A Close Encounter with Paul
DNeg provided two ways of shooting reference for the animators: using a Flip camera and having them mess around in the moven suit. "So the animators would put the suit on and capture their performance in 3D. Even though it wouldn't match perfectly with Paul, we could get a rough performance. We dumped the capture onto an early Paul rig and have it in the scene file for the animator to manipulate. They could show this previs style, MoCap session. It was a real coup. Here they really flexed their creative muscles to come up with the right performance for Paul. We boiled it down to three or four takes, showed it to the client and progressed from there. Later we increased performance fidelity and added facial animation. The client wanted us to test the limits of the performance. They empowered us to try things out."
They used Maya with proprietary rigging and created their own user interface for the animators called Muppet with a library of poses to stay on model. They also used Nuke and PRMan; the proprietary Squirt for smoke; and Houdini for other particle effects. "We relied on a lot of heavy lifting from matchmove, lighting and comp to ensure Paul was seated believably in the plate. It was a very collaborative process and in some cases Paul's level of interaction was such that comp had to manipulate the actors and props in the plate. (painting in new eye lines, replacing hidden body parts and set pieces)."
The director, Greg Mottola (Adventureland, Superbad), had never done a vfx film before, but Beer says he took to it immediately. "We showed him rough animation with no facial on it or a lot of noise in it with the moven suit," Beer adds. He understood where we were headed and gave us good, articulate direction.
"If Paul works, it's in large part thanks to us; if he doesn't, it's in large part thanks to us."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.