Cry Wolf
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 3: (March 2011)

Cry Wolf

The visual effects shots in Red Riding Hood’s modern retelling of the classic fairy tale total only approximately 230, but they include the pivotal character, the werewolf, and the medieval setting in which the wolf and Red live. Catherine Hardwicke directed the Warner Bros’ romantic thriller that stars Amanda Seyfried as the red-hooded Valerie, Gary Oldman as the werewolf hunter Father Solomon, and Julie Christie as Red’s grandmother.

Jeffrey A. Okun supervised the visual effects work, which included 79 shots of the always CG werewolf created at Rhythm & Hues, and a 3D village and set extensions by Zoic Studios, with Soho VFX handling everything else. In addition, Paul Bolger at COS FX, hired to do temp work, eventually took on final shots. “His work was so good, we asked him to output at 2k,” Okun says. “He added debris to a shot in which someone flies through a bookshelf, made an ax fly through the air, did the eye-changing shots on the character that turns into the wolf, and others.”

Which character? “It could be anyone in the village,” Okun says coyly. Barbara Robertson, CGW West Coast editor, asked Okun to tell us more about the werewolf and the other visual effects shots in the film.

Does the werewolf transform from one of the characters in the village during the film?

We specifically decided we didn’t want to show a transformation. He shows up reasonably formed every time. I was up for the challenge, but from the story point of view, it didn’t make sense, and the expense didn’t make sense. Even so, toward the end of the show, the studio asked us whether we’d again explore doing that. Instead, we used an old trick: When the wolf gets angry during a big fight scene in the daytime, we figure out who the wolf is because the eyes of the individual who is the wolf change.

Reasonably formed?

To economize, Catherine [Hardwicke] decided to introduce the wolf during an attack sequence with a series of blurs. The concept was brilliant, and the execution was doubly brilliant because of the work by my editor, Neil Greenberg, and Craig Talmy, Derek Spears, and others at Rhythm & Hues. We were able to find places where you can begin to see the wolf. We ramped up the action beyond what we thought we could afford, yet stayed within the budget and schedule. We ended up with an exciting sequence that reveals the wolf bit by bit based on the actions.

What does the werewolf look like?

Our wolf doesn’t look like a wolf, exactly; it looks like our wolf. It has four paws, a snout, a tail, and short hair, almost like a greyhound. We discovered that we lost muscle definition with longer hair. Derek [Spears], the Rhythm & Hues supervisor, suggested porcupine quills on his shoulders to make the character look more lethal. Catherine didn’t like quills, but we used something like that—spikey hair that looks like it has a lot of product in it. The face is based on a wolf’s face, but the nose is more lethal-looking, and the teeth and gums look like they haven’t been brushed in years. We added dried blood in the fur, and spittle and goo. The wolf eats a lot of people. And we spent a lot of time on the eyes, especially because we had to figure out how to get humanity into the eyes. The wolf’s eyes are amber, and sometimes they glow. We could control the glow on a per-shot basis based on how menacing or kind he...or she... was. We studied a documentary about wolves that had phenomenal shots of the eyes. When the light’s right and you see the wolf in profile, the depth is visible. So we had to do 3D eyes and add glow on a 2.5D basis because the glows have to come from deep inside. For a couple shots, we made the eyes in 8k resolution. I doubt anyone will notice all this subtlety. But they’ll feel it.

How did you come up with the design?

Catherine did an amazing amount of research. She found every werewolf from TV, film, and books. Digital Domain created a 3D wolf on a turntable from the concept art that Catherine and I presented to the studio to get approval. Once we got a green light on the film, Digital Domain wasn’t available, and we hired Rhythm & Hues to flesh out the design. The wolf has to do things a wolf can’t do, so our challenge was to still keep him true to form, and Craig Talmy did an amazing job.

How does the werewolf act?

There’s a sequence in the first attack where he was supposed to stand on two legs and corner Valerie. He looked horribly deformed. Wolves can’t lift their elbows sideways; they can only go forward. So we had to find ways to make our wolf look right with the action they had planned and shot. We had to—I’ll create a new word—‘truthify’ what they shot on set. Craig figured out some clever stuff, and it all clicked when Catherine, who is from Texas, decided with my help that the wolf should be more like a rodeo horse than an anthropomorphic wolf. We found motions we could justify from out-of-control rodeo horses and bulls, and feral hyenas, and we mixed them with feline actions. We had sleekness and grace countering frenzy and feral. And that was the key to making this wolf what it was. In the dye pool alley, when the wolf tries to persuade Valerie to come away with him, or her, we mixed feral crazy with reasoning and persuasiveness, and that ups the ante. And then in the final sequence, the wolf shows intelligence, patience, and the beginnings of insanity. The wolf’s feral side bubbles up because the clock is ticking.

What about facial animation? Does the wolf talk?

