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December 19, 2006

More Charlotte's Web Articles

Cinefex_Ad.jpgCheck this out: here is the spiffy congratulatory Ad will be featured in Cinefex #108 listing Tippett's talented CH crew, nicely done dLink!
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How a Complicated Web of CG Work Brought Charlotte and Friends to Life
Six Visual Effects Studios Push the Boundaries of Reality in Charlotte's Web's Barnyard
(filmandvideo)
Filmmakers rarely rely on visual effects to tell humble stories, but the gentleness of the new film version of Charlotte's Web depended largely on the artists who made the talking live-action and CG animals believable. [article w/pics] [read me]
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'Charlotte's Web' gives a rat sass with a 'so real' presence(usatoday.com)
BERKELEY, Calif. — E.B. White may have been a master wordsmith, but Steve Buscemi actually says it best: "The rat rules!"
Templeton was born out of a warren of darkened offices here at Tippett Studio, whose animators conjured up Hellboy and the giant bugs of Starship Troopers. But imaginary beasts are one thing. [article w/pics] [read more]
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Berkeley Animators Create 'Templeton' Character (nbc11.com)
BERKELEY, Calif. -- An animation studio in Berkeley created the computer-generated version of Templeton the rat, who stars in the newest movie version of "Charlotte's Web," which opens in theaters this weekend. [article w/pics] [read more]

Spinning A New Charlotte's Web (VFXWorld.com)
J. Paul Peszko reports on the collaborative CG effort between Tippett Studio, Rhythm & Hues and Rising Sun Pictures in bringing the new live-action Charlotte’s Web to the screen. [ article w/pics] [read more]

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How a Complicated Web of CG Work Brought Charlotte and Friends to Life
Six Visual Effects Studios Push the Boundaries of Reality in Charlotte's Web's Barnyard

December 20, 2006 Source: Film & Video

Filmmakers rarely rely on visual effects to tell humble stories, but the gentleness of the new film version of Charlotte’s Web depended largely on the artists who made the talking live-action and CG animals believable.

Director Gary Winick brought the adaptation of E. B. White’s classic children’s tale to the screen for Paramount Pictures; visual effects supervisor John Berton wrangled the effects crews. Six VFX studios worked on the film, with Rhythm & Hues, Tippett Studio and Rising Sun Pictures taking the lead.

The circle-of-life story in Charlotte’s Web revolves around a young girl, a young pig, a motherly spider, and a bevy of barnyard residents. Rhythm & Hues created lip synch and some facial animation for Wilbur, the pig, and most of the barn animals including Ike the horse, Betsy and Bitsy the cows, and Samuel the Sheep. Tippett Studio created Templeton the rat in CG and also digitally enhanced the mostly live-action crows. Rising Sun got Charlotte, a spider who is always CG.

“We wanted to keep each of the characters in one house so they could develop the personality for the character, understand it, and constantly and consistently put the character on screen,” says Berton. “That caused us to go into the morass of compositing these shots in different places with someone in the center knowing how to take the blocking from one character and send it to another studio. But we decided to bite that bullet to get consistent performances.”

The filmmakers shot dozens of real pigs playing Wilbur, along with other barnyard animals, though not all at the same time. It turns out that real animals aren’t as companionable as in the bucolic children’s tale. “Geese attack sheep,” says Berton. “We previs’d the whole movie to understand the relationships and what the shots were like. Without that previs, we could have been standing on the set going, ‘The geese are going to do what?’” Proof handled the previs. Tippett visual effects supervisor Blair Clark handled the second unit.

“It was so time consuming,” Clark says. “We had to do multiple motion control passes — the cows didn’t like the horse and the geese had to be on their own. And we had big sweeping camera moves into the barn. We had to film the animals in order to get the shadows right.”

Rhythm & Hues, which would make most of the live barnyard animals talk, hadn’t yet signed onto the film during most of the principal photography. “We put in requests for the kind of information we needed, though, while we were bidding,” says Todd Shifflett, visual effects supervisor. “But not getting to go through our usual process for measuring the set and the animals was one of our biggest challenges.”

