Speaking for the trees: The Lorax

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, released by Universal Pictures earlier this month, has already had an incredible reaction with audiences, grossing more than $70 million on its opening weekend. Produced by Illumination Entertainment and animated by studio Mac Guff Ligne, the Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda-directed film is Mac Guff’s follow to the popular Despicable Me. We talk to animation director Lionel Gallat about some of the main challenges of production.

Watch the trailer for The Lorax.

fxg: What does the role of an animation director entail on a film like this?

Gallat: The role starts pretty early in pre-production, where it’s about making sure when we are working on the movie that people don’t struggle using the rigs and tools. We work very closely with the rigging department to make sure all the requirements are met in terms of technical animation. We also work with the director of the movie to make sure his vision is driving what we are doing in animation. During production I worked with the six animation leads on the film – we have to know the characters and from a day-to-day point of view I talked to the animators and checked their work and try and motivate them and make sure the work was consistent.

fxg: Obviously Mac Guff has had experience on many productions and on Despicable Me, but can you talk about the pipeline that was set up for this film?

Character poses for the young Once-ler.

Gallat: It was major technical challenge to create so many characters with fur. In animation, particularly, we didn’t have to deal with the fur so much, but we did have to deal with having a lot of characters on screen at the same time, just compounded by them having fur and hair. And many of the characters were animals so they had to go from bi-ped positions to be on all fours. Mac Guff hadn’t done that before, because Despicable Me had more humanoid characters. But on The Lorax we had the birds, the bears and the fish who had to swim and walk on land.

fxg: What were the tools you were using?

Gallat: It’s a very classical pipeline in the sense that we design the characters in 2D, and then those characters are modeled in ZBrush. After that the modeling continues in Maya, the UVs, texturing and rigging are done at the same time. The character TDs write tools and scripts to turn out lots of iterations of the same rigs, sometimes. The bear-like Bar-ba-loots, for example, and the fish and birds are based on template rigs and duplicated across many different bodies shapes and proportions.

fxg: You mentioned the crowd work, and there are so many characters on screen at the same time – were there particular tools that let you do that?

Gallat: There were in-house tools for the animators so that they didn’t have to deal with so many rigs and skinned characters within Maya at one time. We used a lot of caching, just exporting geometries and dealing only with animated vertices on the screen. We would just have a few of the characters rigged and present on the screen at one time. The animators could switch between the rigging state and a character which was just geometry for animation, which was much lighter to deal with. We never used anything like Massive or procedural tools – it was all hand-animated.

Watch a Lorax featurette – ‘From Page to Screen’.

fxg: Let’s talk about the performance for the Lorax, in particular. How was that directed?

Gallat: The Lorax was actually very difficult for us to conceive at first. We didn’t know how ‘animal’ he should be. So we did some tests where we developed the more animal-like parts of his personality. There are a few things that remain in the movie, but only a couple. We discovered that the character was not as appealing when he started to behave like a dog or a cat. We kept some aspects of that but we used those traits for gags, mostly. He was much more of a humanoid character in the end. For Ted, who is really the main character in the movie, that was also difficult because we didn’t have Zac Efron cast as the voice during pre-production. It was, on the other hand, a very good thing that Danny DeVito had been cast very early as the Lorax.

fxg: How did you use Danny DeVito’s performance to help with the character animation?

Danny DeVito.

Gallat: We had every recording session videotaped, but of course it is just actors standing behind a microphone. Sometimes we can use that but very often it’s up to the animator to come up with the acting and the action. I would say that his voice was still extremely important. In any animated movie, the quality of the voice-work is going to drive the animation – if you feel that an actor is bored and they don’t give themselves to the full extent of their talent, that makes it really hard for the animators. But Danny DeVito was really into it. I remember some recording sessions where the director was asking for some kind of reaction – like a grunt – and Danny went on for five or ten minutes playing different grunts, landing on the ground and everything. It was funny because the director would say, ‘That’s great, we have enough,’ but Danny DeVito kept at it. He’s a powerful personality – people think of him as a funny actor only, but he’s a producer, director and he’s got a very strong personality – and I think that shines through to the Lorax himself. It was really the perfect fit – the voice and the character.

fxg: What about the expressions in his face – what did the animators have in his rig and how much could they play with his eyebrows and mustache, especially as a lot of it is hair?

The Lorax and company.

Gallat: It was very challenging – you almost never see his mouth. He’s got very bushy eyebrows and the mustache. In Maya, the animators could see envelopes for his mustache, so the volume was there, but of course we didn’t have every strand of hair. The animators had a couple of different layers of density for the hair – the dynamics could be turned off, say. There was a slight tendency to lower the mouth on the face, because they wanted to see the mouth. But very often I had to ask them not to do that, because the character gets lost. If it was a fleshy and boney character, you wouldn’t be able to slide the mouth down, so we didn’t do that. Sometimes we played the mouth to effect say when he snoring or when he’s shouting, but really you don’t see the mouth much. So the shape of the mustache had to show a lot, and the eyes and eyelids were very important to show things – like smiling since we can’t see the corner of the mouth and the cheeks. We had the eyes squinting and giving the lower eyelid a corner, and we softened the gaze.

fxg: What kind of challenges were there for the Once-ler which is seen behind the window and seems to rely so much on hand gestures?

The Once-ler.

Gallat: It was actually an easy character to pin-point (in terms of the young Once-ler). He was very lanky and tall and we knew right away that we wanted to make him move a little bit like a magician. He had long limbs so the fingers and hands always gave that feeling like he was putting on a show or about to reveal something. Those kinds of magicians have a very precise way of moving so went towards that. We thought he was almost like a young David Bowie, say the way he played guitar. The behavior came with the proportions of the character.

So that was for the young Once-ler, but there was also the old Once-ler, which is behind the window. It was still the same with the hands, though. It just felt the whole time like he was going to pull a rabbit out of his hat at any time. The most difficult thing with him being behind the window was to make sure we did not repeat ourselves – that was really tough because there are many shots of just two arms sticking out of a window and don’t see his face.

All images and clips copyright © 2012 Universal Pictures.