Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!
Issue: Edition 1 2020

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

In Dolittle, CGI makes us believe that these animals really can talk. Images ©2020 Universal Studios.

If we could talk to the animals, just imagine it 

Chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee 

Imagine talking to a tiger,

chatting to a cheetah 

What a neat achievement that would be.

That is the beginning stanza to the song "Talk to the Animals" from the 1967 film Doctor Dolittle, sung by the title character Rex Harrison. Now, more than five decades later, Robert Downey Jr. is doing just that, talking to the animals, and this time, it really does seems as if the animals are talking too, thanks to the advancements in computer graphics technology.

In Universal Pictures' Dolittle, Downey assumes the role of England's famous but eccentric vet who can converse with all types of creatures, big and small. After his beloved wife, Lily, dies, the doctor becomes a recluse at his manor house, in Victorian England, with only his patients (former and present) to keep him company. When the young Queen Victoria falls mysteriously ill, he is summoned to help. A rare fruit from a far-away land may provide a cure, so the doctor sets sail with his animal friends and a young self-proclaimed assistant to locate the remedy, all the while dodging an old adversary.

Dolittle is a reboot of the Doctor Dolittle films and is based on the books by author Hugh Lofting. It is not the first reboot of the 1967 release, but its animal cast has sure come a long way from that initial release containing live animals and some rather lackluster puppets by today's standards. In 1998, the property was revived with a modern twist, both in terms of story and technique, as the live animals were given the ability to speak via mouth replacements. The 2020 Dolittle, a reimagining of the classic tale, returns the narrative to its Victorian England roots. And this time, an extensive cast of photorealistic CG talking animals act alongside the human actors, making it appear as if  they are truly conversing with the doctor.

The film was directed by Stephen Gaghan (Syriana, Traffic). Heading up the visual effects team was two-time Academy Award-nominated visual effects supervisor Nicolas Aithadi (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Guardians of the Galaxy) and two-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Dykstra (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2), as well as Academy Award-winning animation supervisor David Shirk (Ready Player One, Gravity) and visual effects producer Tim Keene (Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, Spectre). DP was Guillermo Navarro, and editing was performed by Craig Alpert (Deadpool 2, Pitch Perfect 2 & 3) and Chris Lebenzon (Alice in Wonderland, Top Gun).

The doctor speaks with Jip, a dog with poor vision.

Main Menagerie

Polynesia, a wise and headstrong macaw and Dolittle’s most trusted advisor.

Chee-Chee, an anxious, self-conscious but noble gorilla.

Yoshi, an upbeat but chill polar bear who detests the cold.

Plimpton, a cynical, fussy, neurotic but well-meaning ostrich who quarrels with Yoshi.

Dab-Dab, an enthusiastic but “bird-brain” duck with a wooden leg.

Jip, an intelligent, loyal dog who wears glasses.

Kevin, an injured, squirrel with attitude and a grudge.

Barry, a ferocious tiger with gold-tipped fangs who has a past with Dolittle.

Betsy, a friendly giraffe who is on the lam.

Tutu, a cunning and courageous fox who is friends with Betsy.

James, a wisecracking dragonfly who helps Dolittle escape from a prison cell.

Ginko-Who-Soars, a fire-breathing dragon who guards a magical fruit.

Mini, a precocious baby sugar glider.

Creature Creation

Nearly every animal in Dolittle is a photoreal CG creation, accounting for the majority of the 1,484 total VFX shots in the movie. MPC - recently nominated for a VFX Oscar for its work on The Lion King, which, again, featured photorealistic talking animals - was responsible for 1,082 of those shots. The remaining work was shared among Framestore (259 shots), Luma Pictures (22 shots), and Lola VFX (245 shots).

Framestore was in charge of Mini, the adorable sugar glider, as well as the world of Monteverde, where the spiteful pirate king Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) lives and where Lily's journal, which holds an important clue, is hidden. In addition, Glassworks created the film's opening animated sequence. MPC, meanwhile, focused mainly on the hero animals (all of which have some ailment or injury), in addition to some complex environments and simulations.

According to Aithadi, the biggest technical challenge of the film was trying to bridge the real and the fantastical: making the animals photoreal while bringing them to life in a way that the audience could believe had the ability to talk.

