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November 2014
Issue: December 1, 2006

ANIMATION - 'CHARLOTTE'S WEB'

By: Ken McGorry
BERKELEY, CA - To help dramatize a tale with the whimsy and heart of E.B. White's classic children's story, you'd start to think in terms of Sony's lovely, photoreal work on the Stuart Little mouse character (also a White creation) a few years back.

Well don't go there. For one thing, the lead rodent in the new Charlotte's Web is a rat. A rather skeevy rat voiced by none other than Steve Buscemi.

For another thing, the photoreal rodent animation was done here at Tippett Studio, a shop that long ago graduated from creating Starship Troopers' hard-edged, armored alien creatures to cozy mammalian fur for Blockbuster Video's guinea pig and rabbit spots. Of course, convincingly cozy fur is geometrically harder to, uh, pull off than solid objects. And then there's lighting and compositing it all. And all that barn-floor straw.

All told, Tippett (www.tippett.com) provided around 250 VFX shots for Paramount Pictures' Charlotte's Web and director Gary Winick. With the production duties split largely along character lines, Tippett was responsible for Templeton the rat and the two trying crows, Elwyn and Brooks (E and B, get it?). Live action was filmed in Australia and local shops Rising Sun Pictures (www.rsp. com.au) handled the titular arachnid with Fuel International (www.fuel-depot.com) creating the baby spiders. Digital Pictures Iloura (www.iloura.com.au) did some stunt shots of a fully digitized Wilbur the pig. LA's Rhythm & Hues (www.rhythm.com) provided their expertise in face replacement for the film's live animals with speaking parts.

YOU SCRUFFY RAT!

Director Winick and Rising Sun had to wrestle with the level of realism imparted to Charlotte in this film in which every creature is portrayed as natural looking. Charlotte is, after all, a spider. But that was not an issue for Tippett artists, says the shop's VFX supervisor Blair Clark. "Our directive was always to stay as photoreal as possible," he says, "within the confines of the actions that Templeton had to do beyond what a real rat would do."

Templeton's very naturalistic rat-like movements are balanced with anthropomorphic vignettes such as flopping onto his bed with a Coke in hand and, later, wallowing in a bath of buttermilk and cavorting inside a cotton candy machine.

"Templeton is not the most savory character," Clark says. "We got the go-ahead to make him definitely like a barn rat — kind of realistic-looking and scruffy."

Clark co-supervised Tippett's work on Charlotte with Joel Friesch; both had worked together supervising VFX on Hellboy and Cats & Dogs. The two bring different skill sets to bear, says Clark: "I come from an animation background and Joel comes from a painting and art background."

So Clark would communicate more with animation supervisor Todd Labonte, and Friesch worked more closely with compositing and paint artists. Clark goes on location; in this case four months in Australia while Friesch remained on the farm overseeing the character animation through finalizing the models and getting the facial blend shapes and paint work done.

Clark communicated with Tippett via phone, conference calls, email and sending files back and forth on CDs overnight. He loved the Australia experience and worked with the production's overall VFX supervisor  John Berton, who placed him in charge of the second unit shooting background plates.

A RAT'S BUTT

Todd Labonte's animators worked in Autodesk Maya and rendered with Pixar RenderMan. But for him and his crew, animating a rat is not about fur — fur is extremely CPU-intensive. Instead, Templeton's "like a shaved rat with little hair plugs," he says. "Since he's shaved, his silhouette is different and his proportions are different. You're waiting days [for fur rendering] to see what he really looks like and if it works."

All the Tippett crew studied a live, caged rat who visited during the production, but Labonte and his animators had a particular area of interest: Templeton's butt. "Especially with our photoreal line of work, we always struggle with weight," says Labonte. "It's critical — posing it so it looks like it has weight. The computer operates in zero gravity. First you have to work out the main performance and make sure that the performance has the weight and the rat-like quality. The butt has a lot of weight and mass and is a big, inertial part of his body."

A lot of the CG straw had to be animated by hand, with the art department building 12 different straw models rather than relying on generic simulation, Labonte says. "We'd animate it so that when his foot placed down in it, it would squish a little bit."

Labonte's crew studied footage of a real rat's pelvis and back legs when it walked. "You absorb it all so you don't think when you're animating; you just know," he says. "How do you make a rat scurry? It's sudden stops and starts."

READY FOR POST

"Getting the rat done was job one" at Tippett, according to Friesch. That includes "the CG model, the fur, the paint job, the puppeting, so you're ready to go into production." When Clark returned from the four-month shoot, Tippett was ready to go right into post production. On Charlotte Tippett had upwards of 170 craftspeople and artists at work on the shots, although many were also splitting their time with other Tippett business.

