A DOG’S WAY HOME: Matt Welford – Overall VFX Supervisor – Pixomondo

Matt Welford began his career in the visual effects in 1999 at Mill Film as digital compositor. He then worked in many studios such as Weta Digital, MPC, Sony Pictures Imageworks before joining Pixomondo in 2017. As a VFX Supervisor, he took care of the effects of many movies like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF DAWN TREADER, GREEN LANTERN and AMERICAN SNIPER.

What is your background?
I have an MA in Digital Special effects which led me to becoming a compositor early on in my career. I also received extensive onset and practical experience as my first job was at Shepperton Studios (in England) where I was exposed to the filmmaking process. I often watched the miniature guys and motion control techs at work. That set me on a path to becoming a VFX Supervisor.

How did you and Pixomondo get involved on this show?
They had just started pre-production in Vancouver and director Charles Martin Smith, producer Gavin Polone and executive producer Robert Dohrmann came in to Pixomondo’s offices to talk about this project and their desire to find the right partner to create a selection of CG animals on a modest budget. I was hooked from the start and offered any help I could in figuring out the challenges of the show. After a few positive meetings with Charles, I was brought on as the overall Production side VFX Supervisor.

How was the collaboration with director Charles Martin Smith?
Charles is fantastic. We really worked well together. He had a clear vision and would look to us as to how best achieve this. I had no worries about coming to him with ideas or concerns. He was always open to discussing anything.

What was his expectations and approach about the visual effects?
Charles often spoke of the weight and feel of things, and making sure the CG Cougar was grounded in reality, but also with enough character and personality to bring the film alive. Films like this can be challenging. here are numerous situations the animals find themselves in that would never happen in real life, but are needed to tell the story. We took artistic license with reality, but still worked hard to keep it grounded. It was a fine line but for this movie it worked.

What’s a typical day for you during the pre-production, on-set and then on post?
Pre-production was about breaking down the script with my client, VFX Producer Chris Schnitzer, and figuring out the budget, working with other Head Of Departments such as the animal trainers and practical effects, etc. Animal welfare was our number one priority so everything was meticulously planned with Head Animal Trainer Teresa Ann Miller. We would decide what would be done on camera and when VFX would take over. This is where a lot of Previs helped as we planned the major sequences. It meant Charles, Peter Menzies Jr. (DOP) and I could have a several ideas and options even before setting foot on the set. 

Onset every day was different. I spent a lot of my time liaising between the animal trainers and Charles. Working with animals can be challenging. We had to always think on our feet and adjust things as needed when working with Shelby, the wonderful dog that played Bella. 

In post, I split my time between the production office in Los Angeles and the Vancouver Pixomondo office. My days were filled with reviews with Pixomondo and working with the production office and Charles. I was fortunate to have amazing production people around me in both offices. Amy Spanner and Jadi McCurdy were my client production team in Los Angeles, with VFX Producers Chris Schnizter and Dione Wood. Then in Vancouver I had Pixomondo VFX producer Jenne Guerre. They all managed my time as I was pulled in directions by both Pixomondo and the client. Never a dull moment for sure ?

How did you split the work amongst the Pixomondo offices?
We tried to make it as logical as possible and split the Creature work so each location would only be responsible for their assigned characters. Jenne, the Vancouver producer, and Paul King in Toronto worked together to split the tasks based on skill sets in each location.

We had Vancouver take the lead on the Adult and 7-month old Cougars who had the most screen time. Vancouver also did all but one of the Adult Bella digital shots, and the CG Coyotes. 
 
Toronto then created the Cougar Cub, the 6-week and 12-week baby Bella puppies, the squirrel, rabbit, eagle, cats and a marmot that, sadly, was ultimately cut. 
 
Aside from the creature work we had a large selection of environments that needed augmenting as well.

The show is full of animals. How did you approach this particular challenge?
The first challenge was having a modest budget for the creation of so many animals. We were a fraction of the budget of films like THE JUNGLE BOOK so that alone made us really have to think about how we create CG animals on a budget of this size. 

We spent a lot of time looking at references and talking with experts on various animals. We talked with several experts on Cougars. They provided a lot of data that I passed to the creature team of Prapanch Swamy, our CG Supervisor at Pixomondo Vancouver. He worked with all the department leads from modeling, creature FX and groom to create Big Kitten. The interesting thing was we had to create a 3-month, 7- month and adult cougar so we needed to make sure there were similar features and traits between all three cats so the audience could see
a real-life growth happening on film.
 
With the other animals, it was about finding the best reference and then creating them from the ground up. We looked at software and ended up relying on Ziva for much of the character muscle simulations. I have worked with (Ziva co-CEO/founder) James Jacobs before so he and the team were amazing at answering questions as we introduced Ziva into the Pixomondo Pipeline.  For fur, we again looked at solutions but ended up choosing Yeti which fit our pipeline, knowing that we had so many animals to create. 