Usually the studio, which won an Oscar for making Babe talk, takes stereoscopic images of the animals from two cameras simultaneously, front, top and sides. They use the stereoscopic images to build a model in 3D and to get precise measurements.

“One of the most difficult parts of the process is doing the modeling and match move for the facial tracking of the animals. That sets up the foundation for the entire effect,” says Shifflett. “It’s hard to hold a ruler up to an animal, which we also do, of course.”

Because they hadn’t taken 3D stereo images, the crew pored through outtakes looking for two pictures they could sync up to create substitutes. The outtakes proved a valuable resource in other ways, as well. “We like to get footage of the animals looking up, from each side, lighting reference and materials we can use to extract textures from,” says Shifflett. “So we looked for angles that would be useful to us.”

One of the most invisible parts of the talking-animal process is background replacement. Artists must remove an animal’s jaw before adding the talking muzzle because in a profile shot, for example, a remnant of an old muzzle might become visible when the animal opens its mouth. Thus, artists patch in a new background, sometimes using a simple garbage matte, but not always. “The sheep were particularly difficult when they were talking on top of one another because that put another sheep in the background,” Shifflett says, “and sheep wool is a difficult texture to paste back in.”

To do the lip sync, the studio creates the animal’s head and neck in CG to make it easier for match movers to line up the cg animal with the real animal. Animators work with the entire face – eyes, nose, cheeks and jaw – and occasionally even the neck. Rhythm & Hues models in Maya, but otherwise works with proprietary software.

“Essentially, this effect is a complex 3D morph,” Shifflett says. “We line up the animal in the original space, then move it, pushing and pulling the texture around to make it look like the animal is talking. We’ve done a lot of these talking animal projects, so we’re always looking for new things. What I found interesting on this project was that we pushed the technology in ways that allowed animators to make more subtle movements.”

The new technology is more realistic CG hair, fur, and shading models. When Rhythm & Hues worked on Babe, for example, they didn’t have enough rendering power to put thousands of strands of hair on the pig’s face, and subsurface scattering didn’t exist in CG.

“We used tiny little texture-mapped cards for Babe,” says Shifflett, “painted maps for the strands of hair – tiny little sprites. We’d line them up along the edge and then smear in color from the surrounding footage to look like the right color for the animal. Now, we can really color the fur, not just use background texture. We can have an accurate shading model for the hair.”

Shading models such as subsurface scattering, which added luminescence to skin, gums and teeth, also meant the team could more effectively blend the animated CG surfaces into the photography. “One of the most difficult things is to transition from live-action photography used as a texture to the CG mouth, and that happens somewhere along the lip,” says Shifflett. “You wouldn’t see the subtle motion created by the animators if we only used textures from principal photography. When you’re pushing and pulling texture around, you don’t get a lot of shading change.”

The horse provides a good example. To make it look like the lips are moving, the big broad fleshy areas of the mouth must move up and down, but without shading changes on the malleable surfaces it looks fake. “The surface is a mixture of the original background and a CG texture,” says Shifflett. “That allows us to introduce our own CG lighting, which is different from the set lighting, to create the the shading and shadow that should happen when the muzzle changes shape.”

When a muzzle stretch exposed part of an animal’s face not caught in principal photography, artists in the lighting department created a 3D patchwork quilt of textures to fill the spots. “They might have 20 or 30 spots on any shot that they have to paint and blend together,” says Shifflett. To do this, they paint a series of mattes and then reveal textures they know will work through those mattes. The tiny textures come from different frames in the film – the outtakes. “Think of using the little clone tool in Photoshop,” Shifflett says. “It’s like using it on a 3D surface across time.”

Although compositors might have handled this process, the studio decided that, because the lighters focused on lighting the eyes and inside of the mouth, it was better to have them stitch the patches.

