LOOK Effects meets The Muppets
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : LOOK Effects meets The Muppets
The Muppets movie trailer
Anthony 'Max' Ivins, Visual Effects Supervisor and Co-Owner, LOOK Effects, was responsible for on-set supervision as well as overseeing LOOK Effects' 3D animation and compositing on The Muppets, a co-production of Mandeville Films, Muppets Studio and Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by James Bobin, shot by cinematographer Don Burgess A.S.C., The Muppets is the first Muppet movie since the 1999 Muppets from Space.
In his 15+ years in the visual effects industry, Ivins has been on staff at Blue Sky|VIFX, Rhythm & Hues and Digital Domain before opening up LOOK Effects with President/Executive Producer Mark Driscoll, Visual Effects Supervisor Henrik Fett and Partner Danny Kim. Ivins has worked on projects for Warner Bros, Disney, Universal, Fox, Sony Pictures, Revolution, and Lions Gate. He still believes that Armageddon was some of the best he's ever done.
A show with puppets is not the most common project in Hollywood. Yet The Muppets wasn't Look Effects' first Muppet project. We did do a Christmas special out of our New York office, about two years ago, supervised by Dan Schrecker. But The Muppets definitely took it to the next level. There's definitely a big Muppets fan base within the CGI community, so we all had a lot of respect for the puppets; most of us are intimately familiar with them. One of our guys had even blogged about the Muppets in the past, before the movie had been conceived. He knows every single Muppet's name.
"There's definitely a big Muppets fan base within the CGI community, so we all had a lot of respect for the puppets; most of us are intimately familiar with them." Imagine knowing every Muppet's name.
We first spoke with The Muppets visual effects supervisor/producer Janet Muswell last October, over a year ago. The production started shooting in February, and we didn't really start work on it intensely until May. Then it became an issue of when we were going to get the plates. As always, they wanted to keep the edit open and Janet didn't want to start and stop things, because that ruins the momentum. I understand where they were coming from. The stakes were high because it was kind of a re-launch of the Muppets brand and there was a lot of scrutiny over what was happening and many test screenings. What that means is that we did about half of our 350 shots in the last six weeks. As tough as that is, it's not that's not that uncommon.
We were the lead VFX house on the project. For me, the most fun part of the project was collaborating with Janet who supervised and produced the VFX. I went to the set quite a few times where Janet and I would discuss the shots. For her, being the producer and supervisor, she didn't have anyone to bounce off the shots. It was nice to be included on the big days. The set was really awesome. All the puppeteers are big jokesters. At the end of every take, Kermit always does something funny when they call cut. Really, the best thing about this movie is...it's the Muppets. And being a part of it.
Because of the legacy of the Muppets, the idea was to stick with that legacy of them being puppets. As a result, Janet's main mission was to not give away how it was done. When they first talked to us, I wondered if we'd be putting legs on the Muppets. But it wasn't that at all. The main task was high-end, very detail-oriented compositing, with a lot of attention paid to getting it done perfectly. The Muppets was a huge bluescreen show. I've never seen so much bluescreen in my life. Green is more typical nowadays but of course we couldn't use a greenscreen because of Kermit. I'd never thought about how fuzzy the Muppets were until I had to composite them. Many of them are quite furry! Gonzo has blue feathers on the top of his head, so there was a lot of roto-ing those wispy blue feathers.
"I'd never thought about how fuzzy the Muppets were until I had to composite them. Many of them are quite furry!"
Sam the Eagle and Gonzo have blue feathers -- which require a lot of roto-ing!
Our compositing let the puppeteers put on blue suits on a blue stage, to capture the actions of the Muppet alone. It takes four puppeteers to control a single Muppet; it's quite involved. Then we would put the Muppet back into the scene. We had to make sure that it didn't look like it was shot in pieces. We had to really integrate the Muppets into the scenes to make sure we didn't leave any fingerprints behind, For example, the new Muppet character Walter in the opening sequence goes into the kitchen and jumps up on a dresser. It was all shot on a bluescreen stage and composited. You want to let the audience watch it and not think about how it was put together. But it was a complicated set-up.
The puppeteers wore blue suits on a blue stage to capture the actions of the Muppet alone. This action was then composited onto the background plate shown here.
...and the desired effect is achieved with Walter dancing on the dresser.
For one of the most complicated scenes, the production built a big blue merry-go-round that four puppeteers could sit on to make the Muppet Beaker run around in a circle. All the puppeteers would move around in a circle and make him go around. All this elaborate set-up for the puppeteers to take it to the next level was really cool. Then we would add bits of crucial CG imagery, such as a vacuum cleaner that attacks Beaker and chases him.