We chose early on to have the wolf talk through telepathy because we wanted to keep him, or her, believable. Originally, we had a lot of animation and secondary animation with the facial animation—the face came alive in a realistic way. We had wind blowing in the fur. Subsurface muscles moving around to demonstrate agitation and frustration. But, we discovered that it looked like we had failed to animate his mouth, like the animation was unfinished. So, we had to dial back the secondary animation to a degree. It was always a battle between how much we could do and not make it look like he should be talking.

How did you film the “wolf” on set?

We asked for a green-suited actor because it’s always funny. Instead, the person the wolf ends up being was there doing the dialog wearing a wire mask that put the snout and the eyes in the right place, and we had the person posed at the right eye-line height. Also, we had ‘fluffy,’ a Styrofoam cut-out of the wolf so people could understand how big the thing was; stuffy, the 3D furred head and shoulders on a C-stand with eyes that lit up; ‘flatty,’ a flat piece of foam core in the shape of the wolf lying on the ground so people wouldn’t invade his space; and a stunt performer wearing a wolf suit from a costume store, the wire head thing, and a wire tail. When we were blocking the scenes and working out the actions on set, the stunt guy was brilliant. He’s in such good shape that he would really scare the actors, and that’s what we needed.

Our procedure involved a number of passes that Catherine graciously let us have. For the action scenes, we shot a pass with the stunt guy and a witness camera. Then we’d shoot a pass with stuffy to get fur lighting reference. Then, we’d set up a laser eye line or put an X on a C-stand, and they’d do the scene with no wolf. During a sequence in the dye pool alley, we had such wild camera moves that we knew we couldn’t re-create them, so we shot blank tiles and put them together after the fact when we knew which part of the set they used. We shot the move with all the actors. Then the camera operator, Steve Campanelli, shot a blank version to the best of his recollection. And we went in with still cameras and HD cameras to fill in all the perspectives.

Was the movie shot entirely on sets?

We shot the entire movie inside a tiny soundstage, although it’s supposed to take place outdoors, in a village in a forest in the hills. We built the sets to have depth, even though they’re up against a wall, by using forced perspective. We figured out what lenses the DP would use and how often we’d be shooting off the set based on the lenses, then figured out a way to not shoot off the set, and then said, ‘Let’s throw away the budget for a moment and figure out what we would do if we were filming on location in a village in a forest.’ We included that in the visual effects package. Then we had them hang a neutral gray curtain off set. Most of the story takes place in the snow, so if you shoot a bit off set and the gray shows up, it will look like gray sky.

What we didn’t take into account was that because of the style of shooting and the shot schedule, a lot of lights had to be in place, and some were in front of the set. So we had a number of fix-it shots. For example during Solomon’s arrival, Steve [Campanelli, camera operator] brought the camera low and shot up, which put Gary Oldman’s head inside a light. Zoic did a phenomenal roto job to fix that.

What kinds of set extensions did you do?

Zoic spent a great deal of time designing the part of the village that we didn’t build on set alongside Catherine. Because it was 3D, they were able to drop it into shots and open up the feel of the village. When a shot felt claustrophobic, we also sometimes lowered the frame and added sky, trees, and mountains beyond, and the tops of houses. Grandma’s house was on another ridiculously small stage. They put a white cyce all the way around it, with lights everywhere and trees. We removed all that, and instead of just getting rid of hot spots, we added a lake and mountains to open it up. We considered how they would shoot it if it were real, scaled down based on budget, and then looked for opportunities to add things back in.

Inside the tavern, for example, they had a small practical set and scenes with an awful lot of people. And again, we have lights directly behind people’s heads, but without any motivation. So we put windows in the tavern, which fixed that and, oddly enough, makes the tavern feel better.

Did it feel like you were illustrating a fairy tale?

It did. On the visual effects end, we struggle between what looks cool and what serves the story best. It took a little while to get into Catherine’s head to understand the look she was going for. Then, I understood it was a little bit fairy tale with an edge of reality. So, we’d put a flock of birds on the ground to distract the eye. Darken the left and right sides of the frame. Desaturate images and let the reds pop.

This sounds like more work than 200-plus shots suggests.

For me, it was some 500-odd shots. Zoic’s set extensions would go to Rhythm & Hues to drop the wolf in, and then Soho would add the moon and sky. Zoic would build a city, and Rhythm & Hues would add the wolf. The three vendors shared shots, and I had to account for them as three separate shots because I had three payments. It was a moving target with a lot of pieces sliding in all directions. And Catherine [Hardwicke] likes to screen a lot. Every two weeks, we had a ‘friends and family’ screening, and the studio did screenings, as well. So, every two weeks we had to have new or updated shots ready to drop in. That was a lot of temp work, and then that kicked into real work. So to me, it felt like a 1500-shot show, it was that intense. All the moving pieces. Staying liquid and trying to be responsive to anything the director and studio asked for. And, staying on budget. It was fun.