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Animating the rabbit and the duck

After a disappointing shortage of summer comedies, next month moviegoers will be treated to a mixture of live action and animation as Warner Bros. Studio releases “Looney Tunes: Back in Action.” Director Joe Dante (“Gremlins” and “The Howling”) has recaptured the spirit of the classic Termite Terrace animation by combining hand-drawn characters, including Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck (both voiced by Joe Alaskey), with sophisticated computer- generated effects to inflict their gags upon a full cast of human actors headlined by Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman, Timothy Dalton and Heather Locklear.


To combine live action with 2-D animation in “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” animators used a HotGears motion control rig made by Salamati Productions, a Nikon CoolPix digital camera with a wide fisheye lens, a Wacom Cintiq tablet, the Avid DS NLE, Apple’s Shake, Alias’s Maya, and ink and paint tools from U.S. Animation.

As usual, the plot — which careens from the studio's back lot to Las Vegas, Paris and even the jungles of Africa in a search for the mythical Blue Monkey Diamond — is subordinated to the rapid-fire salvo of sight gags. In an even more ambitious interweaving of 2-D animation with 3-D live action than the studio's own 1996 “Space Jam,” the techniques employed at its animation facilities in Sherman Oaks, CA, for the film's 1450 visual effects shots included many new processes made possible by revolutionary digital production technologies.

Combining live action with elaborate character animation and multi-level backgrounds inherently involves intensely complex compositing. Knowing that practically every moment in the film would involve special visual effects, visual effects supervisor Chris Watts (“Pleasantville” and “Gattaca”) decided he wanted to be able to keep track of every single frame, from camera negative through high-definition dailies to final release print. By assigning a unique number to each frame and camera roll, he was able to let the editors cut the film the way they normally would, while at the same time ensuring that each frame of every element could be accessed at any time during the effects creation process in preparation for the inevitable last-minute changes. This dedicated frame identification was locked with each take so that even the final assemble list generated by the Avid DS NLE could be referenced to a master shot database in case they needed to find any take's original source.

During principle photography, almost every scene was shot up to five times, with the camera being guided by a HotGears motion control rig made by Salamati Productions. Based on a mechanized 3-axis pan/tilt head controlled by a laptop computer, the motion control rig let director of photography Dean Cundey, A. S. C. (Oscar-nominated for 1988's “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”) precisely repeat every camera move while adding or subtracting animated or live action elements.

For example, in the first “action pass,” Fraser could act out a scene playing against a puppeteer manipulating a foam rubber Bugs Bunny mock-up, something called a “stuffy.” This gave the animators a reference to establish the proper line of eye contact between the star and that “wascally wabbit.” In fact, for tight close-ups that couldn't accommodate a whole stuffy in the frame, two eyeballs stuck on the end of sticks would suffice to let Fraser know how to look at his cotton-tailed co-star.

Then Dante would call for a “clean pass,” repeating the setup of angles that included both Fraser and the animated character, but this time without the stand-in stuffy. With the motion control rig precisely repeating the camera's movements, this take helped the animators minimize the amount of subsequent rotoscope work needed to remove the bunny costume before they could insert the hand-drawn rabbit.

But one of the biggest challenges when combining live action with 2-D animation is maintaining a consistency between the light shining on the real actors and the artificial highlights later drawn onto the painted characters. The studio's animation technicians came up with an intricate technique to provide their animators with a reference to recreate this proper perspective and depth. After the live action takes were completed for each scene, the crew repeated the camera action once again while holding a white ball in the animated character's position. The reflections off these balls served as cues for the animation lighters to determine the angles from which the proper light sources should come. If the toon had to interact with computer-generated 3-D items in a scene, the motion control rig would re-choreograph the camera move focusing on a mirrored ball in the character's position to accurately reflect the ambient light of the surrounding environment.


A foam rubber “stuffy” was used in the first “action pass” to provide live actors a reference to maintain proper eye contact with their animated co-stars.

Then, using a Nikon CoolPix digital camera with a wide fisheye lens, Watts' team shot at least five high dynamic range (HDR) photos of the set at opposing 180-degree angles, bracketing the exposure to cover all their bases. That way, all the illumination information for each lighting setup was stored for reference during the animation process, and a proprietary approach called LUMO enabled the character lighting department to apply computer-generated lighting effects to the animated characters for each scene.

This provided a crucial benefit if the director decided to repurpose a certain background plate in a situation for which it was not initially intended. One scene takes place in the studio commissary, where Jenna Elfman has decided to give Bugs a makeover to boost his star status. In the original script, the scene ended with Bugs mimicking his girl-bunny alter ego, saying, “Usually I play the female love interest,” and then dabbing his mouth with a napkin. The laughs it garnered were disappointing. So during post, they repurposed a different shot over the original background that had the bunny wiping lipstick from his mouth, which made the gag funnier.

During the actual animation process, however, the classical disciplines of cell animation rule the workflow because each character is still drawn a frame at a time. Animation director Eric Goldberg (“Pocahontas” and “Fantasia 2000”), who considers himself Bugs and Daffy's “keeper,” supervised the other animators and cleanup artists while intentionally deciding to adopt the spirit of the Chuck Jones classic shorts of the 1940s and '50s.

Goldberg used a Wacom Cintiq tablet to create key character pose drawings for animation editors Jason Tucker and Rick Finney to follow, but all of the actual cells created for the film were crafted with traditional pencil and paper. Using frame grabs from the edit system, Goldberg determined key moments in the animation action and sketched them in using PhotoShop on the Wacom board. This efficiently created a rough animatic they could use to assess a sequence's timing and to subsequently screen producers for their preliminary approval.

But perhaps the most visually scintillating sequence involving hand-drawn animation comes when Elmer Fudd is chasing Bugs and Daffy through the Louvre museum in Paris. As they jump into masterpieces from different eras, the look of the animation takes on the appearance of each great master's signature style. Scott Johnston, the film's artistic coordinator, and his animation team gave Bugs and Daffy a melting look when they dove into Salvador Dali's surrealistic “Persistence of Memory,” or the appearance of a lithographic print as they scrambled through Toulouse-Lautrec's Moulin Rouge posters. Johnston's crew used a combination of custom-written software along with Apple's Shake, Alias's Maya, and ink and paint tools from U. S. Animation to emulate each artist's distinctive visual style.

Finally, when the duck and rabbit pop out of George Seurat's “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” the famed Pointillism technique spews a shower of colored dots after them into the gallery.

That's just one example of the devices that the animators added to the gags in the original script during production. As with most of the Warner Bros. Animation legacy, it's a joke inserted just for its own humor's sake. Hopefully, this will be just one more in a long line of classics from the originators of character-driven animation featuring everyone's favorite rabbit and duck.

BaDeep-BaDeep-BaDeep, That's All Folks!

L.T. Martin is a post-production consultant living in the Los Angeles area.

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