Another great scene is when the actors and Muppets drive out of the ocean in a Rolls Royce onto the beach at Cannes. It was a 7 am shoot, at Lake Castaic in northern Los Angeles County. It was freezing and all the extras actors were out there in their Speedos. They shot that plate there, pulling the Rolls out of the water with a cable. We comped in a big matte painting of the Cannes beach. Then they put the actors and Muppets on an elaborately built sled on a bluescreen, to get the action of pulling them out of the water, and we tracked them in the shot.
A lot of planning went into a number of those kinds of complicated visual effects shots. Probably the most taxing CG job we did was a helicopter crowd shot. We wrote our own particle system to drive the behavior and intensity of the crowd's actions. We kept dialing up how active the crowd was until it looked like a riot, and then had to dial it back. There's a fine line between a happy excited crowd and all-out riot. There are also some fun gags in the movie, like blowing up Mt. Rushmore so one of the Muppets can put his own face on Mt. Rushmore. [See GPUs from NVIDIA video below]. We also blew up Gonzo's plumbing warehouse.
Looking in on Hollywood -- one of the crowd shots.
In one sequence, these portraits of Muppets come to life. This was really our trickiest challenge. We didn't want it to look like visual effects but the portraits are supposed to change from flat paintings to become dimensional. We spent a lot of time developing how that would look and feel without it looking cheesy or weird. We had to massage it to that point where it's slick but doesn't give you an icky feeling. That was a lot of what the show was about: finding this creative niche where our work fit into the real world that puppets are in, without it standing out as CGI. We had to hit that sweet spot where it looks cool and isn't its own attention-getter.
Our primary tool for all the 3D was Autodesk Maya; we used MEL (Maya Embedded Language) scripting to write the scripts to control the crowd we wrote as MEL scripting. Nuke is our backbone compositor, but After Effects was also involved.
The sheer number of shots we had to do in the last few weeks of post was a big challenge. For the 3D scenes - especially ones like the crowd sequences -- we rely a lot on graphics processing. With 5 million polygons, you need something powerful to calculate, play back and run simulations in a timely fashion. It's all about iterations. Our whole industry is based on graphics processing and speed.
NVIDIA Quadro 6000
NVIDIA is one of the top providers, and we primarily use Quadro cards because of what they're capable of and particular because of the reliability factor. If there's incompatibility with the graphics card, you can be running a 3-hour simulation and it will crash halfway through and you lose all that work. That frustration factor can be damaging to your workflow. In the past, we'd run the favor-of-the-week graphics card. As you get larger, you want standardization so you can fix a problem once for the 30 machines you have. We've standardized on NVIDIA, from experience.
Walter takes a moment to see himself in a new way.
...and after, big Walter.
Pleased with what he sees.
Working with the Janet Muswell was great. Steve Dellerson, our Executive Producer, knew her well and I believe that's how she knew of Look Effects. She's terrific. More recently she's done a lot of producing and she's a fully qualified supervisor. She has a compositing background and has done lots of post work. It's really refreshing to work with someone who -- when they ask you to do something that's difficult or nitpicky -- knows what she's asking you to do. That's because there is only a finite amount of time and resources and it's reassuring to know that someone is looking at it logically and going in the right direction. Janet is great at that. There were some creative issues that required a lot of iterations and posed difficult problems to solve, but I never felt that after doing 50 versions we ended up back on version 3. We get a lot of that in our industry.
Watching the movie, no one will believe how many effects shots are in it. People will think there are 30 or 40 FX shots but there are hundreds. That's a testament to Janet's engineering of bluescreen stage shooting, all the coordination to get the background plates and all the attention to detail. I was pretty impressed with how it all came together. We didn't have to fight the puppeteering; things fit together pretty well.
People will think there are 30 or 40 FX shots but there are hundreds.
Working on The Muppets was an exercise in going back to the fundamentals of high-end quality compositing with all attention to detail. So much of what we do now has so much bigger scope. We're working on Underworld now, which has everything from CG particles and explosions to putting CG feet on werewolves. It was nice to get back to the fundamentals, the art and science of compositing.
The most fantastic part of it was that it's the Muppets. The Muppets have such a broad appeal; they're universally loved. Puppeteering -- shadow puppets on the wall -- is our origin as a visual effects industry. That's why everyone in our industry was psyched about doing the Muppets. I had VFX artists call me up and offer to do a shot for free because they wanted to be involved in it. It's funny because so much of our industry is about meeting the next great technological challenge, but somewhere in our DNA, we respond to puppets. The original visual effects were puppets.
By the time I'm finished with a movie, I'm usually done with it. But I enjoyed The Muppets when I saw it. It's also fun because in my industry, which is a young industry, we all have kids now. It's good to be able to say, Daddy worked on this show. I'm taking my son this weekend to the VES screening.
GPUs from NVIDIA Lend Special Effects To The Muppets