Getting Wild About Facial Animation
Jonze wanted the Wild Things to be every bit as big and grotesque as in the book, and to this end he had appropriately enormous costumes designed. The necessarily light costumes contained no working parts, their faces static, awaiting post- production animation. In late 2008, Framestore convinced Jonze and his team that they were the best crew for the task, and a team that would grow to 250 strong began work on one of the toughest deadlines in the company's history, with more than 1,100 shots, or 1,400 "character appearances" to deliver in a little more than four months from production.
According to Framestore, a key feature of their post work was the degree to which Jonze was personally involved. But partly due to the film's elongated production period, and partly because of the extraordinary challenges he was posing the Framestore animators, Jonze came to London and established an office within Framestore's production floor. From there he met, directed and helped supervise the delicate and crucial task of, as he put it, "making sure these creatures lived and had a soul." Going out of his way to motivate the London team, Jonze started them off by shooting a hilarious video pep-talk from Sendak, who exhorted the team to "make this the best thing you've ever done -- no futzing around!"
Heading the animation team was Animation Supervisor Michael Eames (Children of Men, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). "Spike has a disarming, disingenuous side to him, which is hugely effective when motivating people," he says, "But at the same time, I think he came to us knowing pretty much exactly what he wanted, and left us having achieved exactly that."
Eames admits to some initial misgivings about the sequence projection technique. "I'd worked with it before," he adds, "And its Achilles Heel has always been inadequate performance in, or capturing of, the original material -- in this case the suit work shot in Australia. I didn't think that it would be good enough to support what we could bring to it. But I cheerfully admit to being wrong about that. Spike recorded the voice actors visually as well as on audio before going to shoot, and then the onset suit actors were given specific references and beats to match their performance to these rehearsal takes. The result of this painstaking work was that, when it came to adding in the animation, the body motion usually made sense. Such problems as we had tended to be the result of later editorial changes rather than the performances themselves."
The technique was not without its difficulties at the Framestore end, though. "Manipulation of the 3D model was limited to how far we could stretch or compress the texture before it broke," Eames explains, "Sometimes it was just not possible to get the desired effect and we would have to work together with 2D compositing to effectively hand paint or animate an expression."
Further challenges were added when Jonze decided he wanted some fundamental redesigning of the creatures faces, in particular all the creatures' mouths; one character was redesigned by narrowing her face in the composite to give her a sweeter look -- to the tiniest of changes in mood -- raising the emotional temperature of an expression through additional 3D and 2D shading around the eyes, for example, counteracting an unsympathetic play of light.