Much Ado About Dolittle

Two-time Os­car-win­ning VFX su­per­vi­sor John Dyk­stra shares some dig­i­tal de­tails of the good doc­tor’s ad­ven­tures.

Animation Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Trevor Hogg

Two-time Os­car-win­ning VFX su­per­vi­sor John Dyk­stra shares some dig­i­tal de­tails of bring­ing the good doc­tor’s ad­ven­tures to life.

It seems that ev­ery gen­er­a­tion de­serves its own adap­ta­tion of Hugh Loft­ing’s pop­u­lar chil­dren’s clas­sic The Story of Dr. Dolittle. This year, Robert Downey, Jr. fol­lows in the foot­steps of Rex Har­ri­son and Ed­die Mur­phy in a new ver­sion of the story, which finds the doc and his an­i­mal com­pan­ions em­bark­ing on a jour­ney to find a cure for the ail­ing Queen Vic­to­ria. Leg­endary vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor John Dyk­stra (Ghost in the Shell) and film­maker Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Ti­tans) were brought in to pro­vide ad­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy and dig­i­tal ef­fects to ex­pand upon the vision of di­rec­tor Stephen Gaghan (Syr­i­ana).

Of course, Dyk­stra, the win­ner of two VFX Os­cars for his work on the orig­i­nal Star Wars (1977) and Spi­der-Man 2 (2004) and nom­i­nated for Star Trek: The Mo­tion Pic­ture, Stu­art Lit­tle and Spi­der-Man, is no stranger to cre­at­ing a cast of CG crea­tures.“The an­i­mals were smaller,” laughs Dyk­stra when com­par­ing Dolittle to Godzilla (2014). “They didn’t take-up nearly as many film cans!”

Dis­cussing the preva­lence of CG crea­tures in movies and tele­vi­sion shows, Dyk­stra says, “It all comes back to whether or not the story you’re telling is com­pelling and whether or not the char­ac­ters are evoca­tive,” he points out. “All of the things that have tran­spired in re­gards to mak­ing an­i­mals more pho­to­re­al­is­tic have opened up a whole new realm of sto­ry­telling. This is sim­i­lar to how the ad­vent of con­ven­tional dig­i­tal ef­fects al­lowed us to do ex­plo­sions, mas­sive groups of peo­ple and non­hu­man char­ac­ters that had an an­thro­po­mor­phic qual­ity to them in sci-fi movies and shows.”

Dyk­stra fur­ther ex­plains that he dealt with Liebesman di­rectly on this movie. “David Shirk [Ready Player One], the an­i­ma­tion su­per­vi­sor on the project, was the one who had to bridge the tran­si­tion from Stephen Gaghan to Jonathan Liebesman, as he was on the project from the be­gin­ning,” he recalls. “I joined Dolittle af­ter Jonathan had com­pleted ad­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy. There were a huge num­ber of shots that needed to be com­pleted within a fairly short pe­riod of time and the staff was over­whelmed. I came in as some­one who could or­ga­nize and triage the work that needed to be given the most at­ten­tion.”

Build­ing a Uni­fied Vision

This wasn’t the first time that Dyk­stra had been re­cruited to re­visit the post­pro­duc­tion process. “There is no way to make sure that any­thing works, in­clud­ing mak­ing a film from the be­gin­ning,” he ex­plains. “It comes down to the re­la­tion­ship you cre­ate with the oth­ers who are col­lab­o­rat­ing on the project. You have to find your way. It’s the same as mak­ing the film whole again in the sense that there are sev­eral in­puts in re­gards to what im­age should be when it’s fi­nally on the screen. The job of the peo­ple who su­per­vise and the di­rec­tor is to take those ideas and co­a­lesce them into some­thing that is greater than the sum of its parts, oth­er­wise, you end up with five dif­fer­ent movies!”

In a movie about a doc­tor that com­mu­ni­cates eas­ily with his an­i­mal friends, in­te­grat­ing CG char­ac­ters into the live-ac­tion pho­tog­ra­phy was the ma­jor chal­lenge. “The key to it once you es­tab­lish what the story is go­ing to be is fig­ur­ing out how to in­te­grate the CG crea­tures in a way that is real­is­tic but don’t call ex­tra­or­di­nary at­ten­tion to them­selves, which is tough,” notes Dyk­stra. “One of the hard­est things on this project were the talk­ing an­i­mals. There was a huge ef­fort that goes into mak­ing these non­hu­man char­ac­ters an­thro­po­mor­phic in a way that doesn’t look car­toony and gives them a sense of re­al­ity. We have a talk­ing os­trich, bear and even a drag­on­fly.”

The voice cast of Tom Hol­land, Rami Malek, Emma Thompson, Ralph Fi­ennes, Oc­tavia Spencer and Marion Cotil­lard in­flu­enced the an­i­ma­tion style. “The an­i­ma­tor takes the emo­tional con­tent por­trayed in the au­dio and fig­ures out how to con­vey it in the char­ac­ter,” says Dyk­stra. “We didn’t use any mo­tion cap­ture.”