Anyway, the compositors had enough to do. They had the finishing touches – the specular highlights for the eyes, the color blending, and more. “It wasn’t as simple as getting this thing from the lighters and comping it on top,” says Shifflett. “They had to maintain the grain of the film. Some of the pieces in the patchwork on the face are individual frames that we locked down or stuck onto the creature for the shot, and some are patches of animating textures. Mapping the textures onto the animal affects the grain structure, so we had to blend those or you’d see floating blobs on the screen. There’s no way to do that automatically.”

Berton believes that the work Rhythm & Hues did for Charlotte’s Web pushed beyond that for talking animals created in the past. “In the past, you’d try to get away without creating fur for the pig, but you can’t, and we didn’t,” says Berton. “The fur rendering on the pig was incredibly important. It was a technical achievement. We had a subtle story to tell, and our characters could tell it in a way that fit the tone of the film. You can’t do that without complex surfaces and people who can manipulate those surfaces.”

Berton believes the most difficult animal in the film, though, might have been Charlotte the spider, who saves Wilbur, the spring pig, from becoming Christmas dinner by spinning words into her web. “At the end of the movie, when she says, ‘The miracle is you,’ in full close-up, she has to be to bring it home,” says Berton. "We worked very hard to make Charlotte perfect for that moment.” Charlotte had to be endearing, but she was still a spider in a live-action film.

That challenge fell to Rising Sun Pictures in Adelaide, Australia. There, visual effects supervisor John Dietz led a team of more than 60 artists who convinced audiences that spiders, or at least this particular spider, could be endearing.

“It’s a dream job to have a title character,” he says. “We had worked with the filmmakers before, and we did a good test that I think convinced them we understood the book and the nature of her character.” Also, taking this role would be an important step for the studio, which had not yet handled a lead character in a film. “The filmmakers knew we wouldn’t let Charlotte not turn out as good as she could be.”

To create Charlotte, Rising Sun used Softimage XSI for the modeling, rigging, and animation of the eight-legged creature, and for grooming her fur. For rendering, they use 3Delight, a RenderMan compliant renderer; for compositing, Shake; for tracking, Boujou with Hype software from Visual Appliance. “It’s a cool piece of software that removes lens distortion so you can work in an undistorted environment,” says Dietz of Hype. “It helps Boujou get better solves on the tracks.” Cinesync software from Rising Sun's sister company allowed them to share QuickTime versions of their dailies over the Internet with Berton once he returned to the States after filming in Australia.

The biggest challenge for Charlotte, Dietz believes, was her design. “At first we tried to make her fluffy, but she had to be real so we moved into more of a lifelike design,” he says. “But photoreal was too much.” To soften her creepy-crawly look, the artists gave her humanistic eyes, moved her secondary eyes above her “brows,” made her face heart-shaped, and developed a smile line from her fang lines. When the camera moves close, she becomes a performer; when the camera moves away, she becomes a spider.

But Charlotte wasn’t the biggest challenge for the crew. Her webs were. The studio created the webs using three different materials, each with different tensile strengths, and proprietary software that works inside XSI. “Nothing off the shelf could take those three materials, turn on dynamics for the combination, and make them behave properly in the wind,” says Dietz. The web also had to react to the spider’s sticky feet. A dramatic sequence, during which the spider first weaves words into a web, is entirely CG.

Fortunately, Charlotte often appeared on camera separately from the other characters, but in a few sequences, she needed to share the spotlight with other animals. “We determined who would be the lead vendor on a sequence-by-sequence basis,” says Dietz. “If Charlotte and Templeton [the rat] worked together, we’d share gray-shaded stuff.”

Tippett Studio created the always-CG rat Templeton. While Clark was on set during principal photography, co-visual effects supervisor Joel Friesch managed the rat work back in Berkeley. As with Charlotte, the challenge was in making a scary animal not so scary.

