Remember those giraffes in ’12 Monkeys’?

Here’s how they were crafted in CG, along with some of the other animals in the film.

It’s now 25 years since the theatrical release of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a sci-fi film with a dystopian difference that also featured a raft of visual effects, including several CG animals made at a time when photoreal digital creatures were still somewhat in their infancy.

That CG animal work—along with a number of matte paintings, virtual sets and composites—was led back then by Peerless Camera Company and visual effects supervisor Kent Houston. Here Houston re-visits for befores & afters the now iconic giraffe bridge shot and that of the digital flamingoes, plus how other animal scenes were constructed for the film.

b&a: What do you remember about the challenges in 1995 of re-creating CG giraffes, and animating them to run like that? What do you feel made that bridge shot work so well?

Kent Houston: At the time we exclusively used Softimage, as it was known then. Obviously the tools for creating photoreal animals back then were really quite limited, so we had to decide how far away we needed to be from the giraffes for them to be accepted as real.

Trips to London zoo for all involved were essential, and although we were not able to observe them running we did get a good sense of their strange gait. For the running animation we studied what library material we could find, and rigged and hand animated the giraffes as required. In those days we used Mental Ray for rendering and managed to get a good look to the shots with the lighting tools then available.

b&a: How did Peerless handle the flocking CG flamingoes back then? What do you recall was tricky about that kind of shot then?

Kent Houston: Again, it was a question of studying the real birds at the zoo and then hand animating them to suit. We didn’t use any flocking software at that time—all the paths and cycles were manually set and tweaked until we had something we were happy with. We were lucky in that we had some talented animators in house, and had always focussed on photoreal work, as we do now. What really helped with both the giraffe and flamingo shots was that they were not lock-offs, but had the characteristics of ‘grabbed’ shots. This was obviously more difficult for us but made a big difference to the believability of the images.

b&a: For some of the other animal scenes, it seems like real animals were able to be filmed either on location or on set. Is that generally how they were done? What kind of compositing work do you remember was involved?

Kent Houston: Yes, we were lucky in that we were able to shoot some real animals on location in Philadelphia, although we had discussed a CG fallback which we were able to keep up our sleeves.

A common issue with animals on set is that the trainers typically promise they can do everything you need, and more, and then the animals fail to perform. There actually are not that many animal shots in the film but are enough to convince you that the city is being overrun by creatures. We also shot a few animals in the UK which were provided by a well-known circus. The monkey shots are comps shot against green or blue, using digitally-created backgrounds.