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Mo-Cap And Prickly Fur: The Evolution Of “Ted”

When Jason Clark read the script for “Ted,” a live-action buddy story featuring an innocent, talking teddy bear who evolves into a foul-mouthed, lewd bachelor, he laughed.   Then Clark, an executive producer at Dreamworks Animation, re-read the script and laughed again.

“It was the funniest thing I’ve ever read.  I’ve read it eight to ten times now, and I’m still laughing after every read through,” said Clark.

Clark became a big fan of McFarlane’s after having only the first season of “Family Guy” to watch during a family holiday.  Taken by McFarlane’s witty social and political commentary, Clark was excited to work with McFarlane on the animator’s live-action directorial debut.  McFarlane, who supplied the voice of Ted the teddy bear also wanted to infuse his creation with his own mannerisms and gestures.  Working with a tight budget, Clark had to find visual effects companies that could deliver the artistic needs within the production’s financial restraints.  His first step was to enlist the help of Jenny Fulle at The Creative-Cartel to oversee all visual effects on “Ted.”

The Creative-Cartel had just perfected an innovative 3D pipeline that effectively married the VFX and 3D conversion being done on “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” obtaining realistic 3D flames while saving production dollars.   While the visual effects needs for “Ted” were fairly standard: a CG teddy bear, some environmental work and a large chase sequence, Fulle discovered the challenge would come from the director’s desire to don a motion capture suit.

“Seth knew he wanted motion capture so he could infuse his personality, gestures and facial expressions into Ted,” said Fulle.  “It was up to The Creative Cartel to understand how to make that process work.”

While employed as a Visual Effects Executive Producer at Sony Pictures Imageworks, Fulle had her first exposure to motion capture applications when SPI was working on “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,”  “Ted” provided Fulle her first hands-on experience.  She wanted to find a means that allowed MacFarlane to fluidly transition from the motion capture process to his directorial duties.  A moven suit proved to be the best option – the suit consists of bands and straps placed on the legs, body and head.  Unlike the more commonly used Lycra suits, the moven suit was something MacFarlane could wear over his street clothing.

“We did the motion capture directly on set,” said Clark.  “We brought the suit and trained someone to operate the interface, putting us in charge of our own destiny.”

In addition to its use for the visual effects team, the suit was also kept in the editorial suite and used during post vis.  Animation could be re-recorded to ensure Ted’s placement within the frame was always spot on prior to the final edit.

Because Ted was in the majority of the scenes, Fulle had to find an economical way of keeping the CG character seamless throughout his appearances in the movie.  She determined scenes between John (Mark Walberg) and Ted would be cut between the two characters.  The cuts of the shots would be handled in sequences instead of the commonly practiced breakdown of multiple set-ups.  Two visual effects facilities were brought on to complete the sequences: Tippett Studios ad Iloura.

“A design for Ted was sent to the facilities, and their screen test was their audition.  Both facilities provided impressive work,” said Clark. “Everyone knew our budget paradigm, but the budget didn’t dictate our decisions; everything we decided on was a creative-based choice.”

Fulle reached out to Blair Clark to act as Visual Effects Supervisor on “Ted.”   Blair Clark has been involved in puppetry, character animation and visual effects for nearly thirty years, with credits ranging from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” to “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles.”  Having recently worked with Fulle on “Priest” and a fan of MacFarlane’s work, he enthusiastically agreed.  While he had dabbled in motion capture on a previs project years previously, the work on “Ted” also provided him with his first motion capture hands-on opportunity.

“With key frame animation, the animator gets to be the actor; in motion capture the actor is posing,” said Clark.  “Motion capture put us further ahead of the game.  There was still a lot of work, but we were able to skip a step.”

With the facilities grasp of the motion capture rules firmly in place, achieving the details of Ted’s look were carefully examined.  Defining the look of the synthetic fur took a great deal of experimentation.  The animators had to perfect the fur’s ability to reflect and absorb light:  too much contrast made the fur coarse and rough, while too little gave it a cotton candy appearance.  In addition to creating the best look for the fur, the teddy bear also had to age roughly twenty five years.  Clark and his team ensured the fur looked dirty, with specific areas that had detailed wear marks.  To further complicate the process, both facilities had to synchronize their creation of Ted so the sequence would merge together seamlessly.

“Every VFX company has its own proprietary software, which can create so many variables,” said Clark.  “We carefully thought out and planned everything so the output wouldn’t pop or be jarring.”

The two studios would review their work via CineSync, confirming the details of Ted were accurate and the sequences matched.  For instance, Clark would check to make sure Ted’s ears weren’t too far back and that his eyebrows were consistent.

Blair Clark’s team also utilized a stuffie – a teddy bear model – on set to help establish accurate light levels.  The stuffie also assisted Mark Walberg by providing proper eye lines and became a very useful tool in staging a fight scene between his character and Ted.  Clark created a stunt stuffie with removable arms and legs, allowing Walberg to get a sense of where Ted would be throughout the fight, Ted’s dimensions so he could have proper positioning of his arms and hands around the character, and provided a sense of weight against his body as the fight evolved.

Seth McFarlane also had to visualize and adapt his movements to conform to the three-foot stature of the teddy bear.  While Jason Clark understood MacFarlane’s experience with animation and acting would aid his performance, his ability to direct live action while simultaneously interacting as Ted was the unknown factor.  With years of experience in comedy, coaching actor’s vocal performances and a clear precise vision, Jason Clark felt MacFarlane created a seamless experience for everyone involved.

“Seth is very decisive and knows exactly what he wants.  Working with him was very fun and exciting,” agreed Fulle.  “Seth is funny and his brand of humor makes me laugh, I’m such a big fan.”