Comic Horrors: Rocks, Statues and VanDyke

In this podcast we talk to two of the companies behind some of the shots in Night at the Museum. When we heard that Dick Van Dyke was a not only a fan but VFX hobbyist, we could not resist asking the guys about what it was like to work with someone who started by dancing through a cartoon with Walt, and recently diced with death with a T REX, we also cover bubble gum rocks and ‘real’ miniatures !

Night at the Museum has grossed over US$238,300,000 so far in release. It is the story of a bumbling security guard at the Museum of Natural History who accidentally lets loose an ancient curse that causes the animals and insects on display to come to life and wreak havoc, clearly was enjoyed by Audiences.

While Rhythm and Hues was the lead facility, we speak with artists from two of the other key visual effects houses: Rainmaker and the Orphanage. We drill down on a couple of shots and discuss how they found the experience of working on a heavy vfx comedy with three generations of comedians: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams and Dick van Dyke.

Director Shawn Levy on set

From the beginning, the idea behind Night at the Museum proved impossible to resist. It was all sparked when Croatian illustrator Milan Trenc first drew a children’s storybook. A brand new night guard at the American Museum of Natural History in New York dozes off only to discover that one of the towering dinosaur skeletons he’s supposed to be protecting has mysteriously wandered away. Suddenly, the guard discovers he is surrounded by talking, growling and prowling statues, which turn the place upside down.

With its spirited humor and enchanting tale of an ordinary man faced with wrangling the greatest legends of the past, the story became a family favorite. It also seemed destined for the movies — and the book was soon optioned by Fox, with Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan of 1492 Pictures attached to produce, and 1492’s Mark Radcliffe attached to executive produce. The trio of filmmakers, who would later merge contemporary humor and cutting-edge effects into modern adventure classics with the Harry Potter series of films, envisioned an expanded story for Night at the Museum.

As they wrote, the core of the story became the character of the guard developed into an inveterate dreamer and schemer, unable to get even one of his endless slate of overly ambitious projects off the ground. With the characters set into motion, Lennon & Garant really started to have a blast, as they began to figure exactly who and what Larry might encounter as his first night on the job transforms from dull to downright mind-boggling.

From the Hall of Civilizations to the American Railroad Dioramas, there were myriad possibilities. “We started off by making a list of all of our very favorite things from all our favorite museums – from the giant Easter Island heads to the dioramas,” says Lennon. “We also knew we wanted Teddy Roosevelt to be a major character because the Natural History Museum in New York is lined with quotes from him and you really feel the spirit of the man in there – not to mention that he himself, as a famous naturalist, wrangled some of the exhibits in there!” Roosevelt’s famous words of wisdom – such as “it’s hard to fail but it’s worse never to have tried to succeed” – became further inspiration for the themes underlying the entire story

Dick Van Dyke Mickey Rooney and the Bill Cobbs

The bad guys of the film were cast as the colorful threesome of Cecil, Gus and Reginald, the filmmakers ultimately chose three comic actors who have become legends in their own right: Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and the Bill Cobbs.

Casting the octogenarian and septuagenarian stars was a blast for Shawn Levy. “I had the great fortune of auditioning pretty much every exceptional actor over 65,” he recalls. “It was amazing – I mean Dick Van Dyke actually came in for an audition. He doesn’t have to audition but he and Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs all came in and really showed what they could do with the material.”

Levy continues: “Once I saw those three actors together I knew it was going to be an embarrassment of riches having them play these characters. Dick Van Dyke with his svelte, debonair quality; Mickey with his charming, ‘non-tall’ quality and Bill, who has an enigmatic depth, worked so well together and truly embodied the mischievous spirit of Cecil, Gus and Reginald.”

Dick Van Dyke, who in addition to being one of the world’s most popular comedians, is also indelibly entwined with such family film classics as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Immediately enchanted by the story, Van Dyke was excited to take on the role of Cecil, the former head night guard who helps to recruit and “train” Larry Daley.

“With all of the dinosaurs and Huns and animals, I thought it would be a riot,” Van Dyke says. “When I read the script I knew it was that rare thing: a great all-audience film. So I said, I’ve got to be a part of this. It’s one of those stories I can’t wait for my own grandkids to see. And between Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs, we’re all about the same vintage, so we had great chemistry as these old guys willing to do anything to be young again.”

In this week’s podcast, we hear that Van Dyke would come down to filming even when he had no scenes as he just loves visual effects and he was keen to learn everything he could. He even got cyber scanned for his own PC.

07Mar/natm/natm_1To bring movement and life to the museum’s creatures and statues, Levy relied on the VFX Supervisor Jim Rygiel, (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and one of Hollywood’s leading visual effects houses, Rhythm & Hues. R&H is renowned for its exceptional work in creating photo-realistic animals as seen recently in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Rhythm & Hues first set to creating the lion that leaps out of the African Mammals hall and chases Larry Daley. “The jeopardy for Larry in these scenes hinges on the fact that the CG lion has to be a completely photo real animal,” says Dan Deleeuw, VFX Supervisor for Rhythm & Hues. “But working with realistic animals in CG is difficult because you don’t have the kind of fantasy environment that will let you get away with certain tricks. We used very original and careful staging in this sequence so that it really looks like the lion’s claws miss Larry by mere inches.”

