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December 10, 2006

Building a better rat in 'Charlotte's Web'

A look behind-the-scenes at the making of Templeton the rat.
By Sheigh Crabtree, Special to The Times

ANIMATORS at Tippett Studio took the tenets of Method acting to a new level when they rescued a rat from a snake's mouth and put him up in luxurious digs in their Bay Area studio where they could scrutinize his every move.

It was all to prepare for a leading role in Paramount Pictures' "Charlotte's Web," opening Friday, which revolves around a series of startling events that occur in a barnyard filled with ordinary animals.

Director Gary Winick sought to root the creatures in reality: For starters he cast the film with actual animals — the only exception being two of its stars: Charlotte the spider (voiced by Julia Roberts) and Templeton the rat (Steve Buscemi).

To cast the film's computer-animated rodent, producers at Paramount turned to seven visual effects houses around the globe. Each shop was sent a packet of test materials, including an illustration of the Templeton character, 15 seconds of barnyard footage and a clip of an actor reading the rat's dialogue. The studios had two months to build a computer model, animate it in sync with the dialogue and composite their pest into the barnyard plate.

One hopeful, Tippett Studio in Berkeley, created a 15-second performance piece showcasing its take on the famously grouchy kids' book character. Looking back, Tippett visual effects supervisor Joel Friesch says their version of Templeton looked a bit like a bear, while supervising animator Todd LaBonte says it recalled a miniature dog.

But something about the rat's attitude in the screen test captured the imagination of Paramount production execs; they awarded the job to Tippett a few months later. When the artists heard the news, their first order of business was to head to a pet shop and splurge on a $7 Dumpster rat for reference.

Quickly dubbed Master Splinter, after the all-knowing martial artist rat in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," the new pet would serve as muse to a studio of computer artists working to create the most believable CG rat possible. They say Master Splinter lived a life of leisure except when he was doused with water so artists could study the way the liquid altered his fur.

Founded by CG luminary Phil Tippett, the studio is well versed in fur effects. The company wrote an in-house software tool now in its fourth generation called Furoscious that enabled visual effects artists to cover the CG model of Templeton with 1.5 million realistic rat hairs.

It was up to the animators to minimize a tendency toward human pantomime and deliver realistic rat kinetics to Winick's specifications by becoming experts in rat motion. Animators were going for the antithesis of the boyish mouse in "Stuart Little." Instead, Templeton's humanistic gestures are layered lightly onto a virtual rat and expressed primarily through his "movie mouth," says LaBonte.

And while some celebrities are badly cast in animated voice roles, delivering flat performances, LaBonte says Buscemi's voice for Templeton was a delight to animate.

"A guy like Buscemi conveys so much humor and menace and intensity in his voice that it makes our animation so much cooler," he enthuses. (For their own edification, the animators created a reel of Templeton performing to Buscemi's expletive-laden scenes in "Reservoir Dogs.")

Once the movie got underway on location, principal photography provided animators with a few natural gifts too. Animators often spend hours combing through raw footage (known as background plates) looking for opportunities to tie the CG world and real world together.

In one case, animator Raquel Cahuelo spotted a take in which a real-life newborn gosling accidentally tripped over itself. She incorporated Templeton into that plate to make it look as if he pushes the baby out of his way to grab an unhatched egg with the intent of turning it into dinner. "It was so cold-hearted we had to leave it in," LaBonte chuckles.

And what about Master Splinter? Three weeks before Tippett shipped the last of their 280 shots, their in-house rat passed away. "Master Splinter served his purpose," LaBonte says in his best Buscemi voice. "Roll the credits, cut to black."

-Building a better rat in 'Charlotte's Web' from the latimes.com


Posted by dschnee at December 10, 2006 11:21 AM