Green With Envy
December 5, 2011

Green With Envy

He’s green. He has crazy friends, flippers, a penchant for pigs…and one of the most recognizable singing voices since the King. Kermit the Frog is back on the big screen (more than 30 years after their feature-film debut), and this time, he’s teaming up with Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and newcomer Walter, plus the whole Muppet gang, for a brand-new, big-screen adventure in Disney’s The Muppets.
“It’s funny, upbeat and full of laughs for everyone…frogs, pigs, bears…even people,” said Kermit. “For new fans, it’s a chance to see the Muppets in action on the big screen. And for old fans, it’s a chance to get together with old friends…and get a little crazy together.” 

The task to get this unruly bunch to appear in a new film fell to Walt Disney Pictures and director James Bobin. 

On vacation in Los Angeles, Walter, the world’s biggest Muppet fan, his brother Gary (Jason Segel), and Gary’s girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams), from Smalltown, USA, discover the nefarious plan of oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to raze Muppet Studios and drill for the oil recently discovered beneath the Muppets’ former stomping grounds. To stage a telethon and raise the $10 million needed to save the studio, Walter, Mary, and Gary help Kermit reunite the Muppets, who have all gone their separate ways: Fozzie now performs with a Reno casino tribute band called the Moopets, Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at “Vogue Paris,” Animal is in a Santa Barbara clinic for anger management, and Gonzo is a high-powered plumbing magnate. 

“All comedy writers are Muppet fans,” added Nicholas Stoller. “It’s the gateway to comedy. It’s like the first thing you try and then you slowly fall down the rabbit hole of comedy.”

A film Segel and Stoller previously collaborated on actually set things in motion, said Segel. “We ended Forgetting Sarah Marshall with a lavish puppet musical, and The Jim Henson Company designed the puppets. Something started growing in my belly, and Nick and I came up with this idea and pitched it to Disney. Disney liked the idea so we wrote the script.”

Enter producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman—each with their own affinity to all things Muppets. “I think there's always been a timeless quality to the Muppets,” said Hoberman, who cites the Muppets’ recent online smash viral video “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “These characters are as contemporary today as they were when Henson first brought them to life. I think people of all ages will respond to them on the big screen.”

While the beloved puppets haven’t changed a bit since their last cinematic adventure, the filmmaking process behind the new release is a whole different experience.
“Today, visual effects are ingrained into the business of movies – even a feature like this where there are no CG Muppets and everything is based on puppeteering,” said Max Ivins, visual effects supervisor from Look Effects, which created 350 shots for the movie. “Visual effects give filmmakers the ability to do more, to increase the scope of a movie, and to achieve higher-quality results faster and more cost effectively. Technology like the Nvidia Quadro GPU, which enables studios to visualize quickly and iterate more, has helped drive this evolution.”

Look Effects, with facilities in Los Angeles, New York, and Vancouver, has been producing visual effects for film, television, and special-venue projects since 1998. Their work on The Muppets was focused on the shot-by-shot aesthetics of the movie: using visual effects to remove all traces of puppeteers, to extend sets with CGI, and to create ambitious visual sequences to give the movie a contemporary feel and scope.

A massive particle-based CG fireworks finale, an overhead crowd-simulation shot, blowing up Mount Rushmore, and a subtle sequence when 2D paintings come to life and turn into 3D Muppets are just a few of the sequences that required extensive reviews and iterations to perfect – and high-performance technology to execute.
“In a 3D environment, being able to visualize quickly and get iterations back fast is critical. We have to be able to crunch through millions of polygons, and that can get unwieldy quickly. For crowd shots, we need to be able to see the interaction of individual CG actors. We need time to preview the animations, make suggestions, and see them again,” said Ivins. “The Nvidia Quadro card is the linchpin of the whole process.”

Over an 11-month period, 18 artists at Look Effects relied on workstations equipped with Nvidia Quadro 6000 ultra-high-end professional graphics processing units (GPUs) to help them work faster and iterate more efficiently. Compositing was done primarily using The Foundry’s Nuke, with Autodesk’s Maya serving as the 3D animation software, and Mental Images’ Mental Ray employed for rendering. 

Said Ivins, “The crowd-simulation shot required a lot of horsepower to allow us to finesse it at a fine-detail level. With the Quadros, we were able to view a tiny model of these people and create the nuances that make them move like a happy crowd – not a rioting mob. We were able to preview the setup and rely on the technology to perform. The card comes in big for us in those situations – it’s all driven on the GPU.” 

