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‘The Garfield Movie’: The Mouth is a Window to the Belly

CG animation producer Shelley Smith and VFX supervisor Freddy Chaleur discuss how DNEG Animation perfected the not very Shakespearean process of staying on model while animating the extreme poses of a furry cat, based on iconic 2D comic designs, that can eat an entire pizza in one bite.

For almost five decades, a big-eyed, wide-grinned orange tabby has been the face of laziness, gluttony and emotional manipulation. And he’s been adored that entire time. 

“I know a lot of people know Garfield and that Garfield has fans everywhere, globally, but I watched Garfield and Friends every Saturday morning when I was growing up,” says Shelley Smith, CG animation producer (digital producer) on Columbia Pictures and Alcon Entertainment’s The Garfield Movie as she remembers CBS’ series that ran from 1988 to 1994. “I also had the books. I used to actually try to color them in. I've been a Garfield fan forever. I don’t have the tattoo yet, but I will. So, when DNEG approached me about helping with animation on this film, I happily sold myself to them.”

“Garfield,” a comic strip first published nationwide by Jim Davis in 1978, was syndicated in over 2,500 newspapers and journals; at one point it held the Guinness World Record for being the world's most widely syndicated comic strip. The comic, which takes place in Davis' Indiana hometown, features a chubby cat named Garfield who loves three things: coffee, lasagna, and messing with his owner Jon’s dog Odie. It’s a simple concept, but the property has exploded with 3 television series adaptations, including Garfield and Friends, 12 primetime specials, 2 live-action/CG animated hybrid films from 20th Century Fox starring Bill Murray and 3 direct-to-video 3D animated films. 

Mark Dindal’s The Garfield Movie, starring Chris Pratt in the titular role and recently released in U.S. cinemas by Columbia Pictures through Sony Pictures, is the first fully animated theatrically released Garfield film. 

“The last time anyone saw Garfield on the big screen was in 2006,” says Freddy Chaleur, visual effects supervisor on The Garfield Movie. “It’s been some time, so I was curious to see how far we could push the animation.”

It’s also the first time Garfield gets a kind of “Odyssey” story. After an unexpected reunion with his long-lost father – scruffy street cat Vic (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) on the run from a deranged cat named Jinx – Garfield and his canine friend Odie are forced from their perfectly pampered life into joining Vic in a hilarious, high-stakes heist.

The film's animation is produced by DNEG Animation, with Davis himself serving as executive producer alongside Bridget McMeel, David Reynolds, Scott Parish, Carl Rogers, Tom Jacomb, Crosby Clyse, Chris Pflug, Simon Hedges, Louis Koo, Steve Sarowitz, Justin Baldoni, and Peter Luo.

“Mark, when he was pitching the film to DNEG, he made it really clear that the aim and goal of the film is to pay homage to Jim Davis and the comic strip, and make sure that it really translated well into the DNEG world,” notes Smith. 

Chaleur adds, “Jim Davis was part of the process in pre-production and was very open-minded. He gave Mark a lot of freedom when it came to designing Garfield and the world in this film. That’s been the nature of Garfield from the beginning. There have been so many interpretations but the key elements everyone recognizes and feels at home with are still there. There’s no question about whether or not the cat you’re looking at is Garfield.”

In addition to the initial, more broad decisions about things like whether Garfield should be biped or quadruped and how big he should be in relation to his owner Jon, Chaleur and Smith say one of the biggest challenges in designing Garfield was figuring out how mouth was going to move. 

For a cat whose existence is 90 percent eating, usually large sizes and quantities, it was something the team had to perfect because it would be shown over and over again on the big screen. 

“We knew immediately that we were going to have a lot of extreme poses in this film and that was going to be a challenge,” shares Smith. “I remember our very first sequence that we dived into was that first sequence of the film where Garfield opens his mouth up to eat an entire pizza in one swoop. That was the first moment where we were all like, ‘How are we going to pull this off and keep a recognizable character model?”

After all, it’s one thing to unhook a tabby’s jaw like a snake in illustrations on a comic strip. It’s a whole other challenge to stretch a rigged, 3D model without turning Garfield into The Boogie Man. 

“One of the first things we paid attention to was making sure, when his mouth opened, that fur continued to be distributed evenly around his face,” explains Chaleur. “We didn’t want to suddenly have all this exposed skin when Garfield opens up his mouth to eat. We want him to stay furry.”

All of Garfield’s animation was produced in Maya but leaned heavily into tweaking the rig controls. And not just in regard to his mouth, but also the yellow muzzle which needs to flex and flow with every mouth movement. 

“As the mouth gets bigger, that muzzle needs to get bigger in a similar way that a mustache would but be even more fluid,” notes Chaleur. “The curves and the shape really need to be finessed and sculpted.”

But the fur, Smith notes, was one of the production’s biggest challenges for Garfield because, before they could focus on even distribution, they had to get the texture right. 

“For all the characters in the film, our mantra was, ‘Can we get it softer?’” says Smith. “All the characters are so different in their looks – Garfield’s dad had much messier fur, Jinx’s hair is more like a dress – but regardless, the fur is a big part of who these characters are, and we wanted them all to feel like cats you’d want to reach out and pet.”

There was a “two-step control system,” as Chaleur puts it, for making sure the fur on Garfield and his friends had all the right ingredients, from texture to placement. First, the animation goes to Performance Effects, who fine tune the fur after the initial animation is finished and make sure everything is staying together. If the team doesn‘t notice any problems, the animation moves on to a second stage: Character Effects, or CFX. 

“The character effects were really artist-driven,” shares Chaleur. “For example, the artist will make sure that Jinx, as she moves around and her long fur is floating in the air, going left and right and bouncing up and down, that every part of those movements is controlled, from the gravity to the speed. Some of the performance effects are completely automatic, allowing us to get some shots through the system without needing to go through the CFX pass. Others need more help.”

“Others” referring to shots like a cat gobbling up whole plates of spaghetti, lasagna and pizza. Though there wasn’t much room to cheat with the animation, a trick that helped with Garfield’s massive food intake was a little Scooby Doo-style snacking magic made Garfield’s tongue large and used it as a kind of spoon to scoop up the food. 

“There was a lot of love put into this and I think you see it on the screen,” says Smith. “You see the fun that everyone had and the love of the animation. When you have a movie with a comic style like this, you have a little bit more room to play around and do some different things, explore and make it as funny as possible. I continually heard from the crew how much fun they had making this film. Even with the more daunting sequences to take on, they are still some of our favorites and we’re so excited to share them with everyone.”

“And I’d encourage everyone to go see it on the big screen,” adds Chaleur. “Take advantage of those big pixels that help you really appreciate the work.”

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at