“He had to look like a real rat because he plays against real animals,” says Friesch, “but when he’s true to real, he could go scary easily.” Moreover, this rat had to act in ways real rats don’t. In one shot, for example, the rat rolls gloriously on his back in buttermilk, which a real rat wouldn’t do, and in another, drinks out of a little wax bottle. To soften the rat’s rodent demeanor, Tippett played him nose down to avoid looking at his big, yellow teeth. They also turned his eyes in a bit and made his “hands” act more squirrel-like than ratty.

Templeton stars in the film’s action scenes – racing through his little tunnel (a practical set) and scampering through the crowds at the county fair. “Our goal was to have it look like a trained rat was precisely hitting his marks,” says animation supervisor Todd Labonte who worked with a team of as many as 18 animators to create walking patterns and behaviors for the rat based on dialog from voice actor Steve Buscemi.

Working in Maya, animators blocked out the performance in low-res, then moved to temp animation for approvals. In low-res, they could toggle a shell to estimate the shape changes once Templeton was furred.

For fur, Tippett uses proprietary software they call “Furocious,” and for rendering, RenderMan. Tippett also animated the two crows by match-moving and tracking the live crows’ beaks.

During one shot, the Tippett animals all appear together: Templeton lures the crows into an arcade and into crashing into a scarecrow. In this shot, the crows were sometimes elements shot in Los Angeles, sometimes CG; Tippett filmed the scarecrows in Berkeley. For feathers, the studio modified its fur tools. “Fortunately, the crows are black,” says Friesch, noting that these shots arrived after they were well into production.

Two other studios, both in Australia, contributed to the visual effects. Fuel International in Sydney created baby spiders and beak replacements for the geese. Digital Pictures: Iloura in Melbourne created Wilbur’s stunt double. “They did something along the lines of 50 shots,” says Berton. “Anytime you ask, ‘How did they get a pig to do that?’, he’s probably a digital pig.”

With so many studios working on the effects, Berton masterminded a novel method for dealing with color-space issues. “We picked a digital image from each scanned sequence as a target,” he says. “As long as the studios could match that picture, I knew everything would match. It didn’t matter if that was the right color; it only mattered that it was the same color.” As a result, a color-correction that worked for one shot worked for all the shots, which sped up the DI process at the end.

For Berton, this project was a labor of love. “Charlotte’s Web was the first book I read that didn’t have mostly pictures. The story of friendship and sacrifice blew me away. It was a big moment for me.”

Sadly, though, the charming film wasn’t chosen to be a contender for the visual effects Oscar. Berton thinks that’s probably fitting. “It reminds me of the scene where the big pig gets the blue ribbon,” he says.
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'Charlotte's Web' gives a rat sass with a 'so real' presence
Updated 12/20/2006 8:04 AM ET
By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
BERKELEY, Calif. — E.B. White may have been a master wordsmith, but Steve Buscemi actually says it best: "The rat rules!"

The new live-action version of White's iconic children's tale, Charlotte's Web, features a computer-generated rat so lifelike that animal actors everywhere should be quaking in their hides.

THREE OINKS: Charlotte's Web review

"I always figured they'd use a real rat for some scenes, like they did with the other (animal) characters," says Buscemi, who voices Templeton, a rodent with a bloated ego who grudgingly learns the value of friendship from his barn mates. "I was amazed when I first saw him. He just looks so real."

Templeton was born out of a warren of darkened offices here at Tippett Studio, whose animators conjured up Hellboy and the giant bugs of Starship Troopers. But imaginary beasts are one thing.

"We assumed someone in the audience would have a pet rat and know if what Templeton was doing didn't look right," says effects supervisor Joel Friesch, who with colleague Blair Clark oversaw Tippett's work on Charlotte's. "We had to get it right."

The key to the CG rat's uncanny resemblance was found just down the block at a zoo-like reptile emporium called the East Bay Vivarium.

"We picked out a brownish rat that was destined to be a big python's lunch," Friesch says.

