‘You’re going to have to remind me, which are the CG dogs?’

A deep dive into the digital dogs MPC Film made for ‘Cruella’.

During post-production on Cruella, the movie’s visual effects supervisor Max Wood was showing a VFX scene to director Craig Gillespie and editor Tatiana S. Riegel. It was from a moment in the film in which a young Estella, holding a puppy, is being driven by her mother into the car park of Hellman Hall.

“For that scene,” recounts Wood, “we did a take with a real puppy, and then for the rest of the takes the actor was holding a green stuffy. So in the film there’s a live-action puppy for three shots, and then there’s about 10 shots all scattered through it with a CG puppy. We’re literally cutting from the CG puppy, to the mother, and then back to the live-action puppy, back to the mother, and then back to the CG puppy again.”

Wood and MPC Film (the VFX studio from which he hails) had of course been working with the filmmakers on these digital dog shots for some months. However, this particular session with Gillespie and Riegel was one of the first, owing to the pandemic, where they had all been able to view the scene as a complete edit at 2K resolution.

Original plate.
Final shot.

“We watched it all through,” details Wood, “and then Craig said, ‘You’re going to have to remind me, which are the CG dogs, because I can’t remember?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to take it that means that you’re happy with it.’”

Indeed, that was the ultimate task Wood–who oversaw the film’s VFX with visual effects producer Sarah Tulloch–and MPC Film set out to achieve on Cruella; crafting photorealistic synthetic dogs that would be indistinguishable from the real dogs used on set and could do things that the real dogs could not be trained to do. MPC would also ultimately need to achieve shots where both CG and real dogs ‘acted’ alongside each other, or even mix and match parts of live-action and parts of CG dogs together (more on that particular challenge, later).

To get to that point, the visual effects team followed a meticulous process of acquiring reference, 3D scanning, shooting with the dogs and trainers on set, incorporating stuffies and stand-ins into the shoot, building eight separate CG dogs, and then delivering them as final animated performances.

Here’s how, step-by-step, MPC Film did it.

Scanning and reference

To start the process of building digital dogs, the hero dogs used during the shoot were 3D scanned in multi-camera photogrammetry rigs from Clear Angle Studios. You might think that getting a dog to stand still for a scan would be tricky, but Wood says the dogs were amazing at this, except for one complication.

“It’s really just a split second—just the speed of the flash—in terms of how long they have to stand still for,” the visual effects supervisor shares. “However, the problem was that some of the dogs didn’t like the sound of the flashes. We were lucky in the fact that the dogs playing Buddy and Wink were great and they would just sit on the box, and the trainer would be there to get them sitting down or lying down or posing for different scans.

“The three hero Dalmatians were also good,” adds Wood, “but then two of the doubles just refused to go in the room. They’d hear the flashes and really didn’t like it. We’d have to sit them outside the room to get used to the sound.”

Max Wood (at left) reviews a set-up with director Craig Gillespie.

Then, for animation reference, there was a further ‘capture’ session with video taken of real dog actions. “We went to the backlot of the studio and set out, depending on which dog it was, a 20 metre stretch or a 10 metre stretch, and then we timed them walking, sort of trotting, running, sprinting,” outlines Wood. “So as well as filming them, we timed them so that we knew exactly over a particular length that this was how much ground they covered if they were doing these different types of walking, running etc.”

This became particularly useful for previs, says Wood. “Previs can often be something done in such a rushed way because you want to get it into the movie. Often things are cheated but here I really wanted to make sure that we knew how fast the dogs could go for real, so then in previs we would match to those speeds and then the shots would fit in with the rest of the movie, and it’d be the correct thing for when we actually go and shoot it.”

Dog motion capture was considered though ultimately deemed unnecessary since a large amount of reference could be acquired from which MPC Film could roto-animate dog performances. That reference included a short additional period at the end of the shoot to acquire very specific actions. Says Wood: “I got the heads of departments from MPC together, and I got editorial to make a list of every time we were likely to have a CG dog in the movie. We had some little proxy sets or some steps and we could actually film these with the dogs from as many angles as possible to use as reference.”

