Back in 2013, Steve Preeg explained the work made by Digital Domain on Oblivion. He then worked on Gone Girl and Beauty and the Beast. In 2018, he joined MPC and worked on Cats.
How did you get involved in this film?
I was just finishing up another show when I got called to work with Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Initially, it was just to work on the proof of concept to get the movie green lit and then it all happened so fast. We rolled straight on to production and began work on this film.
What was your feeling about being part of the Chip ‘n Dale universe?
It was a lot of fun to work on this film. When I met Akiva and read the script and I was excited to jump onboard. MPC was entrusted to make sure there’s a seamless blend of all the different worlds and it was fun to see the film and how the nostalgic 80s cartoon turned out in the end.
How was the collaboration with Director Akiva Schaffer?
Working with Akiva was a great experience. He had a good idea of what he wanted this movie to look like and how he wanted it to feel. He’s also very open to having discussions and hearing other ideas. But he does stick to his vision and how all these ideas can seamlessly blend into the end goal. He was receptive to the team’s ideas and wouldn’t hesitate to think outside the box. For example, there’s a sock puppet that shows up in one shot and it wasn’t in the script before; it wasn’t anything really. It just happened during previs – one of the previz artists thought it would be funny to shoot a video with a little sock puppet at home in front of a green screen. When the team saw it, everybody laughed and you know, it just made it into a movie. We made a new version of the sock puppet, brought him onto the stage and he got to be the puppeteer and those are the kinds of things that were a lot of fun on the project.
This being the first big VFX movie of the director, how did MPC help with that?
This was one of the biggest VFX movies for Akiva. Akiva got on board with the learning curve quickly. For example, with visual effects, as opposed to live action the feedback is not all instant – the artists take time to work on iterations as opposed to real-time immediate updates. And heading into final production, things are slower than usual where we really take time to perfect the shot outcomes. I think towards the end of post, Akiva really enjoyed the visual effects aspect in many ways, because there were a lot of things that he could explore, a lot of things that he could make that wouldn’t have been possible. So, it was an interesting process for this film, but it was fun to see how it all came together, so incredibly well.
What were their expectations and approach to the visual effects?
In addition to proof of concept, MPC also delivered the concept art, previz, techviz, postviz, and final shots for the movie. There was a ton of previs work and Akiva knew that previs was going to dictate a lot of what we were able to shoot. So, we spent a lot of time finessing the shots, the digital characters, environments, etc. The whole project was a good blend of previs and filming – We weren’t going to have ncam or fancier tools on set so we really needed to plan the shots ahead of time since there would be no real representation of what was happening on set for the camera crew to see.
How did you organize the work between the teams?
The concept art team was involved from the very beginning, making the proof of concept. Unlike previous iterations of the franchise, Rescue Rangers features a combination of film styles, treating viewers to live-action actors, interacting with 2D cartoon characters, photo-real 3D animals, and even claymation models, mixing several media styles that reflect the history of filmmaking and the history of Chip ‘N Dale from the 1980s to present day.
We also developed a workflow for the mixed animation, which required different styles and stages of approval, especially when met with the exploration of scene dialogue, camerawork, and timing. The artists also had to constantly play with frame rates depending on the type of animation, with some characters on ‘twos,’ but interacting with the full-frame rate world, like in cases of the cartoon or stop motion characters.
The visualization team headed by Patrick Smith and Art Director Leandre Lagrange helped deliver previz, techviz, and postviz, as well as concept art for over 50 characters, and hundreds of variations, for the film. A huge creative focus of the film was mixing media from CG clay to muppets, 2D and 3D – all into the same world and in one screen.
Can you elaborate on the design and creation of the characters?
The 3D version of Dale was particularly interesting as he’s supposed to be a 2D character that has had surgery. Akiva did not want him to look like a live character or an actual animal, if that makes sense. So, it had be more like a cartoon character brought to life. But, then there’s a thin line with keeping it cartoony and the character starts to look like a toy or a stuffed animal. So, finding that fine line was challenging. Chip, on the other hand, was 2D, along with several other 2D hand-drawn characters. We did a lot of different processes to the character and worked with the lighting on the characters to make them look a certain way. The teams leveraged technology like Maya, Houdini, Nuke, and Toon Boom as well as in-house tools and workflows created by the RND and compositing department to deal with 2D shading and line work.
Chip and Dale are really small. How did that affect your work?
It was a challenging experience to figure out the digital environments featuring the characters. We had to decide how to film the shots and how to scale them. There were many completely digital environments in the film because we could not have built miniature buildings to scale or something. The art department did a fantastic job with the builds and finding the materials for the shots, they would go get us the different materials. We would then scan and take pictures and scale it to fit the environment. Akiva was focused on blending the small characters with the environment and did not want them to feel like a separate unit.
How did you use the MPC experience in creatures for this show?
This project was unique and interesting to work on. Sure, we could pull from our archives and knowledge around shading and doing the fur and doing animation and all those kinds of things from MPC’s experience but certainly not from the actual models or textures or anything like that. That’s what made this project interesting and challenging.
Which character was the most complicated to create and why?
All the characters had their challenges. With Chip, we spent a lot of time trying to adhere as much as we could to 2D aspects. With Putty, there was a lot of time spent to make sure he felt stop-motion. You know there’s fingerprints changing every frame. A few more characters posed interesting challenges too. Like Bjornson the Cheesemonger. We showed Akiva several versions of the character and did a lot of research to make Bjornsen look realistic. Between Chip, Dale, Bjornson, and Captain Putty, the MPC team had quite a few challenges creating the characters. But it was a lot of fun too.
Tricky question, which one is your favorite?
It’s a tie between Captain Putty and Bjornson. I think those two characters are really a lot of fun and really stand out.
How did you work with the SFX and stunt teams for the various interactions?
Even though there wasn’t as much stunt work as might be in a regular movie, the film did have fight sequences that were well choreographed. We worked with the stunt teams closely for this and had to think outside the box to keep the fight sequence Disney-centric, so it ended up being more fun than violent. It was a fine line between wanting to make it fun but also not too fun because it takes away the seriousness of the fight. So, I think it was choreographed well. One challenge from the visual effects standpoint was to exactly understand how fast these characters were moving. While they were jogging, running, walking, etc. Each shot demanded precise attention and we worked with the special effects team who laid down strips for where the action was happening.
Which shot, or sequence was the most challenging?
That’s a good question. There were several different challenges for different reasons. Simulation was one – for example, when the characters were going down the drainpipe. Overall, simultaneously integrating multiple types of animated characters – from CG photorealistic, 2D hand-drawn, toon-shaded CG, to the puppets, and stop motion characters, was the trickiest. We had to build full CG environments that would constantly swap between principal photography live-action, hybrid, and full CG environments where the host of characters live.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
Do you know the scene where they go down inside the cheese cave? I think that was a fun scene. When Bjornson comes down the stairs – that’s a nice shot.
What is your best memory of this film?
There were several great memories. This movie really is a homage to animation. It really is saying, we love the animation world. We had a really good crew. Akiva was fun to work with and we had great support from Disney. I don’t have a particular memory of the show necessarily, but it was overall, it was a very good experience. I’m honored to be a part of this project.
How long have you worked on this film?
Around 2.5 years, I believe. Proof of concept included.
What’s the VFX shots count?
MPC’s global team of VFX artists delivered over 1450 shots for the film. This included the creation of Chip and Dale themselves, as well as over 100 2D hand-drawn characters, 60 3D animated characters, and 30 full computer-generated, designed, and lit sets.
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
MPC: Dedicated page about Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers on MPC website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2022