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He’s Winter’s Warmest Snowman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Keaton has gone from Batman to snowman.

As the star of the new family fantasy “Jack Frost,” Keaton plays a cool dad and budding rock star who tragically dies in a car crash one Christmas. Jack gets the opportunity to become--quite literally--an even cooler father to his young son, Charlie, when he returns to Earth as the magical snowman the next holiday. The Warner Bros. film opens Friday.

The talking and walking snowman, which reflects Keaton’s bouncy personality, was created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (“George of the Jungle,” “Dr. Dolittle”) in Burbank and by Industrial Light & Magic, which created computer-generated images for Jack Frost’s more action-packed stunts.

In a room at the Creature Shop, petite puppeteer Denise Cheshire recently suited up to demonstrate the Jack Frost puppet, an impressive three-snowball creature made of foam latex. Hanging at its sides were the mechanical arms, covered in brown latex to simulate branches.

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Besides Cheshire, “there is a puppeteer at the performance control station who is performing the head by radio control,” said General Manager Matt J. Britton. “When we are using cable arms, there are two performers on those. When they use the radio-control arms, those only require one performer.”

One of the puppeteers also serves as the performance coordinator. “Part of what you have to do is get those four people to work all as one character,” Britton said.

Thirty-nine parts comprise the variations of Jack Frost seen in the film. Among the Jacks in the film are a melting snowman, a prone version for when Jack is accidentally swept up by a snowplow and a seated version in which the lower snowball pouches out in front.

The elaborate costume has an inner structure made of foam. “That is what gives it the structure,” Britton said. “When she moves her leg, you don’t want her knee pushing out. You want that whole ball to move. That is why she is surrounded by that foam and wrapped in spandex.”

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Before the Creature Shop became involved in the project in early 1997, Warner Bros. had built a prototype of the suit. “The prototype had a silicone skin which had a neat translucent [quality] to it, which was like real snow,” Britton said. “The downside is that it was incredibly heavy. So that made the suit a real pig to wear.”

This suit has a foam latex skin that was painted with a layer of white silicone. Before the silicone cured, they pressed artificial snow into the silicone surface. “When it cures, it bonds into the artificial snow,” Britton said.

Originally, George Clooney was set to play Jack Frost, so the head was sculpted to resemble the “ER” heartthrob. Keaton and director Troy Miller, who replaced original director Sam Raimi, came on board the project very late in the game.

“We sort of had to play catch-up,” Britton said. “Once it became Michael Keaton, we didn’t change the head completely. We did some signature things to the chin and to the lips because Michael Keaton has this little mouth and talks out of the front of his mouth. You can only do as much to reflect the performer.”

The snowman also had to look like it was made by young Charlie. The suit even has several child’s handprints imprinted into the skin. “If it looked like a snowman designed by a Warner feature animator, it would be a fun character,” Britton said. “But it would also make it harder to believe that a child made the snowman.”

For the snowman’s coal eyes, the designers frosted what would be the white of the eyes and kept the center point “real shiny to give it focus,” Britton says.

The eyebrows, which were made out of juniper bush, were added so there would be more than just white snow making up Jack’s face.

Keaton prerecorded his dialogue and “we would feed those lines into our computer system and then record the performance of the animatronic head in sync with that.

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“The only part we prerecorded is the performance of the mouth for the lip-sync stuff. The rest of the stuff, the eyes and brows, are kept alive by the performer so you can keep a certain amount of spontaneity.”

Industrial Light & Magic supplied the computer-generated images of Jack Frost for the things the puppet couldn’t physically do. “We did all the big action shots of the snowman flying through the air, jumping or falling apart,” said Joe Letteri, Industrial Light & Magic’s visual effects supervisor.

Before production began, the company photographed Cheshire in the snowman’s suit “from many different angles,” Letteri said. “We built a CG [computer generated] model that replicated it. Ultimately, the CG model needs to be the same character [as the puppet]. When we build the basic model, we have to do all the facial expressions in the same way they do.”

Both the Creature Shop and Industrial Light & Magic wrestled with several problems during production, especially those related to shooting a white object on the equally white snow. Just as real snow does, Jack Frost tended to get dirty and yellow during the shoot.

“Everybody has their own ideas of what a snowman should be,” Letteri says. “Ultimately, we had to fall in line with what Troy’s ideas of what the snowman would be.”

Britton said it was also difficult to figure out how the snowman should move because it doesn’t have feet. The twig arms were also a problem: They were much too small for Cheshire to fit into.

But, said Britton, “if you could see that those arms were big enough [for a person], it throws the gag away. We wanted to make that illusion as strong as we possibly can. The big part of the illusion was hiding the proportions of a human performing inside so that the audience doesn’t see them and it doesn’t look like a performer in a suit.”


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