Furious FX gets its first crack at CG critters.
With Furry Vengeance, LA-based Furious FX got the chance to show off CG character animation for the first time in this family comedy starring Brendan Fraser about an Oregon housing subdivision that faces a curious gang of protestors.
In fact, 19 species of furry and feathered critters make up this menagerie, comprising 375 shots, including the hero raccoon, opossum, beaver, crow prairie dog, rabbit, owl, chipmunk, weasel, skunk, porcupine, fox bullfrog, otter and condor.
"This was definitely a trial by fire, though a tremendous opportunity for us to break into character animation work," suggests Scott Dougherty, president of Furious, which additionally provided CG expression/enhancement of real animals along with CG airplanes, rolling boulder, insects, 3D and 2D matte paintings and set extensions.
Two other companies worked on Furry Vengeance as well: RotoFactory (additional paint services) and Yannix Technologies (additional motion tracking services).
"The concept was to do a live-action animal movie and not a computer-animated animal movie or a talking animal movie," explains David Goldberg, overall vfx supervisor. "It was basically [real] animals filmed in conjunction with [real] actors. But knowing that, it was also obvious from the script that there were going to be two requirements: take live-action animals and bring them to life by adding facial expressions to go with vocalizations, if not talking; and in conjunction with that, we also knew that there was going to be things that we would never be able to get live-action animals to do. In particular, there's a dream sequence where the animals are throwing a dance party, so we knew that full CG animals would be required to augment that work as well."
Naturally there wound up being more CG shots than originally planned due to specific action requirements more than a change in concept.
"Everything comes in fur," remarks Mark Shoaf, CG supervisor for Furious. "I think CG-wise, this was definitely the most demanding character work we've done. We've never really done one that required this kind of a pipeline. The challenges here were getting both the character and fur pipelines in place. It was a really good learning and growing experience. All in all, they had their own fur challenges."
Most of the pipeline was built around the hero coon character. "Dave had given us photos of the real raccoon and so based on that we built the model and added the textures and fur and everything else," Shoaf adds. "We basically built our character rig for the raccoon and, for any given shot that we worked on, we had different assets of a character that got referenced in the scene. So as the animators were working they could turn the fur off to keep things moving faster. And once we had our raccoon, it served as the building block for the rest of the pipeline. For all the other quadrupeds, that rig was modified and tweaked."
The biggest difficulty was obviously getting the fur pipeline together. "At the current time we're a Mac-based house and we were running Maya for our 3D and rendering it in mental ray. And we were running on 32-bit operating systems and once you tried rendering a raccoon, you learned real quickly just how much memory that involved. I think on any given render, a raccoon would use 9 to 10 gigs of ram just to render one frame. Calculating shadows on fur is so heavy. At that point, we switched over to Linux because at that time Mac wasn't ready for the 64-bit architecture of Maya. So at 64-bit memory wasn't an issue any more.
"And we used Shave and a Haircut for fur. We tested Maya and we found that it just wasn't as robust as the Shave system and we didn't have six months to a year to develop our own fur system."
Adds Goldberg, "One of the things we knew from the very beginning was that, since there are a lot of scenes with real actors and live animals, there were problems in trying to film them together. The biggest is that we didn't want the actors to be waiting for a real raccoon. Originally, the idea was that those would all be split screens. We would come in with the first unit filming Brendan Fraser and then the animal unit would come in to that same environment and film the animal side. In scheduling and reality, that didn't prove to be successful, so we ended up doing most of the animals greenscreen to put into the scene later. Or, in the case of large groups, CG animals were added into the scene later.
"There were situations where we knew there was going to be CG animal and real actor interaction as well. In particular, in the party sequence, Brendan falls down and the raccoon leaps on his chest, grabs him by the collar and pulls him up and belches in his face. That was a situation where we shot Brendan and then did all of the HDRI imagery to map the environment as well as lighting camera information so Mark and his crew could later come in and model and add the CG raccoon."
"The scene was shot so well that it was pretty easy to integrate the raccoon," Shoaf suggests. "We put a rough proxy object out there for casting shadows on Brendan in 3D."
For the party sequence, a choreographer was used as reference for the animation. "We very specifically didn't want to use motion capture," Goldberg admits. "But my challenge to Furious when we were designing this sequence was that we didn't want it to look like a human in an animal suit doing the dancing. Instead, they danced the human steps but within the limits of their physiology -- for a fantasy, of course."
Shoaf says this required a great deal of back and forth. "You obviously want to capture the dance moves, but at the same time you also want to get different personalities out of each animal. I think we had an opossum and beaver dancing and we had our otter there. So the body types and mechanics were different. We'd get really good with the animation but sometimes it still looked too human, so we'd kind of twist and adjust to make it look more believable."
How far they could take the animation without making it break was another concern. "Whatever expressions we tried had to stay out of the realm of too cartoony. I always wanted it to feel like if you could train a raccoon this is what it would look like on set."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.