Each week as sequences were finished Clark, Friesch and Tippett VFX producer Alessandra de Souza would fly to LA and present the work to director Winick. Clark particularly liked getting Winick's reactions in person, since Clark could emulate animated movements live, rather than describe them over the phone.

There's another reason the rat needed fresh, CG straw. Friesch says that "the depth of focus on these plates where the rat goes is so narrow that we had to put in CG straw to give us a place in the plate that was as focally sharp as the rat would be. We also used a lot of plate-warping, effects animation, displaced the surface of the plate — a lot of compositing tricks."

LIGHTING A RAT

"One problem with a rat is, they're designed to be camouflaged," Friesch says. "We found that rim lights really help fur; especially computer fur." Friesch's team worked hard to exploit opportunities to give their rat a rough, textured silhouette and avoid any sense of a "slick, computery" look that would distract the viewer.

Tippett's lighting supervisor, Steve Reding, was in charge of lighting the rat. Templeton even has silver tips on his otherwise gray rat fur. Since Templeton would not be on hand at the principal shoot, DP Seamus McGarvey would light the area appropriately, but leave any fine lighting on the absent CG rat to Tippett.

The compositing process would often see last-minute adjustments like tweaking eye reflections and kick lights in the eyes, brightness on toenails and fingernails, the backlight on the ears, and fine tuning the light on the rat's whiskers for each shot.

COMPOSITING HOG HEAVEN

Besides the barn's somewhat monotone, straw-and-wood feel, Templeton also ventures out to a dump and on to a country fair, which has some intensely lit night scenes. Tippett primarily used Apple Shake on Linux for compositing with artists, led by Colin Epstein, occupying about 12 seats.

A complex sequence involves Templeton's immersion in a hog heaven of garbage and goodies at the fair, culminating in his enraptured plunge into a practical, swirling cotton candy machine. The cotton candy climax was comped by Chris Morley. Although the team had reservations about attempting this shot, Clark says, "It looks great; you totally buy it."

"It's kind of gross," adds Labonte, "this big rat in a cotton candy machine, but we still tried to get the weight right."

Morley was also involved when Wilbur gets his pre-fair buttermilk bath in a trough. Here the camera pans down and there again is Templeton stealing the scene, laying beneath the pig and wallowing in the raining buttermilk. The buttermilk is real, with additional liquid shot by Tippett and more buttermilk-like liquid created in Maya and hitting the rat's wet fur.

Friesch counts this sequence as a favorite. "It was just a pig and buttermilk," he says, "so we had to stick Templeton down in there and get him interacting with the buttermilk. That was probably the most extensive and complicated of our comping shots."

"The buttermilk bath was fairly straightforward for animation," Labonte says. "We basically animated him relaxing and making like a backstroke in this pool of buttermilk. It's a great piece of animation by Raquel Coelho. When animation was done, they then had to create fluid simulation for ripples and streams of milk pouring onto him, and that fluid also affects his fur; the fur is parting like when you put your head under a tap. That was a lot of work for the effects animation department and then the compers just had a huge challenge to integrate all that stuff."

THE BLACK CROWS

Tippett did either CG beaks or full CG head replacement on real Australian crows — with complex specular light on the CG feathers to match the real birds — to create the spirited pair of crows who end up at the fair. In one outrageous sequence, the crows, lured toward an arcade game by Templeton, appear as a mixture of shots: real flying crows interspersed with CG crows who ultimately crash into the game and are ensnared in a CG net with a real scarecrow. "That was really a complicated series of shots," Clark says.

Friesch says it was crucial to have Clark out on the Australian set because, with his animator's background, he knew how long certain shots needed to be to allow for the CG characters to complete their movements. This shot's real scarecrow had to be filmed greenscreen at Tippett, then comped into the plate, then adding the flapping CG crows, CG net and CG net shadows.

CHARLOTTE'S EGG SAC

Back on the farm at the film's end, Wilbur must convince Templeton to rescue Charlotte's egg sac. "It needed a lot of effects animation to get that diaphanous look of these layers of webs over the eggs," Clark says. Templeton has the sac in his jaws as Charlotte thanks the rat. "He has to shoot a look back at Charlotte in a very sympathetic [way], like, 'You're welcome.'" This was a delicate scene to animate, with its extreme close-up of the rat conveying the sense that Templeton understands the importance of his rescue effort. "All the animators will be crying," Clark says, "because they understand!"