E.B. Joins Our World: Blending CGI With Live Action
Unlike wholly animated films, the construction of a CG/live-action comedy logically requires that the drawn creatures have many interactions with humans, as well as play in a world all their own. For Hop, those requirements meant executing the enormous challenges of constructing a true-to-life rabbit that would look as real interacting with friends and family on Easter Island as he would harassing the people of Fred's world.
Visual effects shop Rhythm and Hues (R&H) was given this Herculean task, and it would require an army of animators under the direction of Hill and VFX supervisor RAYMOND CHEN to provide a seamless experience for the audience.
The signature characters of E.B., the Easter Bunny, Carlos and Phil were designed by Emmy Award-winning and Annie-nominated artist PETER DESÈVE, whose relationship with Meledandri extends back to their work together on the Ice Age films, for which DeSève designed the scene-stealing saber-toothed prehistoric squirrel known to tens of millions as Scrat.
Commends Meledandri: "Peter's unique touch at creating timeless characters is inimitable. We knew our hero had to be irreverent, fun, hip, young and a classic character, and Peter nailed the design for E.B., the Easter Bunny and our two main chicks."
In order for DeSève and the animators to bring E.B. to life, they began to conceive the character by studying Russell Brand's vocal performance. Footage of Brand reading E.B.'s lines was recorded, and the artists used his facial expressions, movements and eccentricities as reference points to build E.B. The goal was to create a character that was all bunny, but also one who had the attitude of a teenager ready to make his way out into the world.
When not leading the storyboarding stage or designing Young E.B., animation supervisor CHRIS BAILEY (in his third collaboration with Hill) spent a great deal of time with his team blending Brand's recorded performance with the body language and mannerisms of a teenager. Next, the animators took video reference of themselves acting out the performance and reading the lines. This allowed them to capture other physical characteristics needed to animate E.B., and pace the timing as he moved through each scene from the storyboards. As they drew E.B., they would also incorporate specific animal characteristics, such as the wiggling of a rabbit's nose as it sniffs or the quick movements of a bunny's hind leg when it scratches an itch.
For a period of time, with the number of bunnies and chicks that were surrounding its animators as they worked, R&H resembled a petting zoo. Whether capturing motions of the bunnies' ears as they stood at attention or of the chicks peeping loudly and fluffing themselves with their quick, jerky moments, dozens of cameras were trained on the adorable animals to ensure that a 360-degree take was achieved.
Because it was crucial to make it seem as if E.B. and his family and friends were interacting with humans, a great deal of attention had to be paid to fur styles. When E.B. was picked up or physically "on" an actor, his fur condition and quality (e.g., matting, flattening) would change. Style, color and flexible textures were particularly belabored upon until Hill and his team found just the right look for each of the creatures.
Chen shares more of their process: "E.B. is an original character with a long history. He's not a character that was transferred from another medium. It's been great to see the animators and the artists bring their own ideas of what he should be--how he should perform, what sort of attitudes he has. The question as to whether E.B. is more Russell Brand or more of an actual bunny is something that we balanced from scene to scene. In some cases, we followed either video reference or listened closely to dialogue to try to figure out how many Russell mannerisms we should get into the shot. In others, it was about trying to convey the attitude of this little animal."
The artists began each sequence of animation with storyboards that described the particular scene. To digitally create the CG character of E.B., they went through a build process in which they modeled the character in a neutral pose. States Chen: "We then put in a rig to allow E.B. to move--to get his facial expressions correct and allow him to move his limbs. On top of all that, we have his clothing: his T-shirt and his flannel shirt. For this, we ran cloth simulations to have it look like his clothes were moving like real pieces of cloth."
E.B. Interacts on Set
During production, Chris Bailey actually became E.B., serving as a double for the bunny when that was needed on set. Walking around with a 22-inch stuffed animal--the same height as the animated E.B.--as reference during rehearsals, he worked alongside the actors, Hill, cinematographer PETER LYONS COLLISTER and key crew to perfect the staging and pacing.
