The One and Only Ivan is an adaptation of Katherine Applegate’s bestselling, award-winning book about a special gorilla that could actually draw. The One and Only Ivan is a Disney tale about the 400-pound silverback gorilla who shares a communal habitat in a suburban shopping mall with Stella the elephant, Bob the dog, and various other animals.
The Disney adventure comes to the screen as an impressive hybrid of live-action and CGI. The film stars: Sam Rockwell as the voice of Ivan; Angelina Jolie as the voice of Stella the elephant; Danny DeVito as the voice of Bob the dog; Helen Mirren as the voice of Snickers the poodle; Brooklynn Prince as the voice of Ruby and Bryan Cranston as Mack, the owner of the mall and circus. The One and Only Ivan is directed by Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) and MPC provided the visual effects. MPC was involved in the movie all the way through from the shoot to the previs, character and environment builds, and final animation. In total, MPC delivered 1,055 shots, as well as some other smaller sequences, such as De-Aging, which were contributed by other VFX companies. The Production VFX Supervisor was Nick Davis and MPC’s VFX Supervisor was Ben Jones. The film started production in 2018 and was released on Disney+, this month.
The movie and book are based on the life of an actual Western Lowland Gorilla named Ivan. The real Ivan lived at the B& I Amusement Center in Tacoma (USA) for 27 years after being a pet for six years. Protestors pushed to cease having the animals on display at the amusement center, and Ivan went to live at Zoo Atlanta for the rest of his life.
The film is aimed at children, with the animals all able to talk, but not in such a way that the humans in the film can hear or understand. This meant that MPC needed to walk a line between completely realistic animals but ones that could also talk and express complex human-type emotions. This is not the first such approach, other films such as Babe (which won the VFX Oscar) have explored similar approaches, as did most recently MPC’s animators on The Lion King and The One and Only Ivan approached the VFX with the benefit of the new virtual production (VP) technology that MPC had developed forThe Lion King.
Unlike The Lion King, the animals in The One and Only Ivan were required to interact with real live action humans as well as in scenes that were fully digital, most noticeably in the back of the stage enclosure. From a production perspective, this meant the filming was in two distinct parts, which were split approximately 50:50. “There was a live-action shoot which we approached with relatively traditional VFX approaches – with puppeteers with green-screen puppets or with Ben Bishop who was the MoCap performance actor who was on set standing in for Ivan for most shots, so this live-action part was relatively traditional,” commented Ben Jones. “In parallel, our MPC animators were animating master VP scenes, especially the big 2,000 or 3,000 frame scenes of the animals doing whatever action was needed. We would then push this to the stage for virtual production, to allow the Director and DOP to scout and work out how they wanted to film.” As the team was building on the technical innovation from The Lion King, they were able to explore the sets and staging in VR, in real-time, using Unity.
The first stage of the virtual production scenes was the so-called “black-box rehearsal”. This is where the actors walk and work the material for the first time, ‘standing it up’ in a usually square space with black walls and a flat floor. The simplicity of the space is thought to create a freedom to try ideas. For this rehearsal, Bishop was on set as Ivan as were the puppeteers. In attendance was MPC’s Animation supervisor Greg Fisher. “He was there from the beginning as this pretty much informed the animation for the virtual production shoot,” comments Jones. During the black box rehearsal, both Bishop and the puppets were motion captured. “We were not quite sure how we were going to use the MoCap, but in the end, we used that data on about 30% of the shots,” he adds. Unlike The Lion King, which was filmed in LA with the MPC team in London, on this film, the soundstage filming was done locally at Pinewood, allowing the material to move seamlessly between the crew on-set lensing the animation and the crew back at MPC London, who were creating the animation.
While on-set, the director and crew would also have the initial edits of the sync audio recordings of Sam Rockwell’s delivery and that of the other actors. This was key not only for the blocking but also to allow Bryan Cranston as Mack to have a strong presence to act against conceptually. While Mack does not directly talk to the animals, he does communicate with them based on the personalities that the voice actors have created for their animal characters. Once the scenes were lensed and animated, MPC would turn up the settings in Unity and render out the best version they could and these would then, “live in the movie or the cut, for quite a while until we got into proper post-production,” explains Jones. This was also when the production would go back and re-record some lines of dialogue as ADR.
Another consideration for the MPC animators was avoiding the animals becoming too advanced in their speech, which would have made Ivan much more like a character from the award-winning Planet of the Apes franchise. While there were witness cameras filming the voice actors when they recorded their lines, the performances were not motion-captured nor crafted to perfectly match the expressions of the individual voice actors. Rather the skilled MPC animators hand-built the facial animation and expressions of the range of animals as a “collaborative amalgamation of influences” says Jones.
The team needed to make the animal dialogue believable but not cartoony, so that the audience would relate to the animals while still presenting them in a family-friendly ‘Disney’ idealized way. Ivan was based on an actual Silverback gorilla in Florida, from which the animators received plenty of invaluable reference footage. Bob, the dog voiced by Danny DeVito, was modeled on a photogrammetry shoot of a real dog called Mabel, who was on set. The majority of the animals were rendered in Renderman, with Houdini providing dynamics and some fur simulation. Houdini was also used for the highly complex paint simulation that Ivan does on the glass of his enclosure in the circus.
The shoot was approximately 12 weeks for the live-action and about 8 weeks for the virtual production stage work. The set for the final virtual production provided the bare set of the cage and major props that matched the 3D set at MPC. For the mixed live-action environments, the team needed to do detailed texturing and lighting work so that the film could cut between CG and fully live-action as well as mixed sets. For example, in the circus ring, the back wall, side curtain, and floor would often need to be replaced as the various nine CG hero animals interacted and performed to the live-action crowds.
One observation that Jones noted was how easily the director and the crew worked with the MPC virtual production pipeline. Unlike the crew from Lion King, who had already done several complex VFX productions such as The Jungle Book and who had a deep well of Oscar-winning VFX experience, Director Thea Sharrock was not known as a visual effects director. Yet according to Jones, the director and the crew never had any barriers or issues with the virtual production, primarily because MPC was presenting them with digital versions of tools they already knew well, so possession of deep technical knowledge wasn’t the primary requirement to making great scenes and telling the story.
It is always interesting to see the arc between concept art of a film and the final results. On The One and Only Ivan the final production imagery is a very close match, as can be seen by the Technicolor Pre-Production Art Department imagery and concept art shown below.