Nicknamed Splinter, the critter soon found himself fed, handled and videotaped by his new family. But despite being saved from the jaws of a snake, he wasn't entirely on board with the project.

"We had a chart of everyone he bit, some more than once," Clark says, smiling. "Boy, what a prima donna."

Months with Splinter helped animators create a lifelike rodent using computer mice and digital pixels. But they also found that some rat habits and movements would take major effort to translate to the big screen, if they could at all:

•Because a rat's mouth is tucked way under its nose, "whenever Templeton spoke, we had to make his head tilt up a bit without it looking too awkward," Friesch says.

•"Rats are very clean and groom themselves constantly, like cats," Clark says. But in the film, Templeton revels in filth.

•Sequences of Templeton twisting his head 180 degrees relative to his body were nixed. "Real rats do it, but on screen it looked sort of creepy," Clark says.

By far the toughest animation challenge was a three-second pan that took weeks to conjure. It shows Templeton lolling in a tub of buttermilk. To see how a rat's fur would mat when wet, Clark and Friesch gave Splinter a bath.

"Ah, let's just say that's not something I'd want to do again," Clark says. "He was not happy."

Alas, Splinter is no more. Templeton's template died a few months back. Clark buried him near the company's outdoor picnic tables, beneath a headstone that resembles a block of cheese.

In a nod to a poignant moment in director Gary Winick's Charlotte's Web, it reads, simply, "Some rat."

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Berkeley Animators Create 'Templeton' Character (nbc11.com)
BERKELEY, Calif. -- An animation studio in Berkeley created the computer-generated version of Templeton the rat, who stars in the newest movie version of "Charlotte's Web," which opens in theaters this weekend.

Joel Friesch supervised the creation of Templeton, which involved about 170 people at Tippet Studio in Berkeley, NBC11's Susan Siravo reported.

"We strived really hard to make a real rat," Friesch said.

Friesch said animators used a real rat, which they named Splinter, to help create Templeton.
Click here to find out more!

"You start with a wire-frame rat with a model builder, and give that to the puppet guys or the riggers. They'll put a skeleton in it, so the rat can move," Friesch said.

Animators studied Splinter to replicate his appearance and movements.

"(We) took video of him, photographs of him, made him go through obstacle courses for the animators, people got to hold him," Friesch said.

Splinter got to live the good life at Tippett Studio for about two years. Sadly, he has passed away and was buried near the company outdoor patio, Siravo reported.

Friesch said she doesn't expect to receive many accolades, because actors get most of the attention. He said that if people don't notice their work, they've done their job well.

"If you're watching the movie and you think Templeton is real, and they did mouth replacement to make him talk, that's a huge compliment to us, because that means we fooled you," Friesch said.

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Spinning A New Charlotte’s Web (VFXWorld.com)
J. Paul Peszko reports on the collaborative CG effort between Tippett Studio, Rhythm & Hues and Rising Sun Pictures in bringing the new live-action Charlotte’s Web to the screen.

This month marks the release of Paramount’s much awaited live-action version of E. B. White’s classic children’s tale, Charlotte’s Web (Dec. 15). The process, as producer Jordan Kerner explains it, involved making two movies. "We made one movie with our wonderful live actors. Then we made another movie that added computer images, face replacements, eye rhythms, moving mouths and facial expressions that mimic the actors. Hopefully, this second movie fits seamlessly with the first."

To accomplish this, five visual effects houses joined forces to create the computer-generated effects: the Tippett Studio in Berkeley, Rhythm & Hues (R&H) in Los Angeles and Australia-based houses Rising Sun Pictures (RSP), Fuel International and Digital Pictures Iloura. Through the cineSync program developed by RSP, director Gary Winick, Kerner and the visual effects staff could fully communicate in realtime even when thousands of miles away from each other. First, let's take a look at the two effects houses on this side of the Pacific before moving on to RSP.

