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MPC Film’s Digital Gorilla Delivers the Emotion in ‘The One and Only Ivan’

Studio handles 1,055 VFX shots, using virtual production tools to help produce photorealistic talking animals, full CG environments and digital set extensions in Thea Sharrock and Disney+’s tale of a gorilla who tries to piece his past together so he can hatch a plan to escape from captivity.

Production VFX supervisor Nick Davis, MPC VFX supervisor Ben Jones and animation supervisor Greg Fisher led MPC Film’s VFX and Animation team in delivering 1,055 shots for the Disney+ Original, The One and Only Ivan.

500 artists across MPC Film’s London, Montreal and Bangalore studios worked together to bring to life The One and Only Ivan’s 9 primary characters: Ivan the Gorilla, Bob the dog, Ruby the baby elephant, Stella the elephant, Frankie the seal, Murphy the rabbit, Snickers the poodle, Henrietta the chicken and Thelma the parrot. The studio also produced the Disney+ Original’s photorealistic full CG environments and digital set extensions.

In the film, directed by Thea Sharrock, a gorilla named Ivan tries to piece together his past with the help of an elephant named Ruby as they hatch a plan to escape from captivity. The film’s stellar cast includes Bryan Cranston and the voices of Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Brooklynn Prince, Chaka Khan, Mike White, Ron Funches, and Phillipa Soo.

MPC Film was invited to be part of  the filmmaking process from day one, helping to conceive a custom production workflow which would enable director Thea Sharrock to realize a story predominantly led by animals, with large passages of script absent of human performers. Davis met with the filmmakers in 2017 to build the project’s blueprint and plan the visual effects requirements, which included designs for the characters and environments, virtual photography, and previs as well as overseeing the complex VFX and animation work that MPC Film’s artists would soon be working on.

The Art Department, based at Technicolor’s pre-production studio in Culver City, Los Angeles, began by drawing up concepts for characters including Bob the dog, Frankie the seal, Snickers the Poodle and Thelma the parrot, environments including the mall and jungle, and additional art for sequences frames. The Art Department also helped visualize a bespoke “Ivan” version of the famous Disney Castle opening.

The One and Only Ivan had two distinctly different shoot phases. The first was a traditional set and location shoot, while the second was a virtual shoot for the full CG shots – approximately half the movie. The virtual production process started with Black Box rehearsals with puppeteers and a motion-capture performance artist for Ivan. This enabled the director, Thea Sharrock, to block the sequences and approve the set design before shooting. A 2-week motion-capture stage shoot took place to capture Ivan’s physical movement using pre-recorded playback from the voice actors to govern the pacing of scenes. Puppeteers played the other animals to give actors eye lines and a rough blocking layout for MPC’s animators. Once motion-capture scenes had been selected, they were turned over to the animation team for layout animation.

The motion capture data for Ivan led the blocking; however, the characters were all then animated by hand. According to Davis, “Once the master scenes had been animation approved, the clips were then used to drive MPC’s Genesis Virtual Production tool kit. This enabled the filmmakers to utilize virtual reality tools to capture the data through the eyes of a virtual set of camera tools.  Using dolly’s, camera heads, cranes and steady-cam, the film makers were able to shoot the master scenes on a stage and view the pre-recorded animation clips from any chosen perspective.”

A large part of MPC’s work involved meticulously replicating the primary backstage set as a digital model, so that the filmed footage and full CG shots would blend seamlessly. In addition to the primary set, MPC’s environment team also built full CG shots of the African plains, the exterior of the “Big Top Mall” and CG extensions of dense jungle. A lot of care was taken to match the full CG shots to the cinematic look and feel of the live-action sections of the movie; each of the camera lens's distinctive features were replicated and used, and subtleties like lens-breathing during focus shifts were included on full CG shots to give added film realism. Many shots in the movie take place at night, and the backstage environment in particular was shot with very shallow depth of field with lots of light sources and reflective materials like water, glass, glass bricks etc. The artists at MPC took great care to make the materials, depth of field, atmosphere, reflection and refraction of glass and water all appeared as physically correct as possible to achieve a realistic, beautiful, and immersive environment.

Sharrock’s brief for Ivan and the other characters was for them to be photorealistic, talking animals, but it was critical that they connect with the audience and deliver the humor and emotion that is so essential to the story. For much of the movie, Ivan is confined to a cage. To make the audience feel that they are there with him, the filmmakers wanted close ups on his face, making it crucial that is was crafted to the finest detail. MPC’s Character Lab team spent a huge amount of time researching gorillas, learning about their bones structure, muscles, the subtle nuances of their movement and behavior and most importantly, their eyes. Ivan’s eyes had to speak figuratively to the audience and his thoughts and emotions needed to be conveyed through subtlety of expressions. One handsome gorilla named "Zawadi" became a favorite, and a main reference for Ivan.  From chickens to elephants, and all the other animals in The One and Only Ivan, a balance had to be struck between true animal behavior and an engaging, emotional performance.

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