The creators of Hop, the same team that brought you the smash-hit, animated feature film Despicable Me, describe their latest film as “a comedy about candy, chicks and rock’n’roll.” But be warned – in Hop, the chicks will actually be tiny, yellow birds.
Hop is a Universal feature film from Illumination Entertainment that combines live-action characters and CGI-animated critters, most prominently a teenaged bunny with a dream of becoming a rock star drummer. The bunny, E.B., is in line to become the Easter Bunny, but instead runs away from home to pursue his dream. He encounters a slacker named Fred (James Marsden) and becomes the world’s worst house guest. It’s a coming-of-age tale in which E.B. finally grows up, but not without many hilarious adventures along the way.
Peter L. Collister, ASC on the set of Hop. (Photo by Jamie Trueblood © 2011 Universal Studios)
James Marsden (l) and director Tim Hill (r) on the set of Hop. (Photo by Jamie Trueblood © 2011 Universal Studios)
James Marsden in a scene from Hop. (Photo by Jamie Trueblood © 2011 Universal Studios)
Kaley Cuoco (l) and E.B., voiced by Russell Brand. (Photo by Rhythm & Hues/Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment © 2011 Universal Studios)
E.B., voiced by Russell Brand (l) and Fred, played by James Marsden (r) in Hop. (Photo by Rhythm & Hues/Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment © 2011 Universal Studios)
The filmmakers behind Hop brought a wealth of experience to the task. Director Tim Hill and cinematographer Peter Lyons Collister, ASC had previously collaborated on Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties and Alvin & the Chipmunks. The script for Hop required roughly 20% of the scenes to be completely computer generated, and 80% to include a combination of live-action elements, with humans, actual environments, and CGI characters. In an early meeting the question of origination format came up.
“Basically, because of our positive experiences on Garfield 2 and Alvin, the assumption was that we would shoot film,” says Collister. “While we were prepping Alvin, the studio (Fox) put up some pretty severe budget restrictions. Tim and I said ‘If someone can show us how we can save $300,000-500,000 by shooting digital, we’ll entertain the idea. Nobody, including some big name camera manufacturers, was able to show us any real savings at all. Rhythm & Hues, which is our visual effects and compositing house on these projects, prefers film.
“So when the question came up on Hop, we didn’t hesitate,” says Collister. “It was a no-brainer. We knew the workflow, and while I’ve done a couple projects on digital formats, to me, film is the best acquisition medium.” The filmmakers chose the Super 1.85 format, but exposed the full four-perf frame in order to provide room for repositioning in post. “Sometimes the animators can enhance the physical comedy or adjust eyelines by moving elements within the frame,” says Collister. “Sometimes you want the bunny’s ear to flop up, for instance. Shooting four perf gave us that flexibility.”
The cameras and lenses were Panavision, and the film stock was KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219. “I shot the entire movie on one stock, something I’ve never done before,” says Collister. “I wanted to use a stock I knew really well, and it helped me maintain consistency in the contrast. I didn’t want to give the animators any matching problems.”
Surprisingly for a comedy aimed at kids, Collister and his collaborators “lit” the rabbit with some shape and mood. “We have found that if you do flat lighting within a movie that has CGI characters, they tend to look less photo-real than if the lighting is a bit moodier or darker,” says Collister. “We are always looking at how well the character integrates into the scene. Having some light and dark areas in the scene really seems to help make it convincing.”
Collister was recently involved in a series of film tests comparing 35 mm film and one of the latest digital cameras. “We were shooting 5219, which is not the finest grain film stock Kodak makes,” he says. “The digital camera had impressive resolution, but it didn’t have nearly the dynamic range of 35 mm film. The photochemical process still creates a certain magic, in my opinion. If you consider every factor, anamorphic 35 mm film is the best image you can get. From a creative standpoint, it’s the best way to convey a story.”
About half the live-action work on Hop was done on sets at Universal Studios, and half was done on locations, including a mansion in Thousand Oaks, California. Usually the camera crew would shoot a first take with a puppet in the frame to rough in the shot, and to give everyone down the line an idea of what is happening in the scene. A camera operator Peter Mercurio would then do a number of takes without the puppet, following the action by memory. Usually it was clear on the set which takes worked, but the post team could also choose the right take based on other aspects – the performance of the human character, or the precision of the move, for example.
Many of these elements are fine tuned in the digital intermediate. Collister prefers to work with digital colorist Dave Cole at LaserPacific in Hollywood. “The technology has changed even over the last couple of movies,” says Collister. “Now Rhythm & Hues can provide us with images in which each layer of the image is separately controllable. We can change the colors on one CG character without affecting anything else, without the need to painstakingly draw a window around an element and track it. That saved us weeks of time, and meant countless compromises were avoided.”
At LaserPacific, Collister was able to see a side-by-side comparison of images from the movie projected digitally and projected from a film print. About half of the theaters that show Hop on its opening weekend will project it digitally, and about half will show film.
“Dave Cole and I both noticed that the CG characters integrated into the scene better on the film projection,” says Collister. “The entire scene, live action and CG elements alike, had that analog grain going through the image in arbitrary fashion, and it tended join all the elements together and make them feel more organic and of a piece.”
Audiences might not consciously recognize these fine points, but Collister knows it makes a difference. In the current saturated market for children’s animated films, quality counts. “You can’t skimp on the visual effects, or any other aspect,” he says. “I have two kids under 10 years old. When a CGI character is weak, they recognize it right away, and they will not tolerate it.”
Hop is scheduled for an April 1, 2011 release in North America.