Jason Clark Talks 'Ted' and the New VFX World Order

The producer of Seth MacFarlane’s new hit film talks about blending motion-capture, CG and improvisational comedy.

All images (c) 2012 Universal Pictures

With the successful release of Ted, it’s important to look back and realize the inherent riskiness in making an R-Rated adult comedy centered on an animated foul-mouthed talking teddy bear.  There was no guarantee director Seth MacFarlane’s track record with Family Guy would translate into a successful feature film. It was producer Jason Clark’s job to find the right talent, the right technology and the right processes to harness Seth’s comedic genius and bring Ted to life.  I recently spoke at length with Jason about the film’s innovative use of motion-capture and what he refers to as the “New World Order” in feature film visual effects.

Dan SartoCan you tell me a little bit about the genesis of the film, how you got involved with Seth and what was the germ of the idea that started this film rolling?

Jason Clark:  Well, I guess the true genesis is an idea that Seth had.  He worked with [the writers] Alec [Sulkin] and Wellesley [Wild].  Then MRC got involved and called me up and said, “Will you take a look at this?” because I had done the Stuart Little movies.  I think it was right after I finished Monster House, so I had some experience with motion-capture and performance capture and CG characters in a live action world.  I had recently worked at DreamWorks Animation taking the studio into [stereoscopic] 3-D, so I even had experience in that world.  I was interested in doing a comedy and obviously I was a huge fan at that point of Family Guy, of Seth MacFarlane’s work.  When I read the script and it happened to be an incredibly funny piece of work and it made me to laugh my ass off, I just knew I had to do it.  One way or another I had to figure out how to work on this movie, because I loved the script and I loved the challenge of the movie.  How do you make an R-rated comedy and do it with a CG character in the lead?  That could be a very expensive proposition and you can’t afford an expensive proposition in an R–rated comedy.

DS: I think recent live action films have gotten better integrating CG characters, but it’s not the easiest thing to do.

JC: No, and to do that and complicate it with a comic character which required the kind of repartee and performance [we needed].  How can you take the empty spot and make it talk back to the live action actor in such a way that you can create repartee?  How do you get into a fistfight for two minutes with the character that’s just sitting there? I mean these are the kind of things that require new operating procedures to be written.  We weren’t saying, “How have they done it before? That’s what we’re going to do.”  We were saying, “How they did it before, what can be learned from that to create a [new] production paradigm?”

Director Seth MacFarlane

DSWas it a different experience working with a director on a film like this who is so knowledgeable about the animation process himself?

JC:  Yeah.  You know, he’s also got incredible leadership qualities, which means, he is that rare combination of several things you’ll want.  He’s hugely talented, he’s really, really smart and he knows how to lead people, in a way that they could be most effective.  If you surround him with talented people, he’s able to do his best work.  His experience and his ability to communicate what he needs are highly tuned up.  I mean he’s been doing it for 10 years on two TV shows.  He just knows how to communicate as a leader of several hundred people in each of those groups; what he needs on a day-to-day, week-by-week basis and how to do it on a schedule.  So when he walked into the role of being a leader of the movie as a director, it was great. 

I remember having this conversation with him that’s very funny.  I was nervous because it’s like, “Oh my God, he’s also got to act in the movie.”  So he’s going to be directing a movie, going to interrupt and play the Ted voice and the physical performance of Ted live on the set, then go back to directing.  He told me, “You don’t have to worry about that.  I do that all the time.  That’s going to be easy for me.”  So, he’ll be running that show [Family Guy] and he’ll run in and he’ll do Peter Griffin, and then he’ll fork up Stewie lines and then he’ll come out of the booth and will be running the show. 

His ability to multitask like that is evident in the number of shows he does and the number of creative endeavors he does simultaneously. Whether he’s doing an album or movie, two TV shows, performing live, I mean, he’s remarkable.  So with all of those elements you have this unique person, incredibly talented.  All we had to do is make sure we didn’t fuck it up for him.

Photo Credit: Tippett Studio

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]? 

DS: As the producer, with a background in animation and digital technology-driven films, when you don’t have a zillion dollars and you have to find the right visual effects houses to make this film viable, what were your greatest considerations and how did you go about finding the right partners to make this film?

JC:  Well, I think the ethos was it’s a new world order and we are going to use a new paradigm and we are not going to dismiss this digital revolution that’s going on around us and we’re not going to design outside of our budget.  What do we have going for us? Well, we have a talking teddy bear.  And how many of those are there in the world that people know intimately? Well if it was a beagle it would be a lot harder, because a lot of people know what a beagle looks like.  If it was a cat, it would be a lot harder, because people know what a cat looks like.  But a talking teddy bear, you’ve got some license there because their movement is outside the realm of everyone’s expertise. It doesn’t have to be “lifelike,” it has to be alive.  And there’s a difference.

It has to be in 3-D space.  You have to believe it 100%.  It has to be lit and rendered at the highest possible level, but within the performance of the character.  It doesn’t have to mimic what a real monkey, cat, dog would do.  It’s not those things.  And then we said, “Well, in that design and in the design of that performance, who are the likely candidates [visual effects houses]?”  And all of them were outside of our budget, we just couldn’t afford it.  They came in with bids, they tried but we just couldn’t afford it.  So we eliminated that and then we said, “Look, we can’t do this movie that way.  What are we going to do?”

