GOING TO THE DOGS: UNDERDOG'S STELLAR CANINE CAST
The real key to transforming UNDERDOG into a live-action adventure would lay in the hands - or rather, the paws - of the film's canine actors, who become the true heroes of the story. To take on the task of scouring pounds, kennels, rescue societies, breeders and dog parks for photogenic pooches, the filmmakers recruited Boone Narr, whose work with animals is legendary, taking him from dozens of smaller productions all the way to the epic PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN. Narr was thrilled to hear about the production. "I just couldn't resist the idea of helping to create a dog hero," he confesses.
Narr's first big test would be finding the main dog to play Underdog. His mission was to find a dog that not only bore a physical resemblance to the original long-eared, flesh-colored cartoon character, but had all his qualities. The story of how Leo the Lemon Beagle was ultimately cast rivals discoveries such as Lana Turner at Schwab's Drug Store.
At first, Narr wasn't even sure what breed best suited Underdog. Narr recalls, "I initially looked at about twenty different breeds. We wanted our dog to look right away like an 'underdog,' so we felt he had to be a smaller dog who might not be able to defend himself, kind of like a canine Clark Kent. Prompted by the cartoon character, which kind of looks like a Beagle, I contacted Beagle Buddies, a Beagle rescue in Orange County, CA. And that's when I saw a photo of Leo."
The picture exuded charm, comedy and intelligence. Or so Narr thought. "It was a bit like a bad blind date - because when the dog showed up at my door he looked nothing like the photo! He was overweight and as round as he was long, and he was completely out of-control," laughs Narr. "But, to his credit, he had a great little personality and we decided to see if we could whip him into shape."
Leo now had his big chance to prove he had the right stuff and went to a "boot camp" where, like Underdog, he started out a little worse-for-the-wear and transformed himself into hero material. "Leo turned out to be an amazing little guy," Narr muses. "He's cantankerous and independent, with an attitude, but when the camera is rolling his personality just shines."
While Leo was the main canine actor playing Shoeshine/Underdog, there were actually four Beagles who helped to play the part. "Leo's got the mug but he also needed some stunt doubles that do a lot of the running, jumping, and those kinds of things," Narr continues. "They came from across the country; one from Alaska, one from Texas and one from North Carolina, each similar in looks to Leo."
Narr went through a similar process in looking for Polly, but now compatibility entered the mix. The two dogs needed to have that ineffable "animal chemistry." "We put a lot of different dogs beside Leo to find out who would make the most beautiful couple," the animal trainer explains. "We definitely didn't want to go the Poodle route - and we wanted a breed you haven't seen a lot in movies. Ultimately, we came up with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, which has a very soft, pretty look."
Ultimately, Narr choose Ginger, a Spaniel who hails from San Diego and boasts not only a silky cinnamon coat but an unusually outgoing personality that matched the character. "Ginger just had those great looks - and she and Leo looked gorgeous together," Narr recalls. "The Cavalier King Charles is often a shy breed, but Ginger came running up to us and we knew she was the one."
Sealing the deal was the fact that Ginger and Leo had their tails wagging for one another right from the get-go. "They had real on-screen chemistry," notes Todd Arnow. "They have a scene where they were supposed to put their paws on one another and not only did they do that but Ginger put her paw right on Leo's shoulder. They really liked each and performed so well together."
Meanwhile, to play Riff Raff, Narr found three tough-looking Rottweilers in city shelters and sprung them to become pampered canine stars. Contrary to their commanding size and presence, Narr says that the Rottweilers were the sweetest dogs on the set! In fact, all the dogs made such an impression during filming that many of them were adopted by members of the cast and crew when the production wrapped.
Ultimately, some 25 dogs were cast for the film - and like any actor preparing for a part, they each went into intensive training, learning all the complex actions and expressions they would need to bring their characters to life. Narr, who has worked in the business for more than 30 years, was amazed by the talent and skill of this particular cast. "I've trained dogs before who seemed great but when they got before the camera, they just froze. But all of the dogs on UNDERDOG just loved performing," he says. "They loved their jobs and being in front of the camera and it shows on screen."
One of Narr's initial challenges was turning the kids, Alex and Taylor, and their respective dogs, Leo and Ginger, into instant best-friends, with the kind of bond that usually only years of companionship can build. "Trying to get a dog to act like he belongs to a specific person is one of the most difficult things you can teach," Narr explains. "You have to build a relationship between the actor and the dog in a short amount of time.
Throughout the entire production, the American Humane Association had an on-set representative who assured that both the animals and humans were safe in all their scenes together. Not only did American Humane analyze the script and storyboards to ferret out any potential trouble spots, but AHA rep Marisa Bellis was present for every single scene that included animals. "This movie has been quite a remarkable experience," she says. "The trainers have been extraordinary. They're very safe. They're some of the safest trainers I've worked with--they don't take any chances."
