Revenge of the Sci-Fi Victims

Monsters vs. Aliens, DreamWorks’ latest epic, puts vaguely familiar characters from our favorite ’50s movies into a ginormous stereoscopic package.

It all started with the monsters in Cannes. The monsters in a script, that is. Conrad Vernon, who had just finished directing the 2004 film Shrek 2 with Andrew Adamson and Kelly Asbury, was in Cannes promoting that film and was reading scripts during his down time. One of the scripts was based on the Rex Havoc comic-book series. ‘It had monsters in it,’ Vernon says. ‘But the concept’sci-fi horror’wasn’t what I wanted. I thought it would be great to do a film from the monsters’ point of view, not the people’s point of view.’ The greenlight team at DreamWorks liked that approach enough to assign an artist to the project.

Meanwhile, Rob Letterman, who had directed the 2004 film Shark Tale with Bibo Bergeron and Vicky Jenson, had begun working on an idea for an animated feature with a Dirty Dozen type of theme. DreamWorks suggested marrying the two concepts’monsters from the 1950s with prisoners given a suicide mission in return for the promise of freedom. The merging result became Monsters vs. Aliens, directed by Vernon and Letterman.

‘Monsters versus aliens was always part of the concept,’ Vernon says. ‘We put the two concepts together and had the monsters locked up for the past 50 years in a secret military facility. When an alien menace attacks, none of the military branches can do anything about it. So, they create a team of monsters to throw at the alien menace as a Hail Mary pass.’

First, Vernon and Letterman needed to pick some monsters. After starting with a dozen, they reduced the potential cast to five: The creature from the Black Lagoon, the 50-foot woman, the blob, the human fly and Godzilla. Then, they decided to create their own monsters. ‘We decided, first, because of all the rights problems it would be easier to come up with our own,’ Vernon says. ‘And, second, we wanted to.’

The creature from the Black Lagoon merged with King Kong to become The Missing Link (Will Arnett). The human fly morphed into Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D. (Hugh Laurie). Insectosaurus (Jimmy Kimmel) is a 350-pound grub that can shoot silk out its nose. Susan Murphy from Modesto, also known as Ginormica (Reese Witherspoon) is a 49-and-a-half-foot woman. And, B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), a clever abbreviation for Bicarbonate Ostylezene Benzoate, is a one-eyed gelatinous mass created by accidentally mixing a genetically altered tomato with ranch-flavored dessert topping. General W. R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) sends the monsters on their mission at President Hathaway’s (Stephen Colbert) request.

Dave Burgess led the team of animators who brought the characters to life, a core group of 35 animators that swelled to 50 during the final weeks of production, with the help of five supervising animators. ‘Generally, we have the supervising animators each run a sequence with a team of six to nine animators,’ Burgess says. ‘When they finish one sequence, they move on to the next. But, we were getting the story in bits and pieces. We still had each supervisor run a sequence, but we cast their teams based on how much work they had and how many people they needed. People like to work with their gang, but this time, the animators benefited from working with each of our talented supervisors who have strengths in different directions.’

Riggers based the controls for most of the characters roughly on PDI/DreamWorks’ generic ‘Man A’ rig. ‘Once you know how to use the rig for one, the controls are similar for the others,’ Burgess says. The tricky bits were the tails. Link and Insectosaurus both have long tails and Burgess wanted the tails to drag on the ground, so the crew devised a way to stick the tails to the ground plane.

In addition, Burgess asked the riggers to do a full body simulation for the giant slug to add rippling that would help create believable weight and mass. Giving the right weight to Susan, the giant woman, was also a challenge. ‘We didn’t want her to lumber like a Godzilla,’ Burgess says. ‘But, she isn’t a normal-sized person, either.’ Because we see Susan in her normal size as well as her Ginormica expansion, the riggers and animators needed to make sure she stayed on model through the size shifts.

Dr. Cockroach was Burgess’s favorite character to animate. ‘We could explore the contrast between a brilliant, elegant man in control and out of control,’ Burgess says. ‘He has a huge cockroach head, like a toothpick with a giant olive on top, so he was fun design-wise.’ For the alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson), riggers devised an FK/IK system to help control his six tentacles and four eyes.

B.O.B. was the most challenging because of his gelatinous blob-like qualities. ‘He’s a character and a fluid simulation,’ Burgess says. ‘I don’t think anyone has created a character that elaborate and flexible, with a head and base, but no body.’ Animators could work with a stand-in version of B.O.B. composed of blue rings with an eyeball in the middle; he turned into a blob once the crew rendered him.

For the style, the team settled on a compromise between the broadness of animation in Madagascar and the naturalism of Shrek. ‘We kept going back to Chuck Jones,’ Burgess says. ‘We’d stay in a pose as long as we could and then explode out and end up in another great attitude. The more we could milk those beautiful poses, the more successful the acting.’

Because DreamWorks authored the film in stereoscopic 3-D from the beginning, animators viewed all their dailies in stereo. ‘We had to be super careful,’ Burgess says. ‘Stereo is not forgiving at all for cheated eye-lines, and hands almost touching had to be right next to each other.’

Stereo 3-D was also a learning process for the directors. ‘We’d gone three to four months into production when Jeffrey [Katzenberg] said that we would do the film in 3-D,’ Vernon says. ’3-D didn’t change the story; everything is in support of the story. This is kind of a perfect movie for 3-D. Our main character is [almost] 50 feet tall and there’s no better way of showing that than by seeing that depth go away. You can really feel that General Monger is tiny, and she is gigantic.’

Creating a film that merges two eyes’two cameras’to create one deep image is a good analogy for the working relationship between directors Vernon and Letterman who had to merge two different ideas’monsters fighting aliens and the ‘dirty dozen”into one story.

‘If you’re leading a team with two visionaries in charge, you have to get that vision straight,’ Vernon says. Judging by the final results, they certainly did.

DreamWorks Animation’s Monsters vs. Aliens is currently playing in theaters nationwide.