A good friend of mine named Jenny Fulle was starting her company called Creative Cartel.  Jenny had been at a big company [Sony Imageworks] and she was of a mindset of this new world order. Visual effects are no longer “the man behind the curtain, pay no attention to the Wizard of Oz” The curtain has come down.  They are a transient business, meaning that talent moves freely worldwide.  There’s talent worldwide to accomplish this kind of stuff.  So how do we vet that talent?  Well, first, obviously you can ask somebody what’s this going to cost and if they think they can accomplish something for a price.  Second, you can look at their reel of experience and say, does their reel of experience speak of this [capability]?  Third, like what you do with a lead actor in a movie, you audition them.  And that’s the creative piece we put in this [process]. 

Companies [potential visual effects houses] were willing to consider an audition if we provided them some mocap and vocal performance of Seth and said, “See what you would do, here’s the design of the character and here’s the performance.  Put the two together, what can you do for us?”  So we had the time to allow them, for the R&D period, to audition.  And the companies we chose [which included Tippett Studio and Iloura] are the ones that delivered remarkable auditions.  It was such a wonderful experience to set a culture early that said, “Hey, you guys are not doing visual effects for us.  You guys are auditioning for the lead role in the movie.  Let’s see what you can do.”  And they took to that in a way that was outside of their previous experience that allowed them to feel they were a creative lynchpin in the movie.  And frankly, we did have Seth, and the opportunity to work with somebody great drove their passion.

DS: You can see it in the work, the CG, it has the right weight, it’s lit right.  It looks great. 

JC: I’ll tell you something else Dan that that hasn’t really been done before.  Not like this.  We seamlessly shared the assets of this character between houses that used different tool sets across the world.

DSPipeline, pipeline, pipeline.  It’s the mantra with…

JC: Right.  With multiple houses creating a single performance.

DS: That’s not an easy thing to do.

JC: No, it’s impossible to do.  And it’s a culture shift and this is why I say this is a new world order.  Guys, there is nothing proprietary anymore.  You have to learn to share and if you don’t share you’ll be lost because you can’t be that big in this world.  You need to be more nimble as a visual effects company because if you’re that big, you’re going to collapse on yourself.  And anybody who is in this technology business, if you try to own too much real estate it’s not going to work for you.  You’ve put millions and millions into your system and some kid in the garage is going to beat it and it’s going to be better than yours and it’s going to be built after seeing yours.  That’s philosophically the creed of growth.  Everything that’s happening is happening at a revolutionary pace. 

I needed to mocap Seth’s performance, to give the bear its physical performance.  I couldn’t take him to a stage and I couldn’t build a stage in every location.  How can I do that?  As I said, there’s this MVN suit, but it didn’t hold up.  Every time it’s around metal, it interfered with my radio waves.  Everybody wears a radio on a movie set. How do we put it in a movie set in every kind of environment? And you know what, I didn’t take “no” for an answer.  I called them [Xsens] up, I said, “Well give me one that does work.” They got some new software and some new tools and then they put on the suit and it took 22 minutes to dress in this racket strapped suit that was incredibly uncomfortable and overbearing.

Well, Seth MacFarlane is not going to put that on every day.  He’s directing the movie.  Guys, he doesn’t have 20 minutes to stop to put a suit on.  We have to redesign how it goes on him.  Yeah, but the points have to be accurate and they have to be measured.  Fine.  Find a way to clip it on so it’s like putting webbing on if you’re a Navy Seal.  You can’t spend 20 minutes putting your webbing on, you’ll be dead.  You’ve got to get it on quicker than that.  So they designed the system and then I said how many times have you put it on?  Put it on somebody a hundred times.  I want to see it go on and be up [running properly] a hundred times before we put it on Seth.

And you know what?  They did, they made it foolproof and they made it industrial strength and they made it robust. They did a great job. And now we have the ability in three minutes to put him [Seth] into a MVN suit and capture his performance.

And remember we’re creating the performance from a six-foot man to a two-foot bear. If technology drove, we would die.  If I had to worry about how Mark fights with the fuzzy pillow, I’d die.

Photo Credit: Tippett Studio

DS: Your fundamental approach to the film’s visual effects seems very different from the more established production paradigms.

JC: In my world, visual effects becomes an integral piece of the film group just like lighting, grip, electric, special effects, it’s no different.  They have tools on the set that are production tools and digital technology now is moving so fast that people are buying the cameras, they’re not renting them anymore.  I mean, it’s that kind of opportunity.  So anything that presented as this is the way we do it, I simply said, “Well, fuck, I did Stuart Little 10 years ago and we didn’t do it that way and I know it’s going to be done different in 5 years.  So let’s figure out the next way.” 

So going to Seth and saying without disregarding the roots of the filmmaking process, because they’ve been making great comedies for many years, let’s not lose track of what they’ve used.  How can I protect that filmmaking process for Seth and interject the technology that we needed to create the CG character without interfering [with the creative process]?  And that was my approach to producing the film and I think the result was to create an easy filmmaking environment that allowed for improvisation but also supported the technical needs of creating a CG character in a live action world.

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Dan Sarto is publisher and editor-in-chief of Animation World Network.

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