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March 16, 2010

FX Guide Interview - New Moon Rises on DVD

We were interviewed by Ian Failes from fxguide.com a few months ago, and it looks like he was saving it until now with the fancy dvd/blu-ray release... :) It was a short 'over the phone' interview, my first of it's kind, and yeah I stumbled my way through it a bit, hah. Ian didn't have too many specific questions about our comp work (New Moon was not yet released), so I casually talked about what we did on the show... anyhow, it's good to see it up on fxguide and again, It was a great experience being a part of a great USM team.

New Moon, the second film in the Twilight series, is just out on DVD/Blu-ray. Director Chris Weitz and visual effects supervisor Susan MacLeod called on Tippett Studio's to bring to life a pack of large wolves. We speak to some of Tippett's key visual effects team about the creation of the wolves.

Check out the Interview here and/or on fxguide.com - Thanks!

fxg: What would you say was Tippett's general approach to the wolves?

Phil Tippett (visual effects supervisor): The approach was that we had to get as close as we could to real wolf behaviour in the wild. Anatomically, these wolves are as close as we could get digitally to timber wolves. Chris Weitz insisted they be real wolves photographically. So that was our objective from the beginning. We did what we normally do when we have to match a real creature - we get a great deal of anatomical reference and photographic material. We look at a lot of books on wolves and just steep ourselves in wolf look and behaviour. Also, a bunch of the guys under my co-supervisor Matt Jacobs - puppet makers, animators, model makers and TDs - went to a wolf preserve outside of LA and got inside a big pen with a bunch of these 200 pound wolves and spent the afternoon with them.

Stephen Unterfranz (character CG supervisor): The wolf sanctuary visit was even more interactive than I hoped it would be. We got to go into enclosures with real animals - some had been kept as pets and some were wild. There were different degrees of wildness in these animals. It was really exciting to get to see them and their behaviour. They were comfortable enough with us to get great reference photography and video. We had pictures of the pads of their feet and and how their teeth connected to their gums. Then we had some selects from the production - who was the biggest wolf and who was what colour.

Tom Gibbons (animation supervisor): Animators in general are reference-oriented people, so we looked at nature videos. We did look at lions which are a little bit heavier than wolves and horses for their gait. YouTube is a godsend! If you're good at typing in the words, you can find amazing freakin' reference. We do have some high-speed cameras in the animation department so sometimes we shoot our own dogs doing stuff at 3000 frames a second just to see what it does.

fxg: What were some of the key things you picked up about wolf behaviour?

Tom Gibbons: The reference gathering was very specific to how they should look like in the film. Wolves are not dogs, but it takes a while to understand how different the two species are. The problem is that not a lot of people have had experiences with wolves - actually, even in some movies that are supposed to be about wolves they are actually huskies or other dogs. We felt that the audience might think our wolves didn't look right, so we had to make adjustments with the specific wolf behaviour and soften it a little.

fxg: Once you had your reference, how did you get started on modelling and animation?

Phil Tippett: We had some time in pre-production and we were very clear in what needed to be done from Chris' storyboards, so were able to work with Chris and the visual effects supervisor on the show, Susan McLeod, to create some previs that was very much locked into what the locations were. We were able to develop the pantomime and choreography for the wolf action - in animation terms exclusively. We weren't bound by any other constraints. We could just let the wolves go and do the best behaviour that looked great for the shot. That would inform how we would move the cameras when they went out and shot the actual backgrounds, which are empty without wolves. We needed to know where the lenses and the camera movements were. It was most important that the animation drive the cinematography.

fxg: Can you talk about the modelling process?

Stephen Unterfranz: We modelled one primary asset that we called the generator, based on the character Jacob, in Maya. The model was pretty straightforward. Fur grooming was a little bit more involved, with the style and the clumping. That look was defined in the art department which consisted of model and paint. To generate the variations for the rest of the pack, we brought Jacob into rigging and built a puppet for him. Then for as long as we could we were deriving the other four variations from Jacob. We were always prepared for the need to separate them into different assets. That worked really well for animation for things like walk cycles and run cycles between the different wolves.

fxg: How did you approach the facial set-up for the wolves?

Stephen Unterfranz: We basically had a blend shape system with some rig controls on top to accentuate the facial features. When we first started, we weren't sure how much acting the wolves were going to do. We worked with the lead modeler to break down the different regions of the face to their constituent blend shapes to give the animators control. As it turns out, they don't have too full of a range. They were kept really realistic. There were some key things that needed to be hit like the brow movements and how the muscles around the eyes worked. It had to be really distinctive for showing anger and feeling.

fxg: Moving to animation, what were some of the important things you wanted to convey?

