In early spring 2010, at the same time as completing work on Marmaduke, Cinesite was creating ancient Persian cities for Prince Of Persia and giant mythological Scorpioch creatures for Clash Of The Titans. That is one of the great things about the visual effects business, the diversity of what we do.
We worked on Marmaduke (Twentieth Century Fox) for almost a year, creating over 650 talking animal shots, which resulted in the creation of a mixture of ten live-action dogs and cats that have had CGI work seamlessly blended into their faces.
Originally based on a newspaper comic strip by Brad Anderson, the film follows the story of a suburban family who move into a new neighbourhood with their large, loveable Great Dane, Marmaduke (voiced by Owen Wilson), who has a tendency to wreak havoc in his own oblivious way.
This was the fourth talking animal film we had created, having proved ourselves to be the experts in this field with previous work on Animal Farm (1999), Underdog (2007) and Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008). Over the years, we've refined our techniques and with every new production our pipeline is adapted and becomes better. Our unique and proprietary system involves a complex hybrid combination of 2D and 3D techniques, and each breed of dog or cat brought its own unique challenges.
Entirely computer generated sections of the animals' faces were blended with the original photography, which was been re-projected over the 3D. Photographic references were supplied to us by the production, which were used to model the 3D heads. The digital heads incorporated the dogs' muscle structures, and a secondary muscle structure was created to mimic the muscles of the human face.
Every director and each film has its own set of artistic requirements, particularly regarding the look and style of the talking animals. In this instance, the client was looking for a "photo-realistic cartoon dog", a combination of the more cartoon-like style of films like Scooby-Doo and Garfield, and the "realism" of Beverly Hills Chihuahua.
The artists did a brilliant job, carefully studying Owen Wilson's mannerisms and reflecting them in Marmaduke's highly expressive face. Trying to capture a real sense of Owen Wilson in a 200lb Great Dane is no mean feat!
In many shots the artists further defined Marmaduke by adding in 3D eyes and whiskers. In all cases there is a seamless blend between shots which are entirely live action, those where the mouth areas alone are 3D, and those with almost entirely digital faces.
There is inevitably a challenge in instances where fully 3d elements are seen side by side with live action. Everyone knows that the animals' mouths must be digital because dogs can't talk! As a result of this, areas of the shot are under a high degree of scrutiny by the film's audience. I believe our work stands up to that scrutiny and I am very proud of what Cinesite's visual effects team has achieved on Marmaduke.
And the future? At the moment we're creating magical effects for the final Harry Potter installments, at the same time as completing contracts for Sony's Battle: Los Angeles, Disney/Pixar's Jon Carter Of Mars and Fox's The Chronicles Of Narnia: Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. These films will all bring their individual challenges, but as a world-class visual effects company we will grow better and better with every one of them.