Tara DiLullo talks with Tippett Studios Tom Schelesny about the transformation vfx that transpire in Disneys The Shaggy Dog.
It’s been 47 years since Disney first turned a story about an average guy that miraculously changes into a sheepdog into a big screen hit. Now almost 50 years later, the House of Mouse is contemporizing their family classic, The Shaggy Dog, with funny man Tim Allen following in the paw prints of Fred MacMurray, as a family guy transformed into a furry alter ego. Technology has come a long way since the high concept, low-tech original, so it makes sense that the new Shaggy Dog is much more cutting edge and illustrative of the actual human-to-canine transformation process. Under the supervision of visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum, several vendors worked on the film with the 3D character work going to the highly respected Tippett Studio. Tom Schelesny was the Tippett-based visual effects supervisor and he details how he and his team tackled the upgrades to the concept of the film.
“Our involvement with the project was based more on the fact that we, and I, had done this style of work in the past,” Schelesny details about why Tippett was awarded the film. “There is a subtlety required for comedy, which in a way goes beyond just the technical requirements of creating a computer graphic image. It’s a subtlety that’s not really present in let’s say a horror movie. In a horror movie, something that is intended to be frightening may be unintentionally funny, and that’s OK. But if you are working on a comedy and something that you intended to be funny turns out to not be funny, it’s usually not an option,” he chuckles. “So their interest in us had very much to do with our comedy work in the past, including the sequel to The Mask, The Son of the Mask, so my sensibilities were already working in that area.”
“This is not one of your classic visual effects films, in that the main characters in it are not computer graphic characters,” he continues. “The main character is Tim Allen. It wasn’t one of those situations where we had to augment anything he was doing. He is a very talented physical actor. In fact, it was quite surprising when we got out there, they’d roll the camera and he would just turn it on. It gave us a huge confidence in the project because it wasn’t like they were going to solve any problems in the show with just throwing visual effects at it. Clearly a lot of the responsibility fell to Mr. Allen and he is actually very funny. So the kinds of things that we needed to do, which go against our general visual effects m.o., was to not to mug for the camera for every shot. Generally, we mug for the camera to show everybody that they are getting their money’s worth in terms of a visual effects character. But for the computer graphics characters in this show the comedy was in their situation. They weren’t juggling plates; instead it was a King Cobra that has the tail of a shaggy dog. With that came different challenges, like does he act like a King Cobra or something else? Our main impetuous on the show was to come up with a supporting cast to support Tim’s performance.”
Detailing exactly what Tippett brought to the table, Schelesny explains, “We did about 110 shots. We weren’t the only vendor, but we did all the 3D animation and characters. We had about 50 artists at our studio working on it for about a year. We modeled and animated using Maya. We created 12 computer-generated characters.” Giving some context as to how they were integrated into the film, he details, “At one point in the show, we find ourselves in a lab and there are all these animals that were being experimented on with this ‘shaggy dog’ virus, which are very, very small, green, furry dog-shaped cells, that swim through your bloodstream. They were using that to try and find the fountain of youth, because the original shaggy dog was from Tibet, it’s not Tim Allen at all. The Tibetan dog is very old and the evil scientists got onto this thing to find out what makes this dog live so long via this virus, so they can find a fountain of youth and be trillionaires. So they had all these failed experiments and the things we did were a King Cobra with a sheep dog’s tail in CGI. We did four rabbits that bark like dogs and sit in lotus position and meditate. We also did six lab rats, which would bark, chase their tales and sit up and beg. The last mutated animal was something called the ‘frog dog,’ which had the body of a bullfrog and the head of a bulldog. It was very disturbing,” he chuckles.
