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How to Build a Better Teddy Bear!
We shed light on how a seasoned team of vfx pros brought Seth MacFarlane’s misbehavin’ toy bear to animated life in the new comedy, Ted.
Fans of Fox-TV’s Family Guy and American Dad! have been waiting patiently for creator Seth MacFarlane’s first venture into live-action movies, Ted, which debuted nationwide on June 29. The raunchy comedy, which was made for a reported budget of $65 million, has all the eyebrow-raising, pop-culture referencing elements that you’d expect from the twisted mind of MacFarlane.
The R-rated comedy stars Mark Wahlberg as a regular, working-class Boston guy who is still living with the toy bear he wished to life when he was a kid. (Think E.T. meets Teddy Ruxpin in a Seth Rogan set-up.) The foul-mouthed bear, of course, is voiced by MacFarlane himself, who also co-wrote and directed the movie.
“It was an idea that I had for an animated series and when I decided it’s probably about time for me to make a movie, that seemed like a cool idea,” MacFarlane told The New York Times last month. “The Avatar/Lord of the Rings technology had reached a point where you could create a fictional looking character that was completely real in movement. It’s been in adventure films and in fantasy films. Where more than a comedy do you need subtle character actors?”
To bring this fun-loving, beer-guzzling teddy bear to life, the filmmakers divvied up the work between Tippett Studio, Iloura and The Creative Cartel.
“We had to provide them with an early test before we started to work on the project,” says Blair Clark, Tippett Studio’s vfx supervisor. “As it turned out, this test became the standard look for Ted. It was great because we had created this pre-approved solid, teddy bear character that everybody had signed off on, before we came on board. Of course, the big challenge was to make this production asset that can work for every scenario in the movie, but looks exactly like the first test!”
Clark, who has worked on a wide range of movies including Starship Troopers, Armageddon, Cats & Dogs, Hellboy and The Smurfs, says one of the main things he and his team had to keep in mind was the real-world size of the character.
“Ted is a plush doll, so he doesn’t weigh a lot,” he explains. “The trick was to keep him physically bound and not too light. We had to throw out that notion for a couple of sequences, because of the story. There’s a fight scene between him and Mark Wahlberg’s character, and we had to make Ted capable of throwing a punch that could get the upper hand.”
The fight scene involved special stunt pre-viz work. Two stunt doubles went through the storyboards and choreographed the fight from beginning to end. Then, Tippett created two CG-versions of the sequence.
“This was the standard that we followed during most of the shooting,” says Clark. “We did it in only two days. Thanks to the pre-viz and homework that everybody did, we ended up moving through the scene quickly and accurately.”
The quieter scenes between the main character and his old toy also required much finesse and imagination.
“There is a scene that takes place on the couch,” notes Clark. “It’s a conversation between the two of them and it’s really a testament to how gifted an actor Mark is. He hasn’t done a lot of these interactions between motion-capture or CG-animated characters before, but he was really fantastic at looking at the eye-line tool and making believe that he was actually engaging with this character. I can’t think of any instances when we had to come up with a gag or fake an eye line for it. The final product benefits greatly from that. You really forget that he’s an animated character with Seth’s voice.”
The total number of vfx shots for the movie was over 900, and Ted’s character required about 400 of those. Iloura created striking environmental recreations of Boston’s Fenway Park for the film’s climactic scene as well as a killer opening sequence which flies past the clouds in Universal’s famous logo to focus on a group of kids engaged in a snowball fight.
According to visual effects producer Jenny Fulle, MacFarlane knew that he wanted to have Ted created using mo-cap technology.
“We didn’t have the luxury of a huge budget. We had some great animators working on the project, and the two companies—Tippett and Iloura—worked very well together, even though Iloura is based in Australia and Tippett is in northern California.”
Putting MacFarlane in state-of-the-art Xsens MVN motion-capture suits, the team created the initial set-ups for the character’s movements.
“Obviously, we want the audience to forget that they’re watching a CG-animated character,” adds Fulle. “We set Ted up as a stuffed toy in the beginning and transitioned him to a CG-generated replica. Because Seth [MacFarlane] comes from an animation background, he’s very savvy about the process. That’s why it’s so easy to believe that the two lead characters are best friends, although one of them is animated.”
She adds, “The thing about Seth is that he is very aware of the technology of the animation. He would be able to tell immediately what was working or not working. He would say, ‘Maybe the lips should turn up a bit this way’ to evoke a certain emotion, and he was always spot on. He can look at some rough animation and give specific directions on how to improve it as opposed to just saying ‘Show me five different versions and I’ll pick the best one!’”
The film’s producer Jason Clark (Stuart Little, Monster House) says the film provided him with the chance to work on one of the funniest scripts he had ever read in his career.
“I couldn’t get it out of my system,” he says. “I was constantly prodding Seth to go forward with it and we worked around his very busy schedule. I had worked on movies that revolved around the nexus point of live action and CG, but this time around I wanted to crack a production paradigm that would support an R-rated comedy. We needed to create a loose improv environment to create these two central performances together. You’ve got to have an environment on the set that makes you believe there’s a real repartee between them.”
The animators also used taped video reference of MacFarlane’s line reads to better animate the bear’s facial movements.
“We weren’t trying to capture them and put them on the teddy bear’s face,” explains the producer. “They were used as subtle reference point for the animators. Seth directed every inch of Ted’s performance. We are talking about a real interactive performance, where people completely forget that the character isn’t real—just like Roger Rabbit did so many years ago. In one scene, Ted puts his hand on another character’s hand, and she puts her hand on top of his. And what’s amazing is that you don’t hesitate for a moment to believe that he’s really there in that scene with her. You don’t get that when you record voices in a booth and then try to apply it to a performance on a set. There’s an inherent warmth between John [Wahlberg’s character] and Ted which we couldn’t have gotten any other way.”
Universal’s Ted opened in U.S. theaters nationwide on June 29.