Watching the animal characters of Katherine Applegate’s award-winning children’s book The One and Only Ivan come to life in the recent feature adaptation on Disney+ was one of the guilty pleasures of the summer. The family movie, which was directed by Thea Sharock, featured amazingly realistic CG-animated characters, including the film’s 400-pound leading gorilla Ivan (Sam Rockwell), his best pal the scruffy terrier Bob (Danny DeVito), the wise elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), a fluffy poodle (Helen Mirren), a wisecracking chicken (Chaka Khan) and a parrot named Thelma (Philippa Soo).
The film’s impressive CG-animals and environments were created by MPC, under the supervision of Nick Davis. “I first heard about the movie about three and half years ago, and I thought it had a wonderful story to tell,” he says. “One of the wonderful things about the movie was that we now had the opportunity to introduce visual effects in a virtual production system, where you have much more integration earlier on between the director, the director of photography and the VFX team.”
Davis says when you have talking animals as the center of a movie, one of the important elements to figure out is how many human characteristics you give them, while keeping the level of photorealism to a believable level. In fact, one of the most impressive achievements of the artists is how they blend human and animal expressions in the photorealistic depictions of the main characters.
The feature went through two distinctly different production phases. The first was a traditional set and location shoot, while the second was a virtual shoot for the full CG shots. The virtual production process started with Black Box rehearsals with puppeteers and a motion-capture performance artist for Ivan. This enabled the director, Thea Sharrock, to block the sequences and approve the set design before shooting. A two-week mo-cap stage shoot took place to capture the gorilla’s physical movement using pre-recorded playback from the voice actors. Puppeteers played the other animals to give actors eye lines and a rough blocking layout for MPC’s animators. Once motion-capture scenes had been selected, they were turned over to the animation team for layout animation.
The motion capture data for Ivan led the blocking; however, the characters were all then animated by hand. According to production VFX supervisor Nick Davis, “Once the master scenes had been animation approved, the clips were then used to drive MPC’s Genesis Virtual Production tool kit. This enabled the filmmakers to utilize virtual reality tools to capture the data through the eyes of a virtual set of camera tools. Using dolly’s, camera heads, cranes and steady-cam, the filmmakers were able to shoot the master scenes on a stage and view the pre-recorded animation clips from any chosen perspective.”
A Delicate Balance
“It was very important to make sure the audience feels the connection with the real people in real sets,” he says. “We spend a huge amount of time in a small confined space with these animals, and there are lots of close-ups and ultra- close-ups. So we had to find the delicate balance between capturing their essence and character while retaining as many true animal assets and behaviors as possible. We constantly tried to ground their emotions in reality.”
According to Davis, MPC delivered about 1,100 VFX shots for the movie, which made about 90 percent of the 93-minute total running time. Jones, whose next assignment is the 2021 release, James Gunn’s Suicide Squad 2, actually wrapped work on the feature back in February. He says he was very delighted by how realistic and beautifully animated Ivan and many of the characters ended up looking in the final film.
“The team at MPC used a lot of their proprietary software and grooming techniques to push the photo reality of the animals,” he notes. “There was some amazing work done with the way light is reflected in the eyes. The artists were also able to really accomplish great things with the fur shaders to push the visuals. They used realistic rigs to achieve realistic facial shapes and achieve the right visuals when they react with light. I would say about 400 people worked at MPC’s Bangalore studio, and about 90 to 100 in the London and Montreal facilities. We all knew that the movie lived and died by how real the animals looked. They simply couldn’t look fake.”
The Great Escape
Davis says he’s particularly pleased with the sequence that shows Ivan’s beautifully executed escape from the mall menagerie. “There were many scenes where we were able to connect technically complex visuals with realistic performances” he notes. “When we see Ivan experiencing the wild for the first time, there are many subtle nuances and lovely little details that sell him as a character.”
The VFX artists used many photographic references for the animals as well as visiting animals in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. “We weren’t allowed to get too close to the big animals, but we did have a terrier named Mabel that would visit the set and we had her digitally scanned. We also went to a water park and photographed the seals and scanned a chicken for the Henrietta references. We also had prosthetic models built (for the elephants and Ivan’s head) to help us with the textures and to figure out how they interacted with different lights.”
The entire backdrops for the animals and the human actors were CG environments as well. “We matched the lighting and painstakingly made sure all the aberrations of the light and the set were correctly duplicated in CG. When the animals cross the road to go into the woods, that’s all CG.” Davis says quite a lot of the jungle flashback sequences were also done in CG.
The VFX supervisor says he hopes audiences will enjoy the amazing character of Ivan, which was inspired by the true story of a gorilla that was captured by poachers and brought to live with humans. When he was three years old, the family placed him in a Washington state mall attraction, where he remained for 27 years, until the public called for his release to a zoo. “We hope the audience will enjoy the expressions and expressiveness of Ivan, and will understand and feel empathy for such a lovely character,” concludes Davis.
The One and Only Ivan is currently streaming on Disney+.
Images courtesy of MPC and Disney+ unless otherwise noted.