By the Numbers:
- Disney’s The Muppets is the 7th feature film featuring the Muppets. -More than 120 Muppets appear in the film.
- The film tapped 60 dancers to perform with Jason Segel and Amy Adams for the “Everything’s Great” opening musical performance. 
- Hollywood Blvd. was shut down for two evenings to record the finale dance scene of the reprise of “Everything’s Great,” featuring 100 dancers.
- A total of 12 different costumes were made for Miss Piggy—more costume changes than any other actor in the film. 
- The largest Muppet, Thog, stands over 9.5 feet tall and is 4 feet wide.
- Amy Adam’s character Mary is a teacher with 16 students. Thus, no less than 16 perfect apples sit on the edge of the stellar teacher’s desk.
- Director James Bobin makes his film directorial debut. Bobin co-created HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, which he wrote, directed, and executive produced.  
- Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords wrote and produced three original songs and served as music supervisor for the film. 
- McKenzie fills some big shoes: The Muppet Movie was nominated for two Oscars: Best Music, Original Song (“Rainbow Connection”) and Best Music, Original Sound Score.
- Choreographer Michael Rooney is the son of Mickey Rooney, who appears in the film in a cameo role. This is the first time the two have ever worked together on a film.
- Muppet versions of Gary/Jason Segel and director James Bobin were created.
- Miss Piggy had shoes made for her by Christian Louboutin and a dress by Zac Posen, which she wears in the finale scene.
- Kermit had a suit made for him by Brooks Brothers for the scene where he walks through the streets of Paris with Miss Piggy.
- Walter wears a Kermit watch in the film.
- Kermit uses the banjo from 1979s The Muppet Movie during the “Rainbow Connection” performance in Disney’s The Muppets. 
- The staging of the scene features Kermit on a replica of the log where he was first found strumming his banjo in the very first Muppet movie. Miss Piggy shows up in a rowboat very much like the one the late Dom DeLuise used when he joined Kermit in their sweet duet. 
- Disney’s The Muppets was a green set (in more ways than one) with an environmental steward who made sure the proper recycling receptacles were utilized on set. All of paper products were made from recycled materials and were compostable. The production also provided each crew member with aluminum refillable water bottles to cut down on the use of plastic bottles and paper cups. Water was readily available on set for cast and crew to fill their personal water bottles.
- Kermit’s mansion was filmed at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. - The Muppet Theater, built on Stage 28 on the Universal Studios Lot, incorporated parts of the old Phantom of the Opera set into its audience section. 
- The Jim Henson Company gate was turned into the Muppet Studios entrance. A sign showcased a series of tour attractions, along with their sad fates: Fozzie's Joke Room: Closed, Gonzo's Cannonade: Closed for Repair, Rowlf's Music Parlor: Under Renovation, Dr. Honeydew's Laboratory of Fun: Out of Order.
- Walter's tour through Muppet Studios actually went through The Jim Henson Company on La Brea, Crossroads of the World on Sunset Blvd., the outside of Stage 3 on the Disney Lot in Burbank, two soundstage sets on the Universal Lot (Kermit's Office and the Muppet Theater interior). 
- Kermit the Frog first appeared on “Afternoon, Footlight Theater” and “Sam and Friends” in 1955. - A balloon of Kermit appears annually in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
- Kermit has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- Miss Piggy first appeared in the chorus on “The Herb Alpert Special” in 1974. She appeared as 1st Sow in the “Return to the Planet of The Pigs” bit on “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence” in 1975 (which was, in effect, the pilot for “The Muppet Show”). The confident character was called Miss Piggy for the first time on “The Muppet Show” in 1976.
- Walter was a character conceptualized by Jason Segel specifically for Disney’s The Muppets.
- Hecklers Statler & Waldorf first heckled on “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence” in 1975

The GPUs also came in handy for the fireworks finale shot, as artists were able to process a massive particle effect, preview it, tweak it, and play it back in near real time, as well as on the over-the-top Mount Rushmore destruction sequence, which combined a CG explosion, practical pyrotechnics, and a particle system to take down the famous monument.

“When you’re caching particles, the worst thing that can happen is a crash or reboot. Instead of iterating, you’re wasting time getting back to where you were,” added Ivins. 

Ivins noted that when working in a 3D environment, being able to visualize quickly and get iterations back fast is the foundation of the studio’s creative power. “Our profession is made possible by graphics acceleration. It’s one of those things we take for granted, but fundamentally, we couldn’t do our job without it.”

Michael Oliver, director of Technology at Look Effects, sees the impact that GPU technology has had on the pace of production and looks forward to future advantages. “As multi-threading appeared on the scene, people got really excited about having access to 300-plus cores on the GPU, where the CPU limits you to 16,” he said. “As more software developers incorporate features that allow us to process effects multiple times more quickly on the GPU, we’re able to tweak things creatively versus through rendering. I’ve seen this trend coming, and look forward to things like real-time lighting and time warps.”

Oliver added, “In the end, filmmakers don’t care about things like how much rendering power you have. What they want when they’re working is to see the effect, so they can give you feedback now. The GPU is what gives us that result on the screen, on the spot.”