Bailey's performance as E.B. also helped to communicate to the team the physical sense of humor that the animators would ultimately bring to the rabbit voiced by Brand.
The aptly named "Stuffy Pass," which included Bailey and his stuffed animal, provided the actors with visual reference. This ensured that they would know where their eyeline should remain throughout the course of each scene they had with the rabbit. This also allowed the animators to note how E.B.'s form worked in the set's lighting. For example, though the stuffed animal only vaguely resembled the final E.B., it provided the R&H team an idea of how much light would hit the side of his face or roll over his shoulder as he turned.
"The stuffed animal was a terrific prop for our actors to act with in the rehearsal and to understand what the scene would be when it was actually shot," explains Bailey. "During the actual shoot, we took the stuffed animal away and they were acting to nothing. For shots where E.B. walks in the front door and runs and hides behind a plant, the stuffed animal was more for the camera people to understand the timing. This helped them to know that he was at the door, then he was going to look for two seconds. Then he ran to the pot, peeked out from the other side, and then he ran over to another part of the room. They got their counts off of that."
Whenever E.B. needed to be held physically in a scene (e.g., bouncing out of Fred's arms or cuddling on Sam's shoulder) the actors would be given a beanbag that stood in for the mischievous bunny. This allowed the actors to have something to interact with and gave the artists an exact location of where E.B. should go in the shot. The beanbag ensured that the performers were holding their arms in the right way and that their hands were reacting in the correct manner. It also gave them a weighted reference, so their hands would be pulled down to the right level, as if they were actually holding a rabbit that was E.B.'s weight.
In order to get this digital interaction perfect, the animation team had to "track" each of the performers who interacted with E.B. By creating a digital head-to-toe model of these performers, the animators were able to put avatars of the actors in each "E.B. interaction scene" into the digital world and to create a "digital double," also known as a "match move." Once the movements were matched up, the artists had a 3D object on top of which they could put the character of E.B. After this extensive process was completed, the full scene went into the next stage of animation.
Once the "Stuffy Pass" and "Beanbag Shoot" were completed, the background preparation could begin. After a shot (plate) was finished and turned over to R&H, the negative was scanned so that each frame of the key scene now existed in a virtual world. Once complete, a camera helped to create an intricate digital universe that allowed Hill's set to be built again…albeit this time, virtually.
When preparing the background, a team of painters removed any remnants of the placeholder beanbag that was standing in for our fearless rabbit. Once completed, these finished background plates would be married to their respective animated sequences (described in detail below) in a process known as compositing. The end result was that it now looked as if E.B. were fully integrated into the sequence. That equaled the final image and what will be seen by the audience.
Once the initial track was together, many animators were able to work on the multiple aspects of the shot. Explains co-VFX supervisor MARK RODAHL of the multitier approach: "Once you prepare the background for a shot, and once the animation is done, you bring those two pieces together. But you always use the background as a reference, even for animation. They always had this background set, and the artists made sure everything works well for the animation through that camera."
Blocking and Animation
While animation has multiple pre-visualization steps, in a film that is a hybrid of animation and live action, post-visualization (also called "blocking") is much more common. Beginning with a plate that has an actor interacting with "Beanbag E.B.," R&H would take E.B. in the scene (e.g., one in which he is resting in Sam's hands) and roughly block the different phases that E.B. would go through in the sequence.
Each shot received a blocking pass so that Hill could tell where E.B. would be at every point.
Once the blocking was signed off, the animation team created a rough pass of the general facial expressions and movements that E.B. would have with the performer. Usually, the animator working on the scene would create thumbnail sketches of what he or she wanted E.B. to look like as the rabbit moved. This gave the rough flow of E.B.'s "performance" throughout the scene.
