Go behind the craft of Amazon Prime’s ‘An Unlikely Friendship’ with VFX Supervisor Adam Droy & Head of 2D Pete Hodsman

We caught up with VFX Supervisor Adam Droy & Head of 2D Pete Hodsman to discuss how Hattie the Hyena from Amazon Prime's latest festive spot was brought to life.
Thought November 23, 2021

We teamed up with CyW and Blur Films Director Chris Balmond to create Amazon Prime’s epic Christmas spot. The commercial showcases the friendship between a Zookeeper and snarling CG hyena called Hattie who with the help of her friend and Amazon Prime – learns to laugh.

As with every creature project we do, discovering the character of Hattie would be at the forefront of our VFX teams minds throughout the production. They had to tiptoe the delicate line between a photoreal hyena and a likeable, loveable character – so endearing that Carl, the zookeeper, would come to her aid, in her times of need. 

Adam: This focus resonated through all stages of the project and continued to be refined days before delivery through modelling decisions, such as the size of Hattie’s eyes, ears and face. Slightly angling her eyes gave her a more welcoming appearance and larger ears added a subtle youth and inquisitiveness whilst keeping her realistic. It would have been too easy to give her huge puppy eyes and long fluffy hair to make her likeable but this wouldn’t have been true to the animal she is. These decisions continued into groom – making sure the flow and shape of the individual hairs, hugged the contours of hyena archetypes, such as the area around the eye and cheek. In shots we would analyse whether the mane was visible enough, another very hyena element we used to make the read of hyena more immediate.

Obviously, the animation of Hattie was key to her character. We studied all forms of animation for reference, from realistic live-action hyena videos to more stylised 2D animation for the bigger performance moments. Very subtle changes to the angle of a head or leg can make a huge difference to the realism of a shot.

Pete: We had some fantastic references on set, we rehearsed with our movement performer, Ariana who helped frame and choreograph the scenes. We also had the very well behaved giant Ovcharka Shepherd dog ‘Vlad’ to give us weight, scale and fur reference. Photographing them in situ was vital in helping us render the most realistic hyena in CG and composite the final picture.

The 2D team changed seasons, extended the already impressive sets and of course crafted the final touches to our wonderful creatures. The bar is set incredibly high for CG animals in commercials, there was a huge range of performances to covey across the spot and they have to look perfect. We went into minute detail when comping Hattie, breaking down the hero render into its 12 component parts and utilising on average 16 extra technical passes to fine-tune the picture. 

Adam: With such a great project we wanted to take the opportunity to push our creature work. Being involved from the very beginning, we worked with Chris to previz the whole commercial blocking out the key performance moments which would inform the shooting style on set. We developed a bespoke pipeline to be able to render a crude version of the fur in real-time, using Unreal Engine, to give a better indication of the silhouette of Hattie even at the very early previz stage. 

Amazon ‘An Unlikely Friendship’ Previz

Adam: We worked closely with SideFx, who make Houdini, to use an alpha version of their brand new muscle and skin system. This new workflow allowed us to simulate the muscles, skin and fur in more than 35 shots – whereas previously we would have had to choose hero shots to simulate. This subtle additional movement adds to the realism of Hattie pushing her to be a more tangible creature.

Amazon ‘An Unlikely Friendship’ BTS

Adam: In addition to the muscle setup, we also groomed Hattie entirely in Houdini. Being able to use all the features of Houdini to generate a groom was a real game-changer as we were able to dial in micro detail – again, all aiding in bringing in the desired personality of Hattie. In specific shots, we would add tiny bits of dirt into the fur, or do custom grooms for when she was wet in the rain or bath. Subtle things that probably get missed on the first watch, all help bed her into the environment she is in. We wrote a custom rendering procedural to be able to render millions of hair directly out of Houdini. 

Stay tuned for our full BTS. You can get in touch with our VFX team regarding your upcoming projects via our contact page. You can also check out some more of our creature work here.