Spike Jonze‘s eagerly-anticipated adaptation of Maurice Sendak‘s Where the Wild Things Are was initially supposed to use entirely practical effects, but the director soon realised he’d need more sophisticated computer trickery to bring the seven ’emotionally complex’ (read: grumpy) Wild Things to life. That’s where London’s Framestore came in, the effects house needing to seamlessly animate all the monsters without compromising Spike Jonze’s naturalistic vision for the project. RT went to visit them this week at their Soho headquarters, where Animation Director Michael Eames and Director of VFX Tim Webber told us how they did it, and shared some exclusive behind-the-scenes shots.
With Wild Things, I think they started shooting hoping they would be able to make it with these very heavy animatronic masks – mechanisms attached to heads. But Spike realised that it was impractical, and that he couldn’t get anything like the levels of performance that they wanted. So he talked to a few people about the approaches and this seemed the best way of getting what he wanted.
This project is a great amalgamation of three different techniques. First of all, the voice actors, they physically acted the scenes, on a set. Tapes were then made of the performances. Spike then used these to rehearse with the suit performers on the set to recreate the actors’ work. Then having got those we came in with the animation, and the results that we managed to get were so much for having those stages done before.
Framestore got involved pretty late on in the film, considering how long the movie has been in development. We begun work on it for the last out of five years of development. It was terrifying, because it was so much work! The animation technique we used should logically take less time but it isn’t really the case.
The process is the ‘re-projection’ technique. You take the thing that’s photographed in camera on set – in this case the creatures – and you effectively warp an image in 2D to create the facial expression, even though its 3D. Then you re-project it back onto what you’ve shot. This — in simple terms — means that because you’re working with real footage the amount of distortion you can create is very limited. So the difficulty was in getting the extremity of emotion in the performances. For example one of the characters — Carol — has a scene where’s he’s crying and is incredibly upset, there’s a limitation to how much facial expression we can animate.
Personally I’ve always thought that the best approach is to do a mix of different kinds of effects – and this movie is a great example of this. The guy in the suit is a practical thing, and we’re doing the face – it’s using each bit for what it’s best at.
I’m quite a believer in — even when we’re doing CG — giving it qualities that make it real, rather than creating creatures who don’t obey the laws of physics and can just fly around. With this technology, you can do anything with your camera and your creature, but you don’t want to because then it wouldn’t look real. As soon as you do something that doesn’t feel possible the audience knows it’s computer generated and then becomes uninterested. I think it’s important to stay on the physical borders of what is real.
It was totally important that the animation we did looked as much like practical effects as possible. That’s what Spike was after, he made it perfectly clear. One of the difficulties for example were the characters of Carol and K.W.; both had very large mouths which is difficult because characters with big mouths look like Muppets. Spike didn’t want that, he wanted humanistic, subtle emotion. Our starting point with them was the eyes – we hoped to distract viewers away from the mouths and focus on the eyes.
The single most unique challenge was the depth and level of the animation that was required. Most visual FX stuff is either creatures, or its cartoony animation, but with this — the intensity of the emotion that Spike was after was unique. He wanted audiences to be able to be able to feel the emotion and on a fairly human and subtle level, however unhuman the characters were. That was the hard bit — to get those thought processes on screen.
Spike would say things like: “That character is sounding quite confident here, but I want you to show in the eyes that they’re not quite as confident as they’re sounding.” There were layers of emotion and feeling going on he wanted to capture. I guess it’s also unusual for animated characters to have the sort of dialogue that the Wild Things have. It’s much more natural, and therefore they absolutely have to have that level of natural animation.
He was really great to work with, and that’s not just the standard thing that everyone says in interviews. He was very exacting, he’d worked on this film for 5 years and he really, really knew what he wanted, and so that was quite a difficult target to hit. The thing with Spike is that everything he does is a little bit different, but actually he understood the process really well. It’s also pretty rare to work that closely with directors in visual effects. For a start you’re not normally creating 7 of the lead characters of a movie. This was a bit different in that sense; we needed that close interaction.
Where the Wild Things Are is out now.