Read how Rhythm & Hues animated Mr. Popper's Penguins.
It's been a while since the first wave of CG penguins, but this year we have two more offerings: Mr. Popper's Penguins and Happy Feet 2 (Warner Bros, Nov. 18). But for Popper's Gentoo penguins, Rhythm & Hues was tasked with creating photoreal birds to interact with star Jim Carrey.
Based on the 1938 children's book, the businessman's life is turned upside down when he inherits six penguins and transforms his apartment into a winter wonderland. "Mark Waters, the director, was very sensitive that the penguins should only be anthropomorphized under the constraints of what they physically could do," explains Richard Hollander, R&H's visual effects supervisor, who collaborated with Keith Roberts, the company's animation director. "Meaning, we could only do what a penguin could do with its body. Whatever animation we chose to do, it kept the reality of the penguins alive, and in the beginning we were keeping them almost completely real."
And yet the penguins were put in all kinds of wacky situations, including playing soccer, flying down water slides, mimicking Chaplin and chasing a nanny out of the apartment. "No penguin would hold open the door, obviously, but Mark wanted to get as much real penguin as he could get," Hollander continues. "There's a very fast wide shot of Carrey first finding the penguins in his apartment: On top of the feng shui water fountain is Captain; his feet are only four inches long, so he wonders how he got on top. The penguin responds with an 'I don't know' shrug of his wings. That shrug became a running gag."
They used 18 cameras to shoot the live Gentoo penguins (recognizable by the wide white stripe extending across the head) in a circle. "We used those pictures for our 3D reference for the shape and form and deformations that occur on the penguins. That was the basis. We made walking and running cycles from the reference. We Aaso shot reference footage to understand the feather structure and how light bounces off the head. There were six penguins to distinguish and that became the biggest [design] challenge. But those markings were easy to do once we established what they were going to be. We also had to put them onto the live-action penguins as well. It's a 3D roto game that's not easy because of the way the feathers have sheen and reflection."
Not surprisingly, feathers were a big challenge: The Gentoo penguins get a special sheen on their feathers from oil that's secreted during preening. "It is the most beautiful-looking thing when they're done," Hollander observes. "The feather material actually takes in the light and it scatters. But on top of that there is a layer that's reflecting, and we had to deal with both. You can actually see the under wing orange coloration that's reflected on their bodies in the shots."
In fact, the biggest technical challenge involved handling differently lit areas within a shot. "We've done it before, but not to this extent," Hollander says. "You want to be in an environment that is not only accurate from a lighting ray standpoint but also from a geometry standpoint. We're effectively building geometry that mimics the apartment and the lighting conditions of a given moment. Those techniques of back projecting onto geometry were very helpful, and we're continuing to develop them."
As for rigging, it was pretty basic; deformations were provided from the photographs of the 18-camera rig. "There's a great curve in the neck area that's embedded mostly in the cavity of the chest," Hollander explains. "They can actually extend their head away from their body. So the movement came very natural to them and each feather is overlaid with the next."
In other words, there's no need for squash-and-stretch with this natural ability.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.