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'Catwoman' VFX Claw Past Comic Book Conventions

Gerard Raiti goes and scratches up the facts about the effects used to bring Catwoman to the big screen.

Vfx supervisor Ed Jones praised the all-CG cityscape. All images © 2004 Warner Bros. Ent. Inc.  U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda. © 2004 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd.  All other territories. All rights reserved. Photo credit:

Halle Berry is no longer just eye candy. She bears the most coveted honor an actress can receive: an Oscar. Catwoman, however, is sadly just eye candy. Not even Berrys responsive acting and acrobatic acumen can elevate Warner Bros. latest comic adaptation to the echelon it aspires to be. However, a cavalcade of nine distinguished and up-and-coming vfx studios, led by ESC Ent., formulate near-seamless visuals.

On paper at least, the introspective struggle for identity echoes the crux of Spider-Man 2. But in reality there are no comparisons. Nevertheless, one cannot help contemplate other comic-to-film incarnations, especially as Berry also dons some black leather as Storm in the X-Men franchise. So while Catwoman overall is incomparable to other comic films, its visual effects are first rate.

The 15 months of vfx began in April 2003, outputting a total of 870 shots. With a crew of more than 400, the hodgepodge of vfx studios besides ESC included Tippett Studio, Meteor Studios, Matte World Digital, Frantic Films, Radium, Pacific Title & Art Studio and Circle-S Studios. The vfx studios used Aliass industry standard Maya for modeling, rigging and animating. The studios also incorporated myriad proprietary plug-ins for muscle and skin enhancements. Both RenderMan and mental ray were used for rendering.

A vfx veteran, Catwomans French director Pitof had no problem crossing the language barrier to communicate his vision to the crew.

At the vfx helm for Warner Bros. was associate producer and visual effects supervisor Ed Jones, who began his career as an ILM lab tech on The Empire Strikes Back and won an Oscar in 1989 for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Jones was primarily responsible for disseminating vfx direction from the directorial level down to the supervisors at the sundry vfx studios. The expertise of certain studios and the time involved based on the capacity of certain studios are the reasons for the piecemeal approach to the visuals. We started with 380 shots in our original breakdown and ended up with 870. With that kind of growth, we had to figure out what additional facilities can assist in getting work done.

There are four main vfx shots in Catwoman: fight scenes, cityscape transitions, cats and the CGI version of Catwoman herself. As is the case with most animation, the CG modelers had to study extensively their subjects movements in order to synthesize the realism of motion. Jones clarified this process: During the preproduction phase, there was a lot of work done on understanding the catlike movements for Catwoman. So there were studies done of real cats, both wild and domestic, which were rotoscoped. We then placed a previous model of Catwoman overtop to begin establishing what her signature movements as Catwoman would be. From there it grew into previews and sequences and principle photography in shooting the plates, and starting to put together the whole thing. Obviously, its a cut and paste process. Catwomans movements that are Halles actual movements were never enhanced. How we interspersed that with CG catlike movements had the signature look of what we had developed. We worked very closely with choreographers Anne Fletcher and Nito Larioza. We initially worked on a motion capture section involving a lot of fighters to figure out what we wanted in terms of a look when she fought and when she walked. From there we developed our library. Then Anne worked with Halle and her stunt double to make sure that they had their movements down to integrate with our CG Catwoman.

The integration of Berry, her stunt double and the CG Catwoman is as good as Spider-Man 2 and much less noticeable than The Matrix: Reloaded. The CG integration should look reminiscent of The Matrix trilogy since ESC was created as an offshoot of Warner Bros. in order to facilitate paramount vfx without outsourcing. Jones concurs: Its like The Matrix where we utilize the ESC Ent. with universal capture facial animation system with a combination of motion capture and keyframe animation. Obviously, the first time you see Halle as CG Catwoman is when she comes back and jumps to the back window of her apartment and breaks the window. When she goes to the jewelry store, there are quite a few, almost 17 CG shots of her in there, as well as CG environments intercut with live-action plates. Only one rooftop cut focuses on the CG Catwoman long enough to recognize that Halle Berry is not on screen, which is a substantial improvement since ESCs work on The Matrix: Reloaded.

Likewise, at Tippett Studio, which was responsible for four vfx shots of the feline fatale Midnight, vfx supervisor Joel Friesch explains: All the cats in the film are real except four shots with Midnight. In order to capture the correct motions of Midnight, I flew up to Vancouver to photograph and video the cat. Then it was just a matter of tweaking for my fx team. Perplexingly enough, most of the cats in the film permeate a synthetic nature, yet only Midnight is CG in some scenes.

