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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: What kind of hardware and software setups did your team use for the effects? It's probably not the kind of thing you can pull off with an app on a smartphone.

Ivins: That's coming around the corner--I'm surprised that now you can do almost all of it on a laptop. Just plug in the mouse and go to town.

Software-wise, Nuke is our workhorse compositor, but we also used AfterEffects. We use Maya for our 3D work. The more computing power, the better, especially for things such as the crowd scenes. We used Nvidia Quadro graphics cards. Watching these computationally intensive simulations, you need to be able to see about a million polygons at the same time. With some of the 3D stuff, you get render times that are way up there. When you see the whole crowd, I think we got up to an hour per frame.

We have several racks of render machines, as any CG company does now--machines with 24 threads that we split into about 8 threads apiece, because it turns out to be more efficient overall. We could render [the scene] in about half the time if we used all 24 threads, but you lose efficiency as far as how much rendering you get done with the amount of power you have available.

PCW: After all was said and done, how did the puppeteers react to the CG work?

 Ivins: I think the puppeteers liked the way we used technology. It wasn't like, "Hey, we're going to take the puppets and make CG versions, and you guys are out of a job." It let the puppeteers cover a bigger repertoire of things that they could do with [the Muppets]. I think James Bobin, the director, wasn't thinking, "I have puppets, so I have to shoot a certain way." Instead, he could think, "I'm shooting a movie here, and my actors happen to be a frog, a pig, and whatever that thing is." I think that freedom is what modern visual effects added to the puppeteering and the movie.


They seemed pretty ecstatic to be able to do it. When they put on the blue suit, they thought they were invisible [laughs]. "No, no, no, hold on. We can't see through you."

They were like, "The handcuffs are off, man!" It was pretty obvious that they were excited about being able to be in the shot, and we'd do things like quickly throw together what a shot would look like after it was composed. Sometimes, it's hard to visualize exactly what [the scene is] going to end up looking like. So a couple of times, we just threw together something on a laptop on the set, so they would get an idea of what we were doing with it. Especially early on--I think the first day I was on the set, we were doing a big crowd scene where Kermit talks to everybody in the foyer of a theater. We were positioning them in groups, the way we do a traditional crowd-duplication shot: Shoot a group here, have them change their costume a bit, and then put them in the next chunk. We were doing that with the Muppets, and [the puppeteers] were fascinated by what we were going to do with their performance, and it was really great to see that.


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