MPC breaks down its mischievous Mini-Puft shots in ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’.
Wildly contrasting with its–spoiler alert–photoreal digital human work in Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, MPC Film also worked on some of the super-fun shots of the Mini-Pufts encountered by Paul Rudd’s character in the supermarket.
Animation supervisor Christophe Paradis tells befores & afters how toddlers were the inspiration for the movement of the Mini-Pufts, and how their violent ways helped make the scenes as humorous as possible.
b&a: How did these Mini-Puft shots come MPC’s way?
Christophe Paradis: DNEG had started work on the marshmallows before we did. We were mainly working on Egon for the most part. Then the VFX supervisor Alessandro Ongaro and director Jason Reitman came in and said, ‘Hey, we would love it if you guys could animate some Mini-Puft shots as well in the supermarket.’ Two involved the barbecue, another was the s’mores and then the other big one was the blender. We said, ‘Yes, absolutely. We’ll do this!’
b&a: When you got started on those shots, what were some of the early motion tests that you did?
Christophe Paradis: Because of their design and the fact that they are Mini-Pufts, and due to the proportions of their body, the most relevant thing for us was to look at toddlers. There’s nothing more psychotic than a character that is super cute but terrifying at the same. It’s just two opposite contrasts together.
I think that’s what makes the Mini-Puft really special is that contrast. And then, what’s not cute about a toddler? So we looked at every kind of movement that’s appropriate to a toddler, like, slight clumsiness. They don’t quite know what to do with their body yet. They’re a little bit wobbly. They waddle around. These Mini-Pufts are also kind of blocky and puffed up. Toddlers are also good for that! They move in an awkward way. Those are all things we wanted to take and infuse in these characters as much as we could.
In terms of references, we couldn’t do this in all honesty without going into the ’80s, because that’s of course ‘all-Ghostbusters’. Jason actually used animatronics in this film and real props for the Terror Dogs, for example. So we thought, ‘Okay, what can we get inspired by from the ’80s? We looked at Gremlins for when they turn into pure evil and they wreak havoc, especially the bar scene. We said, ‘How did they film this? How did they frame this? What makes it funny? Are there actions that we can seek inspiration from?’
It gave us a lot of information into timing and composition, including to have the right timing for another action say in the background. That’s the challenge with big establishing shots with a lot of characters that all look the same, where do I look? We knew we needed to orchestrate this in a way where the audience knew where to look and at what time. Referencing movies like Gremlins was a good help for that.
The last piece of reference was about channelling our inner evil. Thinking about, what did we used to do when we were kids in the schoolyard, to pick on other kids, or if another one was a bully? Those are all very relevant thoughts for the animation team.
b&a: As part of looking at yourselves and thinking about what you used to do, did the animators shoot vidref of themselves?
Christophe Paradis: We did, but not that much, because it just goes to the nature of the Mini-Puft themselves. If we filmed ourselves doing an action, we were a little bit worried that we would get too much realism into the movements. We didn’t want them to look like an adult. We didn’t want them to be very human in a way.
Going straight to keyframe from just our imagination meant that we could keep them very much as a character that was not too relatable to humans, even though they are bipeds, and they’re doing very, very human things. But at least in their motions, we went a little bit more comical and cartoony.
b&a: So definitely no motion capture, even just for blocking or anything?
Christophe Paradis: Not at all, quite the opposite.
b&a: Were the Mini-Pufts rigged in any particular kind of way, or was there any kind of FX sim side of it that helped with their motion?
Christophe Paradis: Yeah, absolutely. Because they are marshmallows, that just lends itself very much for squash and stretch. And so, in the barbecue shot, for example, one of them gets skewered right through the body by another. Actually, he skewers two of them at the same time. And it just goes right through the body and with a lot of energy. It allowed us to be overly violent with it. Every little thing needed to be violent. Like skewering had to overshoot. If they fall, we had to have another one fall onto his buddy. Or, there was the melting.
b&a: I was thinking, when one of them goes through the grate of the barbecue and he’s burning, I mean, how could you resist not doing a Terminator 2 moment there?
Christophe Paradis: Well, you know what? When he was melting, that’s something Jason told us! He said, ‘That needs to be in there’. And it was just a great reference to Terminator. It was just perfect. The whole movie is about Easter eggs and nostalgia and all that stuff.
b&a: The s’mores thing is really funny to me. Because in Australia, s’mores has become this breakout hit. Was there any particularly challenging thing with getting that layer of chocolate and biscuit and the heating gun thing to work together?
Christophe Paradis: Oh, yeah. That was definitely a challenge. We had to work out, how do they bring the chocolate? How do they layer everything with that one marshmallow in the middle? And then we thought, ‘How about that marshmallow in the middle actually is a part of it?’ He helps the whole deal, he wants to get melted.
b&a: It’s part of their mischievous character, but I love that they’re just always smiling. People might think it’s quite simple, but I’m curious about consistency and getting the right emotions for all these different Pufts that need to be smiling.
Christophe Paradis: That’s a great question. Actually, one of the things is–and this again, goes back to Jason’s vision of keeping things simple–it was all about having a little sense of animatronic, stop-motion-y kind of old school-ness to them. For animators, there’s often a tendency to push everything, like adding emotions and pops and everything. Here we had to be very careful and tell everyone, ‘No, no, no. We’re going to tame this down. We’re just going to keep it very simple with the facial.’ That allowed us to get just that much more psychotic with them.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the meme, overly attached girlfriend?
Christophe Paradis: She just has the face. You see a lot of eye white, and her smile. It feels like anything can happen. We thought, ‘Man, this is great. We don’t need to animate it or make it squish. Let’s just let that face be like that, and then it’s just going to create even more contrast to everything that’s happening.’
I mean, they are getting torched. They are getting melted, burnt. They’re falling, they’re killing each other. One of them is playing soccer with another one’s head. But they’re all just happy about it. And they’re enjoying the moment, and they’re psychotic.
So it was important, just as you say, to actually not animate them too much. Sometimes we put in facial expressions, just enough to acknowledge the action. Eye-line can be important. That’s always important, but we would just put a, ‘Ooh’, or maybe like a little frown, just enough to signal, oh, he’s annoyed, or he’s enjoying it. Like the s’mores. The s’mores one is enjoying the heat, and he goes into a cosy like, ‘Oh, I’m getting s’mores. This is great.’
b&a: My final question is, what was it like then doing marshmallows compared to say the digital human work you did on the film? That seems, of course, to be such a contrast.
Christophe Paradis: Yes, it’s completely different. We had to put in just a tonne of care, a tonne of emotion. We had to be scientific to really pay attention to anatomy. And this is a real human. This is someone that we know about. It’s much more serious in tone, just the setting of that. That was a completely different tone.
Actually, we did most of our work on Egon first, and then it overlapped a little bit, but it was kind of like two different chapters in our work. It was like the very serious, emotional, caring side that had to be just absolutely perfect, to the pixel, and then contrasted to the, ‘let’s brainstorm and have as much wild of fun as we can.’