ScreenTech talks to Iloura’s VFX Supervisor Glenn Melenhorst and CG Supervisor Avi Goodman.

Animating a CG teddy bear would seem to be one of the simplest jobs a VFX house could take on, but simplicity, more often than not, conceals much blood, sweat and tears. Melbourne-based VFX house, Iloura, brought the eponymous character Ted to life in Seth MacFarlane’s new comedy about a man who won’t let go of an expired relationship with an old friend, his childhood teddy bear.

ScreenTech spoke to Iloura’s VFX Supervisor, Glenn Melenhorst, and CG Supervisor, Avi Goodman, at their Melbourne studio. Iloura won the job after producing an animation test of Ted the Bear walking around Melbourne and was partnered with San Francisco-based Tippett Studio for Ted. The two companies split the work equally.

Matching the work between Iloura and Tippett was no easy feat. Both companies use proprietary systems and were unable to simply pass back and forth algorithms. “When Tippett came on, they had to try to match our original bear and then we tweaked what they did,” says Avi Goodman. “We bounced backwards and forwards until we reached a bear that we both owned and hopefully the audience couldn’t tell the difference between them. Tippet Studios have their own intellectual property as far as hair and their own fur systems and we have ours and you can’t really share that IP. Even down the clumps of dirt and spots of hair – we could share intelligence about how we were doing it. We were very friendly, we had a great time with Tippett. But there’s a certain point where you’re talking completely different languages.” The challenge went beyond matching fur textures. It also included being able to match animation styles and lighting setups between the two studios. “I think we successfully pulled it off, because most people are completely unaware the bear is handled by such different teams.”

Getting Ted’s performance right was the movie’s principle effects challenge. VFX Supervisor Glenn Melenhorst says: “We were working with a short-limbed, simplified-faced kind of creature. There’s not a lot going on there, so there was a lot of thinking about how he acted and what he did and didn’t do. He had a very underplayed persona and getting across the subtlety of the acting was a challenge. He had eyes that didn’t do anything other than blink, so how do you get him to look sideways or do all those other little gestures that you take for granted with an actual human?”

Director Seth MacFarlane provided motion capture for the bear he created, providing character reference and allowing improvisation onset. “The mocap system Seth used wasn’t optical and so wasn’t as accurate as other systems,” says Avi Goodman. “But it allowed him to move freely and be just behind the camera or even with the actors almost, acting at the same time as them and it didn’t require too much calibration. It was something that could be set up and dismantled quite quickly and easily and meant Seth could be there in the moment to give a performance at the same time as the actors. But since it wasn’t as accurate as other systems, it meant a little more work for us in terms of cleaning it up. Then there was quite a lot of other animation that happened post-mocap. It wasn’t just plug & play, but what it gave you was some nice subtlety in the timings and the gestures. And what was just as useful, if not more useful, than the mocap was having good video reference of Seth, so any bits where the intention wasn’t clear, when you looked at video of Seth, you had a really good idea of what he was trying to get across.”

Seth MacFarlane’s performance seems essential to the creation of the Ted character and it is impossible to imagine duplicating it without his mocap contribution. Whether a motion capture performance should be lauded at the level of a live action performance has been much debated in the last decade. Glenn Melenhorst has his own view: “If you look at the mocap heavy shows, they can have so many artists tweaking and modifying a mocap performance. But I was talking to a mocap artist who said, ‘If mocap is so arbitrary, if it’s not an integral part of the show, why have Andy Serkis do it? Why have these people give a performance at all, if it’s not providing a solid base for the character?’ I think there can be such a reality about the way it’s captured that if you use it for an animal or a cartoon character it can be a bit odd because your brain sees it as an innately human kind of motion. But if it’s manipulated correctly, it can work quite well. Seth’s stuff provided the basis, but it wasn’t the end result.”

Avi Goodman adds: “There’s so much animation that’s gone into Ted, above and beyond the motion capture. His entire facial performance is all keyframe and there’s a lot that went into getting the nuances of that just right.”