Bringing a child’s teddy bear to life might sound like a warm and fuzzy VFX assignment, but Ted, the brainchild of the multi-talented Seth MacFarlane, of Family Guy and American Dad fame, is like no other plush toy you’ve ever seen.
This CG star is the companion since childhood of the live-action John Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg), and he has serious R-rated skills, including a mouth that would make a truck driver proud. But their friendship is tested when John, who is about to be married, asks Ted to move out at his bride’s behest. Will their almost 30-year friendship survive?
Jenny Fulle, the film’s VFX producer, came on board when Ted was a glimmer in his daddy’s [MacFarlane’s] eye, she quips. Before the production, which marks MacFarlane’s feature directorial debut, was greenlit she started exploring how to bring the stuffed bear to life in a way that fit the movie’s budget.
“Seth knew he didn’t want Ted to look cartoony; he had to look photoreal. After the first five minutes you’re supposed to forget he’s a CG bear,” says Fulle of Culver City’s The Creative-Cartel (www.the-cartel.com).
MacFarlane, who intended to voice Ted, also wanted “to infuse his character in the bear,” Fulle reports. “He felt strongly that he wanted to use motion capture, which can be expensive.”
Enter the Xsens MVN motion capture solution. A full-body, camera-less inertial mocap system, the flexible MVN can be used indoors or outdoors to capture clean and smooth data for animators via inertial sensors attached to the body.
“Seth wore the MVN suit while he was directing in Boston,” says Fulle. “We could record his interaction with Mark while a Sony PMW-EX3 [XDCAM EX] camera was trained on his face recording his expressions for the animators. We wanted to document as much as possible for post.”
The MVN suit gave MacFarlane the ability to work anywhere; no mocap volume was required for a dedicated shoot. Although “VFX likes planning,” the comedy process likes to be fluid, she notes.
“We didn’t always know if things worked until we saw the cut. We were changing things ‘til the eleventh hour. And we got a lot of the comedy on set.” The suit’s ease of use also enabled MacFarlane to quickly record new motion during post production if needed.
“It took a while to develop the look and movement of Ted,” says Fulle, “but once we understood who he was and how he moved, everything went smoothly. We all became intimately knowledgeable about Ted: when he was angry, sad, happy.” Fulle was on set during portions of the shoot; The Creative-Cartel’s associate visual effects producer Eric Torres was there daily.
Once the mocap team processed the data collected, they handed it off to Tippett Studio (www.tippett.com) in Berkeley, CA, and Iloura (www.iloura.com) in Melbourne, Australia, keeping sequences intact.
Tippett Studio has done its share of talking animals (Cats & Dogs, Beverly Hills Chihuahua) reports Blair Clark, VFX supervisor for the production, who worked closely with in-house supervisors from both VFX houses — Scott Liedtka and Jim Brown from Tippett Studio and Glenn Melenhorst and Avi Goodman from Iloura. But no talking animal was quite like Ted. “We thought initially that Ted wouldn’t be a huge stretch, but he had to be a photoreal, lightweight plush toy, perform a wide range of physical gags and convincingly ‘act’ among his human co-stars,” says Clark. “The VFX artists expertly took all that into account.”
Working with an early mocap test of MacFarlane, Iloura hit upon the final design of Ted. “Iloura’s test was based on a loose piece of key art, and they nailed it,” says Clark. “It was great to have the design approved so early, and that early test became the standard that both companies followed. [But] we were a little worried about getting a final Ted that would be shot-production ready and still match this test that Seth and the producers were so in love with. But that proved to be more of a theoretical concern than a practical one.”
Clark reports that Tippett Studio and Iloura worked seamlessly together. “We didn’t share models, but we shared information, settings and comparison renders to make sure our Teds matched as closely as possible,” he says. “Both studios were concerned about coming up with the best final product, and it never felt like competition. I can’t praise Iloura and Tippett enough.” Both houses animated in Autodesk Maya, with most compositing handled in The Foundry’s Nuke. Tippett’s renderer was RenderMan, while Iloura’s was a combination of 3Delight and Chaos Group’s V-Ray.
Most of the Ted-Wahlberg dialogue scenes were aided by a run-through with a practical bear fabricated by Mark Rappaport’s Creature Effects (www.creaturefxinc.com). Known as “The Stuffy,” it was puppeteered during the rehearsal to help the actors know where Ted would be and what he would be doing. Then he was replaced with an eyeline tool (a metal stand with balls for eyes) to give the actors a reference point during the actual takes. MacFarlane would perform as Ted, either in the MVN suit or just with his voice, as he watched the video feed on a monitor out of frame. The Stuffy was also used for scenes before young John’s wish brings Ted to life.
