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MPC Delivers Hair-Raising VFX for Sony’s ‘Goosebumps’

Along with creative title sequence and in-theater Virtual Reality experience, MPC delivers 700 VFX shots for the Sony Pictures feature ranging from CG monsters and environments to magical effects.

LONDON -- For Sony Pictures’ Goosebumps, the Moving Picture Company delivered a wide range of work that started with over 700 VFX shots for the film and went on to include the film’s creative title sequence and an in-theater Virtual Reality adventure.

The Oscar-winning VFX house, which is owned by parent company Technicolor, has operated for more than 25 years with facilities in London, Vancouver, Los Angeles, New York, Bangalore, Montreal, Amsterdam, Mexico City and Shanghai. MPC is renowned for adding visual wonder and creative expertise to their advertising and film work, which includes such blockbusters as The Martian, Godzilla, Life of Pi, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Based on the beloved book series written by R.L. Stine and published by Scholastic, Goosebumps follows teenager Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette), who is upset about moving from a big city to a small town, but finds a silver lining when he meets the beautiful girl, Hannah (Odeya Rush), living right next door, and makes a quick friend in Champ (Ryan Lee). Zach learns that Hannah’s mysterious dad is in fact R.L. Stine (Jack Black), the author of the bestselling “Goosebumps” series. As Zach starts learning about the strange family next door, he soon discovers that Stine holds a dangerous secret: the creatures that his stories made famous are real, and Stine protects his readers by keeping them locked up in their books. When Stine’s creations are unintentionally released from their manuscripts, Zach’s life takes a turn for the weird. In a crazy night of adventure, it’s up to Zach, Hannah, Champ, and Stine to team up and get all of these figments of Stine’s imagination -- including Slappy the Dummy, the girl with the haunted mask, the gnomes and many more -- back in the books where they belong to save the town.

Creating the Visual Effects for the Film

For Goosebumps, the MPC VFX team was led by VFX supervisors Pete Dionne and Robert Winter and VFX Producer Doug Oddy. Working closely with director Rob Letterman and Production VFX Supervisor Erik Nordby, the team’s scope of work ranged from CG environments to magical effects, but the bulk of the work was focused on creating the movie’s monsters.

MPC created 17 different creatures for the film, including The Werewolf of Fever Swamp, The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, an army of evil lawn Gnomes, the plant monster, a 50-foot Mantis, the Blob, bug-eyed aliens, and a Vampire Poodle. MPC’s in-house art department in London created concept art for the Lawn Gnomes, the Plant Monster, the Blob, the Mantis and the Vampire Poodle.

With so many monsters, a range of motion design was required for each character. For the bipedal monsters, a combination of motion capture and keyframe animation was used. Depending on the performance required, MPC’s artists took a hybrid approach, first capturing movement using motion capture suits and then hand-animating on top of that data to further elaborate and add nuances to the performance. The Werewolf and the Abominable Snowman both had unique facial proportions so their facial performances were completely keyframe animated.

For the animation of the Lawn Gnomes, it was important to the director that the movement looked realistic and devoid of any deformation. This limitation perfectly complimented the mischievous personality of the characters. To justify this rigid style of motion, every time the Gnomes moved, their outer shells would crack and split at the joints, allowing for an increased range of motion. To achieve this across an entire army of gnomes, a method was designed to drive cracking in the rig, and then embellish the hero moments with additional FX simulations.

The most challenging creatures from a motion design standpoint were the Blob and the Plant Monster. With no obvious real-world references and very dynamic forms, traditional rigs were ruled out for both creatures. MPC’s animators used modular rigs that could be animated to block out the motion in whatever form was required. This provided them with a base that gave the general motion of the performance, which was then used to drive extensive cloth and fluid dynamics to ultimately define the motion. The shading and lighting of the Blob also proved to be challenging due to the refractive nature of its texture, the ever-changing volume to its form, and the wide range of lighting within the amusement park set. The lighting team had to carefully balance lighting and shading parameters on every single shot in order to maintain consistency throughout the sequence.

In the movie, the original “Goosebumps” manuscripts serve as a portal for the monsters to travel between the realm of fiction and the real world, an event that occurs across several sequences. MPC was tasked with visually describing this story point, which grew into many different complex and unique FX events, depending on the creature, circumstance, and scale. The most prominent element of this effect was designed around the concept of the manuscript ink lifting from the page and forming the creatures. Supporting volumetric elements, airborne debris and snow, flashing lights and tornado-like winds blowing the creatures’ fur and clothes all added to the chaos required for the scene.

