Based on the popular series of books called The Saga of Darren Shan, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant is a fantasy adventure about a teenager that inadvertently breaks a 100-year truce between two warring factions of vampires. Amid a world of sideshow freaks and various creatures of the night, the movie hurls a bored teenager into a fantastic world only imagined in nightmares.
Todd Shifflett (Alvin and the Chipmunks , Charlotte's Web ) of Rhythm & Hues supervised the vfx (with Matt Logue serving as animation director), and he discussed the challenges and working with director Paul Weitz: "It's interesting in that it's a vampire movie without blood," states Shifflett. "So it was an opportunity to do convey a quirky, creepy, light-hearted feeling."
Not surprisingly, given R&H's strong character strength, they were responsible for a set of characters, each with its own quirk. This included Rhamus Twobellies, who eats different pieces of metal and puts them back together, twists them in his stomach and turns them into a bicycle; and Mr. Tiny and his team of little people, including Harkat Mulds, who is entirely CG; Octa, a very vibrant and animated female spider.
Octa was particularly challenging, according to Shifflett. "We had to give it the feeling for internal thought, which is [hard] for animation because you don't have things that give us those clues that you have in regular character animation. For a spider, she has the way a spider sees, which is through vibrations and listening through their feet. And so just by giving her some subtle motion at the tips of her feet, from shot to shot as she's reaching out, there's an impression of listening and an internal monologue that might be going on."
Harkat and the Tinys all wore these little purple robes, so it required full cloth sims to be run after all of the animation of completed, so that added another element to the arsenal. Most of the R&D went into the look development for the characters: not a technological leap forward. However, in working with Weitz, they got the look and feel of the characters he was after.
And what was that?
"Especially with Octa, he was always looking for a colorful and vibrant feel toward her. There was a very historical quality to the palette. We went through a number of different options and each time came back to a painterly look that was like having Francis Bacon in the background with the look of these vampires. I think Paul likes to keep his characters multi-dimensional so there's always an aspect of [subtext] to push the character along, and certainly gets the animators more of a tangible feeling."
Additionally, R&H did more atmospheric vfx work, such as the flitting, which is the way vampires get around in a super mode of transportation. Overall, they did around 300 shots.
R&H started out on set and tried to be there during all filming or during "a special need for a shot dreamt up at the last moment." For example, they also had to do some set extension work in New Orleans in an old, empty warehouse that wasn't meant to be a sound stage. "It wasn't ideal for shooting a film and led to the camera pointing sometimes in a direction where you shouldn't be, so we would come in and clean that up and extend the set to make it feel like we're actually outside at night at a campground."
Tools consisted of usual R&H proprietary software: Rhythm for character animation and, in terms of choreography and the renderer, a package similar to Houdini.  A lot of the atmospherics, in fact, were done in Houdini.
As usual, work was split between L.A. and India, where they are fully integrated into the pipeline and their crew shares digital assets and they video conference daily. "India supplies everything from animators to lighters to compositors. We ship all things in our pipeline back and forth. Depending on our needs, not everything will get done in India. Alexander Ribs' [Orlando Jones] dancing shots were done by the animators in India and they videotaped themselves doing the dancing to get the hip movements right."
"Nowadays, the challenges aren't technical," Shifflett concludes. "What it comes down to is a time crunch or a solution here that we want to try and use but we don't have time for that so we have to go in another direction. Where we may have tried to incorporate motion capture for some of the character animation, we found ourselves not being able to do that and going down a different route. So, it's the bumps in the road that create those challenges."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.