In Red Riding Hood, a terrifying werewolf haunts the inhabitants of a medieval village. Rhythm & Hues tells us how they brought the wolf to life for this modern re-telling of the classic fairytale.

The film follows the story of a young girl, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), who must confront the truth about the identity of a wolf that continues to stalk members of her family and village. The film’s visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun oversaw digital environments and set extensions for plates shot on Vancouver locations and sets, as well as the creation of the entirely digital wolf. Rhythm & Hues, led by visual effects supervisor Derek Spears and animation director Craig Talmy, delivered around 100 shots of the large black-furred creature carrying out village attacks and also more subtle scenes of the wolf in close interaction with Valerie.

Director Catherine Hardwicke on set

Director Catherine Hardwicke determined that the wolf had to play fierce and monster-ish, but also display calculating and intelligent characteristics. “There was a desire to make the wolf more of a humanistic animal,” notes Derek Spears, “rather than a typical creature. Part of our work involved making sure it could still manoeuvre and run like a wolf and had that physiology, but would also deliver a believable performance.”

Artists at Rhythm looked to collections of reference photographs, books and footage put together by Hardwicke and her researchers. This ranged from real wolves to big cats like lions and tigers, as the film version of the wolf was scaled as a much larger creature than the real thing. “We also looked at any film footage we could find of a wolf executing our shot as necessary,” says Craig Talmy. “In some cases, we’d edit pieces together to form a shot. We might have needed, say, our wolf to stand still, then make a quick turn and do something else. Well, we could never find that footage in real life as one continuous unit, but we could put different pieces together in an edit. It was almost like a previs – people could look at it and see the wolf at a stop and see the energy and the motivation and how the mechanics were working, from a still wolf to a high speed run.”

On set, scenes of the wolf attacking the villagers were shot with several stand-in references. Plywood and cardboard cut-outs and a styrofoam version of the wolf helped with actor eyelines. Similarly, a person in a wolf suit was utlized for some scenes to aid integration, and a wolf stuffie – just from the shoulders and neck up – stood in for further reference. “They could put that stuffie on a tripod or a C-stand and move it around as needed,” says Talmy. “It was important for the actors and also for us, as we used it for lighting reference, along with our usual HDRI setup. We would make sure we took a lot of film photographs of it and a lot of hi-res digital resolution photos, and then we also made sure it got shot in the tail end of any take that the wolf was supposed to be in. We’d move it through the scene and that gave our lighters a real close approximation in terms of how the lighting and compositing looked.”

Rhythm & Hues relied on its traditional creature pipeline to model and rig the CG wolf using Maya and ZBrush. “In addition, we developed¬† the ability to slide bones around on top of other bones, with muscle controls built into them,” says Talmy. “We were particularly looking for scapula, which are prominent visually on our wolf. He’s been designed to have almost aggressive-looking scapula. Scapulas aren’t pinned – they float over the rib cage, sort of like how shoulder blades float over our backbones. So we wanted the ability to translate those scapula anywhere down within a region, forward and backwards and up and down over the rib cage. That conjoined with a muscle structure, which then caused a weight-driven slide of the fur and the flesh on top of that.”

Detail on the wolf

To animate the wolf, artists worked in Rhythm’s proprietary Voodoo software, drawing upon the reference footage. “Once we were happy with the translation between a real wolf and our computer generated wolf,” says Talmy, “we could move on very quickly to define what our wolf’s more menacing and more determined on-task attitudes towards things – whether he was just jumping up on a ledge to challenge his next opponent, or wanting to go kill somebody. It was never with the fear or combative nature of a wolf, who is just taking that action to stay alive. We made sure our wolf did it with the intention of wanting to harm people, wanting to wreak havoc and basically be a bad-ass wolf.”

