101 Dalmations Speak with Help from Mechanism Digital
October 12, 2009

101 Dalmations Speak with Help from Mechanism Digital

New York City - Mechanism Digital’s Directive: Make dogs talk, to promote the upcoming 101 Dalmatians Broadway musical. Timeline: Three days. In order to accomplish the task, Mechanism Digital adapted some unconventional visual effects techniques and simplified a typically complex workflow.
In the 1940s, animators hand-painted cartoon mouths and teeth over live footage to make animals speak. In more modern times, filmmakers build wire frame CG models of entire bodies and inserted them with extensive image tracking to create the illusion of talking creatures. Mechanism’s studio found a way to replicate and improve upon this process in a lot less time and at a much lower cost, says a representative.

Director Bill McCullough of New York City’s Wonderland Productions directed the spot sponsored by Purina Dog Chow, which features a talking bulldog and an apprehensive Dalmatian. Bill took on the challenge with the great idea of shooting the bulldog eating peanut butter -- thereby capturing mouth movements to be used as speech. The result looked great but was not in sync with the words recorded in the voiceover.

Bill called visual effects and animation studio, Mechanism Digital, to work its magic on the footage. Knowing it was impossible to build, animate, and track a CG face onto the dog within the current budget and in only three days, VFX supervisor Lucien Harriot developed a new workflow strategy to seamlessly anthropomorphize the animal.

Lucien and Art Director Mark Palkoski matched frames in the dog’s lip-smacking footage with the voiceover audio files by watching for corresponding phoneme shapes (the smallest phonetic unit which can carry meaning). The studio’s artists imported the shots into the re-timing plug-in, Twixtor, within Digital Fusion, which allowed manipulation of the speed of the frame number sequences to match with the comedic voiceover. Next, the artists isolated the talking mouth and tracked, warped, and composited his snout into the original live-action “hero” shots chosen by the director. This completed the effect by seamlessly syncing the visual illusion with the recorded script.

“I don’t believe this software combination and technique have ever been utilized to create this effect before,” says Lucien, “but we were extremely happy with the results and anticipate utilizing this approach in the future.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be 101 Dalmatians if there were no adorable spotted puppies. Mechanism Digital created additional effects to give the cute Dalmatian pup an anxious reaction when he runs into a room and hears the laugh of the evil Cruella DeVille. His eyes pop at the sight of her name on the door and he cocks his head as puppies do when they’re listening closely. Mechanism easily rotated the head and bulged the eyes using Digital Fusion’s standard tool set. The eyes were warped into bigger, rounder puppy-dog eyes and the head and ears were shifted to one side -- requiring additional background filler behind the original location of the pup’s head.