Joel Friesch and Blair Clark were the visual effects supervisors for Tippett Studio. “We were to create Templeton, which is the rat,” says Friesch. “He was going to be completely CG throughout the whole film.” This, as you can well imagine, presented several challenges. “First off the rat had to be photoreal,” states Friesch. “He had to cut against and with real animals. So, if our rat didn’t look real that kind of blows the whole illusion of real animals talking. That was our biggest challenge. The second one was to build a photoreal rat and yet still give him the ability to act because he had a definite character curve throughout the movie. So, we had to make sure he could still act and show emotion. Then our next challenge was that, a third of the way through the production, they came to us and asked if we could do some crows. We had not really prepared for that in pre-production. So, we had to build a feather tool and create crows that were also photoreal and squeeze it into our pipeline. Our crew, our pipeline and our schedule were set up to do the rat and this was a little something extra.”
Tippett Studio has done quite a few furry animals for various productions, including the sentient cat from Catwoman and the Russian Blue from Cats & Dogs, so creating Templeton was something they could really sink their teeth into. Having a proprietary fur tool already in the pipeline along with detailed movement studies allowed the artists and animators at Tippett to accelerate and enhance their renders to the point that they were ahead of the other vfx houses working on the production. “We were always moving, and the cup was constantly changing, so we were having to change things,” Friesch explains. “Sometimes we’d work on a shot and find out that the shot was cut. Then we’d stop and find out the shot was back in again, so we’d have to start up again. Things like that were always happening.” However, because they were always ahead, Tippett tended to take the lead in completing the shots. “So, in the shots that we had to exchange with Rising Sun or R&H, we’d pretty much have our rat down and give them an alpha channel, and then they would take the shot and put their character in.” Since Templeton was completed first, this enabled the Tippett crew along with director Winick to establish the eye lines that the other companies would follow in subsequent shots.

Not only did their previous experience with furry animals allow the visual effects team at Tippett to speed up their production but also to be more creative. “Among other things, this show didn’t have huge technological leaps, where you had to figure out how to do something,” continues Friesch. “It was a nice show for our artists to really concentrate on being creative because they didn’t have to worry about any of those limitations. The stuff that we had to do, we had pretty much done before on other shows. So, we were pretty confident that we could pull the rat off. The artists could just create and didn’t have to worry about technology so much. It was a little different for the crows, but it wasn’t so bad. But for Templeton, it was nice just watching people be creative.”

All in all, there were approximately 115 artists working on the Tippett crew at the height of the production. As for technology, Friesch explains, “We used RenderMan for rendering. All of our animation, models, a lot of the effects animation and things like that were done in Maya and composited in the new Shake. I believe we used RealFlow for some water effects.”

While Friesch remained at the Tippett Studio in Berkeley to oversee the creation of Templeton, Clark, their other visual effects supervisor, went on location to Victoria, Australia, for principal photography. “My job on location was to work with John Berton Jr., who was the overall visual effects supervisor,” says Clark. “We ended up working quite a bit together, and also they created a second unit. So, I went on to oversee the plates shot on the second unit while John stayed on with the main unit. That kind of entailed shooting motion control passes for all the animals as well as the stuff specifically for Tippett, which would be the plates for the rat and the plates for the crows.”
Clark worked closely with second unit director, E. J. Forester, and John Mahaffey, the second unit dp. “Most of the shots were things that didn’t have any live-action actors in them,” Clark explains, “so we kind of focused on the more time-consuming, laborious kind of things like motion control and getting all of the plates where they had to have all of the characters in the barn together.” Shooting all of those different animals was by no means an easy task. “You couldn’t shoot them all at once mainly because of maintaining eye lines, and all of the animals (gathered together) at one time would have been a nightmare. It was hard enough, say, just with the sheep. You had five sheep and a trainer with a little stick with a ball on the end to get their eye lines. You’d always get one sheep that was just going nuts. So, we would shoot them in different passes. And some of the animals didn’t get along. The horse didn’t like the cows because they were in close proximity. You’d have to shoot them separately. Then you’d have to shoot the geese separate from everyone. The geese were so hated universally by the other animals. Then you’d have to shoot them in a specific order, so you wouldn’t run into problems as far as the shadows cast from the cows onto the geese. There was a lot of that. And that’s pretty much what the job was, making sure everything was shot in an organized order for technical reasons and making sure that everything was covered with any necessary bluescreen and getting all the reference we needed. We shot a lot of reference.”

