of her travel kit, so that’s not important to her. Her quest was the most important thing to her, so she was going to have unkempt hairstyles. We needed to give her hair quite a bit of volume. In our hair simulation engine, we did not have friction, which would have eased the ability to keep that volume in place. Knowing the challenge of her hairstyle, our team built a set of constraints that allowed it to keep its volume, yet move in a realistic way.

(L-R): Raya and Sisu. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

SIGGRAPH: “Raya and the Last Dragon” was a predominately remote production. What lessons did you take away from this experience, and how has that influenced productions since?

KO: From the very first days of this project, the directors had an incredible trust and confidence. They had confidence that the crew could execute anything that was asked of them. These conversations about allowing supervisors, teams, and artists to take on more responsibility happened before we started to work from home. They were going to be less nit-picky about things and really get to the heart of storytelling with their notes, allowing the supervisors and crew to lead the rest of it. When we started working from home, we had less time to give notes and it was more difficult than what we were used to. The directors just took that notion and went farther than I could have ever imagined with it. We were very lucky, and we tied it into the theme of the movie, which is all about trusting those around you. I really credit the directors with taking that leap.

You would think that less time with directors and less time for getting notes could potentially make the work suffer. In contrast, we found that it was the exact opposite. The crew’s satisfaction with their ownership over the work made them produce some of the best work ever. It was a satisfying experience for them, despite all the difficulties of working from home. People have very different situations and some were working under extreme challenges, and yet they were able to do incredible, productive work. 

This was such a positive experience for our studio. As a member of the studio, I’m proud that we were able to deliver “Encanto” in the same year. Each film has a different feel, but such incredible work went into each of these two films. There’s very little we can’t do as a studio, and I’m looking forward to another great 10 to 15 years.

SIGGRAPH: During your Production Session, panelists mentioned that they used a “vertical” approach to the production process. What is the background behind this approach? Was this influenced by working from home?

KO: We really value the fact that everybody who works on these movies is housed in one building. Now, that gets a little interesting in times like these because we used to say we were “all under one roof.” Of course, we aren’t anymore with work from home, remote, and hybrid, but the importance of that is that we all feel like we’re on the same team, delivering on the promise of what the movie can be.

Everybody’s purpose at Walt Disney Animation Studios is to do everything we can with every minute we have to make these movies. That means that, essentially, anybody can give input on anything at any time. Obviously, there are practical constraints on that, but it is interesting that anybody can say what they want about what they’re seeing, and it can be a small or significant story or lighting note. If we think our audience is not going to have the ultimate experience and we still have time left to address those kinds of things, we have a process that is very common in the industry, the “CBB” process — “could be better.” Those notes are significant, and they come from everywhere. You’re not limited to just making a CBB note about something in your department. An animator could make a note about something, and if we think it’s worth putting in front of the directors, we will ask them their opinion. These are director-driven movies, and it is ultimately their call on how we spend the limited time we have. But, it is all about trying to improve on everything we can so that the audience experience is everything it can be.

SIGGRAPH: What scene from “Raya and the Last Dragon” are you most proud of?

KO: There’s a series of scenes that were really neat to have gotten to work on. The fight progressions between Raya and Namaari is one such series. The pair encounters each other in hand-to-hand combat three times throughout the film, from young to adult and ultimately near the climax, and each of those fight sequences needed to feel different. We approached them in such a real way, and it is a really cool thing to have each in the film. We had fight choreographers and met with people in the region about various martial arts that are encompassed in Southeast Asia. The battles get more serious as the movie progresses, and the last one between the two of them — with all its chaos and destruction — is so intense. When you’re watching, I think that you are pushed back in your seat by how intense it is. And, to make an animated film that has that building intensity of their relationship was managed incredibly well. The film is quite strong to have these incredible female characters who are so skilled and really going at it.

One other aspect [of the film that I am proud of] ties back to its live-action cinematography. Many of our films are live-action inspired, and sometimes we don’t go quite as far as we can. On this film, we went all the way. At the end, where the ensemble is trying to fight off the Druun, they are down to their last efforts with the dragon. It is the type of full, chaotic scene that I’ve wanted to help make for a long time, and when it goes silent, viewers feel that massive transition. Because we went so far with it, everything playing together gives a sense of chaos that our characters are feeling, and we hope the audience felt it as well.

