Thunder God's Tale
ONI: Thunder God's Tale is an original animation series created by Tonko House and produced by Netflix.
Directed by Dice Tsutsumi, it tells the journey of Onari, a young girl raised by her mysterious father in a strange town deep in the mountains of Japan, filled with mythological creatures.
Megalis was brought on to the project to produce all the visuals for four episodes, with a total running time of 2 hours and 47 minutes.
Follow us on a journey to learn more about the making of the show and how the unique style of ONI was created.
ONI: THUNDER GOD'S TALE
: The Start
: Character Turntables
: Working with Tonko House
: Tools and Pipeline
: The World
: The Characters
: The Animation
: Compositing Breakdowns
: The Team
THE FIRST PILOT
The Megalis team was contacted by Tonko House in 2018 to work on a pilot for ONI.
Tonko studio was founded by ex-Pixar art directors, Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo (based in Berkley, San Francisco), and they were looking for a Japanese studio who would be capable of translating their artistic vision from stop motion into full CG animation.
Before commencing work on ONI, we had already watched Tonko House’s Dam Keeper, which was a short film that was nominated for an academy award. We loved the overall style of the short film. It had a style that was reminiscent of old Japanese animation but still had a very high quality contemporary finish. We jumped at the chance to work with Tonko House on this new project that they had.
Due to the limitations of creating extensive complex environments in stop motion, ONI was originally conceived as a combination of stop motion puppets with full CG environments.
We had the opportunity to work with another Japanese studio, Dwarf Studios, to came up with techniques to combine the stop motion and CG environments using deep images and compositing tricks.
It was an amazing experience working with Dwarf Studio as they are the top stop motion animation studio in Japan.
Working in a large warehouse outside Tokyo, they’ve built all the environment sets in ONI as miniatures. While these sets are tiny versions of the real world counterparts, lots of space was needed to store them.
For this project, there was a mix of full CG and stop motion elements. For example, the Dwarf team built the interior of the cave house as a miniature set, which then served as the reference to create the final version in full CG.
Dwarf artists have an incredible eye for details. All the miniature assets and props were built from scratch by hand using traditional materials. You can see from the shots that there was lots of paper, cloth, wood, plastic and different types of fibres used throughout the project.
The miniature sets built by the Dwarf studio had a realistic look and feel to it. The designs needed to be streamlined in order to be able to work in reduced dimensions. The lighting was always real (unlike CG lighting). All the intricate details in the Onari bedroom set had become a great inspiration for the team during the project development process.
Stop motion animation was done by taking pictures with a SLR camera (usually on a robotic rig that can produce some degree of scripted camera motion). For this, the Megalis team created a tool that helped to translate the camera data properly into the new robotic arm.
Usually working at 12 frames per second, every character motion would require a seperate mechanical rig. These rigs were later removed in the post production process.
All the characters in ONI were designed by Dice Tsutsumi and they all had a wide range of motion and expression. The team at Dwarf studio worked tirelessly to ensure that all the puppets that were built stayed true to his vision and his original character designs. Doing all this but also while trying to ensure that the puppets met complex needs for production.
We learned many great things from the Dwarf studio team during our time of working together.
THE SECOND PILOT
After completing the pilot for ONI, it was decided that the project would be full CG animation instead of stop motion. However, the show would still retain the characteristics of stop motion animation. To prove we could handle animated characters with our workflow, we worked on a very simple second episode, featuring a single camera with far and close action as well as with different lighting conditions.
This second episode helped to push the stop motion look across all the different departments, from assets to characters and camera. You can see from the example below – on the top is the art reference and the bottom image the final completed shot.
Working with Tonko House
Dice Tsutsumi and Robert Kondo both worked as Art Directors at Pixar before founding Tonko House. Not only are they both incredibly talented, but they also have extensive experience working on animated feature films. This meant that ONI had an excellent pre-production process where they created designs and illustrations for all the characters and environments. Many of the assets that were created had a good flow and logic, which in turn really helped the artists understand what was required during the production stage.
Following are some pre-production materials
Lights can be used to tell stories and Dice is a genius at using lighting to tell the story of ONI.
Dice and Robert provided us with plenty of beautiful art boards that became great references for lighting, layout and composition. The lighting helped to set the right mood for each part of the story. We had the challenge to try to marry the creative look of the art with physical based lighting. Realistic shaders and realistic lighting were very important in trying to achieve the stop motion look.
Here you can see some art boards that were used as references to produce the final images when translating the stop motion look into full CG.
Tools and Pipeline
HOUDINI / ARNOLD
SOLARIS / USD / KARMA
Megalis has been using Arnold from its second year since inception, but when ONI became a full CG project we decided to build a USD pipeline and had to decide the best workflow around it.
We explored many options, including Unreal Engine, but we were not confident we could produce the rich environments that the project required due to the limitations of the real time technology.
Being a Houdini-centric studio, Megalis already had a robust Houdini pipeline. We decided to build the new pipeline within Solaris and upgrade the Megalis pipeline.
Solaris was still in early stages at the time and was lacking many production requeriments for rendering, so we had to look onto different render engines and balance the pros and cons before making a decision.
While Arnold was missing many features at the time, we could build a relationship with SideFX and Autodesk Arnold teams who ensured we could fill all of our essential needs during pre-production.