American Humane was also enthusiastic about the underlying themes of UNDERDOG. "One of the reasons I'm so excited about this film is that American Humane is a big believer in the idea that films can be a great tool to show the power of the animal-human bond," says Jone Bouman of American Humane. "UNDERDOG is about a hero dog who positively affects a family. That's the kind of message we think is outstanding and it got all of our support."
LOOK UP IN THE SKY: MAKING UNDERDOG FLY
From the beginning, director Frederik Du Chau knew that UNDERDOG would hinge on creating a real dog who appeared both to be able to speak and to fly supersonically, albeit not entirely under control! He and his team spent months devising and honing a process that produced the uncanny illusion of a caped canine whizzing through the skies. It began with the real dogs and ended with digital wizardry. "First, we trained Leo to sit on a boom operated to fly in front of a green screen with wind machines blowing in front of him," explains Du Chau. "We used these shots in a number of scenes by merging the shots of Leo with background plates shot from a helicopter that takes us through the city. Then, to make him really soar we also used a completely CG dog that looks just as realistic as Leo."
The training aspect was exciting for animal coordinator Boone Narr, who says, "no one can resist a flying dog." He explains how Leo attained lift-off: "We created a special flying rig that we could lift off the ground and roll and tilt to make it look like Leo's flying. But of course, the dog had to like it! Lucky for us, Leo loved to fly. I think for him it was like hanging his head out of a car window times ten."
Du Chau also worked closely with visual effects supervisor Hoyt Yeatman, an industry veteran whose ground-breaking work on the undersea world of James Cameron's "The Abyss" earned him an Academy Award®. "Frederik has a great vision and on effects-driven films where a lot of things have to be fabricated, that vision is very important. He's a director who respects and understands the complexity of what we're doing," says Yeatman.
Yeatman's primary task was bringing the digital version of Underdog to life. "Leo, the real Lemon Beagle, was our model that we always tried to emulate and copy faithfully," Yeatman explains. "But we also had an exciting opportunity to push that reality just enough that he was able to do superhero type of things, while not pushing him so far as to look like a cartoon. That was the fine line of creativity we had to walk, which was really exciting."
While only Shoeshine/Underdog can fly and communicate with humans, all the dogs in the film can talk--if only to one another other. Creating a believable talking dog with realistic mouth movements was another challenge for Yeatman. He says, "We used a process on UNDERDOG where you first shoot the real-life dog making all its prompted head bobs and turns, then the editor cuts it to an audio track so that the movement feels in synch with the intent of the character. We then project that image onto a three-dimensional model, sculpting a head in the computer, like a decal that forms around the actual character, after which the computer 'grows' fur on the model. Once this is complete, an animator can actually form vowels and expression with the animal's face. From there, it's composited with the live-action dog again. Done properly, it looks seamless. But it takes a tremendous amount of work and time. Hundreds of hours went into the compositing and 3-D."
Du Chau also put an emphasis on old-fashioned special effects. "I wanted all our action to be set up with stunts and physical effects that make the audience feel as if it is all really happening," notes Du Chau, "meaning that if Shoeshine flies by, there's a huge wind machine that blasts the surroundings. If he crashes into flower pots, real planters are actually thrown about, and so forth."
Du Chau notes that one of the best examples of how he mixed old school techniques with cutting-edge CGI throughout the film can be seen in the moment when our fur-bearing hero slips into a phone booth as an average dog and smashes out of it as an empowered superhero. "This scene is a perfect example of how we designed the whole movie, because we used the real trained Beagle to go into the phone booth; then, we combined that with a CGI dog with a CGI costume to fly out of the phone booth; and then we added physical special effects, in which we made the actual phone booth explode. The close interplay of all these elements lets the audience believe that a real dog turns into Underdog and actually flies, which is what this story is all about!"
Also helping to forge UNDERDOG's look was were production designer Garth Stover, who turned the Rhode Island capitol of Providence into Capitol City, and director of photography David Eggby, who found himself literally going to the dogs, finding unique angles and shots to express a dog's eye-view of the metropolis.
"One of the most challenging things from a cinematography perspective is that whenever we see the dogs, most of the camera angles are at dog eye-line or lower," Eggby explains. "After Frederik and I watched 'Lady and The Tramp,' and we noticed that 99% of the shots of the animals were drawn from those positions, we made a conscious decision that we would never look down at the dogs. That means the camera is basically a foot off the ground a lot of the time! And when we shoot Polly, she's even lower than Shoeshine. So it's a dog's world we're in - which is fun for the audience."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
FREDERIK DU CHAU (Director) previously directed (and co-wrote) the family adventure "Racing Stripes," the popular film about a young zebra who aspires to racing stardom, featuring the voices of such luminaries as Whoopi Goldberg, Dustin Hoffman and Joe Pantoliano.