Animators also worked on the performance of the wolf to suit the live action, or go even go beyond what had been shot. “We were given background plates with people who were reacting to being mauled or killed or taken down to the ground,” notes Talmy. “So there was this intention that the wolf had his eye only on his target, which would be the next victim, and anybody who got in his way, was just in his way. He didn’t stop to hurt anybody, he didn’t shove somebody – he just mowed them down. So a lot of our kills or attack scenes, the live action actors were instructed to fall or stand in a particular way and be accidentally clobbered.”

“Those ideas morphed into what is now in the movie,” continues Talmy. “For example, a dog will run and grab an arm or a leg and pull down the victim. We thought even that might be too docile for our wolf, so we made it so he would jump up and land and crush somebody on the ground, and rip their head off. We looked at whatever was going on in the live action footage that we could maybe connect to for the interactive moment. So if the human had a particular shake in the leg or a twist of an ankle, we would try and find something to match that to our wolf.”

In quieter scenes, where the wolf needed to survey the scene or communicate with Valerie, the animation team concentrated on the creature’s eyes. Here, the director referred to photographs she had found of glowing golden wolf eyes, something that Rhythm instilled into their model. “Catherine had a very clear vision on how she saw the wolf,” recalls Talmy. “For her, a really still, really quiet, very statuesque wolf was filled with this inner power that was immensely dominating and scary. So, early on we did a lot of shots where he would just stand there and stare back through his brow, almost intimidating someone to death.”

“In nature,” adds Talmy, “there are lots of herding dogs that control everything from coyotes and wolves to a herd of sheep by simply eyeing them down. We had some footage of Border Collies and Australian Shepherds who when confronted by another aggressor do not attack. They just drop their eyes and put their head into a strange awkward position.”

Close-up on the wolf

The wolf’s fur was also a critical part of selling the animal’s menace, although the distinctive coat caused some challenges for the Rhythm crew. “One of the interesting things about the wolf was that he’s almost fully black,” says Derek Spears. “So a lot of things we’d usually do in terms of ambient occlusion maps or trying to use diffuse maps didn’t give us much support at all because he was almost entirely defined by specular reflection. There was very little diffuse support for him in order to give him that black Labrador look – all you would see is the sheen highlights. It tends to make every little detail stand out on him.”

To solve that problem, and one of readability, since the wolf’s jet-black color still needed to be visible in nighttime scenes, Rhythm pushed certain aspects of the character’s design. “The wolf’s muscle mass was made quite extreme,” explains sequence supervisor Pauline Duvall, “with vascularity popping out from under his skin like a body builder. Quill-like hackles along the back of his neck and spine, which animation had full control of, also helped to make him menacing and intimidating, and further helped define the silhouette. In some shots during the Wolf’s rampage through the village, you could almost feel the adrenaline going through him.”

Special attention was also paid to the skin and fur of the creature for a scene in which the wolf steps on the holy ground of the village church, causing its paw to start burning. “For that effect,” says Duvall, “we used a skin shader for the wolf that could take point attribute data from our FX department to drive the bubbling of the skin and the singeing of the fur. The point attributes gave us info like where the FX fire was burning, how hot the flame was, and the duration of time it was burning in particular spots. The shader also included a layer that would render out just the tips of the hairs that were burning, so in compositing we could add a glow to the ends of the burning fur.”

One of Red Riding Hood’s key scenes, in which potential wolf-slayer Solomon (Gary Oldman) is attacked, was also a scene in which Rhythm & Hues contributed its own animation expertise to highlight the wolf’s otherworldly intelligence. “As Solomon is galloping towards him on a horse,” says Craig Talmy, “our wolf is getting prepared to attack. But instead of actually going for Solomon, we decided it might be interesting for the wolf to jump up and pull the horse to the ground and kill that instead. It’s a very non-wolf move, much more like a lion would do, but it’s a very conscious move. We didn’t want the wolf to be wild, feral or brain-less. We wanted to make sure our wolf portrayed in some fashion the intelligence of a human that was locked inside his body.”

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