Post magazine: Marmaduke Gets Chatty Thanks to Cinesite

Cinesite served as one of the lead visual effects houses on the 20th Century Fox feature Marmaduke, which opened in theatres last month. The live-action film is based on the comic strip and centres around a Great Dane, voiced by Owen Wilson, and the animal friends he makes when his family moves to a new city.

Cinesite’s Matt Johnson was VFX Supervisor on the film and explains that the studio was challenged with executing all of the animal talking sequences in the film. In total, Cinesite was responsible for about 650 shots. Johnson says the Cinesite team spent close to a year working on the film, with overlap at the studio that involved other features, including Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans and John Carter of Mars. He spent most of his time in the US and Vancouver, where Marmaduke was shot last summer. “For two-thirds of the movie, you are looking at a real animal,” says Johnson, noting the challenge of creating transparent effects. “You don’t want to draw attention to your work because that’s not the point of the movie.”

Cinesite used a hybrid approach for creating the talking effects. The team tracked the live-action animal footage and built extremely detailed geometry matching the animal’s head.”You take the track of the real dog’s performance and use that as the basis for the animation,” he explains. “We’ll re-project the live-action textures through that animation geometry in one pass. A second pass is a fully CG dog’s head. We have to pay attention to the hair around the muzzle area, that it’s absolutely accurate to what is going on with the real dog in that particular scene. You try to use as much of the projected textured geometry as possible because that is the real dog.”

The film made use of two different Great Danes for the Marmaduke character: George and Spirit. “Hopefully when you go and see the movie you can’t tell which dog is which. But those differences were enough that you had to make a complete CG George and a complete CG Spirit and pay very careful attention when filming as to which dog was used because that would affect the model that you used for your tracking and projections.”

Cinesite in London used Maya for the modelling and animation, and RenderMan for rendering. Compositing was via Shake. The team also made use of numerous proprietary tools that the studio developed while working on Disney’s Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Johnson was able to view the London team’s progress on the VFX while working in Hollywood. Cinesite had a system set up where the dailies from the Scratch systems in London would automatically be published to Cinesite via a digital link.