By Paul Hellard
There were more than 500 CG artists from the MPC Technicolor network onboard to create the menagerie of animals for The One and Only Ivan movie, released recently on Disney+. MPC Film’s global studios worked to craft 1055 shots together to bring to life a gorilla, dog, two elephants, a seal, rabbit, poodle, chicken and a parrot, into its photorealistic full CG environments and digital set extensions.
Production VFX Supervisor Nick Davis oversaw MPC VFX Supervisor Ben Jones and Animation Supervisor Greg Fisher leading MPC Film’s VFX and Animation team into the filmmaking process quite early in the process. They helped conceive a custom production workflow which would enable director Thea Sharrock to realise a story predominantly led by animals, with large passages of script absent of human performers. Sharrock had some great theatre direction work behind her, and some success with her earlier first foray into cinema with Me Before You.
MPC Film has been one of the global leaders in VFX for over 25 years and counting, with industry-leading studios in London, Los Angeles, Bangalore, and Montréal. Animating everything from lifelike fur, to dynamic crowd scenes, to massive destruction sequences, they are scene builders, with a direct line to the director’s creative vision.
This was Ben Jones’ first ‘run’ at being the VFX Supervisor on a movie for MPC, although his quiver is full of epic productions including two Narnia movies, a Pirates of the Caribbean, Life of Pi, Alien: Covenant, Jungle Book and Lion King, as Character Supervisor, CG Supervisor and other capacities. “The One And Only Ivan was such a great show to work on, because Thea Sharrock, the director, was so accessible all the time,” says Jones via Zoom from London. “We were on set in at Pinewood from the very beginning, working closely as part of the on-set team. It really felt like a collaborative show, and Danny DeVito was always there as well, so it was a lot of fun.”
The Production VFX Supervisor Nick Davis met with the filmmakers in 2017 to build the blueprint and plan the visual effects requirements for the project, which included designs for the characters and environments, planning a Virtual Photography, Previs and overseeing the complex VFX and animation work that was to be crafted by MPC Film’s artists.
There were two distinct production and shoot phases. First was the more traditional set and location shoot ‘for the humans’, and then the virtual set shoot phase began. This was essentially half the movie.
Very early on, MPC’s Environment team built completely CG views of the African plains, the ‘Big Top Mall’ exterior and dense jungle. These had to match the cinematic look of the live action sections of the movie, each of the camera lens’s distinctive features were replicated and used, and subtleties like lens-breathing during focus shifts were included on full CG shots to give added film realism.
The team from MPC’s Character Lab researched gorillas, reaching into research on their bone structure, muscles, the subtle nuances of their movement, behaviour and their eyes. Ivan’s eyes and subtle expressions had to speak volumes to the audience.
A motion capture performance artist was requested to play Ivan the silverback gorilla. This enabled the director, Thea Sharrock to block the sequences and approve the set design before shooting. A two-week motion capture stage shoot was set up, in order to capture Ivan’s physical movement with pre-recorded playback from the voice actors to govern the pacing of scenes.
Very early on, a large wooden frame was built to represent the cage Ivan is sitting in, and a performance actor, Ben Bishop, stood in for Ivan the silverback gorilla. He would act out the dialogue played back from Sam Rockwell’s final voice track. “Ben Bishop would work alongside the other puppeteers for the other characters, and Thea the director, as well as Greg Fisher, the animation director,” explains Jones. “The Black Box was kind of like a rehearsal suite, devised to workshop how the director wanted to cover the sequence. Then the MoCap suits and markers would then be added in subsequent walk-throughs in the larger studio. Puppeteers played the other animals to give the actors eye lines and a rough blocking layout for MPC’s animators. You have to understand that in most scenes, the environment and background, the cage etc was all CG.”
Once the master scenes had been animation-approved, these clips were then used to drive MPC’s Genesis Virtual Production tool kit. This enabled the Virtual Reality tools to be used to capture the data through the eyes of a virtual set of camera tools. Using dollies, camera heads, cranes and steady-cam, the cinematographer could shoot the master scenes on a stage and view the pre-recorded animation clips from any chosen perspective. “This was the same Technicolor pre-production pipeline we used on the Lion King,” explains Jones. “We had a warehouse set up as the moCap volume, and all the scenes were in Unity, built and guided from the Black Box sessions.”
“Thea Sharrock could see a silverback gorilla talking to a scruffy terrier. swinging, talking and roaring,” says Jones. “She could see a final shot within the virtual production screens, react, direct and give feedback the same way she would on a live action shoot.” MPC’s work on The One and Only Ivan is more proof a movie can be created using virtual production by a director who isn’t necessarily knowledgeable in the technical side of VFX.