Du Chau was born in Belgium, where studied film at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, while simultaneously traveling the world as a camera assistant for several major European news organizations. He then began his career as both an animator and a director for television and commercials in Europe. In 1989, his short story, "The Mystery of the Lamb," was selected for the Los Angeles Animation Celebration film festival, which brought him to the United States At the Baer Animation Studio in Los Angeles, he worked as an animator on numerous commercials that combined animation with live action. He then co-directed the animation for the video hit "Land Before Time: Time of the Great Giving."
After spending time working as a storyboard artist for animation legend Chuck Jones, he directed the feature film "Quest for Camelot," which received a Vision Award for Best Picture in 1999.
He also directed a pilot presentation for Forest Whitaker's Spirit Dance Entertainment entitled "Stripped," for which he created a new look that transforms live action into animation in real time.
In 2000, Du Chau, along with Kirk DeMicco, wrote "Hong Kong Phooey," a live action comedy about a Kung Fu fighting dog, based on the popular Hanna-Barbera cartoon. This project was sold to Alcon Entertainment.
When not directing movies, Frederik draws and writes on his own comic book called "Fish Out Of Water." He is also working on a children's book based on characters he developed called Menehunes.
A graduate of Georgetown University, JOE PISCATELLA (Writer) attended the Masters of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, where he met CRAIG A. WILLIAMS (Writer). After making their start in television on shows for NBC, Warner Brothers, and Nickelodeon, Joe and Craig made their foray into feature films, having written multiple projects for 20th Century Fox, Dreamworks, Spyglass and Starz Animation. They are currently writing a pilot for Touchstone Television and an animated feature for Sony. Before becoming a screenwriter, Joe was a food and travel writer who once had a tryout in the Canadian Football League as a punter. A graduate of the University of California, Irvine and native southern Californian, Craig's adventures as a teenage rock star during Hollywood's glam metal era are chronicled in his book, Mom, Have You Seen My Leather Pants?, which will be published by Crown on August 28, 2007.
ADAM RIFKIN (Writer) is a writer/director/producer whose eclectic career ranges from broad family comedies to cult classics to dark and gritty urban dramas. As a writer, he made his mark with films like "Mousehunt," starring Nathan Lane and "Small Soldiers," starring Tommy Lee Jones for Dreamworks. Recent credits also include Sony's "Zoom," starring Tim Allen.
In 1991, Rifkin earned cult status when his film "The Dark Backward," which he wrote and directed, was named one of the top ten films of the year by The New York Post. He would go on to be immortalized as the director responsible for New Line Cinema's "Detroit Rock City," a cult classic that introduced a whole new generation of fans to the "hottest band in the world…Kiss!!!"
Rifkin gained recognition for his film "Night at the Golden Eagle," a film which he not only wrote and directed, but also produced. The film was an official selection of the London Film Festival and opened to rave reviews.
On October 26th, 2007, Rifkin will unleash his latest film. Armed with the knowledge that Americans are captured on surveillance cameras at least 200 times a day, mostly without their knowledge, Rifkin wrote and directed "Look." The film, which won the Grand Jury prize at the 2007 CineVegas Film Festival, tells its story exclusively through the eyes of the countless security cameras throughout the city, bringing to light the harsh realities of what it means to be watched 24/7.
Additionally, in 2007, Rifkin will add acting to his resume when he stars opposite Ali Larter as an idealistic caveman searching for love and life beyond the cave in National Lampoon's "Homo Erectus." Rifkin, who wrote and directed the film, was inspired by the early comedies of Woody Allen like "Sleepers," "Bananas," and "Love and Death." The prehistoric comedy will also be responsible for helping re-launch the Lampoon brand.
BOONE NARR (Animal Coordinator) operates Boone's Animals For Hollywood, Inc., an internationally known and respected animal training facility. For the past three decades the company and its trainers have worked with every major studio on hundreds of films, TV shows, and commercials.
Their dogs, cats and other, sometimes more exotic animals have worked all over the United States and around the world. Time spent filming in Canada, Czech Republic, Australia, Mexico, Africa, Korea, India, New Zealand, Israel, New Guinea, Germany and Italy have provided a wide knowledge of acquiring permits and importing/exporting animals for film work.
Boone's Animals For Hollywood has extensive experience with difficult animal work, stunts, and cutting edge computer enhanced film making technology.
His extensive credits include: "Catwoman," "Pirates Of The Caribbean 1, 2 & 3," "Stuart Little 1 & 2, " "Cats And Dogs," "Troy," "National Treasure," "The Forgotten," "Raising Helen," "Peter Pan," "Skipping Christmas," "Around The Bend, " "Open Range," "Green Mile," "Mouse Hunt," "The Pacifier," "Paulie," "Batman And Robin," "Father Of The Bride," "Willard," "Buddy," "Haunted Mansion," "Rat Race," "Bingo," "Looney Tunes: Back In Action,," "America's Sweethearts," "The Ring," "Kate And Leopold," "What Women Want" and "Must Love Dogs."
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