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November 22, 2009

How Animators Tackled Werewolf Transformations in New Moon

To create an all-new form of werewolf transformation for The Twilight Saga: New Moon, which hit theaters on Friday, VFX house Tippett Studios turned to R&D, 3D scans—and real-life wolves.
By Erin McCarthy

In most werewolf movies, men endure a bone-cracking, skin-splitting transformation from human into wolf. But in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, male members of the Native American Quileute tribe—descended, according to legend, from wolves—phase into horse-size wolves by popping out of their skin. And that posed a unique challenge for Phil Tippett, founder of Tippett Studios, which created the werewolves. "We characterized it as the ‘5 pounds of crap in the 2-pound bag' problem," he says. "How to get a 160-ish-pound guy to turn into a 1200-pound wolf is a trick."

To pull off this bit of movie magic, VFX artists first took 3D scans of the lead werewolf actors, including Taylor Lautner, who plays Jacob, and Alex Meraz, who plays Paul. "I was expecting to be in a green suit, with little pins everywhere," Meraz says. "They just had me stand on an apple box, and this big machine came up, down and over. I could watch on the monitor and my whole body was right there onscreen, a perfect scan of it."

The phasing that turned men into 1200-pound wolves was, naturally, one of the first things on the VFX artists' agenda. "The conceit for the transformation, for making the trick work, was that it had to happen quickly," Tippett says. "Our technical supervisor, Erin Boreland, came up with a system for this phasing, which she banged out in a couple of weeks. Everybody was surprised—we thought that would take months to hammer out."

Next, animators had to create the wolves. After determining what the wolves weren't—"beasty werewolf/wolfman-type things," Tippett says, "but timber wolves the size of horses"—animators had to think about conquering the uncanny valley, which occurs when something looks close to its real-life counterpart but not exactly alike, causing a feeling of uneasiness among viewers. "A lot of times, we're dealing with fantastic creatures, like the Cloverfield monster," Tippett says. "When you're doing something like that, you can get away with murder because nobody's ever seen it. But if you're doing a wolf … the audience has seen enough canine behavior to know if you make a false move. It stands out. So we immediately said, ‘We had better understand what timber wolf behavior is.' "

They started with research, analyzing documentary footage of timber wolves and reading books on wolf anatomy. But they didn't stop there. "Animators and guys from the art department went to a wolf preserve outside of Los Angeles," Tippett says. "Our guys got into a big cage with a bunch of wolves and spent the afternoon with them!" The animators filmed video of the wolves jumping, running, playing and fighting. The research helped them build computer models of the wolves from the inside out, starting with rigged skeletal systems that could move, then overlaying them with flexing muscles and, finally, layers of skin and fur.

Director Chris Weitz also wanted the wolves to have the eyes of their human counterparts. "There are a couple of extreme closeups of Jacob's wolf's eyes with Bella (Kristen Stewart) reflected in them," Tippett says. Eyes, which have to emote, are notoriously difficult to realistically pull off, so VFX artists got reference directly from the source. "When we were on the set, we got a closeup-lens camera and we asked Taylor to pull back his eyelids as far as he could stand to do and went in for a couple of closeups. That's what we used as a model for Jacob's eyes."


Key to the transformation was the action that came directly before it, so VFX artists worked closely with director Weitz and actors Lautner and Meraz to determine what that action would be. Both of Lautner's transformations happened in the air; for one, the actor was lifted 10 feet off the ground by wires, where he had to freeze in position so VFX artists could later replace him with the digital doppelgänger from his scan that would transform into the wolf. In another scene, Meraz's character, Paul, phases after Bella slaps him. "We spent some time working out the very precise level of pantomime that Alex [Meraz] would have to do," Tippett says. "It was very key into getting into the move that would allow us to make the transition into the wolf." On set, filmmakers used wolf stand-ins—stuffed figures and cardboard cutouts—to give both the actors and the animators a point of reference. Fur pelts were used to help animators determine what the lighting was so they could light the digital fur similarly, helping the CG wolves fit seamlessly into the scene.

Eventually, it was time to combine the elements. For the first transformation—when Meraz phases—"his body sort of goes out of control," Tippett says. "Then he recoils and springs out. And at that point we began to take over his forward momentum as the wolf. We had to make a digital model of Alex [using the 3D scan] that would allow for the in-between stages and, for lack of a better term, morph between the wolf shape and the human shape." The wolf head pops out first, then the rest of his body. His clothes are destroyed. "His trousers get torn off in a PG kind of way," Tippett laughs. "He's more wolf than human by that time." The entire transformation takes about half a second.

Aside from creating the transformation, the biggest challenge for the animators was making the wolf fur look realistic. "Our art department just spent months getting the fur groomed and painted and working with the animation," Tippett says. "The effects animation team spent months working out the dynamics of the fur [using in-house fur-simulation tools] so it wasn't stiff. In once scene, Jacob [as a wolf] ends up on a cliff overlooking the ocean on a stormy day, and all the trees in the background are blowing around—so all the fur has to blow around. Dynamically, figuring all that stuff out is really tricky."

Tippett's next challenge is tackling Eclipse, the third film in the Twilight series, which filmed almost immediately after New Moon. Tippett's digital wolves have several big fight sequences in the film. "It's huge," Tippett says. "We're ramping up on it. We're just starting to get shots now."



Posted by dschnee at November 22, 2009 1:35 AM