Build a Bear
January 19, 2011

Build a Bear

The lovable duo from Jellystone gets an updated makeover for their feature-film debut
Everyone's favorite pic-a-nic basket-stealing bear comes to the big screen in Yogi Bear, a new adventure, filmed in 3D, that combines live action with computer animation.

Dan Aykroyd stars as the voice of Yogi, Jellystone Park’s notorious troublemaker, and Justin Timberlake as the voice of Boo Boo, Yogi’s faithful pal and co-conspirator in his never-ending schemes to separate park visitors from their lunches.

Yogi has always relied on his quick wit and fast feet to stay one step ahead of irate campers while dodging his long-suffering nemesis, Ranger Smith. But he and Boo Boo are about to face a situation worse than anything they have ever encountered: Jellystone Park is being sold! To cover his mismanagement of city funds and fuel his election campaign, Mayor Brown plans to sell the park to loggers. Families will no longer be able to experience the natural beauty of the outdoors Jellystone has always provided—and, even worse, Yogi, Boo Boo, and all their friends will be tossed out of the only home they’ve ever known. Faced with his biggest challenge ever, Yogi must prove he really is “smarter than the average bear,” as he and Boo Boo join forces with Ranger Smith to find a way to save the park from closing forever.

Yogi Bear is directed by Eric Brevig and produced by Donald De Line and Karen Rosenfelt. The creative filmmaking team includes director of photography Peter James, production designer David R. Sandefur, editor Kent Beyda, costume designer Liz McGregor and composer John Debney. Yogi and Boo Boo were created in CG at Rhythm & Hues, which integrated the 3D versions of the famed Hanna-Barbera characters (who retained a bit of their traditional 2D look) with the film’s otherwise live action.

Here, animation supervisor Alex Orrelle and R&H’s VFX supervisor Betsy Paterson discuss with movie with CGW chief editor Karen Moltenbrey.

What “look” were you going for in the film?

ORRELLE: Overall, director Eric Brevig intended the look to be reminiscent of classic Technicolor family movies, with bright reds and greens. Eric wanted the CGI bears (as well as all other effects) to feel believable and organic to the live-action set, so they were rendered and composited to match the original photographed result. Then the finished film was treated digitally to match the desired palette.

PATERSON: We really tried to maintain a balance between the cartoon world and a naturalistic world. Yogi and Boo Boo needed to look appealing and recognizable as the classic characters, but they also had to be believable in the live-action environment. Eric Brevig, the director, wanted the feel of a timeless buddy comedy.

What is CG in the movie, aside from Yogi and Boo Boo?

PATERSON: There’s a CG turtle in the movie that’s kind of like Boo Boo’s pet. There are quite a few set extensions, and there’s a glider flying scene that’s almost four minutes of full CG. We also had quite a lot of water and fire effects. Yogi goes water skiing, so we needed lots of spray, wake, and splashes. Just to keep it interesting, he twirls a CG flaming baton while he is skiing. There’s also a river-rafting sequence with quite a bit of CG water.

I remember Yogi and Boo Boo from watching Saturday morning cartoons so many years back. How does their look differ now?

ORRELLE: It was important to remember where Yogi comes from and what audience expectations are based on. Yogi and Boo Boo of the 2D limited animation sitcoms do not automatically translate into a live-action family film, both in story and animation. As kids, we were very naïve. There was plenty of magic in watching two bears talking for seven minutes. In today’s war for attention, that’s not enough. Kids expect Yogi to be photoreal and reach off the screen to poke them in the eye. The animation is a beautiful blend of realistic live-action motion with tastefully placed exaggerations and abstractions, true to the playful style of the film and its cartoon roots.

What were the biggest challenges in bringing them into the CGI world?

ORRELLE: In live action, once the shoot is over, you’re locked in to the human performances and the background coverage you have. All the brilliant ideas that arrived late had to be squeezed into existing background plates. Editor Kent Beyda was great at figuring out clever editorial workarounds, and Rhythm & Hues magically doctored background plates to facilitate the new ideas.

