An impressive aspect of the movie is the interaction between characters – notably between Stuart and Margalo. One of these shots has Stuart taking a scarf and placing it on Margalo. In this case, rather than using a completely cloth-simulated scarf, the animators required control and thus rigged the scarf with a skeleton to achieve this. It took many iterations for the animators and cloth team have the scarf settle and drape a certain way on Margalo. Sometimes, they would stretch one bone more than another, causing the texture to distort on the scarf unpleasantly. Although the shot looked simple enough on screen, the amount of manual and technical work required was substantial.
Jay Redd, Digital Effects Supervisor for Stuart Little 2, will be speaking at 3D Festival/LEAF, London 2002..
Snowbell, the clever and manipulative white feline from the first film returns and assists in the rescue mission with Stuart. The only shot in the entire film that required a fully articulated 3D Snowbell was where he was in a bucket hanging from a building. Other than that, all the cats were live animals that were digitally altered or had 3D elements composited in post. Jay Redd reflects on the difficulties faced when working with domestic cats, “The problem with cats is that they have a reputation of not willing to do anything that they don’t want to. Animal stunt coordinator Boone Narr trained the cats for nine months prior to shooting.”
Image: Hero shot of Stuart and Margalo. Note the layered feathers on Margalo and the fine fur on Stuart.
In reality, there were four identical cats playing Snowbell. This was required as each cat could perform specific actions better than others. For example, one cat named “Prince” was able to sit still for long periods of time without getting agitated and running off. “Rocky” was able to run from point to point for any action sequences requiring Snowbell to travel, while ‘Tuffy’ was extremely good at being hyperactive and fighting. Despite the well-trained cats, the filmmakers still needed to do much experimentation and in some cases had as many as twenty takes per shot just to get it right or to use the various performances to create new ones in post.
For cases where Snowbell talks, animators would digitally create a talking cat’s face and composite this with the live plate. This was Imageworks’ first movie that required face-replacement and due to production deadlines, half the shots were shared with Rhythm & Hues.
The process of face-replacement is very lengthy and according to Jay Redd, “hasn’t gotten much easier in six years”. The three points on a cat’s face that do not move are the two tear ducts and the nose. Once this triangle is found, the cat’s head can be matchmoved. Oft times, the cat had its tongue out or was meowing, and these had to be painstakingly painted out. Whiskers also had to be removed as the talking motions would create new movement. An entire muscle animation system for the face was created for animating Snowbell realistically, and all the elements such as blinking, eyes, whiskers, fur, jaw, tongue and teeth were digitally created. Not much of the process was automatic, making the face-replacement shots rather time-consuming.
Overall, the biggest challenge for the digital character effects crew was that the animals are based on real-life counterparts. Audiences are already accustomed to seeing birds, mice and cats, requiring a realistic appearance for these characters. On the other hand, these characters played major roles and needed to perform humanoid actions such as talking, or hand movements and facial expressions, not to mention complete interaction with live action environments. There was a fine line between recreating reality and producing characterized , but captivating performances. Sony Picture Imageworks was able to conquer both feats as crowds of children and adults are simply engrossed in Stuart Little’s adventures rather than screens full of digital effects. [3DF|CGN]
Words: Leonard Teo
Interview: Ali Tezel
Images: Sony Picture Imageworks
Special thanks to: Jay Redd, Mary Reardon, Amy Tesser & Mara Levin
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