Jason Clark Talks Ted and the New VFX World Order
DS: You’ve got a live action movie with a principal CG character that’s in almost every scene, interacting with the lead actors. What was the dynamic of the on set performance? How did Seth prompt the action, directing people interacting with a character that’s not there?
JC: It’s a great question and I’ll tell you why. It was important for me to architect the [production] system where the technology never interfered or overwhelmed the creative process. And by creative process, I mean, in a comedy people perform together and need to be able to improvise, physically, verbally, in the moment, off of each other. And that improvisation is often what brings the comedic dynamic to life. And it also has an added effect. Improvisational performance applied to a CG character makes the character feel more present and real than a performance that is canned nine months after the principal performance, trying to fit that in. If that’s the basis of the performance, what you get is a canned performance and there’s a weird separation between the characters and the live action.
When you remove that, you allow an improvisational environment, one in which not every single moment needs to be blessed by the priest of visual effects, but one in which you say, “Let’s allow the creative process to happen and support it with our post-production work.” What happened was Seth recorded his dialogue live against Mark and Mila. Seth was there with Mark and Mila on set, making the comedy together with them, making the moments happen together with them. Even though Mark was staring at the empty chair next to him and Seth was standing behind him, the voice was recorded in the same environment and Seth was giving a physical performance in the same environment. So what we captured was Seth’s physical motion, his voice and an animation reference for spatial expression, all which happened in the moment on the set. That was by design.
Then we had to find the tools that would allow us to do that and wouldn’t slow us down. I don’t want to be mapping the room we’re shooting in and taking five minutes to get clean passes and doing all of this stuff which slows down the heat of a comedy performance. You can’t have people who are hot and on the streak and then kill it by going and doing a bunch of technical passes on the shot, motion control or whatever those things are you can come up with. We needed to eliminate the technology and make it [work] in service of the comedy that we…
DS: So Seth was performing as Ted at the same time you were shooting?
JC: Yes. It was the unique circumstance that our director was playing the leading character that allowed for that. He was there from sun up to sun down every day. He was there from first call to wrap so we always had Ted available for performance. He was on set, let him go. What we had to do was not make him get in a spandex suit to give his performance. So we worked with a company, Xsens, that creates MVN [motion-capture] suits. It [Seth’s suit] had to be robust enough to be on a movie set, not in some kind of controlled environment. It had to go on over Seth’s street cloths without a hassle and it had to come on and off without taking the director out of his job. He can’t go run into a closet and spend 10 minutes suiting up. It had to be three minutes on, three minutes off. And we rehearsed it like a fire department until we got it down and every time it would go whacky, we’d say, “Okay, what’s interfering, is it a radio wave, what RF signals are screwing this up?” By the end it worked every time every take in any environment we were in, whether it was in a church or park, in a steel box or an apartment house, it worked. And that allowed us to never interfere with Seth’s creative process.
We always put his director’s monitor close enough to the actor or the actress, so they could hear him clearly. He wouldn’t be in a different room, but they could hear him clearly and even though they wouldn’t be throwing their lines to him, he was interacting with them in the moment. There was no distance.
DS: I’ve never heard of motion-capture technology being used like that.
JC: That’s because this is the first time it’s been done like this. It truly is. Now take all of that that I just packaged for you and say, “You can’t afford the 100 million dollar family four-quadrant movie budget, the 90 million dollar family four-quadrant movie budget. Now do this for a price. How do you do that, because it’s an R-rated comedy? You can’t pay your lead actor who is a CG character 20 million dollars to be on the movie. You can’t do that in a comedy. So we couldn’t go to any of the traditional [visual effects] houses. How do you know someone’s capable of doing that performance with the lead actor if they are not a traditional house that’s done a leading performance like that [before]?