Tom Gibbons: It was all about being naturalistic. There had to be an emotional connection between Jacob as a wolf and Bella, but it didn't have to be as an extreme as what we thought it might have been initially. Our largest challenge was to make the wolves feel large - difficult to show because there wasn't always lots of reference. We always stayed true to the wolf. We couldn't do anything anthropomorphic with them and didn't want to do anything that looked outside the realm of a timber wolf.

fxg: How did you use the reference you'd gathered in working out the movement of wolves?

Tom Gibbons: We started with a run and a walk cycle. As I studied the movement, even in our own studio we had people say that I had come up with a very dramatised walk. The thing is, most four-legged animals walk left foot forward, rear right forward, front right forward, left rear forward. So they do a staggered step. One of the things wolves do is walk left foot front, left foot rear, right foot front, right foot rear. That was the kind of walk I developed because we wanted to do a stalk rather than just a general walk. I felt that this kind of behaviour in a walk cycle was more interesting than a traditional 'I'm just a happy dog walking forward', but a lot of people called it out and said: 'Hey, that's wrong.' But it was right!

fxg: What tools did you rely on for the animation?

Tom Gibbons: We used Maya. We have a whole arsenal of plug-ins we've developed over the years. We had a crew of about 10 working on about 60 shots. When you animate in Maya you're not animating the fur. But with a wolf, fur represents a huge amount of the volume. We would typically animate the skeleton which basically looks like a shaved wolf. Once you start to put fur on it, everything starts to change. Our recipe to compensate for the missing fur in the animation stage is to try and run full renders of the wolves after we've done blocking, so we can start to see how the fur is looking and being affected by the animation. This lets us tweek things and allows us to go back compensate for things if need be.

fxg: How did you approach the wolf fur?

Phil Tippett: That was a whole huge research and development thing that our studio has been involved with for the last ten years. So we applied the tools we've been developing in-house to the New Moon project. The rendering time is just horrendous and the more wolves you put in the shot the more crazy it is. It's also so time consuming. Our art department headed by Nate Frietberg and Erin Borgan, working really closely with Matt Jacobs, had to get really stuck on this fur, not only as photographically as we could but also dynamically. So as the wolves are moving or wind is blowing on them, it showed in the fur.

fxg: What were some of the compositing challenges?

David Schnee: It was mostly about interaction between the wolves and their environment. The wolves were supposed to be eight to 1200 pounds, so they had to move the ground around a lot and we had to show their weight with the interaction with mulch or grass. We had a huge element shoot where we shot hay and moss and mulch - anything to help us integrate these guys as they're running around sliding and picking up their paws and slamming them down. For shots of the wolves emerging from behind trees, we ended up doing a cut-out of a wolf in blue and pushed it through the branches to give them the interaction for the wolves emerging. Also, everything was planned out and shot in VistaVision so that we could have the flexibility of having the animators drive the cameras, doing post camera moves for wolf action. We composited in Shake.

fxg: Was there a particular shot that was interesting to composite?

David Schnee:(compositing supervisor) There's a sequence when the wolves phase into their wolf form from their human form, and go into some somewhat playful fighting. There's a number of shots where they'll come together and attack each other and then fall back and then jump off each other and then slide back towards camera and draw a big gouge into ground. With the elements we shot we really able to reveal some big mounds in the ground, slobber when they hit and tufts of fur. Jacob's wolf had a very red russet tinge to it which was difficult to integrate because the plates we had were very green and yellow.

fxg: How did you deal with the human to wolf transformation shots?

Phil Tippett: The directive from Chris was that they had to transform very quickly. Early on we had to do some tests to make sure that would work. Conceptually the mass size from a six foot man who weighs 165 pounds into a 12 foot wolf that weighs 1200 pounds sounds ridiculous. Doing a proof of concept, we figured out a pantomime style and an action that would allow us to make this transitiion. We just had to carefully articulate the transition between human and wolf in not much more than 12 frames, so half a second. It meant that the pantomime of the human actors had to be very specific to make sure it worked, so we worked with the actors on the set to make sure they made the proper moves. We only have three transformations and two of them are wire gags. As they are leaping through the air, they transform, so we had the opportunity to make the transformation mid-flight.

David Schnee: Because a transformation was such a short amount of frames, it wasn't as bad as you'd think. We did a transition from live action to digital double and into the wolf, and animation got us most of the way. Then we just had to massage the elements to reveal the arms and body and head and the performance we wanted for a few frames, adding in some clothes tearing and some shapes to make the face look more like a muzzle occasionally.

fxg: Tippett is so well known for its character work. What did you learn from the whole process for the wolves?

Stephen Unterfranz: In the very beginning, we weren't sure what the look was going to be. You hear 'werewolf' and that immediately conjures up some imagery. In terms of the story it was actually a lot of fun, because they weren't monsters - they were just large wolves. They didn't go crazy or anything. It was a lot of fun to make a naturalistic wolf, but trying to figure out what that looked like was initially tricky.


Posted by dschnee at March 16, 2010 6:03 PM