The digi-mouse that roared

Imageworks' 'Stuart' looks to cook in 'bake-off'

He just might turn out to be the ‘little mouse that could’ when the Academy’s effects experts select the finalists for best achievement in visual effects. “Stuart Little,” a big player at the b.o., may loom large at the visual effects branch ‘bake-off’ that determines the three Oscar nominees.

Certainly Stuart’s key creators at Sony Pictures Imageworks will be making a strong case on behalf of their computer-animated star. “There’s probably a full half-hour of visual effects in ‘Stuart Little,’ if not more,” observes John Dykstra, a former Oscar-winner who served as the film’s senior visual effects supervisor. “Stuart is in 525 of the film’s 670 shots, and he’s under the tightest scrutiny possible in terms of his design, his performance and his integration into a live-action world.”

Although computer-generated animals have inhabited several live-action films since the “Jurassic Park” dinosaurs won the ’93 Oscar, Dykstra says it’s still tough to create a convincing version of an animal as familiar as a mouse.

“People have seen furry little creatures, and they know how fur reacts with light.” Stuart’s white hair, observes Dykstra, “was extremely tough (to render) because it’s almost translucent and we had to make LOTS of it — a half-million individual hairs.” While Stuart might represent a step beyond the furry critters of “Jumanji” and even “Mighty Joe Young,” he also has the distinction of being clothed — still a daunting task in 3D-CGI.

Making a well-dressed animal look like he belonged in so many scenes with living actors was a challenge that made “Stuart Little” stand out among the year’s effects films, Dykstra believes.

“This character remains consistent — not only in terms of esoteric things like his volume, his scale and the way his clothes reacted — but also in terms of his performance.” And when Academy members judge the quality of the film’s effects work, they’ll be evaluating character performance, observes Dykstra. “There will be no quarter given just because Stuart is an electronic image. The only thing that matters is whether the illusion that appears onscreen is integrated into the story and engages the audience.”

Though the lead character animation may command the spotlight, the film’s effects work actually runs the gamut — from digital work by CFX and Rhythm & Hues to matte paintings by Illusion Arts. Dykstra notes that “the boat race, for example, had a panoply of ‘real’ miniatures. And there were lots of shots of cats where we split scenes to get all the cats looking the same way. That’s a traditional technique that goes back to “Bringing Up Baby.” It was combined with a very contemporary technique in which a cat’s face was re-formed three-dimensionally by Rhythm & Hues.”

Handicapping “Stuart’s” chances for Academy honors, Dykstra sees Rhythm & Hues’ Oscar-winning work on 1995’s “Babe” as a precedent — and not because it also had talking animals. “The year that ‘Babe’ won, there were films that probably had more shots and more complex stuff in them, but ‘Babe’ was groundbreaking. Certainly there were several such movies this year, but the definition of what makes a groundbreaking movie is always changing. So you never know.”

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