E. B. White’s charming children’s book, “Charlotte’s Web,” two
of the creepiest critters in the barnyard, a rat named
Templeton and a spider named Charlotte, save Wilbur, a
humble pig loved by an adorable young girl, from the Christmas dinner table.
The animals talk in this fairy tale (although not when humans are present), so for Paramount Pictures’ film ‘Charlotte’s Web’, visual effects crews played a major role. Wilbur the pig (Dominic Scott Kay) and most of the barnyard animals - the cows Betsy and Bisty (Reba McEntire, Kathy Bates), the sheep Samuel (John Cleese), and the horse Ike (Robert Redford) - are live action animals with muzzle replacements in 3D for lip synch. But Wilbur’s naturally repugnant rescuers Templeton (Steve Buscemi) and Charlotte (Julia Roberts) are always digital.
Rather than dividing the film by sequence, visual effects supervisor John Berton chose to cast individual studios for the digital animals. Tippett Studios in Berkeley, California created Templeton, and Rising Sun Pictures in Adelaide, Australia concocted Charlotte and in doing so, created a rat and a spider that audiences could love.
In addition, Rhythm & Hues, famous for its work on the ‘Babe’ films, handled muzzle replacements for Wilbur and all the animals except the geese. Fuel International (Sydney, Australia) flapped the beaks for Gussy and Golly the geese (Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer) and animated CG baby spiders. Tippett handled beak replacements for the crows and created digital doubles for a few shots. And Digital Pictures Iloura (Melbourne, Australia) created Wilbur’s digital stunt double.
|“We couldn’t have one vendor do everything,” says Berton. “It wouldn’t have been cost effective or creatively effective. Tippett had the best Templeton. Rising Sun had the best Charlotte. We let each facility concentrate on what they were best at.”|
The strategy worked: Critics praise the film. ‘Charlotte’s Web’ has earned nearly US$70 million at the box office so far. And, crews who worked on the film recently received three nominations for Visual Effects Society awards: one for “Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects Driven Motion Picture” and two for “Outstanding Animated Character in a Live Action Motion Picture” - for Templeton and digital Wilbur. They’ll compete against ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and ‘The Fountain’ for outstanding effects, and ‘Pirates’ Davy Jones for outstanding character.
All told, Digital Pictures Iloura, which created the “outstanding character” nominee digital Wilbur, worked on around 50 shots for the film. The CG pig does stunts - Wilbur gets tangled in a web and falls over, for example – as well as a few close-up emotional moments. For example: “When Charlotte says, ‘Wilbur, take a look around and tell us how you feel,’ that was a digital pig,” Berton says. “We didn’t have footage.”
But, the two CG characters with the most screen time were the rat, brought to life at Tippett Studio, which is well-known for its animated animals, and the spider, which was Rising Sun’s first CG title character.
Tippett Studio’s animated dogs, cats, bears, bunnies and other animals have starred in many films and TV commercials, so creating yet another furry creature wasn’t the challenge; the studio’s “furocious” software, which works with Autodesk’s Maya and is rendered through Pixar’s RenderMan, would be up to the task. The challenge for the studio was in making the rat believable in scenes with the live action animals, even though Templeton talked and behaved in ways a real rat wouldn’t.
Because filming took place in Melbourne, visual effects supervisor Blair Clark worked on set with Berton and director Gary Winick while Co-VFX Supervisor Joel Friesch managed the crew in Berkeley who built Templeton. Once the show moved into production, the two vfx supes shared the challenges.
For reference, they bought a real rat from a snake vivarium, which they named Master Splinter. “The rat looked like Templeton,” says Friesch. “But Paramount wanted a white rat. We explained that white rats are lab rats.” Eventually, they compromised by giving Templeton a warm gray coat. Meanwhile, the real rat helped animators develop Templeton’s performance.
In the film, Templeton scurries through the barn, drops down into his rat hole, runs across a net, through a tunnel, drinks from a wax soda bottle, wallows in buttermilk, and covers himself with caramel corn and mustard.
At the studio, because the Tippett crew wanted to see real rat behavior, they didn’t attempt to tame Master Splinter. Sometimes to a painful degree: “We fed him through the cage to see how he tried to grab with his mouth and front legs,” says Friesch. “I got bitten six times and infected once. He bit everyone.”
But, by filming and observing the real rat, the crew developed a sense of a rat’s heart rate and breathing, how a rat ran and crawled, and how he moved his muzzle and cleaned himself. Todd Labonte, Tippett animation supervisor, twice bitten by Master Splinter, also used video reference of New York City rats to develop Templeton’s gross body movements.
“Todd and the animators were always walking a fine line,” says Clark. “Templeton is anthropomorphic - he interacts with props in a humanistic way. But he had to read as a real rat. They didn’t want him to act like Stuart Little, and yet he looks at mirrors and plops on beds.”
Labonte drew that fine line by attending to tiny details, from the tail to the ears. “His tail was tricky,” he says. “A rat’s tail is extremely stiff and unappealing. A rat holds its tail off the ground and it looks fake, like a tree branch. We wanted it to be pleasing to the eye, to add follow-through. So, sometimes we stuck his tail in the ground or obscured it with straw and put on another next to it.”
To control Templeton, animators working in Autodesk’s Maya used multiple rigs. With these rigs, they could, for example, move the rodent’s rear without affecting the front of his body and could give his tail inverse kinematics for ground contact, but forward kinematics for flopping.