Behind the stuffies and stand-ins used to make ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’

VFX supervisor Blair Clark reveals how stuffies, all the way from a small red beanbag to a giant red structure puppeteered by two people, were created for the film.

The feature story in the first issue of befores & afters magazine was about stuffies, and one of the VFX supes I interviewed about his use of stuffies over the years was Blair Clark, who gave some great insight into their role on the Ted films.

It was therefore a delight to discover that Clark was again utilizing stuffies–in a BIG way–as visual effects supervisor on Clifford the Big Red Dog. I got the chance to ask him how he helped plan out the use of the stand-ins, which ranged from a large two-person puppeteered structure, to single dog-heads and to small bean-bag representations.

b&a: Blair, as you know, I’m slightly obsessed with stuffies and stand-ins. What’s interesting to me is to go back to your initial considerations about how you were going to have something there on set that could be puppeteered, that would be good for a stand-in–both for a big dog and maybe a small dog as well.

Blair Clark: Those were some of the first discussions I had with the director, Walt Becker, producer, Jordan Kerner, and VFX producer, Susan MacLeod, where we said, ‘Okay. We know we’ve got a big dog. It’s going to be about 10 feet tall and going to be in groups of large amounts of people outside in the public. How are we going to tackle all this stuff?’

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We arrived at the solution pretty quickly. Walt actually said, ‘Maybe it’s got to be something like those big Chinese dragons in the parades.’ So I did up some design sketches, thinking, ‘Well, if we have two people, a front and a back like the classic horse puppet, then we can utilize that for when we need the full dog, and then we can split it in half when we only need to perform with the front half.

Regardless, we needed something that was going to solve all the eyelines for everybody, especially if you have the public involved or a lot of extras because it’s always a headache if you get two extras looking in the complete opposite direction than they’re supposed to. So we knew that we needed something that would be representative of the dog, but not unwieldy, because it’s used in a lot of the movie.

I contacted my friend Mark Rappaport, who has a company called Creature Effects Inc. He had created very high quality stuffies on several previous film I had been on. I explained what we were looking for, and he took my initial crude sketches and engineered something that was really great.

The person in the front half of it had complete control of the neck and the head and could make it look around. They could not only just be an eyeline but they could actually really perform. Mark and his team really knocked it out of the park with this puppet.

b&a: What was that made of, that particular puppet that could have two people in it?

Blair Clark: It had a pretty rigid understructure that we filled with holes, kind of like Swiss cheese, so that the puppeteers would have line-of-sight access. We knew they were going to be performing outside in the New York heat, so that was another concern. We couldn’t wrap these guys in a lot of fabric. The mechanical aspect of it was thin-walled aluminium tubing and some steel structure, but the rest of it was built-up foam covered with a red fabric.

b&a: Was the size of it based on early size tests or any previs?

Blair Clark: We knew the approximate size. We actually had two sizes. We had an eight-foot and a ten-foot version. We had one size for indoor use because it’d have to get through door frames and normal housing interior architecture. Then we had an external size, which was a little bit bigger, just to give him a little more scale outside so he didn’t feel too diminutive.

The puppet could be adjusted to serve as both the 8 and 10 foot versions, and we also knew that, with this thing, we wouldn’t be able to shoot completely clean plates for everything, so we knew we were going to either cover it most of the time with the CG version or, in some cases, paint out certain aspects of it. So, we knew we had to stick to the size of what the dog was going to be and be accurate.

We had planned what the scale of Clifford was going to be early on. In fact, really early on in the scheme of things, I made a tongue-and-groove ‘Gator-board’ version to use for scouting locations. Of course, I make this stuffie and then they hand it to me to go out and run across the field with! You know, holding this giant thing, and everybody’s looking at you. You get over the embarrassment pretty quickly. I think I made like three sizes of that, just to confirm the size we were going to use, and then we took that information and applied it to what Creature Effects was going to create.

b&a: Was there any discussion about whether this big thing should have any fake fur on it to help with lighting or interaction?

Blair Clark: Yes, indeed. Actually, for some parts of it, we did put fur on. We had the ears, and we actually used that very effectively for the first time the girl wakes up and Clifford’s big and she’s holding onto his ear. We actually had that ear with the fake fur. She was holding onto it, so any fur that would poke between her fingers meant we could work that into the CG version of Clifford and maybe get a little bit of something for ‘free.’

