Iloura VFX supervisor Glenn Melenhorst discusses the return of Ted, the politically incorrect talking teddy bear that stars in Seth MacFarlane’s adult comedy sequel.
Considering the success of Ted back in 2012, it’s not surprising that writer--director Seth MacFarlane, best known for animated TV comedies Family Guy and American Dad, reunited the fouled-mouth teddy bear with his trusted and dim-witted sidekick Mark Wahlberg (The Fighter). Ted 2 also marks the return of production VFX supervisor Blair Clark, Tippett Studio and Iloura -- the creative trio breathed life into the furry CG title character who embarks upon marriage and a civil rights misadventure.
“Seth really understands animation and was good at giving us latitude to explore the shots and the acting,” notes Iloura VFX supervisor Glenn Melenhorst, who had to deal with a continual stream of rewritten jokes and reimagined sequences during the production. “Seth did a lot of pickup Moven motion-capture back at the offices. It was generally good for the beats of the comedy and the gestures. The Moven suit that Seth wore is like having little iPhones on every joint of your arms and head. It gave us his upper body and head but nothing else. We did a lot of clean-up work on top of that.”
The button eyes of the stuffed animal led to the visual effects team focusing on body language to express emotion. Says Melenhorst, “It’s amazing what you can get away with using the downturn of a corner of a mouth and a little tilt of an eyebrow.”
A cloth simulation serves as the basis for the plush protagonist. “When Ted turns his chest it buckles and bends like fabric,” explains Melenhorst, who needed to accommodate a variety of wardrobe changes. “Marvelous Designer software was used for the clothing that Ted wore. It’s made for laying out patterns, designing clothing, and then simulating clothing to see how it works in the real world.” Each costume was constructed as a pattern which was then simulated onto Ted. “You have to solve Ted, then solve the clothing on top, and remove the fur,” he continues. “If you imagine that his clothing comes up to his wrist we try to remove the fur from his wrist back so there’s no fur sticking through fabric.”
“We kept the grooming software we had from the first film and updated it,” remarks Melenhorst. “This time around, because software and GPU have improved over the years we were able to do more in a unified renderer with proper global illumination and light scattering.” V-Ray and 3Delight were combined to produce a rendering hybrid. As Melenhorst describes, “You’re leveraging the benefits of both systems. V-Ray is not very good at doing millions of hairs or subsurface scattering and global illumination, whereas that is something 3Delight marches through quickly. But V-Ray has a really good established shader pipeline which we used effectively here. We did the props, sets and assets in V-Ray while the fur rendering was done through 3Delight.”
Carrying on the tradition established with the original movie, Iloura set about creating a seamless cosmic zoom for the opening title sequence. “There was no cloud wipe or move past a tree and you’re on a different plate,” says Melenhorst. “We wanted one continuous zoom from space to ground level. For the first film we zoomed down to suburbia. However, this time around Seth was keen to go from Universal logo down into the city of Boston to a church window where a wedding is taking place.”
Satellite imagery was useful to a certain degree as shadows had to be manually painted out and recast in opposite directions to get the appropriate time of day. “10 city blocks were built in high resolution. Beyond that we did all of the high rises as simple 3D geometry. Those city blocks had all of the trees, traffic, digital double people, and all of the texturing and detail that we could muster,” notes Melenhorst. “If you imagine the speed of flying down to the Earth versus travelling through a window pane, that deceleration is enormous. To get that on smooth curve without any kinks or wobbles was a challenge in itself.”
Ted’s wedding created challenges where Tami-Lynn (played by Jessica Barth) had to kiss Ted on the lips while grabbing his head with her fingers. “We did a lot of work where she would put her hand out to hold Ted’s to help him off a stool,” states Melenhorst. “Her hand was in mid-air so we did a lot digital hand replacements, reanimating fingers, and taking arms off and replacing them.”
Next, a Broadway dance number takes place to celebrate the newlyweds. “We got motion-capture from one of the dancers,” Melenhorst explains. “His physiology was completely different plus Ted had to do a whole bunch of overextended jumps and big pirouettes. We had one animator here, David Wood, who is a dancer who ended up doing most of it. Sometimes there was no data so we had to either come up with something or try to match the intention of dancers.” In addition, because of Ted’s small size, it was important to make sure he stood out from everyone. According to Melenhorst, “Because Ted is so small we had to keep pushing the staging of that, otherwise, he would have gotten lost in that crowd.”
A late storytelling change during production involved photo-real geese. “Initially, Ted was feeding the geese and got startled by a large one that picked him up and flew away,” explains Melenhorst. “There was this standoff and a fight. Then they asked for Ted to punch the goose, which would recoil. We were blocking animation on that a week before it was due. For that shot we had the renderers rendering simple blocking to get ahead of the game. We had the feather technology and effects guys all working on loose animation to try and square it up. Whenever there was a new iteration of animation that was anywhere near good enough, it got published. We kept iterating until we finalized a week later.”
Overall the biggest challenge for Iloura was the sheer volume of work. “It was more than double the shots and it was two months less than the production time for the first film,” reveals Melenhorst. “Every time we succeed in doing it we set a precedent. We’re our own worst enemies!”
The team of artists grew to 128 in order to complete over 1000 VFX shots for the project. “The key was making sure that we had departments that were functioning solidly with their own administrators and coordinators, and having leads in place who could direct the traffic as it was coming through,” remarks Iloura visual effects producer Ineke Majoor. “It was repetitions upon repetitions. We did thousands of shots quickly and it came out beautifully at the end because all of the hard work had been done at the beginning of the process.”
“Between the first and second Ted we have done several films including The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water and Mad Max: Fury Road so our pipeline has become more robust too,” says Melenhorst. “An artist will be notified when a shot is ready and there will be notes from the other departments. The shot will auto-build. They can work on it, produce it and make a daily. There’s a whole system for checks and balances plus one for notation and email. We also encourage artists to talk amongst themselves.” It was an enjoyable experience being able to see the final movie. Melenhorst continues, “We look at stuff in context but often you are looking at five or six shots around something. It’s a delight to sit down and see how those things play out as a whole.”
A family atmosphere has developed among those involved with the Ted franchise. “Seth was generous with his praise and we love Blair. It was a good fun show to work on,” concludes Melenhorst. When asked if Iloura is interested if there was a third instalment, he enthusiastically answers, “Bring it on!”
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for sites such as the CGSociety, 3DTotal, Live for Films and Flickering Myth; he is a big fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman: The Animated Series, The Hobbit, Studio Ghibli, and Peter Weir.