Alain Bielik speaks with ILM and Tippett Studio about raising the digital bar when it comes to cartoony CG antics in Son of the Mask.
When The Mask was released in 1994, it broke new ground by using digital technology to create extreme make-up effects that neither animatronics nor traditional prosthetics could have achieved. Supervised by Scott Squires at Industrial Light & Magic, the effects paved the way for a whole new range of characters.
Eleven years later, New Line releases a sequel... with a baby and a dog replacing Jim Carrey in the lead. In the movie, the baby is conceived when the father (Jamie Kennedy) seduces his wife while wearing the magical prop. As a result, the child is born with all the magical powers of the mask and learns to use them by imitating characters seen on television.
Selected to helm the visual effects was Jamie Price, who had just finished supervising the plate photography for the flooding of the Isengard sequence in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers for New Line: The film I started to work on was very different. Entire sequences were removed, new ones were added, plus we had a six-week hiatus in summer 2003 while portions of the movie were being rewritten. We shot in Australia in winter 2003 and wrapped in April 2004, and since I was also second unit director, I was able to direct a lot of the effects sequences myself, which was very satisfying. I shot all the effects plate and more, as I was also acting as second unit director. The last effects shots were completed in November last year. We originally planned for about 500 shots, but this was later reduced to around 380. Eight vendors worked on the project.
While the original movie is remembered for its Tex Avery-like animation, Son of the Mask draws its inspiration from Chuck Jones work, a more subtle school of animation in which gags often lead to an emotional moment. References to landmark cartoons abound in the movie, as the main character is a traditional animator who lives for his art. We watched a lot of cartoons of the 50s, adds Price. The director wanted to reproduce in live-action some of the outrageous camera moves that Chuck Jones and his animators had created. Digital technology now makes these kinds of shots possible. For example, whenever the camera needed to pass though a window, we shot the plates without the wall and completed the set digitally. This category of effects included one shot in which the camera starts on the dog in the backyard, cranes up to the second story of the house, then goes through a window into a washroom. In reality, the washroom and the garden were two different sets that were digitally connected. An interesting shot that we did at Toybox was a camera move that went down to the dog digging in the garden, with the camera ending up shooting up at the pet, from below the ground surface. It was actually a spoof of the shot of Michelle Pfeiffer laying down, drugged, in What Lies Beneath. Here again, we had to combine two plates: in the first one, the camera went down to ground level, actually flying through the (CG) roof of the dog house; in the second plate, the dog was shot up on a glass platform, and finally the dirt and the doghouse roof were added digitally. All these shots were previsualized by Pixel Liberation Front.
Giving Birth To a Super Baby
The main challenge for the effects team was the creation of a photorealistic computer-generated baby. Although a real child was used for all non-effects shots, a digital version was required for the many impossible stunts and tricks that the character had to perform. When Price called ILM to discuss the project, he was aware that the San Rafael facility was already at work developing another CG baby for Lemony Snickets A Series of Unfortunate Events. We actually ended up sharing the development of the technology and I believe that both projects benefited from this. The challenge was on two levels: first, the character had to look as realistic as a real baby, and second, it had to move like an adult while still remaining convincing as a baby. So, from a technical and an animation point of view, it was a major undertaking.
ILM was first asked to produce a test shot of the baby jumping out of his high chair, bouncing around the room and, finally, dancing smoothly. The studio developed the test shot over a period of two months. The main difficulty with this character was that, within a shot, it had to look like a completely photorealistic baby and then, make an outrageous move like inflating his head like a balloon! notes lead animator Scott Huck Wirtz. It was very hard to make it look believable. The first step was to create a digital baby as realistic as possible. We especially focused our efforts on the eyes. If they didnt match the real babys, the digital double would fail.
How Wild Is Wild
The baby actor was cyberscanned and, although he didnt remain still during the operation, ILM managed to pull enough data to build a CG double. Created and animated in SOFTIMAGE|XSI, the model was then refined by analyzing reference photographs of the actor. During visual effects plate photography, the effects team systematically shot a take of the real baby in situation. This was later used by ILMs technical directors to match lighting and skin tones.
