Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Where the Wild Things Are

People are still going crazy over Spike Jonze's latest film, Her (ok, maybe it's just me), but I'd like to take a moment to step back from that OS-dating, high-waisted futuristic flick and talk about something a little more 2009: namely, Where the Wild Things Are. While people were pretty mixed on the overall plot (I'm a huge fan and think that Jonze did the best he could have done, considering he adapted it from a children's book with very few words) but something that most people seem to agree on is the use of special effects. The 'Wild Things' in this film are sometimes cuddly, sometimes terrifying, but alway visually striking. 

I was surprised when I first learned the the Wild Things were not entirely CGI, but rather real-life actors in giant animal costumes. In retrospect - and in line with Jonze's vision - this makes a lot of sense, as computer generated Wild Things would have involved a lot of greenscreen work and would make Max's reactions seem less sincere, dulling the overall emotional impact. All of the costumes, however, had static faces, since it was next to impossible for people to control the facial features of such large creatures. This is where things get interesting. 

Working closely with Michael Eames, the Animation Supervisor at the London-based Framestore, Jonze motivated a team of artists to get exactly the final product that he wanted. It started with projection mapping, but quickly moved on to something much more. Character suit performers were filmed, and their heads and faces were tracked in 3d, so that the appropriate emotion and tone could be recorded for each line. Then these images were projected onto 3d models, bending to the appropriate curves and angles of each unique face. Finally, hair and other textures were added, giving the final appearance that you can see in the film. You can read all about the entire process, from start to finish, in this article from Animation World Network

The final effect is one that has stuck with me a long time. I think it's a great example of what can be done when you combine CGI effects with good ol' fashioned practical costumes and what basically amounts to full-body puppets. It's a beautiful film, and the Wild Things never once look fake or unbelievable. Their bodies are real; giant costumes made of fake fur, but real nonetheless, and their eyes are something that only computers could generate. It really sets the tone for the whole movie, and I am always in awe of how perfect they are. 

Last but not least, the film has one of my favorite trailers of all time. Take two minutes to watch it. 

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