How did you work with the animal trainers?
From pre-production and on, I worked closely with Teresa Ann Miller, April Morley and Brian Turi, who were Shelby’s (Bella) trainers. Our number one focus was the welfare and safety of the real animals on set. This meant a very open dialogue as we created every sequence in the film. We would always discuss where we would use the real Bella and where we would need VFX to take over.
 
Animal trainer Bonnie Judd and her team provided several other animals for the film, from the mother cat, to the puppies to the coy dogs (coyote/dog hybrid). Again we would work together making sure animal welfare was the highest priority. 

Can you tell us more about the previs and postvis process?
During pre-production, we broke down the script and decided which sequences would benefit from previs. Most started with storyboards with Charles. Once he was happy with the boards, Pixomondo would take over. Working with the previs supervisor Paul Lee, we created previs that we could use as a shooting guide and provide the animal trainers a reference of what we wanted to accomplish. It was very helpful for Charles, our DP and me. The shoot schedule was very tight, especially working with animals, so this previs really helped us make our days.

Postvis was brought in so we could create a Director’s Cut to see what was and wasn’t working. It also gave us more time to perfect the VFX, and not have to rush the creature work while we filled out the cut for various screenings along the way.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of the CG animals?
It starts with knowing the anatomy of each animal. Then we look at how each animal is used in the film, so we could build them based on the complexity needed. Prapanch Swamy, Pixomondo’s CG Supervisor, then took the lead with the creature and assets teams to start creating each animal. We really didn’t have a creature pipeline at the start of this project so the guys really built that from the ground up. Our two big decisions was to rely on Ziva for muscle simulations and Yeti for fur. 

Can you tell us more about the animation work?
Aside from the asset creation, we also focused on animation and movement. Several character studies were done to look at how we would animate for the show. One of the bigger challenges was that sometimes we needed these creatures engage is some unnatural behaviors (skating on a frozen pond, for instance) while still making the viewer believe the performances. Darren White and Patricia Binga our animation leads worked hard in finding the right balance.

How did you handle the challenges of their furs?
After looking at several options we decided to go with Yeti. We could slot it into our pipeline and start creating grooms pretty fast. We took reference images and then our groom team matched it. The challenge was creating something realistic that we could still render in an efficient manner. Prapanch worked with the team to make sure any groom we created would render on the farm when it came time to render many shots at a time. 

Can you tell us more about the eye work?
Eyes are always important especially for Big Kitten, our Cougar. We knew that there would be some close-ups and we would need to use the eyes to help tell the story of a connection between Bella and Big Kitten. After some research, we learned how a cougar’s eyes evolve from very blue as a cub to more golden as an adult. We tried our best to follow that through in the digital versions of our Cougar. 

How did you manage the interactions between the real and CG animals?
It’s always a fun challenge. Usually it would involve either myself or one of the trainers putting the green screen suit, or as we jokingly refer to it, the green suit of shame 😉 For the Cougar nuzzling shots we were able to train Shelby to nuzzle Teresa’s arm and hand whilst she was wearing the green suit. It was amazing to see how loving Shelby got during those nuzzles which was exactly what we wanted to show.

Other sequences like the cub sharing a steak with Bella meant I wore the green suit (as the cougar) whilst holding a real steak which I fed to Shelby. She really liked those scenes! Me not so much because my hand stank of steak for a week after 😉

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
There were a few. The ice pond was a challenge as we were doing something that would never happen in real life. It was very difficult to make the sequence feel like it was based in reality. We spent a lot of time working on the interactions, making sure they looked and felt playful. We didn’t want the animation to look like Big Kitten could be attacking Bella. It really was a fine line.

The other was when we had to create the CG Baby Bella. Originally it was a real puppy but during the early screenings Baby Bella just didn’t look enough like Adult Bella. So we designed a puppy to match Adult Bella. The performance also had to be spot on since we were telling the story of a frightened puppy being snatched away from its brother and sister. The art of subtle animation was used to get that feeling of sadness just right to draw the audience into the story. 

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I have a few. I loved the opening sequence with the cougar cub. The other one I loved was the coyote fight which also marked the reunion of Bella and Big Kitten. I also loved the Baby Bella shots under the house.

What is your best memory on this show?
Working with Charles and helping him bring the story alive through VFX. We knew the show was a challenge based on the budget, but in the end we were very happy with how we created so many cool-looking shots for such a sweet movie. 

How long have you worked on this show?
I was on the show about 18 months from start to finish.

What’s the VFX shots count?
In total about 650 shots of which Pixomondo did about 400. 

What was the size of your team?
Over the course of the show we probably had over 250 people involved in some way. 

What is your next project?
I am working on a few projects for some of the streaming services. I can’t say any more than that, but they are very cool and I’m excited for them to come out.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Always a tough question but STAR WARS, THE UNTOUCHABLES, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD are four very different films that have influenced me.

A big thanks for your time.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Pixomondo: Dedicated page about A DOG’S WAY HOME on Pixomondo website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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