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Spinning A New 'Charlotte’s Web'

J. Paul Peszko reports on the collaborative CG effort between Tippett Studio, Rhythm & Hues and Rising Sun Pictures in bringing the new live-action Charlottes Web to the screen.

Five vfx houses created the effects in the live-action version of Charlottes Web. Tippett Studio was responsible for Templeton (left) and Wilbur. Courtesy of Tippett Studio. All images © 2006 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

This month marks the release of Paramounts much awaited live-action version of E. B. Whites classic childrens tale, Charlottes Web (Dec. 15). The process, as producer Jordan Kerner explains it, involved making two movies. "We made one movie with our wonderful live actors. Then we made another movie that added computer images, face replacements, eye rhythms, moving mouths and facial expressions that mimic the actors. Hopefully, this second movie fits seamlessly with the first."

To accomplish this, five visual effects houses joined forces to create the computer-generated effects: the Tippett Studio in Berkeley, Rhythm & Hues (R&H) in Los Angeles and Australia-based houses Rising Sun Pictures (RSP), Fuel International and Digital Pictures Iloura. Through the cineSync program developed by RSP, director Gary Winick, Kerner and the visual effects staff could fully communicate in realtime even when thousands of miles away from each other. First, let's take a look at the two effects houses on this side of the Pacific before moving on to RSP.

Joel Friesch and Blair Clark were the visual effects supervisors for Tippett Studio. We were to create Templeton, which is the rat, says Friesch. He was going to be completely CG throughout the whole film. This, as you can well imagine, presented several challenges. First off the rat had to be photoreal, states Friesch. He had to cut against and with real animals. So, if our rat didnt look real that kind of blows the whole illusion of real animals talking. That was our biggest challenge. The second one was to build a photoreal rat and yet still give him the ability to act because he had a definite character curve throughout the movie. So, we had to make sure he could still act and show emotion. Then our next challenge was that, a third of the way through the production, they came to us and asked if we could do some crows. We had not really prepared for that in pre-production. So, we had to build a feather tool and create crows that were also photoreal and squeeze it into our pipeline. Our crew, our pipeline and our schedule were set up to do the rat and this was a little something extra.

Tippett Studios previous experience creating furry animals gave it an advantage when working on Templeton. The challenge on Charlottes Web was to make a photoreal rat that could act and emote. Courtesy of Tippett Studio.

Tippett Studio has done quite a few furry animals for various productions, including the sentient cat from Catwoman and the Russian Blue from Cats & Dogs, so creating Templeton was something they could really sink their teeth into. Having a proprietary fur tool already in the pipeline along with detailed movement studies allowed the artists and animators at Tippett to accelerate and enhance their renders to the point that they were ahead of the other vfx houses working on the production. We were always moving, and the cup was constantly changing, so we were having to change things, Friesch explains. Sometimes wed work on a shot and find out that the shot was cut. Then wed stop and find out the shot was back in again, so wed have to start up again. Things like that were always happening. However, because they were always ahead, Tippett tended to take the lead in completing the shots. So, in the shots that we had to exchange with Rising Sun or R&H, wed pretty much have our rat down and give them an alpha channel, and then they would take the shot and put their character in. Since Templeton was completed first, this enabled the Tippett crew along with director Winick to establish the eye lines that the other companies would follow in subsequent shots.

Not only did their previous experience with furry animals allow the visual effects team at Tippett to speed up their production but also to be more creative. Among other things, this show didnt have huge technological leaps, where you had to figure out how to do something, continues Friesch. It was a nice show for our artists to really concentrate on being creative because they didnt have to worry about any of those limitations. The stuff that we had to do, we had pretty much done before on other shows. So, we were pretty confident that we could pull the rat off. The artists could just create and didnt have to worry about technology so much. It was a little different for the crows, but it wasnt so bad. But for Templeton, it was nice just watching people be creative.

All in all, there were approximately 115 artists working on the Tippett crew at the height of the production. As for technology, Friesch explains, We used RenderMan for rendering. All of our animation, models, a lot of the effects animation and things like that were done in Maya and composited in the new Shake. I believe we used RealFlow for some water effects.

While Friesch remained at the Tippett Studio in Berkeley to oversee the creation of Templeton, Clark, their other visual effects supervisor, went on location to Victoria, Australia, for principal photography. My job on location was to work with John Berton Jr., who was the overall visual effects supervisor, says Clark. We ended up working quite a bit together, and also they created a second unit. So, I went on to oversee the plates shot on the second unit while John stayed on with the main unit. That kind of entailed shooting motion control passes for all the animals as well as the stuff specifically for Tippett, which would be the plates for the rat and the plates for the crows.

