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Mouths In Motion
Oscar®-Winning Visual Effects Supervisor Michael J. McAlister Works His Magic Oscar® winner Michael J. McAlister served as the film's visual effects supervisor. Among a host of responsibilities, McAlister oversaw two key effects elements in the film: manipulating the mouths of the canine cast so they appear to be talking, and creating the film's virtual animals, Manuel the pack rat and Chico the iguana, as well as occasional virtual doggie stunt doubles.

To make the animal characters "talk” to each other, filmmakers used state-of-the-art muzzle replacement visual effects to make the mouths of the canine characters move.

"We take the best that the dog can do in terms of performance, and then we amplify the emotion and thoughts according to the script,” explains McAlister. "We'll make the lips and tongue move just as if they're talking, but then we'll also manipulate the nose, the eyes and the eyebrows so that they're squinting, wide-eyed, droopy-eyed or happy-eyed, so the face of the animal evokes a certain emotion. The voice actors are videotaped during their recording sessions so the computer animators can use it as a visual reference when adding life to the character's face.

To create each action moment involving animal actors, the director, the animal coordinator and the visual effects department would come up with a plan to determine the most effective and safe solution to tell the story. In many action scenes, virtual stunt doubles were employed. In one sequence, the ex-police dog Delgado has to pick Chloe up in his mouth and run with her to safety. The German Shepherd learned to carry a beanbag of the approximate size and shape of Chloe with his teeth, so that visual effects could replace the beanbag in post- production with a virtual Chloe.

Explains McAlister, "We needed to be able to put something in Delgado's mouth so that it looks like he's carrying some weight. The beanbag allows him to have something to bite on that weighs a couple of pounds, so that his neck is bobbing around properly when he runs and his mouth is open, so we have room to put some of the scruff of her neck inside.”

Two "virtual” animal characters—Manuel the pack rat (voiced by Cheech Marin) and Chico the iguana (voiced by Paul Rodriguez)—were created using computer animation to be "photo-real.”

"You can't train real rats and iguanas to do much of anything, so the decision was to make them full CG characters,” says McAlister. "It's fun because we can do virtually anything we want in terms of their personality and mannerisms as long as it still feels like they're in the same world as the rest of the movie.

"When they're actually filming the movie we need to be able to compose the shot and get lighting references, so we made what we call ‘stuffies,'” continues McAlister. "They're little stuffed animals made out of Latex rubber in the shape of a rat and an iguana. We ran them around on sticks during the shoot.”

While filming, the visual effects team records precise information on lighting and shooting conditions, as well as camera lenses, angles and distances, so conditions can be duplicated in the computer's virtual set.


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