Todd Shifflett, the visual effects supervisor for R&H, explains their work on Charlotte’s Web. “R&H was responsible for creating the facial expression and articulation for the live-action barnyard creatures, everything from animating their vocalizations to subtle emotional cues that come from a squint, a frown or a smile,” explains Shifflett. “Time and production schedules are always a complicating factor. We're always caught in a need to improve upon the techniques while at the same time make the process go faster. There are a lot of challenges that arise from that. You need a team of not only experienced artists but a creative production staff as well.”
One of the challenges that R&H had to face was character matchmove without sufficient modeling. “R&H really came onto the production after principal photography had completed and so we did not get to employ some of the modeling and measuring techniques we normally use with a talking animal project,” states Shifflett. “The modeling and matchmove process is the foundation for the entire effect and requires very exacting detail. The nature of working with live animals on set means that there have got to be several real animals playing the part of one character, each of which has slightly different features that can make recreating that motion a real nightmare.”

To overcome this, R&H developed automated facial tracking software, but, according to Shifflett, the real key is still to rely on very skilled and persistent artists. “With the look and feel of the animals in Charlotte's Web, we were able to utilize some more recent advances in the speed and quality of rendered fur to help add reality to very subtle facial motion which allowed the animators to really explore the animal's emotional expression. Usually, with talking animals, you struggle with needing to over exaggerate an expression just to make it read, and we're now really getting to the point where we can manipulate very small details, which has a subtle effect that leads to a much larger impact on the audience.”
Another challenge was that of trying to apply a universal standard to the collaborative effort. As Shifflett explains, “Sharing shots with other visual effects houses is always a challenge. And we were lucky enough to work with some very talented people in other facilities. But the visual effects industry still struggles with standards, in particular how to manage color. With each facility attacking the problem in a different way, you can very quickly generate a lot of confusion. I have to say that, as we come to terms with how to produce a film whose delivery is now digital rather than on negative, John Berton did a fantastic job holding all the pieces together so that each studio could concentrate on what they needed to do.”

Meanwhile, RSP had the role of creating the lead character for Charlotte’s Web. Starting in January 2005 and finishing in July 2006, RSP delivered 242 shots of spider Charlotte and her magnificent webs that comprised approximately 23 minutes of screen time. A team of 65 artists and 25 support staff developed the photorealistic CG character, who is voiced by Oscar winner Julia Roberts.

Naturally, a realistic yet lovable Charlotte was crucial to the success of the story. Like Templeton, she needed to display an onscreen presence without breaking the illusion that this unique arachnid was as much a part of Zuckerman's barn as the rest of the animal cast. RSP built a collaborative relationship with the filmmakers, especially director Winick, vfx supervisor Berton Jr. and animation supervisor Eric Leighton. They succeeded, says director Winick, by paying special attention to the eyes. "They had to have a quality to them that would be expressive." An additional challenge that RSP undertook was the creation of the web, which Charlotte uses in the story to communicate with the world. The team at RSP developed an extensive set of custom tools for Charlotte to interact with her web and the environment and for the web to look suitably magical and realistic.
John Dietz, visual effects supervisor for RSP, talks about the daunting task that faced them. “Because of the nature of her character, being so iconic, and also that she's a spider who needs to be nurturing, motherly and endearing, design and finding her character proved extremely difficult. Getting it wrong just wasn't an option.”

Finding the proper balance was essential. “We started with the look design, and went through many iterations. We went from too cute and cuddly, to too photoreal and spidery and back and forth. Finding that balance was always the main key and also to get the performance out of her because this isn't a typical visual effects movie (she sits on screen for extended periods of time delivering intense dialog). We had to try and develop a language in the design of her face to keep her a bit humanistic but not lose her ‘spideryness’ or become too cartoony.