A third of the way through production, Tippett Studio was asked to create some crows. A feather tool had to be built and the creation of the photoreal crows was squeezed into the pipeline. Courtesy of Tippett Studio.

Clark worked closely with second unit director, E. J. Forester, and John Mahaffey, the second unit dp. Most of the shots were things that didnt have any live-action actors in them, Clark explains, so we kind of focused on the more time-consuming, laborious kind of things like motion control and getting all of the plates where they had to have all of the characters in the barn together. Shooting all of those different animals was by no means an easy task. You couldnt shoot them all at once mainly because of maintaining eye lines, and all of the animals (gathered together) at one time would have been a nightmare. It was hard enough, say, just with the sheep. You had five sheep and a trainer with a little stick with a ball on the end to get their eye lines. Youd always get one sheep that was just going nuts. So, we would shoot them in different passes. And some of the animals didnt get along. The horse didnt like the cows because they were in close proximity. Youd have to shoot them separately. Then youd have to shoot the geese separate from everyone. The geese were so hated universally by the other animals. Then youd have to shoot them in a specific order, so you wouldnt run into problems as far as the shadows cast from the cows onto the geese. There was a lot of that. And thats pretty much what the job was, making sure everything was shot in an organized order for technical reasons and making sure that everything was covered with any necessary bluescreen and getting all the reference we needed. We shot a lot of reference.

Todd Shifflett, the visual effects supervisor for R&H, explains their work on Charlottes Web. R&H was responsible for creating the facial expression and articulation for the live-action barnyard creatures, everything from animating their vocalizations to subtle emotional cues that come from a squint, a frown or a smile, explains Shifflett. Time and production schedules are always a complicating factor. We're always caught in a need to improve upon the techniques while at the same time make the process go faster. There are a lot of challenges that arise from that. You need a team of not only experienced artists but a creative production staff as well.

Rhythm & Hues was responsible for creating the facial expression and articulation for the live-action barnyard creatures, everything from animating their vocalizations to subtle emotional cues. Courtesy of R&H.

One of the challenges that R&H had to face was character matchmove without sufficient modeling. R&H really came onto the production after principal photography had completed and so we did not get to employ some of the modeling and measuring techniques we normally use with a talking animal project, states Shifflett. The modeling and matchmove process is the foundation for the entire effect and requires very exacting detail. The nature of working with live animals on set means that there have got to be several real animals playing the part of one character, each of which has slightly different features that can make recreating that motion a real nightmare.

To overcome this, R&H developed automated facial tracking software, but, according to Shifflett, the real key is still to rely on very skilled and persistent artists. With the look and feel of the animals in Charlotte's Web, we were able to utilize some more recent advances in the speed and quality of rendered fur to help add reality to very subtle facial motion which allowed the animators to really explore the animal's emotional expression. Usually, with talking animals, you struggle with needing to over exaggerate an expression just to make it read, and we're now really getting to the point where we can manipulate very small details, which has a subtle effect that leads to a much larger impact on the audience.

Because it came onto production after principal photography, R&H had to create the character matchmove without sufficient modeling. Courtesy of R&H.

Another challenge was that of trying to apply a universal standard to the collaborative effort. As Shifflett explains, Sharing shots with other visual effects houses is always a challenge. And we were lucky enough to work with some very talented people in other facilities. But the visual effects industry still struggles with standards, in particular how to manage color. With each facility attacking the problem in a different way, you can very quickly generate a lot of confusion. I have to say that, as we come to terms with how to produce a film whose delivery is now digital rather than on negative, John Berton did a fantastic job holding all the pieces together so that each studio could concentrate on what they needed to do.

Meanwhile, RSP had the role of creating the lead character for Charlottes Web. Starting in January 2005 and finishing in July 2006, RSP delivered 242 shots of spider Charlotte and her magnificent webs that comprised approximately 23 minutes of screen time. A team of 65 artists and 25 support staff developed the photorealistic CG character, who is voiced by Oscar winner Julia Roberts.

Naturally, a realistic yet lovable Charlotte was crucial to the success of the story. Like Templeton, she needed to display an onscreen presence without breaking the illusion that this unique arachnid was as much a part of Zuckerman's barn as the rest of the animal cast. RSP built a collaborative relationship with the filmmakers, especially director Winick, vfx supervisor Berton Jr. and animation supervisor Eric Leighton. They succeeded, says director Winick, by paying special attention to the eyes. "They had to have a quality to them that would be expressive." An additional challenge that RSP undertook was the creation of the web, which Charlotte uses in the story to communicate with the world. The team at RSP developed an extensive set of custom tools for Charlotte to interact with her web and the environment and for the web to look suitably magical and realistic.

RSP had the role of creating lead character Charlotte. A team of 65 artists delivered 242 shots of the spider and her magnificent webs that comprised approximately 23 minutes of screen time. Courtesy of RSP.