The left image is the Karma viewport with denoise. The right image is an Arnold raw render.
Ambilis is Megalis propietary pipeline
The story of ONI takes place in a very rich and fantastical world. The story takes places in contemporary Japan, but it is a world where the Yokais (Japanese demons of folklore) live and exist.
JAPANESE ANCIENT FOREST
The inspiration for the world of ONI came from a real place in the Japan It is a remote island of Japan called Yakushima (屋久島) where it is home to one of the most ancient forest in the world.
Yakushima seemed like the right place to study vegetation and gather references for potential settings for ONI. After travelling there for research, Dice made the forest become a much bigger part of the story than previously expected.
A small team from Megalis also went to the Yakushima islands as a part of the production process. They ventured into the forest and climbed the mountains. During their trip, they took as many photo references as possible, which also included HDRI light capture data.
The ancient forest became one of the centrepieces of ONI.
The forest ground was full of leaves, moss growing everywhere with a large variety of colours and patterns.
Houdini was great at producing all the necessary detail. The following video showcases the moss system created by Miguel Perez Senenet.
You can see some of the environment RnD tests in the next video.
Here are some interior shots of the home of Onari. In order to create a warm and wonderful home for her, we added a lot of small details such as the flowers in the vase and the teapot on the table. It made a simple shot look richer and gave the feeling of a real home.
CAVE HOUSE INTERIOR
Even though it is a fantasy world with Yokais, ONI features a lot of different types of traditional Japanese foods that are eaten daily by Japanese people. Here you can see some examples of the different dishes such as Natto, Miso soup and Obento.
The infamous Natto; fermented beans which have a strong smell and is very sticky! However, it’s very good for health and consumed frequently by both young and old!
Rice bento, cucumber bento (Kappa’s favourite!), miso soup and large onigiri. A staple of Japanese meals!
Spoiler alert! ONI features a small Japanese city. For this scene, the night city scenes were a big challenge for the lighting team. We wanted to create the warm glow from the city lights while keeping the scene realistically lit.
It was a challenge to bring the characters to life, from a 2D drawing to 3D, and keeping the stop motion puppets look at the same time.
Physically accurate shaders were necessary to achieve realistic results.
Onari and Naridon enjoy some relaxing time together inside the cave house.
MARZA ANIMATION PLANET / ANIMA
While the Megalis team was responsible for all the imagery, the animation was handled by Marza and Anima. A combination of Japanese and foreign animators made it possible to bring the characters to life with a unique style that was in line with the stop motion look.
We would like to give a shout-out to some of the key people here from our animation and character rigging team. Sakamoto-san, Stephan and Tanaka Tsuyoshi were great in delivering the animation for the sequences.
Miquel Campos was responsible for all the character rigs and used his versatile m-gear system for the tasks on ONI.
Visual Effects Supervisor : Christophe Rodo
Digital Effects Supervisor : Jeffrey Dillinger
2D Supervisor : Ashley Mohabir
CG Supervisor : Miguel Perez Senent
Director of Photography / Camera : Andrew Ritchie
Asset Supervisor : Mariam Ferrer Aloy
Environment R+D : Daniel Perez Ferreira
Look Development RnD : Maung Maung Hla Win
VFX Producer : Christophe Rodo
Co-Production Manager : Lise-Marie Amar
Line Producer : Tatsuya Furuhata
Animation Technical Supervisor : Philippe Duvin
Asset Artists :
Christian Bolivar / Quentin Chaillet / Alex Cho
Paul Dubiard / Lucie Engels / Kaori Inagaki
Omar Jason / Anita Kang / Chandan Kharkia
Julia Schultz / Vishesh Srivastava / Jose Manuel Vega
Layout Artists :
Julie Durandy / Tsuyoshi Shimizu
Geraldo Tanaka / Jari Vaara
Animators : Naohiro Inoue / Josh Jager
Lookdev Technical Directors : Yuta Miyoshi / Sosuke Nawata
Lighting Technical Directors : Romain Haddad / Martin Seu
FX Lead : Philipp Buschauer
FX Artists :
Shota Kimura / Santeri Piilonen / Shumpei Yamashita
Nanako Uragami / Ryota Hamaguchi / Masakazu Murakami
Lead Compositor : Justin Gros-Desir
Nicole Chong Yee Mun / Yuki Hinago
Natthawat Dos Jamtaksa / Kosuke Kato
Meherzad Minbattinwala / Mizuki Ozawa / Kenshin Sakuta
Matte Painters : Hiroaki Matsui / Asami Yanai
Lead ATD : Takuma Tsuboi
ATDs : Leyla Bush / Chihiro Osanai
Production Coordinators :
Lily Dommart / Mieko Komoriya
Sayaka Imamura / Yusaku Nakagaki
Pipeline Technical Directors:
Jason Cure / Matt Puchala / Sophia-Lena Saada
Administrative Manager : Kayo Ichimura
ONI took a lot of effort to be created but it was a work of pure love. We are immensely proud of it.
Thank you to Netflix for making it possible to create new original animation projects and also for believing in us, an independent studio in Japan.
A big thank you to Tonko House for their trust in us, from the very beginning to the end, and also for being such an amazing partner in this special journey.
As for the rest of you in the world, we hope that you will enjoy watching it as much as we enjoyed creating it