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Making Underdog Fly
From the beginning, director Frederik Du Chau knew that UNDERDOG would hinge on creating a real dog who appeared both to be able to speak and to fly supersonically, albeit not entirely under control! He and his team spent months devising and honing a process that produced the uncanny illusion of a caped canine whizzing through the skies. It began with the real dogs and ended with digital wizardry. "First, we trained Leo to sit on a boom operated to fly in front of a green screen with wind machines blowing in front of him,” explains Du Chau. "We used these shots in a number of scenes by merging the shots of Leo with background plates shot from a helicopter that takes us through the city. Then, to make him really soar we also used a completely CG dog that looks just as realistic as Leo.”

The training aspect was exciting for animal coordinator Boone Narr, who says, "no one can resist a flying dog.” He explains how Leo attained lift-off: "We created a special flying rig that we could lift off the ground and roll and tilt to make it look like Leo's flying. But of course, the dog had to like it! Lucky for us, Leo loved to fly. I think for him it was like hanging his head out of a car window times ten.”

Du Chau also worked closely with visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman, an industry veteran whose ground-breaking work on the undersea world of James Cameron's "The Abyss” earned him an Academy Award®. "Frederik has a great vision and on effects-driven films where a lot of things have to be fabricated, that vision is very important. He's a director who respects and understands the complexity of what we're doing,” says Yeatman. 

Yeatman's primary task was bringing the digital version of Underdog to life. "Leo, the real Lemon Beagle, was our model that we always tried to emulate and copy faithfully,” Yeatman explains. "But we also had an exciting opportunity to push that reality just enough that he was able to do superhero type of things, while not pushing him so far as to look like a cartoon. That was the fine line of creativity we had to walk, which was really exciting.” 

While only Shoeshine/Underdog can fly and communicate with humans, all the dogs in the film can talk—if only to one another other. Creating a believable talking dog with realistic mouth movements was another challenge for Yeatman. He says, "We used a process on UNDERDOG where you first shoot the real-life dog making all its prompted head bobs and turns, then the editor cuts it to an audio track so that the movement feels in synch with the intent of the character. We then project that image onto a three-dimensional model, sculpting a head in the computer, like a decal that forms around the actual character, after which the computer ‘grows' fur on the model. Once this is complete, an animator can actually form vowels and expression with the animal's face. From there, it's composited with the live-action dog again. Done properly, it looks seamless. But it takes a tremendous amount of work and time. Hundreds of hours went into the compositing and 3-D.”

Du Chau also put an emphasis on old-fashioned special effects. "I wanted all our action to be set up with stunts and physical effects that make the audience feel as if it is all really happening,” notes Du Chau, "meaning that if Shoeshine flies by, there's a huge wind machine that blasts the surroundings. If he crashes into flower pots, real planters are actually thrown about, and so forth.” 

Du Chau notes that one of the best examples of how he mixed old school techniques with cutting-edge CGI throughout the film can be seen in the moment when our fur-bearing hero slips into a phone booth as an average dog and smashes out of it as an empowered superhero. "This scene is a perfect example of how we designed the whole movie, because we used the real trained Beagle to go into the phone booth; then, we combined that w


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