The final showdown between our heroes and the creatures occurs at an abandoned amusement park in the woods. MPC’s previs team were on set in Atlanta during pre-production planning this major sequence. The team development and produced invaluable tech-vis to assist with shooting of the complex Ferris wheel sequence and helped design the action and camera blocking. They were able to reverse-engineer the camera and Ferris wheel motion into a single camera move against a static Ferris wheel carriage, which was then matched in the practical photography. Once the plates were matchmoved and the intended Ferris wheel motion was extrapolated from the camera motion, the plates of the actors effortlessly dropped into the CG action.

Though an elaborate set was built for these scenes, a large number of shots also took place above the forest canopy in and around an 80-foot-tall Ferris wheel, which was shot on a green screen stage. A CG environment was built using a combination of fully rendered assets, 2.5D projections, and digital matte paintings. MPC provided a wide range of backgrounds and extensions for the practical green screen shots, in addition to several full CG shots, including a sequence where the Ferris wheel detaches from its base and rolls through the forest, leaving a path of destruction behind.

Building a Virtual Reality Adventure

MPC also created a virtual reality experience enabling moviegoers to put themselves inside an action-packed scene from the movie. The Goosebumps VR Adventure was featured in select theaters lobbies across the country.

“VR is an intimate and immersive platform that transports the viewer into the space and story,” said MPC Executive Producer-VR Tim Dillon. “In this way, our VR experience was perfect for Goosebumps. We place an audience member in the car, riding shotgun with Jack Black playing R.L. Stine, while Jack drives through town with a giant praying mantis chasing him down. The result is a virtual reality adventure attraction.”

The VR experience, directed by Letterman, was produced end-to-end by MPC’s content production division, MPC Creative; this included everything from live-action production through VFX and final grade. Motion systems technology company D-Box provided the mechanical chairs for the VR experience, which move in sync what the viewer is seeing inside the headset.

“The car chase scene is a great example of how technique meets the storytelling component of VR,” said Dan Marsh, Creative Director, MPC Creative, LA. “In the 360-degree 3D VR Adventure, viewers can look around in all directions throughout the film, but they don't have the control to walk around. Placing the viewer in the car, they can experience the scale of the scene and momentum of the chase. Jack Black, seated inches away from us, acts as a tour guide as the car flees from the monster. The D-Box chair is the icing on the cake, because it situates people in the experience so they really feel the thrill of the chase.”

“VR shoots are a new frontier,” explained Los Angeles MPC Creative executive producer Mike Wigart. “The execution of the story required a unique creative solution. We were in the fortunate position of being able to utilize our VFX brainpower to test methodologies and techniques ahead of rolling cameras.”

Creating the Title Sequence

It was MPC Film’s Pete Dionne and Doug Oddy who suggested the studio enlist MPC for the title sequence for Goosebumps, putting them in touch with MPC Creative’s Wigart and creative director Eric Anderson, the Emmy Award-winning director and editor of the opening title sequences for Dexter and Six Feet Under.

“We seized the opportunity to design the title sequence,” Wigart said. “Eric Anderson and his team created storyboards based on the book covers. Drawing from his history as an editor, Eric cut a fantastic animatic linking Goosebumps’ iconic book cover vignettes for a very engaging story. Every scene in the sequence had a clear reference based on the original book art, with the exception of the opening cover featuring Jack Black.”

Enter New Jersey artist Tim Jacobus, who illustrated nearly the full series of R.L. Stine’s 100 books, much the same type of kindred spirit to Stine as illustrator Ralph Steadman to writer Hunter S. Thompson. “An article came out in VICE this May about Tim Jacobus’s work on the original Goosebumps series,” Wigart related. “We read it and thought, ‘Why don’t we just have Tim do it?’ There was no better person in the world to create a piece of Goosebumps cover art than the original artist. So we reached out and commissioned him to create an original artwork in his trademark Goosebumps style. It was all very serendipitous.”

Letterman opened the doors of his Culver City postproduction office to MPC for regular meetings and reviews of the title sequence. “Our design team was able to react quickly to evolving creative throughout the process,” Wigart said. “So we relied on our enormous VFX backbone at MPC to draw on our talent pool when needed to make quick adjustments.”

“The magical part of the title sequence was seeing a world of iconographic Goosebumps book covers come to life in its own self-contained story,” Anderson added. “As we did with all of the effects, we approached the sequence in a way that it would pay off and look great in both 2D and 3D. Danny Elfman’s score added another level of excitement and was amazing to cut to. All in all, a great experience for us.”

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.