John Dietz, visual effects supervisor for RSP, talks about the daunting task that faced them. Because of the nature of her character, being so iconic, and also that she's a spider who needs to be nurturing, motherly and endearing, design and finding her character proved extremely difficult. Getting it wrong just wasn't an option.

Finding the proper balance was essential. We started with the look design, and went through many iterations. We went from too cute and cuddly, to too photoreal and spidery and back and forth. Finding that balance was always the main key and also to get the performance out of her because this isn't a typical visual effects movie (she sits on screen for extended periods of time delivering intense dialog). We had to try and develop a language in the design of her face to keep her a bit humanistic but not lose her spideryness or become too cartoony.

On a spider, the main place to go is the eyes. There really isn't much else there that's human. We took the eyes of a spider, which are pretty much just spherical, and we made them almond shaped. Also, we edged on the side of a human iris. These things also made her feel feminine. Spiders have eight eyes, so we used the secondary eyes to represent a brow line to get slight expressions. Spiders also have chelicerae, which are basically the fangs, so we used the line between those fangs and the main shape of her head to have a line that represented a mouth line. We didn't animate it that much, but we could come into a shot more in a smile or turned down into a frown. Also the shape of the head, and the chelicerae made a heart shape that we really focused on, also to give her more femininity. We always went back and forth on Charlotte having a mouth, but in the end we animated the fangs on major phonemes, simulating a mouth behind. [It was] almost like the fangs played like a vale, or cloth. Again very feminine.

Finding the proper balance for Charlotte was essential. RSP went through many iterations, from too cute and cuddly, to too photoreal and spidery. Courtesy of RSP.

Femininity is certainly not something a moviegoer would associate with a spiders fur or exoskeleton. Dietz explains how RSP handled that problem. Actually spiders are usually pretty spikey -- that's not very feminine or attractive, so we went with a more downy type fur, like a fawn but still let the exoskeleton play through the fur, mostly on the legs. The combo becomes sort of furry/cuddly, but the exoskeleton takes light nicely and let's you know that she's still a spider.

Another unattractive aspect of a spider when it comes to a screen heroine is her twitchy posture and movement. Gangly at best with all those legs moving up and down in a choppy staccato motion as she crawls along, her posture is anything but feminine or such that it can evoke a variety of emotions. We had to do a similar process for all of her animation/performance, building that language of her posture when she's happy, sad, angry, etc., Dietz discloses. Also to keep that balance between spider and character, we really animated her spidery in wider shots, where her legs move more naturalistically. Then you come to a close up for impact, and we toned down all the spider twitchiness and major movements and let her perform more like a character to get the meaning of the shot. Making sure all that language was correct to deliver an arc of her character and have the audience bond with this spider was by far and away the most difficult part of this project.

RSP worked on getting Charlottes eyes right. The studio altered the natural spherical shape of the spiders eyes and instead made them almond shaped. Courtesy of RSP.

RSP did their rendering using 3Delight, a RenderMan-compliant renderer. The 3D animation was done in XSI and 2D in Shake, while boujou was used for tracking. Lighting was carried out using a custom RSP light rig in XSI. Because we rendered out of 3Delight and did our animation and lighting in XSI, we had to write a proprietary .rib exporter for XSI called Affogoto, Dietz explains. Also, because of the nature and complexity of the webs, we wrote all the web dynamics ourselves.

In addition, ambient and reflection occlusion were used on the body to mask out the HDR reflections and the lighting. 3Delight added extensions for hair rendering that allowed quality control beyond the industry standard. HDR environment maps, captured on the set, were utilized for eye and body reflections and anisotropic reflections on hair for realism. Due to the need for interactive tweaking of the look of Charlotte and her web, there were more than 30 separate elements passes for Charlotte and 40 for the web.

As mentioned above, RSP used cineSync, a remote review and approval tool that was developed by Rising Sun research, that allowed all the companies involved in the production to review each others images and communicate visually in realtime no matter where they were in the world.

In that regard, too, Dietz says that all of the other visual effects companies were great to work with. Iloura, R&H and Tippett did CG characters or facial replacement work, so when Charlotte was in a shot with a CG Wilbur [the pig] or Templeton, we'd pass the plates back and forth for blocking and to develop eye lines. Fuel did the baby spiders, so we worked with them as the Charlotte design was developed.

Dietz is extremely pleased to have pulled off the lead character of a classic tale. Everyone stayed focused, passionate, resolved, to get this done right for a long schedule. I'm as proud of the work as I ever have of any project, but I'm really proud of the people who made it happen. It was a special project!

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes various features and reviews as well as short fiction. He has a feature comedy in development and has just completed his second novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.