Wood praises the animal trainers in both providing unique dog performances on set, and providing reference to the VFX team. “In fact,” notes Wood, “even in post, I was texting Julie Tottman, the trainer for Buddy, asking, ‘Hey Julie, could you film him doing this…’. It’s actually her own dog as well, which makes it easier. She was so great doing a video of him, and it was always the perfect reference.”

The shoot

Just about every scene that would involve a CG dog saw trainers carry out at least two takes to serve as reference in the plate, notes Wood. “I really wanted a real dog in the plate, even if it was just walking through, just so we could see as much as possible how much the muscles were moving underneath the skin, or to see how the fur was reacting to the lighting.”

Prior to the shoot, the photogrammetry scans enabled 3D prints of each dog to be done, based on early MPC Film models. These then served as stand-ins on set. “We sprayed them in the same gray paint as we use for our gray ball reference,” explains Wood. “We’d move those through the scene exactly where the dogs’ path was to pick up further lighting reference.”

Original plate.
Final shot.

In addition, small weighted stuffies were made that the actors could hold onto. “It was just so when they’re carrying them there is some weight there and they’re not just like a piece of rubber,” states Wood. “We actually also ended up chopping the limbs and their heads off—it doesn’t sound very nice, but it was just so that we didn’t have to paint so much out.”

The stuffies happened to be relied upon on the very first day of shooting with the dogs, relates Wood. “We were at the back of Liberty when Estella comes out with the banana on her face, and she’s talking to Horace and Jasper. Through some of that scene the dogs Wink and Buddy are CG sometimes and real sometimes. When Wink jumps off the garbage can into Horace’s hands, he’s CG there. In the plates, there’s me holding a stuffy, and I throw it at Horace. MPC painted me out. It could be my starring moment, but they got rid of me! Anyway, I threw the Wink stuffy into Horace’s hands, he grabs him, and then he holds him on his shoulder, and it was great because it meant it had the right volume.”

After the shoot

To help with the editorial process after shooting, Technicolor’s Post Visualization team helped craft postvis dog animation on top of live-action plates (they had also been involved with MPC Film in the previs process). In addition, the postvis team would do temp replacements of greenscreens, bluescreens and other elements for the purposes of early screenings.

“We tried to take the postvis of the dogs as far as possible in postvis,” comments Wood. “You don’t want people commenting on the dogs in these screenings because it’s taking them out of the film. And then also it helps for MPC’s first blocking pass of animation. If they’ve got really good postvis to base off then I can say, ‘Hey, the timing’s right here, go for it.’”

How to deliver digital dogs

MPC Film’s Character Lab, which created the digital dogs, started their actual CG builds as early as possible, taking in all the scanning data and reference material possible. The studio has in recent years undertaken a multitude of ‘real’ animal work, and generally followed the same process they usually follow to build the eight dogs necessary.

Wood says that one of the main areas of further development was the fur shader that had first been implemented on The Lion King. Here it was further updated in terms of a revised physically-based shading approach. “Also, I’ve done several movies now where we’ve had white horses and, it’s the hardest thing. I was like, ‘Oh, Dalmatians, a lot of white fur!’ White fur is just, for some reason, really difficult to get right. So that’s one of the other reasons we really wanted to make sure that we made our shader as good as possible.”

Original plate.
Final shot.

The VFX studio’s well-established approach to modeling and muscle sims was followed for the dogs, too. Interestingly, a CG dog similar in appearance to Buddy called Bob had been crafted for The One and Only Ivan by MPC Film. Wood says the MPC asset supervisor, though, wanted to take the dog even further and start from scratch. “Buddy actually took the longest, because his groom was so full-on with all the tufts of fur, all different directions, and the clumping. He was actually a little bit more complicated than the other dogs.”