The other thing was, we knew that we had to be somewhat accurate to the width of his muzzle, for example when she would grab his face, so we had little bolsters that we could velcro onto this thing that also be furry things. We didn’t use those as much. We ended up just having to grab the head, knowing that we could always squeeze the head into her hands. Rarely would you see both hands on each side of the muzzle, so we had a little bit of flexibility there.

For the most part, it was covered with a red fabric, which we thought was going to be a good idea at the time. But in shooting the first scenes with large puppet, when the actors would get close to it they would just have this giant red bounce light on them. Our director of photography, Peter Collister, asked if there was something that could be done about it, so I covered sections of it with strips of gray gaffer’s tape to reduce the amount of exposed red fabric. Ultimately we made some gray fabric masks to cover the heads with a reduced amount of the red visible that actually would be a helpful amount of color bounce to help integrate Clifford into the shots.

b&a: That’s interesting, do you think a blue version would have had less of a bounce light issue, or just as much?

Blair Clark: Probably just as much, and just as much in the wrong way. We had too much red, but a little bit of red was actually good, and we took advantage of that later. At the beginning of pre-production, it’s guesswork. We’re asking ourselves, ‘What if we see this thing in car windows as they’re driving by? Let’s just try and make it as close as possible but not go overboard.’

b&a: With the two performers in the stuffy, did they or did they need to go through any kind of ‘acting like a dog’ school?

Blair Clark: Oh yeah, absolutely. We went through a small casting process, trying to find these two gentlemen, and we were calling around for puppeteers that had worked with that kind of thing. In New York, a lot of the Sesame Street guys work in Astoria, so we are hoping that maybe we’d get lucky and get somebody with some experience of doing something like this.

We did find two guys who didn’t work on the Sesame Street shows, but they were very experienced puppeteers, Rowan Magee and Jon Riddleberger, and those guys were troopers. We explained in the clearest detail about how awful it was going to be: ‘You’re going to have these things on you that are going to be heavy, and you’re going to be in the middle of the heat,’ and stuff like this, and they were game. They were like, ‘Yeah. Bring it on,’ and they were amazing.

Then it went into the performance, and we had them review a lot of dog-mannerism videos, and anything they could bring to it as well. We treated them like actors. They knew what the scenes were, they knew what their role was and where they had to be, and for a large part of it we just let them act and stay in character. They built a lot of these mannerisms that we embraced and went with in the CG version. So it was great. It was really helpful.

b&a: There’s two of them, but then I think I saw that occasionally there’s just one person holding a dog-head stuffy, right? Was that more about space issues, or was that just to try and get the performance?

Blair Clark: It was more about space. When we would have the full dog stuffy there, it was usually when you were in public; when you had to keep people from walking through the footprint of the dog. Then, a lot of the other times, for the interior shots, we would bring the hindquarters in, just to confirm the space.

The two guys were always in this thing most of the day, so they would swap out. They had it down to a science. I think they had a timer in there, ‘Okay, it’s time to switch out,’ because we only had two of those guys and we couldn’t damage them.

b&a: What did you do for small Clifford? Was that a beanbag-type stuffy?

Blair Clark: Yeah, once again, Creature Effects made our little stuffy for that, and we had a couple of them. We had some that were very much dog-shaped that we could stand somewhere and we could put on a stick and move around. It wasn’t as much help for us; it was mainly for the actors so they could see, ‘Oh, he’s a little dog. That’s how big he is. That’s how tall he is when he stands there.’

When they would grab him or hold him, we had little sausage- shaped beanbags that were the right diameter so that it had some weight to it and they could actually manipulate it. Then that was just up to me to go in and hold a little head sized ball where his head would be so that if they are petting him, they would be contacting him at the appropriate location. There was a lot of managing that because that kind of stuff can get tricky when they’re interacting with pieces that aren’t in the right spot.

b&a: Not only did you have this dog, a CG dog, but then she rides the dog at some point. I’ve seen some behind-the-scenes footage where you actually had this buck on set, but then there’s also a greenscreen portion of that. Tell me about the on-set buck.

Blair Clark: That was made by our special effects team, led by the special effects foreman, Devon Maggio. Once again, I gave them a sliced-up version of the cross sections of this thing and they built it almost like you would an aeroplane wing, with cross sections to make it the right size and figured out how much they would need. First of all was figuring out where she sits along his back, and we realized as close to his shoulder blades as possible would be great so she’s not too far back. Then we figured out how much of that center section they would have to make that would be helpful.

b&a: How did, then, the greenscreen set-up work? I guess it was on a motion base of some kind.

