Talking animal VFX: the pioneering films you might not know about

Speaking of Animals

Before you see ‘Lady and the Tramp’, re-visit these landmark speaking animal effects.

This week marks the release of Disney+’s Lady and the Tramp, a film that utilizes live action and CG animals – which talk.

While many rightly remember Babe (1995) for ushering in a definitive era of talking animal films, there were some major forerunners to the technologies used by Rhythm & Hues on that film.

These include a couple of projects with some fascinating solutions. Here, I’m going to quickly run through the ‘Duo-Plane Process’ that made the Speaking of Animals series of theatrical shorts from 1941 to 1950 possible, the hand-animated talking animals in Willow (1988), and the CG animation crafted for the talking cat in Hocus Pocus (1993).

Speaking of Animals – making mouths move

This series was distributed theatrically by Paramount Pictures, starting in 1941 and running over 50 individual 10 minute shorts. Live-action animals were filmed; to make them talk, their mouths were replaced by hand-animated versions.

Speaking of Animals.

These replacement mouths were based on footage shot of real actors (whose faces were painted black and their lips white) performing the lines. The mouths were rotoscoped and the resulting animation was then matted onto the live action footage using rear-projection. The technique became known as the ‘Duo-Plane Process’. The famous animator Tex Avery had a hand in all of this, too.

Willow – lip sync by animation

Willow was of course a groundbreaking visual effects film. In addition to miniatures, matte paintings and morfing, the movie included a few moments where live action animals, including a possum, speak. Principal VFX house ILM farmed out the scenes to John Van Vliet and Katherine Kean’s Available Light.

They oversaw hand-drawn animation, using an Oxberry stand, of the lips and mouths of these creatures which matched voice-over dialogue. This was then transferred onto transparent cels for optical compositing onto the live action animals.

Hocus Pocus – the birth of CG talking animals in film?

Before Rhythm & Hues tackled Babe (1995), it had already found a niche market in advertising, including by producing a talking chimpanzee for a Michelob Golden Draft commercial. Then the studio took that a step further for Hocus Pocus (1993), in which it needed to make a black cat speak. The approach involved live action photography of a cat on set, with CG head replacement then used for the talking shots.

A sculpted clay cat head was first digitally encoded with a wand. It gave Rhythm & Hues’ artists a wireframe model that could be animated. The final CG head was then tracked and composited onto the real cat, with one of the major challenges being blending the head with the fur of the live-action feline. It was something the studio further refined on Babe, and kick-started a wave of talking animal movies for years to come.

It’s also worth checking out Kevin B. Lee’s video essay ‘The CGI Animal Kingdom of Rhythm & Hues’, which begins with Babe, exploring the studio’s various CG animal adventures.

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