When it came time to approach final animation, Wood worked closely with the MPC Film visual effects and animation team (headed by VFX supervisor Damien Stumpf and VFX producer Christoph Roth) to establish the exact performance required. “Before they started a shot, I asked them to send me a video reference of a dog doing what they were going to put in the shot. They would have a picture-in-picture with the previs and reference or shots from the set or even things from YouTube.”

Real and CG, and sometimes a bit of both

When asked about the toughest dog shots MPC Film had to pull off in Cruella, Wood notes several examples. “There’s one shot where they to the groomers and the Dalmatians are in the bath,” recalls Wood. “In that shot the bodies are real but all their heads are CG because the Dalmatians didn’t look quite aggressive enough. We’d built these as very high-res assets which means they could be close to camera. We had to paint the original dog head out, but we actually left the real bubbles on their heads in.”

A later scene of the dogs running out of the grooming shop and into Horace’s awaiting van made use of both real and CG dogs. “It was almost comical trying to get these three Dalmatians to run out,” observes Wood. “Wink was always going to be CG there, so he’s CG running out in front of them. Then we did multiple takes with all three Dalmatians. One would miss the doors. Two would jump in, then one would wait, look at Horace, and then jump in. In the end we realized one dog was doing it consistently. So I said, ‘Well, let’s just shoot it with one dog, and we’ll add two dogs.’ So in that shot, one of the dogs is real and then two are CG.”

Original plate.
Final shot.

One unusually challenging aspect of the work was realizing Buddy as a puppy. The real puppy grew throughout the shoot, meaning his actual size and shape changed slightly. “When they brought another puppy in to replace him,” remembers Wood, “this new puppy looked very different. His fur changed a lot during the shoot, as well. He went from being very silky, like short hair, to being much more fluffy by the end. So, we actually ended up replacing that puppy with our CG one. In the end I said to Craig, ‘Let’s just use the stuffy and we’ll just do CG for the rest of the puppy shots.’”

Another puppy scene called on the expertise of paint and roto artists, in particular, to help sell the shot, as Wood recounts. “There’s a shot where Estella’s running through the party, and she’s carrying a real dog. We realized in the edit that she had put the dog down by a certain stage—because the edit had changed—so we had to paint her jacket back in, and the guys did it super-quick. It was really great.”

Finally, Wood identifies a CG dog visual effect that proved to be one of the toughest in the film. This was the emotional scene where Estella is sitting on a bench talking to Horace and Jasper. It’s a moment that wasn’t initially intended to include any dogs at all, but this was later changed to feature Buddy jumping up next to Estella. MPC Film inserted Buddy as a digital dog, after the Buddy trainer sent through some bespoke reference for animators to follow.

“It was really difficult to get Buddy emoting and feeling sad for Estella and still feel like a dog that would look around, but without being distracting,” says Wood. “The thing is, they’re really long takes, and a dog just doesn’t look at someone for that long, so he had to look away, and then it’s like, ‘Oh no, he’s looking way too much. Oh no, he’s too focused on her.’ We would need to get rid of a little bit of the eye darting, because as much as that’s what it looks like in the reference, it can be distracting. So in that scene, even though he’s not really doing a lot, it was really tough to get right.”

Cruella’s VFX journey

Ultimately, MPC Film would deliver 1158 shots for Cruella, which extended to such other visual effects as environments for 1970s London, as well as fashion and costumes for Cruella herself. Digital dogs made up around 250 shots. For Wood, it all proved to be very close to home when, during post-production, he got a rescue puppy that happened to grow up to actually resemble Estella’s dog.

“I was actually walking in the street yesterday, and there was a couple behind me who went, ‘Oh my God. He looks just like the dog out of Cruella!’ I sent a picture of him to the trainer and said, ‘Hey, look, I’ve got my own little Buddy now, as well.’”

Disney’s Cruella arrives early on all major digital platforms on June 25 and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD September 21.

Original plate.
Final shot.
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