In all, there are 38 different animals in Dolittle, and all are computer-generated with the exception of horses. "I think we built every animal under the sun for this film," says Aithadi. "We have a polar bear, a squirrel, a dog, a parrot, a duck, a giraffe, an orangutan, whales, wolves, an elephant, capuchin monkeys, all manner of small insects all the way up leaches. We have no snakes… I think."

To create this virtual Noah's Ark collection, the MPC artists spent time in Oxford, UK, with a company called Amazing Animals, where they scanned and photographed every animal presented in the movie that they could get their hands on. They also intensely researched animal behavior and morphology, as well as spent time looking for the kinds of movement and expressions that the animals are capable of, which to the audience, look like human expression. Nevertheless, the actions that were performed by the CG animals were in keeping with the physical realities of the real-life versions. For instance, Yoshi the polar bear couldn't use a hammer because he does not have opposable thumbs.

"We were really focused on trying to give these characters a way to show emotion in the most natural way possible, while keeping them entertaining," says Aithadi. The group started this kind of work with a quasi-religious focus on realism, he explains, and tried to create characters that would look as real as possible. But they also left the door open to artistic direction and allowed those characters to fit into the story.

The artists at MPC modeled and animated the characters using Autodesk's Maya and Pixologic's ZBrush. They used Foundry's Katana for lighting, and shaders, and Mari for texturing, lighting, and rendering, along with Pixar's RenderMan. Compositing was done in Foundry's Nuke, and for effects, SideFX's Houdini.

While not every character was furred, the majority of them were, aside from the odd insect here and there, and of course, the dragon. The fur added another layer of complexity to the creation process. For instance, Yoshi the polar bear has the greatest number of hairs: 9,365,414!

"Even the birds' feathers were made of fur," Aithadi notes. The fur on MPC's animals was generated using the studio's proprietary Furtility tool, first written in 2005 for the film 10,000 BC to create mammoth hair. "Since then, it has evolved to become a very powerful tool, used to create everything from hair, to leather, to grass… and everything in between," Aithadi points out.

Of all the animals in the movie, the most challenging, in Aithadi's opinion, were the birds, especially Poly the parrot and Dab-Dab the duck. That's because parrot and duck feathers are very specific and fit together so well that it becomes difficult to determine where one feather ends and another begins. "This became the single-hardest problem we had to solve. Most of the time their bodies are covered with a mix of modeled feathers and Furtility feathers, and blended together with patches of straight-up hair," he explains. "Birds with patterns were also problematic. As the color is applied on each hair from the base to the tip, and [considering the] multitude of hair that makes up a feather, predicting exactly where some color would end up was sometimes frustrating."

As for a favorite character, it was Jib the dog (voiced by Tom Holland) for Visual Effects Supervisor Dykstra. "Dogs are tough to do well as virtual characters because people are so familiar with these animals," he explains. "We know how they move and what their expressions mean, so you really have to do a detailed and accurate version of the character and their animation to fool the audience into believing a dog can talk like Tom Holland."

Of course, the animals had to talk. "Making them talk was not the challenge; the challenge was conveying how they felt when they talked," says Aithadi. "The filmmakers were very concerned that the audience relate to the animals - laugh with them or be sad with them. A major part of our research went into solving that problem without falling too far into the cartoon realm."

Dragon Duology

On his adventure, Dolittle also encounters an angry, fire-breathing dragon, Ginko-Who-Soars, guardian of the Eden tree. Creating the character was fairly straightforward, says VFX supervisor Nicolas Aithadi. The challenge, however, was within the design stage. “We wanted to create a cool-looking dragon. We didn’t want to go the usual route and use lizard skin as a reference, so instead we chose to go with turtle skin. That’s because turtles look way older, and Ginko is a very old lady. But also, their skin pattern is very interesting-looking.” There were several things to think about when it came to the dragon. Ginko and the cave where she resides were connected on a visual and emotional level. They both feel in the same way and react in the same way; there’s a symbiotic relationship between the two. “These bioluminescent effects had multiple purposes,” says Aithadi. “They would echo Ginko’s anger, but also her pain, and eventually, show us her true color.” The cave emotes throughout the sequence, and those emotions are illustrated through the appearance and disappearance of green and red fungus across the surface of the cave. As Aithadi explains, these bioluminescent organisms trace a path to the dragon and wake her up. “We had to find a way to give the same look that we saw on the cave, on the surface of the dragon’s skin,” he says. However, the artists had to make sure it wouldn’t compete too much with the very detailed and intricate texture work. The team additionally had to develop an interesting way for Ginko to spit fire. “We went with the idea that she would always have a ‘pilot light’ inside her mouth. When she would spit fire, she would inhale the flame inside her throat and it would ignite the combustible.”


