Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 12 (December 2000)

In a Manner of Speaking

For the movie Little Nicky, animators teach an older dog a new trick

By Audrey Doyle

Although it might look easy, animating the faces of animals so they appear to be talking is a difficult task that requires expert tracking, animation, texturing, and lighting skills. This is true even for special-effects house Rhythm & Hues, which has been putting words into the mouths of dogs, pigs, sheep, ducks, cats, and an assortment of other animals for feature films and commercials since the Academy Award-winning film Babe was released in 1995.

"Over the years, we've gotten more sophisticated in terms of the performance of animal characters and how we can get them to talk in a believable way," says Eric deBoer, an animation supervisor at the Los Angeles facility. "But even today, getting animals to look as though they're actually speaking still requires a lot of hard, manual labor."

And deBoer should know. He was the animation supervisor responsible for animating Beefy, a talking bulldog who acts opposite Adam Sandler in Little Nicky, a New Line Cinema film released last month. In the film, Sandler plays Nicky, the youngest of Satan's three sons, who is asked by his father to take over the family business. His first task is to find his brothers, who left hell after an argument with their father and entered the world of the living. Along the way, Nicky finds himself in the middle of numerous comic escapades, and it's up to Nicky's guide on Earth-Beefy the bulldog, voiced by Saturday Night Live alum Robert Smigel-to keep him out of trouble until he returns to hell.
Creating a realistic talking dog for the film Little Nicky required more than lip service from the animators. Rather than model and animate only the lip sync, the artists at Rhythm & Hues also digitally re-created the canine's other facial features so

The process of animating Beefy began with a 3D computer-generated model of the bulldog's face. "Our modeling department took pictures of the dog and measurements of his face, then built a 3D replica of his head and upper neck-everything except for the ears," explains Betsy Hall, the lighting supervisor responsible for the Beefy shots. In addition to the head, the team also modeled the inside of the CG mouth based on pictures of the real dog's inner mouth. The dog's face and mouth were built in And, the company's proprietary SGI-based modeling software.

Next, the live-action plates and the CG model of the face and mouth were sent to the tracking department, where the team placed the model over the real bulldog's face in the shots. Then, using the company's proprietary SGI-based Voodoo software, the group manually tracked the camera moves as well as the dog's movements to ensure that the CG eyes, nose, and mouth lined up with those of the real dog in the live-action shots.

The tracked shots were then passed to the animation department, where the Rhythm & Hues animation team imported the audio track of Smigel's performance into Voodoo, and began animating the CG lips so that they synchronized with the audio. The group also animated the mouth, eyebrows, cheeks, tongue, and jowls, and at times added eye blinks. "It was an all-over performance, as opposed to just a lip sync," Hall says.

During the animation process, the lighting department began lighting the sequences. "We'd position the lights in Voodoo, and in Wren, our proprietary rendering software, we'd write scripts that would tell Wren which objects to cast those lights onto," Hall explains. "There were a lot of back and forth [iterations] between the two departments to make sure the animation was reading properly." According to Hall, it was important that the animation and lighting steps occurred simultaneously for two reasons. "First, we wanted to be able to quickly fix any lighting problems that cropped up as a result of the animation. And second, this enabled the animators to see how well their performance read with the textures from the original plate." After the lighting was complete, the lighting effects team used Wren to texture and render the sequences.
Rhythm & Hues superimposed digital features onto the real dog's face for scenes in which it spoke. (Images courtesy Rhythm & Hues.)

Hall notes that many scenes had to be sent to the 2D department for background replacements before rendering. For instance, in a few scenes the dog's whiskers weren't moving with his mouth and therefore became a distraction, so they had to be removed. In other scenes, the dog's mouth was open because he was panting; as such, when the animators placed the CG face over the real dog's face, his jaw hung below the CG chin. In such cases, the 2D department used Avid's (Tewksbury, MA) Media Illusion running on an SGI workstation to remove any elements that weren't appropriate to the animation.

As the final step in the process, the CG head sequences were composited back over the background plates using Icy, Rhythm & Hues' proprietary SGI-based compositing software. Then the sequences were shot to film.

According to Hall, the talking Beefy effect is successful because the dog's entire face, including, at times, the upper portion of his neck, was re-created in the computer and composited over the real face in the background plates. "A cheap way to make an animal talk is to just composite a moving mouth onto the animal's mouth," she says. "But that looks fake and pasted on. By re-creating the entire face, we can make the cheeks, jowls, throat, eyebrows-everything on the face-move in accordance with the dialog."

Although these steps make such projects much more laborious to complete, they are critical to the success of the effect. "The trick here is that you accept what you're seeing," Hall states. "You look at the sequence and accept the fact that the dog is talking. You don't ask yourself, 'How did they make that dog talk?' We don't want people to be asking such questions while they're watching the film. The more seamless and hidden we can make these effects, the more realistic they look, and the more viewers are going to just listen to the dialog and enjoy the story."

Audrey Doyle, a contributing editor to Computer Graphics World, is a freelance writer and editor based in Boston. She can be reached at