'Little' birds' realistic plumage required work of 8 staffers

While creating the fur for the first “Stuart Little” took a lot of hard work, the animators at Sony Pictures Imageworks discovered it would take a lot more effort to create the feathers for two of its new talking characters in the sequel.

“The feathers were a really big deal for us,” says “Stuart Little 2″ visual f/x supervisor Jay Redd, who was one of the designers of the first film’s breakthrough fur system. “We had to take the technology we created to make the fur to a whole new level.”

Preening feathers

Where roughly 30 people were responsible for animating Stuart and his fur in the first film (considered a large number of animators to assign to a single character at the time), the sequel had eight staffers spending a year and a half to animate just the feathers that appear on the fully digital characters Margolo and the Falcon. Feather cleanup teams, feather grooming teams and feather pluckers also were assembled.

SPI’s team had to be experts at how feathers bend, split and curve as well as showing the transparency and shine.

Where digital fur is made up of masses of strands that can be clumped together on a CG model to resemble fur, there are 4,000 feathers on a bird, made up of 25 different patterns and roughly 12 different shapes. There’s a pattern of a feather, then a pattern formed when all the feathers are put together.

“When you see someone’s hair, you don’t see someone’s hair,” Redd says, “you see an interpretation of hair. We didn’t have that luxury with feathers.”

Redd says that how the feathers interacted with each other was hard to control, especially with characters that are jittery and flutter around the live-action sets.

“One of our biggest problems was figuring out how to keep the feathers from going through each other or penetrating the skin,” he says. “It became like a pocket knife. When all the blades are open, it’s hard to control.”

And there was no way to cheat.

Digital birds have appeared in film before, but they haven’t been as detailed as they appear in “Stuart Little 2,” which features its feathered creatures with extreme close-ups.

“With Stuart, a lot of the body is hidden by the clothing,” Redd says. “But with the birds, nothing was hidden. With some digital creatures, people don’t know what it actually looks like, but people are familiar with birds. They know what they look like in real life.”

SPI’s team was able to embellish a little, however.

“We had to increase the size of Margolo’s eyes, soften the feet and shorten the beak to make it look like she wouldn’t kill Stuart,” Redd says. “Talking about performance was the first thing we had to do in terms of developing the feathers. The birds had to be lively characters. We knew we had birds that were very articulate and use their wings as hands, feet as hands or operate them as fingers. The whole goal is to let the performance and the emotions of the characters come through.”

Just as Stuart’s fur technology was used to create the feather software, Imageworks plans to adapt that new technology as a foundation for future applications. “If we do a scaled creature in the future, we could use some of the same tools,” Redd says.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more