Animated miniseries Iwájú was created as a close collaboration between Walt Disney Animation Studios, Kugali and Cinesite. Set in Lagos, Nigeria, and set in the future, it is a story of two worlds, the haves and have-nots, the dynamic between the rich who live on the city’s affluent island and the poor, who live on the densely populated mainland.

The wealthy island-dwellers use technology to support their high-tech lifestyles while the poor sell goods in a bustling marketplace, using more basic forms of futuristic transportation.  In the story, there is a wealth disparity which needed to be reflected in the worlds created by Cinesite’s team.

Our 10-year-old protagonist Tola lives on the island in a huge mansion surrounded by modern conveniences and robots which help with day-to-day activities. In one charming sequence, an interactive closet helps her decide which clothes to wear and a kind of robotic helmet helps her select any hairstyle.  Cars have sophisticated user interfaces and there is generally a clean, futuristic impression which is reflected in character designs, outfits, accessories and environments.  By contrast, Lagos’ mainland is a densely populated, sprawling mega-city with a make-shift feel. 

Cultural advisor Toluwalakin ”Tolu” Olowofoyeko lives in Lagos, a city to which he has a close affinity; he played a crucial consultation role. The production team shared detailed designs which gave precise guides for the environments, even down to building material suggestions. In addition, Cinesite’s team referenced photos and videos of present-day Lagos, both mainland and the island, to ensure that they maintained the contrast between the two worlds. Also valuable in the environment development stage were the colour keys, which informed the mood and intention of every scene.

An important mainland location is the huge, crowded marketplace, stretching along long streets. Full of people, buildings, market goods and complexity, when it came to production, it needed to be very carefully managed.  A reflection of real life, it is a world busy with vehicles and transport both overhead and on the ground. It is full of food, stuff in baskets and on stalls, a place where people go every day, wearing a range of looks and outfits. Many of the outfits included flowing, draped fabrics and traditional agbadas.

Managing a scene so rich in assets and detail was a particularly exciting challenge for Cinesite’s team. It needed to be broken apart into digestible pieces more manageable to build and render, mitigating the impact upon pipeline without detracting from the complexity and vibrancy of the scene.

Lagos is a huge, expansive city. A manual build, retaining that organic, chaotic feel, would have been incredibly time-consuming to create and render-intensive, so a city building tool was developed by the team of technical directors with CG supervisor assistance. Using Houdini, a rule system was developed using a combination of both off the shelf and in-house plug-ins to quickly generate environments, based on topological maps and street outlines, planned to mirror the actual city of Lagos. This foundation in real-world data results is a credible and recognisable city.

Digital sculpting tools were also used as a form of location scouting. Cameras were placed into sets which had been built in a rough form, to provide some clear early direction about the extent of every location and how it would relate to the wider world in general. This also ensured that sets constructed used only the required level of detail and no more.

Rendered buildings which had been modelled and textured were painted on top of by the digital matte painting team.  Channelling a unified painterly style, they created harmonious and subtle paintings using Photoshop, which matched the production’s art direction. These paintings were imported with elements into Nuke, which was used to place everything in a 3D environment before the compositing and lighting team took over.  The matte painting team’s role was collaborative and they were often required to revisit and alter environments based upon changes in the foreground animation.

Digital matte painting, layout and lighting all worked very closely together. Whilst backgrounds were detailed and colourful, the characters needed to pop. Often, it was necessary to desaturate areas of a shot, adding atmosphere and layers of pollution to give prominence to the foreground

A look development group was created, bringing the assets and lighting effects teams together to discuss how they might work together to create the look of the film. Compositing look development worked with the FX and motion graphics team to pin down compositing looks long before they showed up in shots, to ensure that planning was already in place.

One of the ways in which the influence of the original graphic style is apparent is through the use of lighting. Strong room lights pop the characters off the screen and blackness is embraced in the backgrounds, allowing dark spaces to be dark and characters to be lit in a striking way. Other striking sequences set at night and in the rain use lighting to build atmosphere and drama. Inside villain Bode’s tower, lighting is used to build a sense of intimidation and to emphasise his size and control over Kole. 

Technology in Iwájú tends to emit light. Paper glows subtly in every night sequence, whether flat, crumpled on the ground or seen glowing softly from wall posters. This meant that light sources could be carefully placed in the backgrounds of every shot, allowing for greater creative choices by the lighting team, in a world full of light and colour.

Various tools were used or created to help build the Iwájú look. One created in Nuke allowed for the application of a Kuwahara filter, the effect of which allowed objects to recede into the distance, maintaining a silhouette whilst breaking down into painterly, abstract representations.

A crowd tool was also created which worked with the required complexity of the brightly-coloured  traditional outfits and bustling activity of the city. A range of people and characteristics were created, base body types, ages, sizes, hairstyles, beards etc. A range of outfits were also procedurally created, complete with authentic patterns and colours.  The crowd system allowed the team to mix and match, creating huge variety in the crowds needed for the airport, city and market. 

In the final third part of this case study, we will explore the importance of cultural accuracy and the efforts taken by the production teams to achieve authenticity in the series.

All images and clips from Iwájú © Disney.

You can click here to read part 3: https://cinesite.com/iwaju-three/