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CG animals make tasty filling for ‘Pi’

Eye on the Oscars: Vfx, Sound & Editing

Rhythm & Hues Studios has carved out a niche for realistic CG animals.

Yet often its creations step out of character to sing or dance or do something else anthropomorphic. So when vfx supervisor Bill Westenhofer saw the opportunity to make a perfectly realistic tiger on “Life of Pi,” he told his team “Here’s our chance.”

In fact “Life of Pi,” and “Ted” are among the pics that rely on finely tuned performances by CG-animated animals (live and stuffed) to make their stories come to life.

The tiger “Richard Parker” in “Life of Pi” has been given a human name but is otherwise a wild beast. “One of the things we wanted to convey in the character of Richard Parker is he’s just as freaked out about the environment as Pi is. A tiger who sees he’s surrounded by ocean is going to be completely unnerved and scared, so we wanted to convey what a real tiger might sense if he’s in a strange and frightening situation.”

For the most part, Richard Parker behaves like a real tiger, with the exception of a few growls. (Tigers don’t growl if they’re going to attack, because they don’t want to scare away prey.)

“It was really important that he stayed a tiger and didn’t become an anthropomorphized thing,” says Westenhofer.

For “Ted,” the challenge was the opposite: The animal was completely anthropomorphized, and also fake: a teddy bear that has come to life and grown to be a potty-mouthed stoner. Ted, the bear, was performed with motion capture and voiced by Seth MacFarlane, then animated by Tippett Studios and Iloura.

Vfx supervisor Blair Clark says MacFarlane wanted Ted to play as a character, not an effect. MacFarlane also asked for a restrained performance. “It was definitely a case of less is more,” says Clark. “So we kept it to very simplistic movements with the brows.”

Another challenge: Simulating the nap of a stuffed animal. At first they tried realistic fur, but “it just looked creepy,”says Clark. “So it was all about how to re-engineer our fur tool, because synthetic fur reflects and absorbs light completely differently than normal fur.”

Eye on the Oscars: VFX, Sound & Editing
Editors take auds into heroes’ minds | Vfx thrive on technical difficulties | CG animals make tasty filling for ‘Pi’ | Sound editors trek in search of authenticity | Sound mixers sell the realism of unreal worlds | Radio mics were secret of ‘Les Mis’ recording | Imax proved big challenge for ‘Dark Knight’ | ‘Les Mis’ editors took cues from music | Helmer wanted woman’s touch for ‘Sessions’ | Research, experience guided ‘Flight’ editor | Creatures shine in vfx bakeoff

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