Animation turned out to be a tricky process: Some sequences were so wild, recalls Wirtz. The question was: where do we draw the line? This baby defied any law of physics and the director really wanted us to go over the top. However, the character had to remain a real child. We ended up deciding on a shot per shot basis how far we could go. Basically, whenever the animation started to look grotesque, we stopped For example, in the shot of the baby inflating his head like a balloon, the animation had to be timed very precisely: if the effect lasted too long, it stopped being funny and turned the baby into a monster. It was a fine line.
Besides CG animation, ILM employed other techniques to bring the character to life. Whenever the baby needed to express specific emotions, artists manipulated the plate in 2D. For shots in which the child had to talk, the actors face was projected onto a geometry and animated in CG. In a couple of shots, we even combined the head of the baby -- shot in front of a bluescreen -- with a CG body, notes Price. It worked extremely well.
Taming Of A Terror Dog
While the baby was growing up nicely at ILM, another CG creature was born across the bay at Tippett Studio. Just like in the original film, the heros dog puts the mask on and turns into a wild super creature. This time, though, it uses its powers to try to get rid of the baby: the pet doesnt appreciate being kicked out of the house to leave room for the newcomer. We did about 145 shots, half of them involving character animation on the dog, comments visual effects supervisor Thomas Schelesny. Designing the dog was a very long process. We did a dozen maquettes, each featuring a different expression. The challenge was to make the dog look more mature, to give him an edgy personality, without ever making it look frightening.
Using Maya and RenderMan, Tippett Studio employed a unique technology to animate the model. Special rigging allowed facial points to actually follow the geometry of the skull. Traditionally, to go from one pose to the next, we would create a morph, but the major drawback is that the points then move in a straight line, explains Schelesny. They dont move in an arc, which means the animator has less control. On Son of the Mask, there were shots in which the dog had to go from making a kiss to opening its mouth from ear to ear. In order to give animators a complete control on each point during the whole move, the model was rigged with hundreds of controls. For our animators and the rigging department, it was a huge undertaking. The poses were completely hand-animated, but it allowed us, for example, to show the teeth for several frames in the middle of such a move.
Even when the baby and the dog appeared together in the same shot, they were handled separately by ILM and Tippett Studio. By using clever framing and careful positioning, were often able to cheat the physical contact between the two models, explains Price.
Tippett Studio also created the scene in which Loki, son of the god Odin, takes the shape of a highly unrealistic bee. Actor Alan Cummings was cyberscanned and parts of his features were integrated into the bee model. Another humorous sequence that Schelesny supervised involved Loki chasing the hero and his family with a 35-foot long hammer. The plates were shot with Cumming holding a mere handle while the crew used a 35-foot long rope to position the actor and leave room for the CG hammer.
In the other big chase of the movie, Loki steals the baby and escapes in his specially rigged car. When he puts the high gear on, the acceleration is so powerful that it turns the street into a rollercoaster that his pursuers have to drive on. Executed at ILM, the sequence involved the creation of digital cars, a CG taffy road, actual street plates or tiled backgrounds, and actors shot blue screen in a car on a gimbal.
Concludes Price: Other major sequences were realized at Giant Killer Robots (Mask transformations, tornado and zip effects), Digital Dimension and Illusion Arts (matte-paintings). Kleiser/Walczak did a very special sequence that was unfortunately removed from the version that will be released in North America. Preceding the birth of the baby, it was a full 3D sequence that featured three Mask sperm swimming towards an egg. The animation was done in a very tongue-in-cheek, humorous way, but the MPAA still rated the movie PG-13. This rating was deemed unacceptable by the studio and the sequence was thus deleted. Fortunately, it will be included in the version that will be released internationally.
Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X., published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinefex. He just finished organizing a major special effects exhibition that will open Feb. 20 at the in Lyon, France. Displays include original models and creatures from 2010 Odyssey Two, Independence Day, Ghostbusters, Cliffhanger, Alien Vs. Predator, Alien 3, Pitch Black and many more. The exhibition will run through Aug. 31.