Once in post production, MacFarlane was very specific with his animation direction for Ted, recalls Clark. “The majority of his notes focused on the lip assignment and mouth shapes. We had to make sure they felt right. When they looked overly done, it all fell apart.”
Clark says that MacFarlane was extremely aware of the needs of the animators. “Seth knew exactly what he needed and what we could be flexible with and leave open to the animators to embellish. His direction was always consistent yet he didn’t micro-manage. Seth was very focused and clear, and very appreciative of everyone’s work.”
Ted’s plush fur was also challenging. “Most of the shows we’ve done, you try to achieve realistic fur of the real animals, like wolf or cat hair,” says Clark. “But those attributes produced a look that was too coarse or bristly for Ted. It didn’t have that synthetic quality to it. So Tippett and Iloura had to carefully work at it with their proprietary tools and then match each other.”
Finding exactly the right texture so Ted would look his age — well-worn — and always integrate well in the plate during the DI was tricky. “Go too high contrast and he started looking coarse,” says Clark. “Go too much the other way and Ted looked fuzzy and soft, like cotton candy.”
Integrating Ted into some scenes proved particularly tough. After years of pent-up frustration John and Ted have a knock-down-drag-out fight in a hotel. “That’s where we broke some physical rules,” says Clark. “Ted had to been kept in the realm of a plush toy but now had to pack a punch worthy of Mark Wahlberg and, at times, have the upper hand.”
Clark used a “stunt” version of the Stuffy to make sure that Wahlberg would have something of consistent volume to hold onto yet be free enough to perform the movements required. “We created the ‘Stunt Stuffy’ with removable limbs. That way Mark always had a physical torso to struggle with, and we could put arms or legs on it if needed.”
Previs played a key role in this sequence, he notes. “Before principal photography began, stunt coordinator Scott Rogers and Mark’s stunt double Sean Graham got blueprints of the hotel room and choreographed the whole scene,” says Clark. “Scott shot the previs over the weekend, and edited it together. Seth loved it and used it as the template for the shoot. The whole scene was shot in two days; there was no way we could have done it without that previs.”
The previs process was “great for the animators, too,” who redid two shots in CG only to make sure that the camera wasn’t panning too fast from one point to another. “It helped us to always know where Ted was and what he was doing,” Clark says.
On-set previs artist Webster Colcord was instrumental in blocking out many sequences, including the Fenway Park fight scene at the end of the third act. “We had limited time at Fenway — a couple of nights — and couldn’t waste any,” says Clark. “Webster showed iterations to Seth during principal photography, so by the time we went to Fenway we had a solid plan.”
THE OPEN & CONCERT
Iloura was charged with creating the picture’s opening shot, which punches through the Universal logo and pushes into Earth to John’s childhood neighborhood in Boston, blending into production footage of a snowball fight. But a complication arose when Universal redesigned its logo for the its 100th anniversary.
“We weren’t even sure if it would have any resemblance to the past Universal logo,” says Clark. Thankfully, it still sported a globe. “When the new logo was finished, we were almost out of time, but the files were sent directly to Iloura — and the shot looks amazing!”
The plan was to use the time-honored trick of employing cloud cover or a lap dissolve to transition past the logo to Boston. “But [Iloura] just kept going tighter and tighter and transitioned from Universal’s new nighttime logo to daytime Boston — it’s such an impressive shot,” says Clark.
One shot didn’t require the VFX that Clark anticipated. “Working with DP Michael Barrett, Webster Colcord prevised multiple angles and shots for a concert at the Hatch Shell amphitheater in Boston, figuring that if we were lucky enough to have 150 extras we could tile them throughout the stadium for crowd replication,” Clark explains. “When we got there the place was filled to capacity, and the crowd stayed for the whole shoot. So we didn’t need to do a single comp. Everyone was thrilled to be involved.” MacFarlane’s impromptu turns at the mic, trivia contests and songs by Wahlberg served as a thank you to the people of Boston for turning out.
According to Jenny Fulle, “it’s incredible what’s not difficult to do anymore.” Not that Ted was easy. Expectations were high, and the audience needs to suspend disbelief, which meant Ted had to be real to them. “I’m a big believer that the old ways of doing VFX are not as valid as the new ones,” she says. “You can do them for a lot less money, be smarter and not compromise along the way. Ted validates the idea of thinking outside the box.”
Blair Clark says throughout the film he kept hearing that people were “having so much fun. Ted spoiled us. We hated to see it end.”
Fulle bought into the visual effects so completely that she had to keep telling herself that Ted was not real. “Both Tippett Studio and Iloura did amazing work. Ted is someone I’d like to invite to my Oscar party next February.”
Maybe Ted will arrive with a statuette of his own.