Taking the digital double of the performer who interacted with E.B., the animators in charge of this sequence would then move that "actor's" hands to pick up, put down, push or pull E.B. This allowed a reference for the next step of fitting E.B.'s personality--from eye rolls to squints and other affectations--into the scene, as well as making his movements flush with the real-life human with whom he was interacting.
Whenever E.B. moved alongside another actor, multiple challenges would arise. The animators had to make sure that E.B.'s checked shirt flowed naturally when he brushed by Fred or that his fur was fluffing or squishing naturally as he was held by Sam. For example, in the scene in which Sam picks up E.B.--believing he is simply a child's stuffed animal--she rests him on her shoulder, strokes his fur and touches his back and tail. The R&H team digitally constructed this fur and cloth interaction so it appeared to be seamless in the final product.
In the ever-evolving world of comedy, the final sequences the animators delivered were often quite different than those initially storyboarded. Shares Bailey: "When you cut a movie together, you find surprises that come up, such as this scene is more dramatic than we thought or that scene is funnier than we imagined. After the scene was cut together, we all talked about what we wanted out of E.B.'s performance…what we wanted him to communicate to the audience. We took that information, and I did a handoff to the animators at R&H so they could very forensically go through every shot."
When the entire team was comfortable that what they wanted to have communicated was accomplished, then the final animation occurred. At this stage, R&H tweaked E.B.'s fingers and the suppleness of the face. After that was approved, they then moved on to hair and lighting.
While the humor begins with the screenplay, many of the best gags in animated films come from the animators. It was crucial to Hill, Meledandri and Imperato Stabile that the artists not feel it was their job simply to execute the shot, move the character through its marks and hit the paces. They were always asked to perform the character. Whenever a shot came back that the team wasn't 100 percent comfortable with, they'd collectively ask: "What else can we have E.B. do here?" or "Is there a funnier way that he can react to Fred?"
Compliments Bailey of his fellow artists: "These people are performers. I like to keep the emphasis on the individuals behind creating the characters, because they're the ones that make the characters funny. It's the artist who is rendering the hair and rendering the lighting and the environment that makes it believable."
When it came time to lighting the scenes with E.B. on set, a curious chrome ball was used. Explains senior animation supervisor ANDY ARNETT of its use: "This was for lighting reference, so when the lighters were ready to put the CG lights into our scenes to light E.B. and make it look like he was part of the set that was being filmed, they looked at the reflections that showed up in the photographs of that chrome sphere.
It showed where all the different light sources were placed, as well as the colors and textures of all the different pieces in the room that would reflect light off of E.B. That way they were able to make the lighting that hit our CG character match exactly with the lighting that was on set at the time. When you put those two pieces together, it looks like he was in the room along with the actors and everything else in the scene."
After Hill and DP Collister shot key scenes, R&H put a camera in the middle of the set, took a 360-degree picture of the entire environment and mapped the inside of it. Discusses Bailey: "I like to think of it as a big ball surrounding the set, because when you light actors or a set, they're not just being lit by the lights on the set. They're actually being lit by the reflections of everything that's on the other side of those lights--the ceiling and the crew standing around."
"We took a high-dynamic range imagery image of the lighting setup," Rodahl elaborates. "This calculated the lowest and the darkest lights in the room. It was a camera rig set up to provide a 360-degree, fish-eye lens of the environment. Then we used that inside of the computer to map out what the strongest lights and their positions are, so that you see the same lighting influences on E.B. as you see on Fred. All that helped to make E.B. fit perfectly into the scene."
Rocking Out on Hop: Music of the Film
The production team, under the direction of composer CHRISTOPHER LENNERTZ and music supervisor JULIANNE JORDAN, set out to create a musical experience for Hop that was young and fun and encompassed the energy and excitement of the comedy. Both musical talents were previous Hill collaborators on Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Jordan helped to create the popular soundtrack for that film, which featured the signature "chipmunk" sound.