Blending the Real and the Virtual

Whether Dolittle was dunking his head into octopus Leona's aquarium in the queen's palace or performing surgery on Kevin the squirrel, there is rarely a scene in which CG animals are not interacting with live actors or physical sets. In scenes with Poly the parrot and some of the smaller animals, stuffies on sticks were used to assist the actors with their eyelines, such as when Harry Collett moved around the bedroom set of his character, Dolittle's assistant Tommy Stubbins, while interacting with Poly. "The stuffy was staged and choreographed by the director and a puppeteer to move and be in the proper positions for the dialog interactions between the characters," Dykstra says. When the sequence was edited, the stuff was replaced with the computer-generated parrot.

For the larger beasts, puppeteers in green suits would perform in place of the animal characters to achieve the proper eyelines and the physical interaction with the human character. For instance, in the dungeon fight sequence between Dolittle and Barry the tiger, Barry was portrayed by a green-suited fight choreographer. He and Downey performed an elaborate fight routine, with wrestling and full-body contact. The performer was then replaced by the computer--generated tiger.

Yet, it's not just one or two CG characters in a scene; many scenes contain several digital animals. For instance, in most shots in the queen's chambers, there are at least seven or eight high-resolution hero characters present in the same frame. "The main challenge with this was the complexity it created due to the amount of hair grooms in the shots that had to be computed," notes Aithadi.

MPC artists crafted the diverse animals that appear in the film.

Building Environments

Principal photography occurred at Shepperton and Pinewood Studios, with some location shooting in the English and Welsh countrysides. However, a significant number of set extensions and complete CG environments were necessary to add to the magic of the Dolittle mansion and to add to the peril of some situations.

According to Aithadi, there were three main full-CG environments crafted by MPC and Framestore. One was the English countryside when Stubbins, Dolittle's assistant, rides Betsy the giraffe to catch up with Dolittle's ship. "The Welsh countryside was extremely complex, as we were riding that line between storybook aesthetics and photorealism," Aithadi notes. For this work, MPC once again used Maya, Katana, Nuke, and Mari for the work, along with Adobe's Photoshop and Interactive Data Visualization's SpeedTree vegetation software.

Another big all-CG environment involved the establishing shots of the pirate enclave, Monteverde, while large set extensions were required for the action on the grounds of the mansion. While all the CG environments had particular challenges, Aithadi describes Monteverde as "a huge, intricate undertaking, due to its massive scale, many details, and water."  

Eventually in the story, Dolittleand company arrive at the mystical Eden Tree Island - the archipelago and island were computer-generated, too.

"We also created oceanscapes. Every shot on a boat was filmed on a soundstage at Shepperton Studios," says Aithadi. "We had to complete those shots with sometimes extreme close-ups of water simulations, which were very complex and technical."

In fact, the film features various types of water. "First and foremost, there are oceans - we have a significant amount of ocean shots, and we had to create them all in the computer," says Aithadi. "And, the ocean water had sub-categories, like boat wake and splashes. We also have a waterfall, cannon ball splashes, and, in some shots, we had to have feathery and fury animals interacting with the water."

MPC employed two methods of generating the water. For the wide oceanscapes and ship shots, a Tessendorf system was incorporated, while Houdini fluid sims were used for the more intricate and higher-resolution sims, such as when Plimpton the ostrich is drowning or for the shots containing the whales.

The CG characters interact with each other and with the human actors.

A Story Worth Retelling

There's been an uptick of photorealistic animals in hero roles, and the work is getting so good that it's nearly impossible now to distinguish real from virtual. Yet, challenges still remain.

"Every time you are telling a story from the perspective of a new director, it brings new challenges and pushes you further into the Wild West of the visual effects," says Aithadi. "CG animals are getting more realistic, but making animals talk in a realistic setting still requires us to think differently. First, we are trying to create characters that you can love or hate, just like any other character."

Although we have seen (and heard) Doctor Dolittle talk to the animals in the past, this time, digital artists have enabled us to believe that this can actually happen - even if it's just for a short time.

What might the animals say to the artists who gave them the ability to talk? Likely, job well done! ¢

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.