ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.8 - NOVEMBER 1999
Stuart's Not-So-Little Journey To The Big Screen
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Stuart takes his first steps into his new New York City home. © Columbia Pictures.
Giving Birth To Stuart
Making Stuart appear to be a living, breathing human-like mouse was one of the greatest challenges for the multi-talented crew of artists and animators at Sony Pictures Imageworks, the innovative digital production company that created the visual effects and computer animation for such films as Anaconda, Contact and James and the Giant Peach. Stuart Little is their first solely-produced film.
The SPI facility on the Sony lot is certainly impressive, boasting state-of-the-art computers and software. Scattered among all the high-tech, "I couldn't even begin to explain what this does" stuff are hundreds of drawings of Stuart, his home, his boat and his car. Though it looks like he just won it big on The Price is Right, all of these drawings and renderings are the result of a very long and intensive process the crew underwent to determine the best way to make Stuart real.
"We couldn't find a trained mouse that could wear clothes, walk on two feet and deliver lines," jokes co-producer Jason Clark. "So we had to come up with a way to use technology to tell the story. What we did with Stuart Little wouldn't have been possible five years ago."
SPI did experiment with a variety of technologies, including animatronics and stop-motion techniques; however, Stuart's character and the fact that he interacts with a live-action world necessitated that he be 100% computer-generated. Photo-realistic techniques were employed to "make sure that when you see him in a scene with the actors or animals against the background, he's completely believable, and you don't think for an instant that this was computer-generated," explains Visual Effects Supervisor, Jerome Chen.
However, the particular process used to create Stuart had never been done before. It is a process which, according to Senior Visual Effects Supervisor John Dykstra, a renowned visual effects veteran, involves "creating a character out of whole cloth whose performance could be integrated into a live-action scene with no seams -- a character that has fur, a character that wears clothing, and a character that is lit to match environments. You have to have a character who walks, talks and responds to the live-action world around him with genuine emotion. If you don't empathize with Stuart, we haven't done our job."
Dykstra, one of the founders of Industrial Light & Magic and an Academy Award winner for his work on Star Wars, says that the key to making Stuart effective is that "you have to believe that this guy has a soul. And a singularity of personality. And that's a huge challenge -- a challenge to me that was as great as the concept of Star Wars."
Ironically, nobody even knew what Stuart looked like by the time Minkoff, who also directed The Lion King, and his crew started shooting the live-action sequences. Chen recalls, "We didn't have a full blown test of Stuart when we started shooting. We had a whole bunch of pieces of him. But we had not shown the studio the screen test that we were supposed to do...so nobody even knew what he was going to look like."
Stuart the Supermodel
The artists began their initial work by sculpting 30 or 40 different clay maquettes, or 3D statues, of Stuart which illustrated the various possibilities for the character's look.
Weiss remembers, "The process sort of became, `I love that head, I hate the body. So let's take that head, try it with this body and put it in that pose and see what we get.' We got to the point where we saw the Stuart that we liked."
Problems soon arose, however, once fur was placed on the model. "He turned into a koosh ball," laughs Weiss. "When we put the fur on there was no definition left. So we wound up having to sculpt in a lot more detail. It was almost like looking at this little mouse who had been working out for about three months. But once we put the fur over that, it softened those harder edges and we wound up with exactly what we wanted."
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