Ellen Wolff discovers the charmed life of Enchanted from Tippett VFX Supervisor Thomas Schelesny.
Making a classic fairytale come to life in modern-day Manhattan was no ordinary assignment, but that's precisely what was needed for Disney's Enchanted (opening Nov. 21). Director Kevin Lima (Tarzan, 102 Dalmatians) wanted Enchanted to mix realistic visual effects and 3D-animated creatures within a musical homage to traditionally animated movies. To supervise the visual effects in this delicate balancing act, Lima relied on Thomas Schelesny at Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California.
The studio has a great reputation for combining visual effects with live action, and Schelesny had previously supervised Tippett's crew on The Shaggy Dog and Son of The Mask. He also brought to the task a background that was useful for a film that bridged the worlds of visual effects and animation -- he had been an animator himself on such projects as Starship Troopers, Men In Black II and Hollow Man.
"When I was introduced to Kevin Lima," recalls Schelesny, "he was entrenched on the Disney lot, surrounded by hundreds of pieces of conceptual artwork thousands of storyboards. When I came to it, Enchanted was entirely not a visual effects effort. I felt like I'd walked straight into a 2D animation pipeline, which is where Kevin's foundation is. Initially what was unfamiliar to me as a visual effects supervisor was that I've rarely seen a director be so prepared to shoot a movie. I realized that this was a 'once in a career' opportunity."
Enchanted takes audiences on the journey of Giselle (Amy Adams), who's living happily in a 2D fairyland until she falls for Prince Edward (James Marsden) and is banished by his disapproving mother, Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon). Suddenly Giselle is propelled from an idyllic world (animated in traditional Disney style at Baxter Animation) into present-day, live-action New York City. The prince comes looking for her -- trailed by an angry Queen -- and they also transition from animation to live action. The naïve Giselle has embraced the Manhattan life, including a friendship with the handsome Robert (Patrick Dempsey) and the premise provided plentiful sight gags for Tippett's team to visualize. They created virtual sets, environmental effects and, most notably, realistic CG characters that performed alongside real actors.
With Schelesny serving as overall supervisor, Tippett ended up contributing 320 shots, CIS Hollywood did 36 shots (primarily wire removals and comps), ReelFX did four shots of pop up book page-turn transitions and Weta also did two.
Schelesny remembers, "When I met with Kevin Lima it was clear that we were going to participate in a true homage, not a spoof or some irreverent slam on the tradition of animated films. Kevin was very clear that even some of the best acting animation he'd seen in 3D would not measure up to what he'd need. When I came back to Tippett and sat down with Tom Gibbons (animation supervisor) and Jim Brown (lead animator) and I let them know that we weren't going to follow a regular visual effects paradigm. It wouldn't be the typical action-oriented animation where the monster walks over a truck or giant robot transforms into a plane and flies away."
Instead, they would have to animate -- and integrate -- creatures that ranged from cockroaches, pigeons and rats to central performers like a chipmunk named Pip and a gigantic dragon-like incarnation of Queen Narissa. Tippett Studio had previously animated Templeton the rat in Charlotte's Web, and their use of Autodesk Maya combined with their proprietary fur tool Furrocious had yielded a great character. Enchanted gave them the chance to build upon that experience.
Schelesny remarks, "Pip was a unique character. Unlike the 'Narissa dragon' -- who was allowed to be a fantasy character -- Pip had to sell as a real animal. When we began development, my first instruction was that we needed to make a photorealistic chipmunk and then demonstrate it to Kevin. From there we'd add some of the personification, which would allow Pip to stand on his hind legs and pantomime."
The Tippett team had observed a pet rat while animating Templeton, but it's illegal to own chipmunks, so Schelesny went out and filmed live animals in motion from every conceivable angle. Lima also provided a "soundtrack" of noises to suggest a voice for Pip (who doesn't speak when he's in 3D.) Once again Tippett's artists used Maya and Furrocious to generate a believable furry creature.
"In our first test for Kevin," Schelesny recalls, "our CG chipmunk ran in, groomed himself and stretched upward. Then he spun in a circle and took off. We nailed all of the little cues, which made this chipmunk seem real. It's typical when you're working on a CG character that you want to say 'Hey, look at me!' But we deliberately held back because I wanted to show Kevin that we could 'do real.'"
