Mary Ann Skweres lets the fur fly about how the vfx artists on Garfield brought the fat cat to life on the big screen.
Vfx supervisor Dan Deleeuw has had a hand in creating virtual characters for other films, but with Garfield, this is the first time a virtual character was also the main character of the movie. Technology-wise we knew how to do it, Deleeuw explains. On a film like this [the challenge] is probably more the creative process involved... Youve got this recognizable character that people have known for 25 years, in the comic strip, on TV, in the cartoons, in whatever toys. Trying to bring that kind of design in the character to the real world is the most challenging part of the film.
Going into the project, Deleeuw and animation director Bill Kroyer worked with director Peter Hewitt. The stated goal of the design was: You never wanted to feel like you could have done this with a real cat. Staying true to the original design of Garfield, to a certain degree made the design simpler. The team could stay with the big eyes, big ears and his overall face that would never fit a real cat. His physical design contained enough mannerisms to let the audience believe that his odd-looking cat may have grown up in the real world. It was a big balancing act as to where everyone wanted Garfields reality to sit. Also since there is a big fan base out there for Garfield, the team didnt want to disappoint them with the design.
The team did a lot of research on cats. Everyone that had a cat videotaped it. There are scenes where, like a real cat, Garfield jumps up in a chair and rubs himself against the back. The team tried to incorporate as many of those mannerisms as they could so that Garfield existed in the real world. Also, because every other animal in the film is a live-action animal, Garfield couldnt be too cartoony or hed be too far away from the reality of the other animals. We had to invent a world that people would buy into and then believe for the next hour and a half, explains Deleeuw.
The design process worked to zero in on the concept. The comic strip character was 2D, for the film he needed to be adapted into a 3D character. Some designs may have been truer to the comic, but didnt work as well in the 3D world. The team refined those designs until they captured what everyone felt was the essence of the comic strip while fitting into the real world.
There is a lot of interaction with Garfield in the world of the film. The CG character doesnt just walk through it. When he sits down, he flops down. When he lays down, hes splayed out all over the place so theres a lot of tricks we did to deform the chair that he was sitting in. In the first shot of the movie hes lying in his bed, underneath the covers, so we had to do a CG blanket over the top of Garfield as he pulls the covers over his head and wakes up and says his signature line, I hate Mondays. Then he has to pull the CG blanket off and climb out of his bed and jump up onto Johns bed... basically its this big, thick comforter, so the CG character has to walk on this and as he walks across hes got to squish it down as he walks. To achieve the effect, the team had the shot of the real comforter then built a model of the comforter. Garfields steps would deform the geometry of the model. By using the trick of projecting the background plate back onto to the geometry, as Garfield squished the comforter down, the texture of the background pushed down with it.
The team shot Garfield on set with the real animals and actors whenever possible. The team had all the survey equipment and measured the set. They used stuffed animals to walk through the shots and plan them out so that the actors and animal trainers would get a basic idea of what Garfield needed to do. The actors would get their eyelines and the camera operators would get the camera move and the animals pretty much did what they did, explains Deleeuw.
In the film, there is a lot of interaction between Garfield and the real dog, Odie. Odie constantly tries to get up into Garfields chair while he is in it, so the cat keeps pushing him off. In working with the animals, the team got the trainers blue gloves. They would push in the general area and direction that Garfield would push later on. In post, the blue gloves were removed and Garfield was composited in doing the requisite action.
The team had to be constantly aware of Garfields fur. Although Rhythm & Hues has extensive experience with hair they have developed their own software there is always room to improve those tools. Dealing with a character with shorter hair is different from working with a longhaired cat such as Garfield. You can get away with a lot more. With long hair, anytime Garfield ran into something or whenever wind was blowing on him, turned out to be a big task, which probably needed a second generation of tools.
A production this complex requires a large support staff. The crew at its largest consisted of around 320 people. Besides creating the Garfield character, R & H also supplied other visual effects for the film. These included matte painting work and some simple composites. All in all, the visual effects supplied by the team made up approximately 53 minutes of screen-time out of a 74-minute film a large amount of work.
Karl Herbst and Arnon Manor were the digital effects supervisors. They took the entire pipeline for Garfield and split it in two halves. Manor was the front half of the pipeline. He was in charge of tracking, rigging and match-moves of anybody that was carrying Garfield or anytime Garfield was pushing against Odie. He made sure all the animation was going smoothly, up to technical animation. That group dealt with making sure the deforms pushed against Garfield correctly and worked on hair dynamics and belly jiggle. Garfield has a big fat belly that hangs down, so there was a group whose job was to go in and as Garfields belly rubbed against something, they made sure it actually deformed. Deleeuw elaborates, They kept describing it as a big water balloon. Imagine your cats got a water balloon tied to its stomach. Or think of Santa Claus with a bowl full of jelly. The belly would bounce around.
Herbst took over, though, lighting and compositing, making sure everything went smoothly there. On set, a range of images were shot with HDRI - high dynamic range imagery. Two cameras with fisheye lenses were programmed to go through multiple exposures so they captured the darkest darks to the brightest brights. That information helped in the lighting later on. The lighters still lit with CG lights and typical CG tools, but another layer was put in with all the bounce light from the lights on the set using images from the HDRI cameras.
The movie ended up being made several times. The team worked on set doing what they planned. They would then go back and develop animatics of the scene. Once the animatics were done, editorial put together a rough-cut of the movie. This was then shown to Bill Murray, who was voicing Garfield. He would record the dialogue and come up with ideas. So the animatics would be changed in editorial. When the work was finally passed along to the animators, theyd get ideas and change the performance a little bit there too. It was definitely a collaborative process between a bunch of different people, according to Deleeuw.
The most important element of the animation was Garfields performance and the ability of the team to sustain that performance throughout the entire film, because as the main character, Garfield essentially had to carry the movie. It was important to keep the characters physical performance in tune to Bill Murrays humor. It is not a broad Three Stooges-type humor. The humor comes from dialogue and delivery. It relies on the subtle turn of a phrase so typical of Murrays performance style. Garfields face had to be expressive enough to convey not only Murrays dialog, but also the actors mannerisms captured on video during voice over sessions. Garfield needed to be able to sell the joke. He needed to be able to physically setup a joke with a look in much the same way Murray would if he were on camera.
Deleeuw is proud of the teams accomplishments. I think that is one of the most pleasing things about the film. That we were able to pull that off. Garfield runs the gamut It really was an acting movie for us.
Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.