As for Tim Allen, who is bitten by the Tibetan and is infected with this virus and ends up in this lab and he transforms into a dog, which is where all the funny stuff comes from, he continues. He starts behaving like a dog, so we did a shot in an elevator where he begins panting like a dog and this giant tongue extension comes out of his mouth. In the lab, Allen is in a form of a sheep dog and they have all these voiceovers and images of the dog and hes saying he should meditate to help him transform back into Tim Allen. They show all of our animals meditating and then there is an extreme close up of the dogs face, which is 90% computer graphics and all the rest is CG fun. When the sheep dog opens his eyes, we reveal Tim Allens eyeballs and the hairs begin to retract into the skin and reveal Tim Allens skin underneath. They did not want to have Teen Wolf, with Tim Allens face and a bunch of funny hairs sticking out of it. So we took the effect about half way through, but we took our time so you would see the bone structure shifting and hairs that are discreetly receding into his face.
Describing the other work they did on the film, he adds, We had to build a cat for limited shots, a furred cat, and we also did two huge fully CG shots. We went into the project not even assigned to these shots, where we fly into Tim Allens body amongst these red blood cells and show these shaggy virus cells. We had all these pictures on the wall of what red blood cells look like and tried to find what audiences would accept. We flew into a wound on Allens hand, which was a photographic plate and transitioned into a CG wound and flew through the blood stream and take a red blood cell and rip it open showing shaggy dogs cells swimming on the inside and then wed fly out of his mouth at the end. It would hook up two photographic plates together with this huge 15-second shots. We did two and the other was inside his heart. Those were really tough shots mostly because we had to self-art direct it and pitch it back to the director. He was busy editing the film so we took the bull by the horns and presenting work to them saying here is what we wish to do.
The Shaggy Dog offered plenty of other creative challenges for the team, including ways to handle the dog to human transition sequences. Schelesny says the one he was most satisfied with occurred at the end of the movie. Allen visits his wife and there is one big shot on these courthouse steps where the camera is on a profile of his wife and the dog has its front paws on her shoulders and the camera tracks around her back and goes all the way around to the profile on the far side. As the camera begins passing behind her, the hairs retract into the paws and fingers extend into full human length and grab into her shoulder and he transforms into Tim Allen. On the first side, we see the dogs face and then on the far side, using her head as a wipe, we see Tim Allen.
As for the biggest production hurdle for Tippett, Schelesny says it was a sequence that closed the film: another surprise addition to their workload. The intention was for it to be entirely photographic with simple composites. At the end of the movie, [Allens family] go to Hawaii and in the far distance, surfers are on the waves and you see out in the ocean a shaggy dog surfing. The first two shots were done by CIS, where they composited a very small greenscreen element of a dog standing on its hind legs and they tracked that one on a surfboard. We then tracked our surfboard under their dog in those two shots and then we got the third shot the payoff everyone wanted to see. The camera is inside of the wave as it is breaking and there is a completely computer graphic shaggy dog with his long hair flapping in the wind, shooting the curl right past the camera. We had a background plate given to us from production, which was stock photography of a surfer shooting the curl right past us. We painted out that surfer and we had to build this shaggy dog.
Simulating the hair, which was very long, was a huge technical challenge! The new frontier of fur is how to do long hair and how to style long hair and in the case of the shaggy dog, it has to flow in the breeze and react to his motion. It was a huge simulation to figure out and halfway working through that shot we werent sure if it was even renderable. We started painting the dog like he was totally wet with clumpy fur and it was very uninteresting and unrecognizable. I called production and the visual effects supervisor Steven Rosenbaum and told him it did not look like the dog people had been staring at for 90 minutes, so we needed the license to make it look like the dry dog and find areas where to make his fur clumpy. We found a halfway in between look where he still looked wet. The background plate was also shot in slow motion, but they didnt want the dog in slow motion. We had to find a halfway slow motion speed for the dogs performance so our CG water around the surfboard was allowed to be in slow motion, the body was partly in slow motion, but the fur was almost in realtime! he sighs. We do have a proprietary hair tool we use at Tippett and we had to modify it for extremely long hairs. It was an R&D project built into a project, which we typically dont want to do but it always ends up that way. It was a fairly significant move forward for us. Our fur tool allows us to bridge from Maya into RenderMan, where the hairs themselves are grown. We do a final composite using Shake. It was the single hardest shot of the show.
Tara DiLullo is an east coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.