Stuffies to the Res­cue

Stuffies, which are lit­tle man­nequins that can be held and put on a stick for eye­line pur­poses, were used for the par­rot and some of

the smaller an­i­mals. “In the case of an­i­mals that in­ter­acted with the live ac­tors, there were per­form­ers in green cos­tumes,” says Dyk­stra. “When com­ing into con­tact with the ac­tors, they dis­placed their clothes or hair or moved them in some way. There was real in­ter­ac­tion, so the ac­tor was not hav­ing to mime. Then, the an­i­mal was an­i­mated over the top of the stand-in. There were mi­nor changes to the phys­i­cal make-up of some of the an­i­mals, like the way the fur was groomed or the amount of fur they had. For the most part, the char­ac­ters were ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tions of real an­i­mals with the ex­cep­tion of the dragon.”

Ac­cord­ing to Dyk­stra, the ease of con­vey­ing emo­tion var­ied from crea­ture to crea­ture. “With a go­rilla you have a face that is an­thro­po­mor­phic and the fa­mil­iar­ity that we have with the hu­man face was crit­i­cal,” he re­marks. “A small change in fa­cial ex­pres­sion re­sulted in a much larger emo­tional im­pact. Whereas drag­on­flies don’t have mouths per se and their eyes are dis­pro­por­tion­ately large: They don’t look an­thro­po­mor­phic at all so were less re­al­is­ti­cally an­i­mated, but an ef­fort was made to main­tain the way that they fly. We did dif­fer­ent things with the cam­era in re­gards to depth of field to es­tab­lish their scale. You want to be­lieve that this bug can talk. You have to find the bal­ance be­tween the styl­iza­tion that you have to do to make it have emo­tional con­text and the re­al­ism that you’re pur­su­ing in the ex­e­cu­tion of the im­age.”

Some en­vi­ron­ments took on more sig­nif­i­cant roles af­ter the ad­di­tional pho­tog­ra­phy was com­pleted. “We had more scenes on the boat than they had started out with,” re­veals Dyk­stra. “The cave also took on its own per­son­al­ity based on the change of in­tent of what went on there. We did a ton of pro­duc­tion de­sign to bring these el­e­ments into this world so there was a cer­tain amount of fan­ci­ful ad­di­tion to the en­vi­ron­ments.”

Dyk­stra says one of the di­rec­tor’s fa­vorite ef­fects were the spec­u­lar re­flec­tions on the wa­ter. “It’s to­tally rea­son­able to have spec­u­lar re­flec­tions on the wa­ter, but we put a lot of them in be­cause he liked the per­son­al­ity it cre­ated in terms of what the pic­ture felt like,” says Dyk­stra. “The same thing ap­plies to the col­ors on the an­i­mals in re­gards to their fur and in the ex­e­cu­tion of the en­vi­ron­ments in which the an­i­mals per­form. We had to make sure that things re­mained col­or­ful and lively look­ing.”

An­other in­ter­est­ing tid­bit: the film’s un­der­wa­ter se­quence was pho­tographed dry for wet. “Robert Downey, Jr. was shot against blue­screen on a dry stage and then his head was added into the CG diver suit and hel­met,” says the VFX supe. “Ev­ery­thing else un­der­wa­ter was CG.”

MPC and Frame­store served as the film’s main vis­ual ef­fects ven­dors, with Luma Pic­tures and Lola VFX added later to as­sist with ad­di­tional post­pro­duc­tion work. In­ter­est­ingly enough, the renowned de-aging tech­niques of Lola VFX came in handy. “The shoot­ing took place over a long pe­riod of time and one of the ac­tors was go­ing through pu­berty,” recalls Dyk­stra.

The crea­tures were cre­ated as high-res­o­lu­tion mod­els that could with­stand ex­treme close-ups.“The work that MPC and Frame­store did on the cre­ation of each of their re­spec­tive an­i­mals was great. When you’re look­ing at the drag­on­fly, it’s macropho­tog­ra­phy be­cause they’re so small. Sud­denly, you’re look­ing at de­tail that you would never see with the naked eye. The specifics of how ac­cu­rately and re­al­is­ti­cally these char­ac­ters were mod­elled and an­i­mated was a big chal­lenge.”

Ex­e­cut­ing the cave en­vi­ron­ment and cre­at­ing the dragon proved to be tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing for the VFX team. “There was no paradigm for that,” notes Dyk­stra. “We were mak­ing it up. The cave had bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cence in it and a light ef­fect was part of the dragon. Dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween the dragon and cave light ef­fects was par­tic­u­larly hard. This dragon is dif­fer­ent in a sense that there is much more in­te­gra­tion of bi­o­lu­mi­nes­cence. She has a light ef­fect that is in­her­ent in her phys­i­cal­ity and echoes her state of mind and anger and pain.”

When asked about some of the high­lights, Dyk­stra says,“In terms of se­quences in the film that are ex­cep­tional, we did some pho­tog­ra­phy of in­ter­ac­tion be­tween ants, Dr. Dolittle and the drag­on­fly; that’s re­ally fun be­cause it’s in that realm of macropho­tog­ra­phy.”

Univer­sal’s Dolittle is cur­rently play­ing in the­aters world­wide.

‘When you start to think about it when you’re look­ing at the drag­on­fly it’s macropho­tog­ra­phy: Sud­denly, you’re look­ing at de­tail that you would never see with the naked eye.’ — VFX su­per­vi­sor John Dyk­stra

A Doc­tor’s Best Pals: Os­car-win­ning VFX su­per­vi­sor John Dyk­stra was in charge of mak­ing sure the film’s nu­mer­ous CG-an­i­mated talk­ing an­i­mals blended smoothly with the live-ac­tion back­grounds and in­ter­acted well with the ac­tors.

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