Digital visual effects endow Dr. Dolittle's menagerie with the gift of gab.
by Ron Magid

In Dr. Dolittle, Eddie Murphy plays the title role of a kindly veterinarian who believes he can talk to the animals. Making audiences believe that the animals can talk back was the primary goal of visual effects supervisor Jon Farhat, who achieved brilliant results on another Eddie Murphy remake, The Nutty Professor, and received an Oscar nod for his work on The Mask. A stable of effects houses, including heavy hitters Visionart and POP, as well as Core Digital Pictures (Canada), Banned From the Ranch, Pacific Title Digital, Cinesite, Computer Film Company and Rainmaker, helped Farhat bravely attempt to create a vocal menagerie using almost none of Babe's Oscar-winning techniques.

Although Babe's simple but effective combination of CG and animatronic animals might appear to be the ideal role model for Dolittle's talking zoo, Farhat and director Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch, Private Parts) instead decided to go in an entirely unique and untried direction. Farhat proposed using digital techniques to enhance real footage of animals trained to "talk" — or at least move their mouths up and down on cue. "It wasn't yapping or peanut butter," Farhat explains, referring to two time-honored techniques for making animals appear to speak. "Instead, our animal trainer, Mark Forbes, would move his hand up and down, and the animals would open and close their mouths several times. We then digitized and manipulated that footage, editing and time-compressing the images, so we were always playing with moving photographic information."

Working with CG and digitally manipulated animals meant not only recording all of the animals' dialogue first, but also shooting virtually all of the scenes of Murphy and others interacting with them ASAP - with the photographic duties handled by cameraman Russell Boyd, ACS. "Nothing on the show could proceed until there was locked dialogue," Farhat says. "The sound issue just complicated things logarithmically. The other really tough issue was dealing with comedy, which requires performances and cutting. Plus, with an improv actor like Eddie, we had to allow for ad-libs too. It was tough getting Eddie to perform while the trainer was saying, 'Sit, stand, roll over.' Essentially, we were doing Roger Rabbit with real animals."

About a third of Dr. Dolittle's 350-plus effects shots were handled by POP, including making lead characters like Rodney the guinea pig and Lucky the dog pontificate on demand, chores the firm shared with Visionart. The footage of the animals opening and closing their mouths on command gave Visionart and POP's animators a basis for their animation cycles, but it was impossible for the trainer to get them to move their mouths in rhythm with the actual dialogue. The animators therefore built a performance using skip frames to create an animation cycle, then used morphs to smooth out the transitions. "We're manipulating footage of real animals moving their mouths, using 2-D animation to simulate and sync up their mouth movements with the actual dialogue," explains POP's lead animator and compositing supervisor, Jennifer German, who spearheads a small but dedicated four-animator team working on Discreet Logic Infernos. "If I wanted Lucky's cheek to move up as he was talking, I just cut out a hole and slid the cheek around with a real soft matte on it. If I did that with enough layers of stuff, I could actually simulate it moving just the way it would really move. Then, because there's no way to make a dog hold its head perfectly still, I had to do a lot of tracking of the animation to the original photography. Lastly, I did a 2-D x-y-z move to put the original plate back over the animation, which gave our character the fur and muscles that would actually be there."

Building the performances on the Inferno was made considerably easier by the software's audio capabilities, especially when creating that all-important, delicate lip-and-tongue movement. "We didn't use charts as a reference for the lip movement," German says. "We mainly used film that was shot of the actual actors recording their dialogue, and we also looked into mirrors and used each other to see how we'd say a line. We tried not to exaggerate the animation. On the Inferno's audio track, we could see exactly where the character was talking and stopping, how loud it was and how big the syllables were; we used that as our graph to draw all of the cadence points. People don't enunciate every syllable or close their mouths all the way, so it's a real art to get the timing of how a mouth turns up and closes. We just kind of got a feel for it and did it."

German and her team also used "a lot of eye movement and expressions to give each character a little more personality to go with the voice. For instance, Rodney the guinea pig was voiced by Chris Rock, so we gave him cute, chubby lips and buck teeth. He also moves his eyes a lot, which goes with the voice and makes him seem more human."

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