When Schelesny was on location with Lima in Times Square, he showed the director a QuickTime of this test on a laptop. It looked so convincing that the director thought he was looking at reference footage and said, 'Yeah, like that.' Schelesny remembers how surprised Lima was to learn that he was looking at a CG character. "That helped us build confidence that we were on the right track."
Setting up the scenes in which Pip would perform was challenging, according to Schelesny. "We had a number of tricks to help the actors and the cinematographer understand what they were working with. I had a small stuffed chipmunk that had a wire armature on the inside that we'd place in the scene during rehearsal. In some cases where we couldn't do that, I'd have a rod with a flag on the end with a small marker to show them where to look. I'd be digitally erased from the plate and we place the CG Pip where that marker had been.
"In other situations, if numerous actors had to watch where Pip was moving through a scene, we'd use a device like a synchro mark. It essentially is a laser pointer that plugs into the camera and runs out of phase with the camera's shutter so its mark isn't seen. I would control where the laser pointer went -- pretending I was Pip. The actors would look where the laser pointer went, so we'd get all their eyes looking in the right direction."
It also helped the camera crew, led by DP Don Burgess (Spider-Man, Terminator 3, Forrest Gump). Schelesny notes, "The camera operator needed to know where he'd have to pan or tilt to follow something that's supposed to be moving very quickly." It was important to suggest that the camera was trying to keep up with a darting creature, Schelesny believes. "It sells the spontaneity of the moment. I'd rather see Pip leave the frame and have the camera catch up with him -- almost as though we didn't know where he was going to go, rather than have him always be in the center of the frame." This approach reflected the director's wish to have the CG filmed with a "real" camera, and not a CG camera that would make moves that ignored the rules of physics.
Of course, the Tippett crew couldn't hone the performance of CG characters until the plate photography was complete, and Lima's editorial crew tried to expedite the process as much as possible. As Schelesny explains, "After the background plates were shot they cut out the storyboards and did some simple Avid composites that put 2D versions of characters into the real backgrounds to help our animators understand how long their shots should be and how their coverage should work. It was very clear what the mechanics of those scenes needed to be.
"The main difference between 2D animation and visual effects 3D work is that in 2D animation it's never too late to make a huge change, given a bit of time. In 3D, once the plate is shot, you have nothing but limitations. When you're on set you're limited by time and the camera equipment that you have." Schelesny recalls with a laugh how surprised he was to arrive at one NYC location -- a very small bathroom in which they'd stage a musical number where scores of animals help Giselle clean the messy room.
Shooting visual effects plates in cramped quarters was not for the timid, Schelesny admits. "Some of these camera moves were fast whip pans and tilts. We knew we knew we couldn't do those moves plus have floor effects occurring and still hit our timings. So I called out the timings in half time and we ran the camera at 12 fps. We got whip pans that were super fast and framed perfectly. And it also got us perfect motion blur."
That cramped bathroom was one extreme, and the other was a grand ballroom where Susan Sarandon transforms into a 50-foot beast with explosive force. "It was a real adjustment to start working in large scale," Schelesny acknowledges. "Over 100 extras had to watch her move through the ballroom. So the little rod trick had to become a big rod trick. To help direct the extras' eyelines, rather than use a laser pointer, I was on the stage floor with a long pole, and I'd raise the pole and yell 'Look at ME!!!' as loud as I could. Then I would run out of the frame and we'd do the take while things were fresh in people's memories.
"These shots are by no means subtle. With the beast's appearance, lots of floor effects went off. There was an explosion, and we yanked a bunch of actors out of the frame and all of the extras had to look up and imagine the Narissa character growing higher and higher. At the same time, we had a computer-controlled lighting setup and a repeatable head on the camera all synced together. We had on-set lighting effects for the fire and the camera tilted up in a pre-programmed move. Chandeliers and all kinds of set pieces were knocked back and forth.