For Hop, the filmmakers recruited the Australian-born pop/R&B artist CODY SIMPSON to cover an updated version of "I Want Candy." The drum-centric pop song ties into E.B.'s world and into key sequences and themes of the movie (e.g., Easter candy).
Though The Strangeloves originally recorded the song in 1965, most audiences are familiar with pop group Bow Wow Wow's 1982 cover, which became an irrepressible song that year. The filmmakers were pleased to have the 14-year-old Simpson, whose solo debut, "iYiYi (featuring Flo Rida)," join the project. Says Hill of their logic: "Of course we wanted him. Who wouldn't? Cody Simpson is fantastic. He has a real sense of how to be pop but not derivative, and his voice…well, it has a lot of emotion, but it's still got a nice edge, and he's able to work both sides of that."
Additional key songs blend old school with modern music. They represent an interesting mix that includes "Dynamite," R&B singer Taio Cruz's hit that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2010 and has sold more than four million digital copies in the U.S.; "We No Speak Americano" by Yolanda Be Cool & Dcup, which samples the 1956 song "Tu vuò fà l'americano" by Italian singer Renato Carosone and became a top-40 hit in the U.S. in 2011; "Every Rose Has its Thorn," the power ballad by metal hair band Poison, which was released in 1988 and was the band's first No. 1 hit in the U.S.; "Celebrity Skin," the 1998 debut single from the group Hole's third album, which reached No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart; and "Mr. Big Stuff" by Nikki & Rich, which is the hip-hop/R&B duo's cover of Jean Knight's 1971 hit song.
Hill notes that he wanted the music to evolve over the course of the movie as we move through Fred and E.B.'s journey. He states: "We start with some very percussive-based, drum-circle-like drumming and then fold that into more pop stuff as the movie progresses. Then, naturally, we wanted to get some songs that were fun and topical. The audience will also hear some percussive elements in the score that support E.B.'s desire to be a drummer."
Making a cameo in the comedy are The Blind Boys of Alabama, the legendary musical icons whose founding members began singing together in 1939 when they met at an Alabama school for the blind. These musical pioneers have been celebrated by the National Endowment for the Arts with lifetime achievement awards and inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. The Boys record a song in Hop at 2UP Games for the upcoming fictional game "Extreme Blues Master."
Meledandri explains how they came aboard the production: "The Blind Boys idea came from writer Brian Lynch. The idea that in the future 'Rock Band' will spawn new music-based games like 'Extreme Blues Master' is a wonderfully silly notion, and who better to be a key part of that than The Blind Boys!"
In the scene, E.B. sneaks into their session and jams on the drums with them. Says Hill: "The Blind Boys are rooted in gospel and blues, which is very basic to American music. For the story, it helped that they couldn't see that E.B. was a rabbit and he was 'filling in' while their drummer was on a break."
Laughs Blind Boys drummer Eric Dwight McKinnie about being "replaced" by a rabbit: "I think that the young people are going to get a big kick out of seeing a rabbit play drums. If you can get a kick out of seeing a blind cat play drums, then I know you can see a rabbit play drums."
Throughout the film, there are multiple scenes in which music takes center stage. These include Alex's Easter play, in which E.B. and Fred steal the show and get the crowd to sing along to "I Want Candy," as well as E.B.'s audition for Hoff Knows Talent.
Having previously directed singing and dancing chipmunks, Hill found these scenes more familiar than most filmmakers would. "The music scenes with E.B. drumming were actually really fun to shoot," he says. "The only trick was to imagine that, although you're only photographing an empty drum set, eventually there would be a CG bunny banging away on those drums.
"It's important because you have to figure out how close to get, what parts of the kit he's hitting and how the grammar of music videos translates in this case," he continues. "The drumming scenes were pretty similar to the Alvin musical scenes in that you aren't filming anything real; you're filming background plates, and the character is inserted later. Though there was one scene in Alvin, the 'Witch Doctor' song, that was very challenging because of the choreography: I had chipmunks moving around all over the place. Here, a drum kit was stationary…"