Chocolate Tribe’s creature realism in Netflix feature a first for the continent

Chocolate Tribe, the high-end visual effects, animation, and IP development studio, has once again made us say, ‘Wait, is that not real?!’ The game of creature creation on the continent has been taken to another level with their latest animated hyena character named Jonga, a photoreal masterpiece crafted for the Netflix film ‘iNumber Number 2: Jozi Gold.’ This project marks the first CGI-created creature to come from South Africa in a Netflix feature but more importantly, this work proves that even our smaller studios from South Africa can rival the best in the world. Go Tribe! 

Creating the hyena Jonga took over 8 months, as the film needed over 50 shots animated, including some extreme close-ups. What sets this project apart is not just the technical brilliance that’s synonymous with Chocolate Tribe but also their dedication to authenticity. Pursuing and pushing the realism of the creature was the biggest challenge for the studio, one they definitely overcame.

iNumber Number Jozi Gold – Behind The Scenes

Rob Van den Bragt, Chief Creative Officer of Chocolate Tribe, says, ‘For us, it’s always about comparing yourself to the best in the world, competing with them and being just as good if not better. We always set really high standards for ourselves and we don’t just want to deliver something that the client is maybe happy with, WE want to be happy with it. We look at live-action and we just want to match that. It’s challenging, but we love this stuff.’

Extensive research on hyenas was conducted by the Tribe to accurately depict their movement, gait, growl and fur nuances. Jonga’s body is full of imperfections, nothing is symmetrical, nothing is perfect, it’s scratched, it’s dirty, it’s just like a real hyena! Equally as important to the Tribe was the way Jongo moves with every single motion detailed and nuanced, down to the way her fur blows in the wind.

According to Chief Technical Officer, Tiaan Franken, to get creature work right there are two really important things that you have to consider. Firstly, the way the creature moves and distributes its weight. If that’s not 100% accurate you fail. ‘You can have the most beautiful-looking creature that looks photoreal on a still image, but if that creature can’t move and breathe authentically, you’ve already missed the mark,’ says Tiaan. The second thing is the look and feel, this includes how the fur looks and how it moves with the creature and then the photorealism of the lighting and how the body looks in different lighting. ‘It’s all about integrating the creature into the world and with its fellow performers,’ adds Tiaan.

Jonga the hyena was fully rigged with a muscle system that enabled Chocolate Tribe to simulate reality with the way the character would perform and move and behave. And for those animation buffs out there, the tools at their disposal included Autodesk’s Maya, Ziva muscle simulation toolset, Peregrine Labs’ Yeti for hair simulations, Autodesk Arnold renderer for photorealistic rendering, Houdini for simulations, Substance Painter for texturing, ZBrush for sculpting, and The Foundry’s Nuke for final integrations.

‘The level of interaction and simulation we wanted to achieve required a lot of integration with actors. We know when it comes to this kind of animation, that we have succeeded when it feels like there is actual contact between the CG character and the actual performer. In the behind the scenes video you see the funny little green plushy we had made to fight with the actress – Brenda Ngxoli on the floor. That interaction helps the actor behave and react to what will become Jonga once all the compositing is done,’ says Tiaan.

Tiaan adds, ‘You have to animate resistance. A lot of times when you animate a creature that has a chain or rope tied to its body, it can feel fake. You have to animate weight distribution, this includes things like how the body would move if someone tugs on the chain. Our animation director took that to another level, refining that weight distribution and the way the character would behave and pant. Those imperfections and details make our creature grounded in that world.’

This film, in collaboration with Quizzical and directed by Donovan Marsh, marks a significant milestone not only for Chocolate Tribe but for the entire African film industry. Nosipho Maketo van den Bragt, Chief Executive Officer says, “We are passionate about the work we do and feel that it’s not just the big international studios that are able to produce this calibre of work, we can do it too. We are a small team, streamlined, clear pipelines and workflows and that’s where the genius is. We always challenge ourselves and seek to improve our CG work because we want people to know that this can be done here.’

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Produced by the IDIDTHAT Content Studio – Credits: Anne Hirsch (Writer) / Julie Maunder

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