Alain Bielik uncovers the digital challenges in conveying the various personalities exhibited by Herbie, the lovable VW bug, in the latest sequel.
From his film start in The Love Bug (1968) to his demise in a short-lived TV series (1982), Herbie has always been one of Walt Disney Studios most enduring characters. Who could have thought that a loving, heart-warming character could be created out of several hundred pounds of metal and plastic? When director Angela Robinson started preparing the latest installment of the franchise, Herbie: Fully Loaded, she knew she could rely on state of the art digital effects to push the envelope. She could also trust the know-how of veteran visual effects supervisor John Van Vliet, who had first worked for Disney on Tron (1982).
A direct witness of the digital revolution, Van Vliet started as an effects cel animator on The Empire Strikes Back before founding Available Light in 1983. The visual effects studio was closed in 2000 when Van Vliet decided to embrace a new career as freelance visual effects supervisor (Harts War). Herbie: Fully Loaded is his largest project so far: When we started, the production thought they needed about 200 effects shots, but my partner visual effects producer Lynda Thompson and I didnt believe it for a second. We ended up with about 650 shots, produced by seven different vendors, including CIS Hollywood, Entity FX, Industrial Light & Magic, Make, Pixel Magic, Hammerhead and Lola. The shot count grew tremendously, but we were fortunate enough to have more than 14 months of production time.
Van Vliet took an extensive part in the development of Herbies personality and capabilities. The question was: how far to go? With digital technology, Herbie could now do just about anything, but this new freedom also meant the risk of losing the characters spirit by overplaying the effects factor. We really thought long and hard about where to draw the line, Van Vliet recalls. One of the directions Herbies performance had taken was in a Chevron commercial that featured great clay animation. But it was later determined that this was too extreme for Herbie. When we eventually developed our performance rules with Angela Robinson, it was decided that we should never see the metal bend. Our rule of thumb was that Herbie had to stay a car throughout the movie and not cross that line into a shape-shifting being. Any movement on his body had to occur on an existing pivot point. We used the bumpers, the headlights and the doors, anything that could mechanically move. I think that, more than creating the shots themselves, my largest contribution to the movie was being involved with the development process. You have to remember that my background is cel animation. So, I really love creating characters, which is what I was asked to do with Herbie. This is why this project was so exciting to me.
A Car with an Attitude
The first step was to produce a series of animatics to visualize what Herbie could do. Once approved by the director, they were sent to special effects supervisor Matt Sweeney, an expert in fabricating special duties vehicles after Batman & Robin, The Fast and The Furious and Charlies Angels: Full Throttle. Sweeney rigged more than 36 different versions of Herbie. For example, there was the wheelie version that was able to drive on its back wheels, just like your regular motorbike. In order to produce the effect in camera, the special effects crew mounted a counterweight at the back of the car that allowed its front to rise in the air. The rig was later digitally removed.
Whenever Herbie had to do something special, we called him the Personality Herbie, as opposed to the regular Herbie, who drove just like any other car, Van Vliet recounts. Basically, if the Personality Herbie was static, we used physical effects and shot it in camera. If it was driving, we used a CG version. The reason was that, in order to make the Personality Herbie do something, so many mechanisms had to be stuffed into the car that there was no longer any room for an engine or transmission; so it couldnt be driven. Thats why anytime you see Herbie performing as a character while in motion, its almost certainly CG augmentation.
Although most of the Herbie static shots were filmed live with mechanical effects, many shots were redone in post-production when the director decided that the cars performance should be enlarged. I had expected this to happen, Van Vliet notes. As a safety measure, I had shot clean plates of all the mechanical effects shots and I had taken measurements, just to be covered in case we needed CG enhancements. These were often very difficult, such as the sequence in which Herbie is afraid of a car crusher. The car had been rigged to shake in fear but during editing, the director decided that the headlights should be looking in different directions. Given the cars shaking and hectic movements, the addition of CG headlights required a tremendous match-move effort. We had the same difficulty with driving shots in which we were asked to add a smile or a blink. CIS Hollywood handled a lot of these shots. They produced 370 shots for the movie, including the green screen composites featuring the principals in their car.
An important part of the visual effects work focused on the digital removal of the many rigs and cables that were used to create live stunts, such as in the demolition derby sequence. Also, with Los Angeles experiencing its wettest winter on record, Van Vliet saw the effects workload unexpectedly augment in a large proportion: every rainy or cloudy shot had to be digitally retouched to present the requested sunny weather on film.