Another big challenge for the VFX team came in making diorama armies of just a few inches high look like photo-real Mayans, Romans and American Cowboys battling one another. “For the diorama armies, we created 89 base models which then became the basis for several hundred variations that were created in the computer,” Rygiel explains. “We used real actors, shot them in various action sequences, and then duplicated them in their exact actuality so that now, when you see the cowboys fighting the 17 Romans across a whole diorama floor, there will be several hundred variants with individual characteristics.”

The dioramas sequences also presented potential problems of scale. “If you’re photographing something in the diorama world and the camera moves two feet, with the scale issue, when you photograph a human on the green screen to match it, you’re actually moving 48 feet. and suddenly you’re above the height of the ceiling on the sound stage! So a lot of planning had to go into the photography,” Deleeuw notes.

To solve the large number of actors required, R&H used Massive software. Massive was developed by Weta while Jim Rygiel was working on Lord of the Rings.

Other facilities worked on the film, including Rainmaker for the Tomb room and The Orpahnage for the Easter Island statue.

Rainmakers Bruce Woloshyn mucking around on set
Hear Rainmakers Bruce Woloshyn in this weeks podcast

The Egyptian Pharaohs set presented its own problem, mainly due to the scale of the set and the scale of the Ancient Egyptian statues, which were all ideally intended to have been from some time from the Neolithic Age of 3500 BC to the Roman era of 100 AD. In this week’s podcast we talk to Bruce G. Woloshyn, Rainmaker Animation & Visual Effects.

In the summer of 1995, Bruce was recruited by Rainmaker founder, Bob Scarabelli, to return to Vancouver to help start his newly founded visual effects company. As one of Vancouver’s first compositing artists using the newly released Flame software, he became one of the company’s front line artists on projects ranging from feature films, to television commercials and episodic series.

Live action plate from on set
The wireframe models

Rendered with HDR on set reference

The final shot from the film

Bruce is the digital effects supervisor at Rainmaker for both Stargate Atlantis and Stargate SG-1. He has been with the Stargate franchises from the very beginning, starting with the pilot of Stargate SG-1 back in 1997 and has been honored with four Emmy nominations for his outstanding work as lead digital compositing artist on the show.

Bruce’s other visual effects television credits include Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, Highlander, James Cameron’s Dark Angel, Millennium, and the pilot to Smallville. His feature film credits include such titles as Antitrust, Mission To Mars and 3000 Miles To Graceland. Bruce discusses how the animation team at Rainmaker had to deal with a relatively small room and enormous statues. Plus as with several of the other ‘character of the film – the animation needed to be a mix of life like – but still solid and ‘rock like.

The wireframe models

We also speak to Kevin Baillie at the The Orphanage in part 2 of the podcast. Baillie and the team at the Orphanage were responsible for completing 20 shots, primarily with creating a completely realistic, 12 foot tall Easter Island head made entirely out of granite. This rock head has a prominent speaking role, which was a real  challenge.

As each ‘character’ in the film needed to return to normal by sun up, the team could not crack or significantly change the Statue during any performance. Yet the rock clearly needed to speak and move – without looking like rubber or clay. Making inanimate objects, particularly those made of rigid material, emote and talk is an enormously difficult effect to execute believably.  Add to this that there was an actual on set statue inter-cutting with the 3D version, and lighting became a critical issue.

The model had an elaborate cracking scheme for the lips

To “sell” the talking rock head, The Orphanage employed a wide array of techniques. Using Maya for animation and shader management along with Mental Image’s Mental Ray for rendering, the Orphanage team concocted an elaborate animated cracking system. This allowed the artists to create moving fissures and chunks of rock shifting as the mouth moved. The cracking allowed the animators and lighters to all but do away with the rubbery or fleshy feel typical of traditional animated characters. 

In several shots, the head blows an enormous chewing gum bubble. For this effect, The Orphanage once again employed Maya and Mental Ray, but added the Syflex cloth simulation tools into the mix to get the stretchy bubble gum-like movement out of the surface. 

Final touches and plate integration were completed in the compositing phase using Eyeon’s Digital Fusion. Kevin is currently on Pirates of the Caribbean – at World End as the VFX sup for the Orphanage, his prior credits include – Superman ReturnsHarry Potter, Sin City, the Day after Tomorrow and several Rod Rodriguiez projects such as – Shark Boy and Lava Girl and Spy Kids 3D.

Final shot from the film to match with the live action real set piece
Another final shot from the film

The DVD of the film comes out April 24th. The two-disc Special Edition DVD arrives full of bonus features including deleted and extended scenes with optional commentary by director Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen) and Ben Stiller, an alternate opening, a hilarious gag-reel, behind the scenes featurettes, a DVD-ROM Explorer Game and more. Both the single disc widescreen and pan-and-scan versions also include commentary by Shawn Levy and Ben Stiller as well as film writer’s Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon.

Night at the Museum Special Edition DVD Features:
– Deleted and extended scenes with optional commentary by Director, Shawn Levy
– Alternate opening scene
– Blooper Reel
– Directing 101
– Bringing the Museum to Life Featurette
– Acting With Nothing Featurette
– Monkey Business Featurette
– Building the Museum
– Historical Threads: the Costumes of Night at the Museum
– Storyboard Comparison with Introduction by Shawn Levy
– Making of Night at the Museum Featurette
– Reunite with Rexy
– Commentaries by Shawn Levy and film’s writers, Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon

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