The WB HOTEL, Abu DhabiJanuary 29, 2023
You might not pick Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates as the likeliest place for the first-ever Warner Brothers theme park and hotel, but a place that can hit a hundred thirteen degrees Fahrenheit with 90 percent humidity in August is just crying out for a few dozen air-conditioned rooms! (To be fair…. Abu Dhabi does have a lovely long stretch of perfect weather for quite a lot of the rest of the year.) The hotel, situated on popular tourist destination Yas Island, opened in autumn of 2021, joining a plethora of hip, happenin’ shops, restaurants, and other hotels and theme parks.
It’s quite a place:
“And, just what,” I hear you say, “does any of that have to do with a Chicago animation production company? You guys do air conditioner maintenance on the side, or what?” (Knock on wood, not yet.) No, it was our friends at Digital Kitchen who came to us one fine day in 2019 and said, “Hey, you guys want to create a whole lotta animation of your favorite Warner Brothers characters that’ll get played on monitors a few stories high in a hotel visited by thousands every month?” And we said, “Hmmmm, well, you know, we’ll have to think about that okay yes please when do we start.”
So we signed on and geared up and hunkered down and launched off on nine, or ten, or perhaps twelve (depending on how you count it…. it got kinda complicated…. details below) animated works, each a few minutes long, and custom composed for each of the various large monitors around the hotel.
Digital Kitchen Creative Director, Ryan Summers, had already created most of the initial concepts for the several animations. We rounded out and filled in some of his ideas, and generally just had a ball orchestrating the action in each spot.
There is a giant vertical-format monitor on the outside of the building for which we created clips of The Iron Giant, a series of Roadrunner/Coyote gags, and a bit where the Jetsons meet the Flintstones. A monitor near the pool features animation of the Teen Titans reminding you of pool safety and courtesy. (And, by a special holographic process, they jump out of the screen and whop you with a pool noodle if you pee in the water.) And we (okay…. that was a joke, they don’t really…. but they should) executed three works for hands-down the strangest monitor configuration we’ve ever encountered — multiple large screens mounted on columns which face each other across the hotel lobby, with gaps in between each column and screen. For those, we created animated scenarios of Scooby-Doo (oooh scary!), Tom and Jerry (as seen from various simultaneous camera views), and finally Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, duking it out on a Space Jam-ish basketball court. Not only did Ryan Summers work out the ingenious initial layouts for those pieces, we were also lucky enough to have veteran directors/animators Neal Sternecky and Bob Rissetto aboard to help keep everything true to classic Warner Bros mojo.
Here’s a little about each of the animations….
THE IRON GIANT animation plays, naturally enough, on the humongous outside monitor (which, we were informed, had special engineering issues: Such a big old honkin’ monitor gets hotter than Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace as it is, but this thing is also playing in about a hundred-thirteen-degree-Fahrenheit heat during the hotter parts of the Abu Dhabi year.) Calabash animator Nick Oropeza headed this CG project up, re-creating the big guy encountering a little AC/DC before rocketing off into the heavens.
The Jetsons meet the Flintstones
THE JETSONS MEET THE FLINTSTONES also plays on the outside monitor. Jeff Mika brought his 2D animation chops to this, placing the Jetsonian architecture into the landscape of Bedrock, which sets the scene for Fred and Wilma to say hello to George and Jane…. and exchange Astro for Dino, since the pets inexplicably start out in the wrong family cars.
ACME (Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote)
Our third animation for the outside monitor showcases some beloved Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner gags, which we re-created with a hybrid of Toon Boom 2D animation puppeting techniques, a few CG effects, and quite a lot of good old-fashioned hand drawn animation.
Teen Titans GO!
A large monitor near the pool features the TEEN TITANS in 3 animations: SAFETY LESSONS, DANCE PARTY, and COMING ATTRACTIONS. The look of the Titans is very designy and we made extensive use of Toon Boom Harmony to animate the figures.
Tom & Jerry
TOM AND JERRY is one (or several) of three (or more) animations we created for the hotel lobby. The layouts had to fit the lobby columns, with scenes depicting a string of T&J routines as might be seen by multiple security cameras in the house. Those multiple views meant multiple animations, so we had our work cut out for us, showing the same actions from different vantage points. And it’s a hand-drawn 2D cartoon, in the style of the old classics from the ‘40s, so it wasn’t quite the same as shifting a camera around in CG to see the same database from new angles. (Not that that’s all that easy, either. People who haven’t dealt with CG think that computer animation is all just pushing a button and watching something beautiful happen, but you know, shifting a CG camera around in Tom and Jerry’s CG house, you’re liable to wake up the bulldog that’ll chomp on your z-axis, or maybe a bear trap will snap shut on your Blinn-Phong deformer or something.)
Our tribute to SCOOBY-DOO was also designed to take advantage of the possibilities of those lobby columns. The story that plays out across the three vertical monitors is a condensed nugget of quintessential scooby-dooistic plot devices. We toyed with the possibility that it might end with Velma, Daphne, Fred and Shaggy pulling the mask off the villain and it turns out to be… gasp! YOU, the viewer, integrated into the monitor through an ingenious hidden camera arrangement. And we would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for the meddlesome reality of time, expense, complication, and the fact that nobody thought it was a good idea.
Our final animated work for the lobby columns was an homage to SPACE JAM, and featured two separate animations of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in a basketball showdown. The directive from Digital Kitchen made ingenious use of the hotel’s playful architecture. Did I mention(?), the screens in the lobby are mounted on six columns – three to a side – that flank the lobby and face each other. With Bugs on one set of screens, appearing to face across the lobby to Daffy on the other side, you can chill out on the bright orange sofa in between, sipping your sulaimani and gahwa and looking back and forth as the duel commences. Once again, it’s hand drawn, and Jeff Mika made ingenious use of Toon Boom capabilities as the production clock ticked down. Sean Henry, Christopher Blake, and Nick Oropeza created the basketball court to visually duplicate what little we could gather of the (at the time, upcoming) 2021 Space Jam extravaganza.
Final word…. this was highly collaborative work, made possible only by the amazing project management skills of Diane Grider, our rock-steady coordinator of the Remarkably Large Team of talented folks who contributed their talents in that crazy, covid-haunted summer and autumn of 2020, to get all this done in seven months with everyone working from home and communicating on Slack from quite literally around the world.
Hope you’re able to get to Abu Dhabi and check it all out in person someday. Send us a postcard if you do!
About the author: Wayne Brejcha is Creative Director and co-owner of Calabash Animation.
Contact Calabash Animation to find out how we can help bring your story to life – from storyboarding and pre-production through final animation!