Mixing the Real and the Virtual
The movie climaxes with a NASCAR race sequence featuring Herbie. In terms of the visual effects, the sequence presented three layers of difficulty: the environment, the race itself, and Herbie. Van Vliets first goal was to capture as much background information of a real race as possible. The crew obtained clearance to shoot two laps before the start of an actual NASCAR race. One lap was shot with a Circlevision rig. I got the idea from Illusion Arts, who designed the process for The Fast and the Furious, explains Van Vliet. It features seven synchronized cameras covering a field of 280°. The panels were later stitched together to create a panoramic moving background that we used in almost all the car interior shots. The race itself was captured from 17 effects cameras, plus several first unit cameras. We ended up with 15,000 feet of film! My main concern was that we didnt know where Herbie would be in the race, as this depended on what would happen during the real competition. So, I wanted to cover every angle to be able to build a complete virtual track. And in the end, we did use every single angle
A second lap was shot with Herbie alone. These plates were later used as a valuable lighting reference for the CG version of the car. They also served as background plates in which CG racing cars were added around the real Herbie. In the race sequence, we had every configuration possible, explains Mat Beck, Entity FXs president and visual effects supervisor. There were shots in which Herbie was real but surrounded by CG cars. In other shots, we had a CG Herbie inserted amongst real cars. And we also had shots that were entirely CG: cars, track, public, environment, etc. For shots featuring accidents with cars flipping over, we used exclusively CG animation. We also created in CG the shot in which Herbie drives on top of another car: both cars were synthetic. Entity FX realized 60 shots for the movie most of them featured in the NASCAR sequence with Jim Hillin supervising the 3D effort and Rachel Dunn overseeing the 2D duties.
Herbie Beefed Up in CG
The facilitys first task was to create various CG models of Herbie. We had to build several versions of the model as Herbies appearance changes during the course of the movie, Beck explains. There was the junkyard version, the NASCAR version, the pimp version. Each required a series of very complex shaders, with scratches, bumps, dirt, etc, carefully reproduced from the real life version. The basic model was built and animated in Maya on Macs or PC platforms. The render was carried out in RenderMan in our Linux-based render farm. In terms of the other NASCAR cars, we only needed to build three models, the difference being made in the paint job and the decals. We had to reproduce tons of decals!
In order to complement the footage captured at the NASCAR race, second unit had shot extra plates featuring Herbie and 15 rented racing cars on an empty track. Entity FX and ILM were commissioned to add the crowd on the stands. Depending on the shot, the public was either sampled from the Circlevision plates or created entirely in CG. Since most of the shots were captured at 150 miles per hour or so, the background was almost always completely motion blurred, which eased the process, Beck reveals. If the background was moving, the crowd could be static. If the background was static, then the crowd had to move, in which case we had to create every single spectator on the stands. There is one particular shot in which Herbie drives up on the fence and, as the car rushes toward us, the camera goes through the fence in a lateral tracking movement. The entire shot was CG. We first modeled the track and the stands, which was not as hard as it sounded given the amount of repetition in the structures: the brick stone wall, the fence, the stands, etc. We had a high-res fence for the foreground and a low-res version for the background.
For the crowd, we filmed individual extras including the entire staff at Entity FX on greenscreen reacting to an imaginary car passing in front of them. We then projected the image of each person on a CG card that was placed on the stands. With one individual per card, we were able to statistically control the ratios of height and color to produce endless variations and create a realistic crowd. All the elements were combined in Shake. This complex shot was later removed from the picture and finally put back in at the very last minute. ILM managed to bring it to completion in a record turnaround time.
Last Minute Call
The race also features the most complicated shot of the movie. Having won the competition, Maggie (Lindsay Lohan) walks around Herbie, surrounded by a cheering crowd, and lowers down to congratulate him. The plate was shot at the end of the real race during a mere couple of minutes: We had clearance to shoot one plate for about 60 seconds, recalls Van Vliet. Lindsay and Herbie were shot separately. So, when we got the greenlight, I ran in with a stick of about Lindsays height with a gray sphere for light reference and a square box for match-move reference. Then, I guided our Steadicam operator to follow an imaginary Maggie walking around Herbie. This was a one take deal as we then had to leave the field immediately so the race could start! Later, we had Engine Room do a match-move on the plate. We took that data to the stage and shot Lindsay and Herbie with motion control against a greenscreen.
When we were nearing completion of the shot, the director requested the addition of a tilt down. The problem was that we had no background plate for that! Honestly, I almost had a heart attack when I heard this, as we were very late in post-production. Because of the extremely tight deadline, I turned to ILM, as I knew only they had the firepower to produce these shots in a matter of days. Kim Libreri supervised the shot and 19 other last minute CG animation effects, all of them appearing in the NASCAR race sequence. In order to produce the tilt down, ILM built the background by stitching photographs and added a smiling CG Herbie the model being provided by Entity FX. This was the last shot delivered on the movie
Apparently, last minute fixes also included digitally retouching Lohans neckline to remove some cleavage that was deemed inappropriate for a family movie, and generally reducing the actress sex appeal in the breast area. Understandably, no member of the effects team was willing to comment on this sensitive assignment
For Van Vliet, the trickiest part of the whole project was to maintain the suspension of disbelief of the audience: The script wanted us to do some pretty silly things with the car; yet Herbie had to be believable as a car and as a character. Hopefully, we succeeded on both levels.
Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine SFX, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinefex. He recently organized a major special effects exhibition that opened Feb. 20 at the Musée International de la Miniature 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 runs through Aug. 31.