"There was also lots of CG fire and smoke, which was built around the Maya fluid system. In order to fit the film's motif, we couldn't have an explosion that looked too real, like a bomb going off. So our effects animation team had to take the physics of the fire and smoke for this transformation and make them follow a Disney 2D composition approach. It looked real but was reminiscent of 2D animated films."
A constant challenge for Schelesny during the filming of Enchanted was deciding what could be gotten on set and which shots had to be done digitally. "You earn most of your pay in those split second decisions. Virtually anybody can go onto a set and come back with 80% of what's needed. It's for that final 20% where you need to go on set well prepared to avoid a problem or to recognize it when you're there, so you can let people know that something will take extra time."
Schelesny was committed to using real footage of actors whenever possible. Tippett Studio did employ significant muscle and cloth simulation to animate some digital doubles in Enchanted, working from modeling data of the actors captured by Realscan's mobile unit. But digital doubles were only used when absolutely necessary. This philosophy led Schelesny to design a "puppeteering" approach to the film's final sequence, in which the Narissa beast climbs Manhattan's Woolworth Building while clutching Patrick Dempsey's character in her claws.
"If we were going to see Patrick's face, why use a digital double? When we first discussed how to tackle this, it was on the heels of King Kong, and we considered whether we should have a computer controlled motion base with a robotic arm that moved Patrick around realistically. But I've done a significant amount of work with puppeteers, and one huge advantage of puppeteering is that you can change a performance very quickly. And humans naturally move smoothly in arcs." Schelesny decided that by working with the floor effects supervisor Steve Kirshoff, they could film Patrick Dempsey being "held" in a puppeteered greenscreen rig.
"I built a 3D model in Maya of how I envisioned the puppeteers would interface with the actor," Schelesny explains. "It was basically a long arm counterweighted on one side. Patrick Dempsey would be held on one end of that arm and there'd be a pivot two-thirds of the way down the arm and then a counterweight on the far side. That would allow us to swing the arm around with him on the end of it.
"Then we built a 3-axis 'wrist' to hold Patrick. Three different floor effects artists would control each axis, like turning a wheel. These were basically steering hydraulics for ships. They'd spin a wheel in one direction and the wrist would move. So they worked like x-y-z axes. They had to work in perfect synchronicity for it to have the proper drag and follow-through and weight of a real arm with somebody inside of it.
"I was working, in many cases, with stunt people who had never done this kind of puppeteering before. But after a couple of weekends rehearsing, they were very good at operating this arm. In some of those movements Patrick was 20 feet off the floor. He brought a lot to this. A visual effects supervisor's best friend is a good physical actor. We shot most all the work with Patrick Dempsey in that arm in one day, with zero malfunctions. And the footage never looked mechanical or programmed."
This footage of Dempsey was then tracked into the claw of the CG Narissa beast as she climbed the building. The camera following this ascent revealed a vista of NYC skyscrapers, all created digitally. Tippett's Matchmove Supervisor Eric Marco had gathered extensive references of the actual surrounding buildings, so that the camera could literally move anywhere. Schelesny notes, "That allowed us to build in a subtle level of parallax, so that as the camera was moving higher up the Woolworth building, we'd see the other buildings in the distance sliding against each other. We could have flown the camera in 360 degrees but we resisted the temptation. Audiences are sophisticated enough to know you can't go from a helicopter shot to the moon and back to the beast's eye."
The finale in Enchanted takes place on one physical set piece of the top of the Woolworth building; digitally extended and surrounded by a computer-animated lightning storm. "The rain was digital, and even was a 'character,'" explains Schelesny. "At first, the rain moves in a linear fashion and then as the sequence builds to the finale it begins to swirl around. And the lighting, which starts out quite far away on the horizon in the beginning of the sequence, is all around the spire of the building at the end. It wasn't just a simulation of a storm." (Disney's classic, The Old Mill was a major inspiration here.)
Describing how the look was carefully choreographed down to the frame, Schelesny says, "We did a rough 2D QuickTime animation that described where the bolts of lightning should go, and that served as a template for the compositors." The integration of all these elements was done with Apple's Shake, and Schelesny credits Lead Compositor Chris Morely and Compositing Supervisor Matt Jacobs for making the storm support the film's story. "There's nothing about a crafted film that is random," he observes.
Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.