Raya and her nemesis, Namaari, face off amid the snowy mountains of Spine. Featuring Kelly Marie Tran as the voice of Raya and Gemma Chan as the voice of Namaari. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

SIGGRAPH: You’ve been with Disney for over 25 years. With such a rich history in the industry, there have to be a few stories. How many times have you presented at SIGGRAPH and what has been your favorite SIGGRAPH memory to date?

KO: I would have to count the number of times I’ve presented at SIGGRAPH. With working on the big movies, it seems like I’ve had an opportunity [to present for] most of the last 15 to 20 years. It’s always a highlight to be with our peers and share things that we think are cool, as well as learn the cool things that have happened over the year. I think the spirit of other studios sharing their work is pretty incredible. We share secrets, and we share the nitty gritty of how to do something that is going to improve everyone’s work. It’s an impressive sharing environment. I love to attend SIGGRAPH for that. I learn something even in years when I’m preparing a presentation and sharing what we’ve done.

My most memorable SIGGRAPH was one early in my years at Disney. We were in New Orleans. A wonderful part of SIGGRAPH are the social events and seeing people you’ve worked with before or people you know from other studios. The social events in New Orleans were incredible — it was my first time in New Orleans as an adult and, wow, what a great city to get to talk about geeky computer graphics stuff during the day and then go out at night.

SIGGRAPH: What is the best career advice you’ve ever received from a fellow VFX professional?

KO: In terms of my career, I’ve gotten a lot of really great advice over the years. When people ask what they should do in our industry, I reflect on when I first got into the industry. I remember showing up at ILM as, essentially, their first dedicated set and prop modeler. That lasted for a very short period before I was doing my first assignment on “The Mask.” I was doing all kinds of things on that project, even though I was hired as a modeler. I wanted to learn how to do every part of the pipeline. I tasked myself with learning how to put one whole shot or element through the entire part of the pipeline by the end of my first year.

Being curious about what others around you do and what’s important to them makes everyone better at their job. Even if you’re only doing one piece, knowing how it fits into the whole puzzle makes you better and makes you come up with ideas that can improve the entirety of the process. It makes sense that I ended up in a position that is entirely about looking at the holistic goal of delivering a movie, because I’ve always been fascinated about the process. The way each part ties together is the most incredible and fascinating part to me, and every year we’re figuring out new — and better — ways to do that integration. We have many more years ahead, and I look forward to all of the new integrations and discoveries to come.

Contribute your story to SIGGRAPH 2022. Programs like the Electronic Theater and others are still accepting submissions. Learn more and submit.

Kyle Odermatt is visual effects supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) who oversees the entire image production pipeline, from early visualization of story ideas through delivery of final imagery in stereoscopic 3D. Odermatt began his career at WDAS in 1996 as a model development technical supervisor. His responsibilities included overseeing modeling, rigging, layout, and EFX development for all current shows in production. Odermatt went on to become the artistic supervisor of computer graphics on “Treasure Planet.” He served as a CG supervisor on “Chicken Little,” “Meet the Robinsons,” and as a VFX supervisor on “The Princess and the Frog,” “Winnie the Pooh,” and 2012’s Oscar®-winning short “Paperman.” Odermatt was visual effects supervisor for “Raya and the Last Dragon,” “Moana,” and 2014’s Oscar-winning feature film “Big Hero 6.” Before joining Disney, Odermatt worked for Industrial Light & Magic as a character supervisor/modeler. His background also includes working for Gingko Design as an industrial designer and as a CAD manager for a Los Angeles architectural firm. His professional affiliations include ASIFA, SIGGRAPH, VES, and AMPAS. Odermatt was born in Berkeley, California. He received a B.A. in visual development from Dartmouth College and did his postgraduate studies in architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design as well as in transportation design at the ArtCenter College of Design. Odermatt resides in Pasadena, California, with his wife and two children. His favorite Disney memory is of a friend’s 4-year-old son asking him if he had ever met Chicken Little, and, if so, could he invite him over to their house.

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