“On a spider, the main place to go is the eyes. There really isn't much else there that's human. We took the eyes of a spider, which are pretty much just spherical, and we made them almond shaped. Also, we edged on the side of a human iris. These things also made her feel feminine. Spiders have eight eyes, so we used the secondary eyes to represent a brow line to get slight expressions. Spiders also have chelicerae, which are basically the fangs, so we used the line between those fangs and the main shape of her head to have a line that represented a mouth line. We didn't animate it that much, but we could come into a shot more in a smile or turned down into a frown. Also the shape of the head, and the chelicerae made a heart shape that we really focused on, also to give her more femininity. We always went back and forth on Charlotte having a mouth, but in the end we animated the fangs on major phonemes, simulating a mouth behind. [It was] almost like the fangs played like a vale, or cloth. Again very feminine.”
Femininity is certainly not something a moviegoer would associate with a spider’s fur or exoskeleton. Dietz explains how RSP handled that problem. “Actually spiders are usually pretty spikey -- that's not very feminine or attractive, so we went with a more downy type fur, like a fawn but still let the exoskeleton play through the fur, mostly on the legs. The combo becomes sort of furry/cuddly, but the exoskeleton takes light nicely and let's you know that she's still a spider.”

Another unattractive aspect of a spider when it comes to a screen heroine is her twitchy posture and movement. Gangly at best with all those legs moving up and down in a choppy staccato motion as she crawls along, her posture is anything but feminine or such that it can evoke a variety of emotions. “We had to do a similar process for all of her animation/performance, building that language of her posture when she's happy, sad, angry, etc.,” Dietz discloses. “Also to keep that balance between spider and character, we really animated her ‘spidery’ in wider shots, where her legs move more naturalistically. Then you come to a close up for impact, and we toned down all the spider twitchiness and major movements and let her perform more like a character to get the meaning of the shot. Making sure all that language was correct to deliver an arc of her character and have the audience bond with this spider was by far and away the most difficult part of this project.”
RSP did their rendering using 3Delight, a RenderMan-compliant renderer. The 3D animation was done in XSI and 2D in Shake, while boujou was used for tracking. Lighting was carried out using a custom RSP light rig in XSI. “Because we rendered out of 3Delight and did our animation and lighting in XSI, we had to write a proprietary .rib exporter for XSI called Affogoto,” Dietz explains. “Also, because of the nature and complexity of the webs, we wrote all the web dynamics ourselves.”

In addition, ambient and reflection occlusion were used on the body to mask out the HDR reflections and the lighting. 3Delight added extensions for hair rendering that allowed quality control beyond the industry standard. HDR environment maps, captured on the set, were utilized for eye and body reflections and anisotropic reflections on hair for realism. Due to the need for interactive tweaking of the look of Charlotte and her web, there were more than 30 separate elements passes for Charlotte and 40 for the web.

As mentioned above, RSP used cineSync, a remote review and approval tool that was developed by Rising Sun research, that allowed all the companies involved in the production to review each other’s images and communicate visually in realtime no matter where they were in the world.

In that regard, too, Dietz says that all of the other visual effects companies were great to work with. “Iloura, R&H and Tippett did CG characters or facial replacement work, so when Charlotte was in a shot with a CG Wilbur [the pig] or Templeton, we'd pass the plates back and forth for blocking and to develop eye lines. Fuel did the baby spiders, so we worked with them as the Charlotte design was developed.”

Dietz is extremely pleased to have pulled off the lead character of a classic tale. “Everyone stayed focused, passionate, resolved, to get this done right for a long schedule. I'm as proud of the work as I ever have of any project, but I'm really proud of the people who made it happen. It was a special project!”

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.

  

Posted by dschnee at December 19, 2006 9:59 PM