Filed in: Postproduction
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Supervisor Series-Charlotte's Web

November 7, 2007 | By

In an age of peak oil, “fuel” and access to it will become an increasingly necessary thing. As it turns out, that’s also true in an age of digital effects.At least, that’s what the producers of the animated film Charlotte’s Web found out, when they turned to Australia-based post house Fuel to help wrangle some of the movie’s concluding sequences that helped make EB White’s beloved children’s classic come to life.Simon Maddison, Fuel’s visual effects supervisor for the film, notes that the composition of certain scenes were “taken straight from the book.” But the Sydney-based FX house—originally founded by Maddison and four colleagues, and now growing from the original music video/commercial/”Farscape” work that fueled them in the early years—had to go far beyond the book’s illustrator Garth Williams’ version of Charlotte’s barnyard world, tackling issues that Williams perhaps, working in clear black-and-white lines, never had to worry about.Like the viscosity, luminosity, and reflective properties of spider skin. (Or is that “hide?”)This came about because Fuel’s charter, working with director Gary Winick and overall VFX supe John Andrew Berton, Jr. was “basically the end of the film, when Charlotte’s babies are born,” though there was also some digital fun to be had with some of Charlotte and Wilbur-the-pig’s “peer group,” as well—in particular, some talking geese.Originally, in the matter of geese, puppets were used for dialogue, but eventually, digital “beak replacement” was called for. But poultry pronunciations were easy. “The texture of the spiders was the trickiest thing,” says Maddison. “There wasn’t anything out (in terms of software) that was giving us the ‘surface properties’ of baby spiders.”What might those properties be? Well, he continues, when “light hits the surface,”—that surface being the baby spider—it tends to bounce around a lot, reflecting off the shiny body with additional “refractions happening within the jelly of that leg.”Or of many legs, as the case may be.Maddison reported that Fuel is primarily a Maya house, relying on Mental Images’ Mental Ray for rendering.Luckily, in spite of the need to experiment with existing software packages to enhance their “spider readiness,” Maddison’s crew didn’t fall into an arachnid-tinged panic. The calendar to get the work done was “pretty long,” helped by a release-date change that pushed the picture from summer into the following holiday season.”We started work on the baby spiders based on a design of Charlotte,” created in preproduction, following the thesis that even in the world of bugs, children often take after their parents.But the work was more than just surmising about the inherited traits of virtual spiders; Maddison and his crew got out to the set (since the production was filming in Australia), and took copious digital shots to augment the material that Berton was already giving them, though he notes Berton “really had his stuff sorted out,” and already had “a small unit of people on set” getting digital captures of set references, and also, “to see where the lights were.”He gives Berton a lot of credit for coordinating between the five houses deployed to work on the FX in Charlotte.The digital plates that each house worked with to build their parts of the shot were ferried around as part of the postproduction schedule, though they didn’t always move in a prescribed order. “Some of it was about luck—who got to (work on their shots) first,” says Maddison.As luck would have it, one of the shots involved coordinating with Rhythm & Hues, who created talking sheep for one of the scenes involving the aforementioned spider children. “The timing of the sheep changed quite a bit,” Maddison explains, which changed what his crew were doing, as they had to build in a tracking shot of Charlotte’s offspring, moving over the sheeps’ heads.”That plate needed to get to Rhythm & Hues, and then needed to come back to us,” but even that didn’t cause Maddison to break much of a sweat, due to the long production schedule and the fact that the inter-house “file formats were worked out in advance,” including a lot of what he describes as “plate preparation in the beginning.”After the plates made their anointed rounds, additional grading, shading, etc., was done in the DI stage in post, much of which was mandated by what Maddison notes were “a lot of creative changes (made) along the way.”No one minded, “at the end of the day, it was a better result,” baby spiders, conversational geese, and all. The film, he emphasizes, was “very well coordinated out of LA.”And given that his shop expanded its roster from its usual 35 up to 75 to work on Charlotte, and given how well the work went with Tinsel Town, is Maddison on the hunt for another Hollywood project? (Fuel also worked on The Painted Veil.)Well, there is “another US feature” in the works, though he’s not at liberty to say what it is, but post-Charlotte, he’s “talking to lots of people and making regular trips to the States.” No word on whether he’s bringing back live samples of spider babies, for future reference.

Written by Mark London Williams

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