The amount of exposed skin in Catwomans skimpy costume made it hard for Jones and his vfx crew to create the CG Catwoman.

The greatest visual effect in Catwoman comes not from a computer, but from Catwomans new signature costume itself. Conceived by Australian designer Angus Strathie, whose work on Moulin Rouge won him the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, the costume fuses titillatingly torn leather with scintillating quasi-sadomasochistic chains, and of course, a lot of skin. Although the costume has been the subject of some controversy, it is not distracting; it embodies the Catwoman mystique of both mischievousness and eroticism. According to Jones, the amount of skin present as a result of the costume posed a number of problems when modeling the CG Catwoman. There is rarely much skin shown on CG characters. It is hard to achieve. Spider-Mans costume, for example, covers everything except his chin. Catwoman probably shows the most skin of any CG character to date. It was difficult to make the CG Catwoman be a close enough match to Berry. The costume, nevertheless, further demonstrates the 21st century zeitgeist of sexuality in Hollywood. Michelle Pfeiffer looked purfect in Batman Returns, which is not to say that Berry does not. Yet Hollywoods continuing obligation to transform women into strippers while masquerading it as female empowerment because the actresses feel confident being scantily clad is a grave fallacy, which merits its own discussion at a later time.

To develop Catwomans signature walk, Jones and his ESC crew made detailed studies of cats, and then cut and pasted CG cat movements with Halle Berrys own feline walk.

Frenchman Pitof, Catwomans director, is also noteworthy since he is formerly a vfx guru. Catwoman represents Pitofs American directorial debut, yet his vfx mastery has accrued him a reputation over the last decade, including his technical grand prize in Cannes for Grosse fatique in 1994. Coming from a visual fx background, Pitof knew exactly what he wanted, commented Tippetts Friesch. Jones concurred, saying, Pitof has an eye for detail. The little things mean a lot for him. He wanted everyone on the crew to examine Catwoman from the outside in. He made everyone consider the film as if through his wide-angle lens. Some of the crew admits that there are remnants of a language barrier between them and the director, but his natural ease and body language convey his thoughts aptly. [Pitof] wanted the camera to have a catlike quality to it, elucidates Jones. So he used this safari camera to follow Halles movements. He wanted these big cityscape sweeps that we could only do in CG because there is no way to make a helicopter move like that. He made us think about what it would be like if we were going over Catwoman in a plane. Hes a pilot after all. Speaking of the all-CG cityscapes surrounding the main office building filmed in Vancouver, using all-CG cities detracts from the realism of the film. They break the illusion that such a Catwoman might exist. Jones disagrees, but cites the break in realism as desirable: Although this movie takes place in a real world, its not a real world. Theres a certain amount of fantasy involved.

Catwoman is ultimately a product of false advertising. The film has nothing to do with the DC Comics character whose identity is Selina Kyle, not Patience Phillips; nothing to do with the 60s TV roles played by Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt; and nothing to do with Pfeiffers lucrative role. The only resemblance is that there is a woman in a leather cat suit carrying a whip. Although Jones defends the notions of introspection for Berrys character, he argues that the Gotham City heritage is distracting from the story being told. The bedrock of the film is a sham. Imagine if the upcoming Batman film had a protagonist named Arthur Smith instead of Bruce Wayne or if the upcoming Superman were named Hal Richardson; viewers would feel both confused and ripped off. Batman and Catwoman creator Bob Kane once wrote: We felt that [Catwoman] would appeal to the female readers and that they would relate to her as much as to Batman. We also thought that the male readers would appreciate a sensual woman to look at. So, she was put into the strip for both the boys and the girls, as a female counterpart to Batman. Kane created Catwoman to be a foil to Batman. The current films errant departure into Egyptian mythology surrounded by a BeauTox-gone-bad plot is the point of greatest scrutiny because it is weak. Radical changes are acceptable when they work, but they seldom do. Catwoman is yet another example of a film with a talented and gorgeous actress, marvelous vfx and a poor story.

A graduate student in Global Media and Communications in a joint program between the London School of Economics and the University of Southern California, Gerard Raiti has been analyzing the animation and comic book industries since 1996 for various publications, including KidScreen. Formerly, he interned as a media analyst at DUCK Studios in Los Angeles and aspires to work in childrens programming and development. He is also the creator of Adventures of Periwinkle Twinkle.