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April 01


Spring 2020

Balancing Photorealism and Animal Personality in DOLITTLE


Gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) and Dr. John Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr.). Director Stephen Gaghan wanted to make Dolittle accessible for modern audiences using advanced VFX and SFX. (All images copyright © 2020 Universal Studios and Perfect Universe Investment Inc.)

Dolittle, the latest cinematic adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s children’s books about an English doctor and veterinarian who can talk to animals, launches at an auspicious time – when visual effects have reached new heights in creating photorealistic CG fauna.

“Technology-wise we’re obviously more advanced. In the last three or four years, there’s been a jump in technology that we use to create animals, especially the fur,” says Nicolas Aithadi, MPC’s Visual Effects Supervisor on Dolittle. Once an impressive photoreal look is achieved, he explains, “That’s when you start thinking of other things, not just making an animal – it’s about its character.” All the many creatures in Dolittle are CG, with the exceptions of some horses, according to Aithadi.

By contrast, the original Doctor Dolittle (1967) featured hundreds of live animals (around 1,200), including giraffes, and practical effects like a giant snail. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie was produced in 70mm Todd-AO with a lavish budget for the time of $17 million. There is also a history of high achievement attached to the looming franchise. L.B. Abbott, a multiple Academy Award winner, won an Oscar for Special Visual Effects on Doctor Dolittle. Art Cruickshank (Tron, Planet of the Apes), who had won an Oscar for Special Visual Effects for Fantastic Voyage a year earlier, was credited on the film with Special Photographic Effects.

Subsequently, taking a different tack, a 1998 remake of Doctor Dolittle starred Eddie Murphy, and another Dolittle film with Murphy followed, along with three more sequels without him.

The 2020 Dolittle is directed by Stephen Gaghan and stars Robert Downey Jr. as the doctor, and Antonio Banderas and Michael Sheen in live-action roles. The voice cast includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, John Cena, Kumail Nanjiani, Tom Holland, Selena Gomez, Ralph Fiennes and Octavia Spencer. “We had something like 20 speaking characters,” says Aithadi.

There is rarely a scene in Dolittle in which CG animals and live humans aren’t interacting. Clockwise from bottom left: Ostrich Plimpton (Kumail Nanjiani), monkeys Elliot and Elsie, parrot Polynesia (Emma Thompson), polar bear Yoshi (John Cena), Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett) and sugar glider Mini (Nick A. Fisher).

MPC led the visual effects charge and brought its considerable expertise with CG animals in The Jungle Book and The Lion King to bear on Dolittle. MPC started its CG animal work by visiting Amazing Animals, a company in Oxfordshire, England that supplies wild animals for films, TV and other media. 4DMax handled the capture. “We spent a couple of days there,” says Aithadi. A “whole bunch of animals” were present, including an ostrich, a squirrel, a lioness, a lion and a tiger. “We had access to the animals, and we scanned, photographed and filmed them to use as reference. They were our best references.” Two trainers were inside a cage, and photogrammetry gear was ready to handle the scans. “It was scary to watch when we got the lioness, who wasn’t the most peaceful one. It was really scary to see two guys in there with her.” The animals set the pace for the scans. “It was the animal’s time. We had to wait for them to take the scan. You can’t rush a lion.”

For animals that couldn’t be scanned, Aithadi notes, “We used a lot of online references, National Geographic, everything we could find. We tried several models [asking ourselves], ‘how do they look, how do they render? How do they move? How do they look with wet feathers? In the water? Tired?’ Everything was based on a real-life reference that we captured ourselves or got from reference.”

Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), an upbeat polar bear who wasn’t scanned, proved to be especially challenging and rewarding to create. “The technical side of doing Yoshi was one thing. We spent months [on him], building a perfectly realistic polar bear, matching all the references we could find. It’s very involved in terms of modeling the asset, texturing and all that,” Aithadi recalls. Beyond that, “the character Yoshi is really interesting. We had these discussions at the beginning of the project of how to make Yoshi not just a bear, but a bear you remember. We attached stories to all the animals – the stories of why they came to meet with Dolittle and how they end up living with him. All these animals have these pasts.” Dab-Dab, an enthusiastic duck (voiced by Octavia Spencer), was another favorite character for Aithadi. “The duck is kind of funny. She’s cute and has some sort of fatness to her. I always found myself having a soft spot for her. If I had to choose a [favorite] character, I’d go for the duck.

From left: Ostrich Plimpton, duck Dab-Dab (Octavia Spencer), Dr. Dolittle, Tommy Stubbins, polar bear Yoshi, gorilla Chee-Chee and parrot Polynesia.

