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Q&A: How digital effects gave 'The Muppets' new freedom

Tim Moynihan | Nov. 30, 2011
Rest assured, Muppet purists: You won't see any computer-generated Kermits, Gonzos, or Fozzies in The Muppets, which opened in theaters last week. Every time the Muppets appear on screen in the movie, they're the real deal: fuzz, felt, and fur creatures given their voices, movements, and expressions by human puppeteers.

PCW: How big was the team that worked on the digital effects?

Ivins: Our company had about three 3D artists and about a dozen compositors. Disney also sent a lot of work to a facility they own for a lot of the simpler rod removal. We did about 350 shots in the movie--we were considered the lead effects facility. The effects supervisor just felt more comfortable being able to sit down with us and go over some of the more creative effects that had to be developed.

PCW: Other than removing the visual evidence of puppeteers, what were some of the more memorable sequences that your team worked on?

Ivins: I recall a sequence where Kermit walks through his mansion, and he has pictures of the band, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Chef on the wall. He starts singing a song, and as he's going through it, the various pictures come to life. We made a "picture" version of them that they blew up and printed large for the set, and then we took that and transitioned into the puppet responding to Kermit.

That was just a real finesse job. It turns from the painting into something a little more realistic, going from the flat surface to the three-dimensional without using a straight dissolve or anything that would take you out of the movie. It was just a lot of subtle manipulation through lots of versions of it. For those things, it was much easier if we were able to come and see the director, and even see his hand gestures. Those kinds of things were the most challenging in the movie--not really a technical challenge, just the finessing, the keying, and the right balance of what the interior and exterior levels look like, and all that stuff.

There's also a dream sequence in what the old television style looked like. They have scan lines on the puppets when they come flying out of the TV. All the little nuances don't become apparent until you start applying all the different looks to it, and you figure out where you're going to end up creatively.

In one helicopter shot we built a crowd up and down Hollywood Boulevard--that was one of the more fun shots we did. We were on our own particle system to drive about 20 different people we built, to make the crowd energetic and happy. At first, [the result] was like, "They don't really move around--they look almost like a still with a bit of noise on it." So we took a percentage of them and made them walk through the crowd and avoid each other and things. And then we added a little more motion, and then a little more motion ... and then whoa! It looked like fights were breaking out everywhere. We found out that the difference between a happy crowd and a riot was about 10 percent of motion.


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