Blair Clark: Yeah, it was stationary on a motion base, and that thing, man, you kind of get an appreciation for the power of those, of hydraulics and pneumatics. Our first AD, Benita Allen, she’s very into horses and has taught horse riding, so at one point I had to get on this thing and she of course came out there and was giving me pointers. She would say, ‘You don’t ride like that.’

I replied, ‘I know, but he’s a big dog, so there’s a little bit of artistic license’ which resulted in a cocked eyebrow and smirk from Benita. (We did in fact take advantage of Benita’s expertise with her giving helpful tips and pointers to the actress while riding the motion base that were very helpful).

b&a: It’s ‘movie’ riding.

Blair Clark: Yeah, and, ‘I just want to get off this thing.’

b&a: Was it linked to any early animation or previs?

Blair Clark: Yeah, we had to figure out the approximate camera movements. Our artists and animators at MPC made some run cycles so that it would actually gallop or run as a dog would in the right way.

b&a: I was going to ask you a silly question about stuffies for the two-headed goat. Did you need anything for that?

Blair Clark: We did have a stuffy for that because we knew they were going to break out and be interacting with the public out there. They weren’t really stuffed, but they were large sheep-like things that we did use. Those were mostly used for framing and getting just some kind of idea of what it would do, but they weren’t as elaborate at all. The two-headed thing, that was done in post-production.

b&a: I’ve been thinking about stuffies ever since I wrote that long article for the magazine, and the whole point of them, which is as a stand-in or for eyeline, and lighting reference. I was curious if you felt that there might be any AR or virtual production things, or technologies, that could do the job of stuffies or complement them? I guess what I mean is would you ever consider, with something like a Clifford film, going with the more AR thing where you actually have a model, a CG model of Clifford, and framing shots with that and actors being able to see that? I guess this does already happen a little bit, but now seems like the time that real-time is really pushing forward for this kind of thing.

Blair Clark: I think it’s definitely got a place and a use, and it’s very helpful. Right now, there’s a very substantial price tag attached to things like that. So that comes into play early on, and probably more than anything would be the raison d’etre for making a determination on that.

That, and then the usability of it. Is it something like he’s just going to be standing there and we interact with a performance, because then yeah, absolutely. That’d be great. But if they have to physically interact with him, then you would probably want to incorporate something a little lower tech, like what we did, with an actual stuffy where you can reach up and pet him and know that your hand’s going to contact something right where it should be.
But yeah, absolutely. I’m all for whatever works and embracing all the fun toys that are being more and more available.

b&a: You also mentioned clean plates earlier. I sometimes don’t give that process enough of its dues, and I’m curious what you did there-

Blair Clark: Nor does anybody else.

b&a: Exactly, I mean, you of course want clean plates, to paint out the stuffy and to enable other changes that you might need to make, but what was your general approach here shooting and dealing with clean plates?

Blair Clark: Well, firstly we didn’t have the luxury of time for motion control. The majority of the dog scenes were shot outside, so you’re subject to the weather and the time of day. You’re losing light, and all that stuff. So motion control wasn’t really an option, nor was it anything that we were really looking to do because a lot of times you just need a certain portion of the plate. If a camera operator is adept enough to try and recreate the move that they just did with muscle memory and having the points and lines of sight, that’s great and very usable for most things.

For other things, when you would be doing more specific elements that can’t slide around–things like really high-detailed architectural elements–you would want to try and find something a little more robust.

One of the hardest things was working out what to do for all the surrounding extras. We’d have 20 people around this thing. I’d say, ‘Let’s just clean everybody out of there except for this guy with the striped shirt. He should stay where he is.’ It would always depend on the shot.

It’s also nice to work with filmmakers who have done this quite a bit because then you don’t have to explain and get in the position of where you’re trying to buy the time to shoot that stuff. It’s so easy for it to be overlooked as extra material or not quite needed or, ‘What are you going to use it for?’, but more times than not the clean plates are what ends up in the film. That can sometimes be forgotten.

Film crews always become a sort of family, and this crew was so much fun and rewarding to work with, and I think everyone involved will be proud of what we all have accomplished on this show!

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