It was crucial for VFX to ensure that the CG creatures were photoreal and felt like actual animals. From left: Ostrich Plimpton, parrot Polynesia, gorilla Chee-Chee, Tommy Stubbins, squirrel Kevin (Craig Robinson), polar bear Yoshi and duck Dab-Dab.

Dr. Dolittle and parrot Polynesia. A stuffy was staged and choreographed by the director and a puppeteer to move into the proper positions for the dialogue interactions between the characters. The stuffy was replaced with the CG parrot when the scene was edited.

VFX worked with stuffed versions of the animal characters and were responsible for all live puppeteering. From left: Duck Dab-Dab, polar bear Yoshi, parrot Polynesia, Dr. Dolittle, ostrich Plimpton, Tommy Stubbins and gorilla Chee-Chee.

“We spent a couple of days [at Amazing Animals in England with a] whole bunch of animals. We had access to them and they were our best references. It was scary to watch, especially when we got the lioness, who wasn’t the most peaceful one. It was really scary to see two guys in there with her. It was the animal’s time. We had to wait for them to take the scan. You can’t rush a lion.”

—Nicolas Aithadi, Visual Effects Supervisor, MPC

“We always start with the real, and we go to the filmmakers and the real becomes art-directed to fit the theme, the environment and a world. That’s the beauty of the work. It’s interesting – you do animals in 10 different movies and you get 10 different types of animals. That’s the fun.

“On Dolittle,” Aithadi observes, “although we were trying to get as real as possible, we didn’t want to go too real. [If the effects are too real] you get into this uncanny valley kind of thing. In the Dolittle world, animals have quite a bit of personality,” he explains. “We didn’t want an ostrich to just be an ostrich. They are all specific characters with personalities. We wanted them to display those character traits and for that you had to anthropomorphize a little bit. So you step away from that 100% photorealistic and get into that weird and interesting world between the animals and the humans. It is a balance between photorealism and anthropomorphizing. That’s where the focus was put. In production and post-production, a big theme was getting you interested in watching that animal, its characteristics and interesting features.”

The bulk of the CG animal work was done at MPC, which has a proprietary software called Furtility. Aithadi notes that fur is something MPC is “kind of good at,” having used Furtility on The Jungle Book and The Lion King. He adds that they used it to do fur and at the same time to create feathers in Dolittle. The feathers are made by applying fur on quills. It’s a very involved process.” Polly the Macaw, Plimpton the cynical ostrich and Dab-Dab the duck were extremely complicated in terms of feathers. Aithadi feels that MPC had reached a level where fur was not that complicated anymore, and feathers had become the real challenge.

It proved a challenge to make the CG animals interact seamlessly with sets and human actors. From left: Polar bear Yoshi, Tommy Stubbins and gorilla Chee-Chee.

Puppeteers served as green-suited human surrogates for Dolittle’s virtual characters.

The film’s CG animals had to interact with appropriate eyelines and real-world physics. From left: Lord Thomas Badgley (Jim Broadbent), Dr. Blair Mudfly (Michael Sheen), Tommy Stubbins, Dr. Dolittle, dog Jip (back to camera, Tom Holland) and Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado).

Dr. Dolittle, duck Dab-Dab and Tommy Stubbins.

Meanwhile, according to Special Effects Supervisor Dominic Tuohy, the SFX department was busy handling “any interaction between actors and CGI animals, motion bases for the ship Curlew, the deck and interior cabin, motion bases for Betsy the Giraffe, Plimpton the Ostrich rigs – a riding rig on location to carry both actors and an interior rig to lift and move actors in a small space – and flame effects from the dragon, a bespoke tree rig with a net gag for [the character] Stubbins to be lifted up in the rain, and a Dolittle feeder machine inside his house. Tuohy comments that the toughest challenge was “making the interaction look non-mechanical and fluid.”

According to Aithadi, War for the Planet of the Apes and The Lion King established “kind of a benchmark in terms of animal creation.” He observes that the CG animal approach of those two movies differs from that of Dolittle. “The worlds in which the animals evolved is a very different one and is the big difference between the movies. War for the Planet of the Apes is very gritty and realistic while The Lion King is very beautiful, with a National Geographic feel to it,” he says. “We are more in a fantasy world and the characters have to match the world they live in. The animals in each movie would not work in the other movies.”

Aithadi is proud of the CG animals in Dolittle. “It was a hard job. There was so much animation and so many complex effects we had to deal with. So, at the end of the day, we were happy and proud of what we’d achieved. It wasn’t an easy task. I feel like they are interesting characters that you want to watch. If there’s a kid not enjoying it, I’d be worried for him,” he jokes. “It’s a fun adventure and the animals are very enticing. They’re very cool characters.”

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