PATERSON: The design process was quite challenging. It was very important to Warner Bros and to the producers that the characters look like their cartoon selves. When we really studied the original Hanna-Barbera drawings, we realized that they were actually very inconsistent. Yogi’s nose had a completely different shape depending on whether he’s front-on or profile. Boo Boo varied widely over the years, depending on who was drawing him. There was a lot of back and forth in the design process to find something that worked coherently in three dimensions, and still had the immediate appeal of the original characters.

What did the research entail—watching old cartoons?

ORRELLE: More for design and story than actual animation. The old cartoon was very forgiving on limited animation—its appeal was based on that! We were more restricted to the real physics of a live-action world, so we figured out how to port the comical performance to a new, more technological dual-bear platform.

How did you make the bears fit into the real world so they looked like they belonged?

PATERSON: We used very naturalistic lighting and physical simulations to help the characters fit into the scenes. The goal was to treat them as if they were photoreal actors. We used HDRI to help bring the environment colors into the fur. We also had subtle effects, like CG dust and pine needles around the feet when they were walking, and simulated wind moving through the fur. A large part of getting the characters to fit into the scenes is the acting. The animation team did an amazing job at making the characters feel alive and present. They have consistent characterizations. They interact realistically with the physical world around them. Most importantly, they’re a lot of fun to watch.

What tools were used to create the CG?

PATERSON: For the modeling and texturing, we used (Autodesk’s) Maya and Mudbox, (Pixologic’s) ZBrush, (Adobe’s) Photoshop…whatever’s necessary. We use a mix of (side Effects’) Houdini and proprietary software for the effects (water/fire) work. At Rhythm & Hues, we use proprietary software for almost everything else. We’ve found that we can shape the tools more specifically for each project by having the people who write the software in the same building. Everything from animation and rigging to fur sims and compositing is done with our in-house software.

Are there many scenes where the bears physically interact with the humans? How did you get a natural interaction?

PATERSON: We had quite few scenes where the humans interact with the characters. On set we try to do as much as possible to help the actors with these scenes. Since Yogi is so large, we were able to use a stand-in in a fat-suit for a hugging scene. Quite often, though, because of complex choreography and camera moves, we had to rely on the actor’s ability to pantomime. Lucky for us, Tom Cavanaugh (Ranger Smith) was amazingly good at interacting with the invisible bear.

Once we get the footage in post, it’s all down to hard labor. Tracking and roto need to be absolutely perfect to pull off shots like that. We also build CG versions of the actors to assist with shadow casting and fur sims. Those shots take a very long time to perfect.

How do you think this unique look for the film will go over with audiences?

ORRELLE: Every time we sat in 2K review at R&H, there’d be delightful ooohs and aahs. I think audiences will snatch it up and devour it like a fresh picnic basket.

PATERSON: Everyone who’s seen it so far finds it charming. It’s a heightened reality, but it’s still one that audiences can relate to easily. The film really has a very warm feeling, and it’s a lot of fun to root for Yogi and Boo Boo on their quest to save the park.

In addition, you had some 3D challenges. Tell me about them.

PATERSON: The fact that Yogi Bear is in stereo added a great deal more complexity to the project. We were lucky enough that it was very important to the director and the studio to shoot in true stereo, with two cameras. That meant that we had a true 3D space to work within, which made things more consistent.

This was our first feature project in stereo, and we have quite a few lined up for the future, so we did a great deal of testing and R&D before we got into post. We wrote many new tools to help the artists with the new workflow, and re-vamped our pipeline to fit the additional stages that are necessary with stereo.

The main challenge is, of course, that many of the cheats that have become standard in the visual effects world are no longer possible in stereo. If you do something in the traditional way, say a wire removal, you’ll get a big surprise when you put those glasses on. Our team adapted remarkably quickly, though. I have to say, going into the project, the stereo aspect was what I was most worried about, but in the end, it went pretty smoothly. The hardest part was wearing those glasses all day long!