With this summer's "Cats & Dogs" and "Dr. Dolittle 2," the late, great Francis the Talking Mule and Mr. Ed must be looking down from the green pastures of equine heaven with smiles on their faces.
Fifty years after Francis was awarded the American Humane Assn.'s inaugural Patsy Award, and nearly 40 years after Mr. Ed galloped away with his trophy, a new generation of animal actors is paying lip service to the words of Hollywood screenwriters. Today, however, the critters aren't being forced to stuff their snouts with peanut butter to make them "talk" on cue.
In fact, thanks to advances in digital technology, the animals don't even have to memorize their lines. All they have to do is hit their marks, look cute on camera and be willing to share the spotlight with their human co-stars.
In 1995, nearly 30 years after CBS closed the barn door on "Mr. Ed," the runaway success of "Babe"--and, to a lesser extent, "Homeward Bound"--persuaded Hollywood executives that there was still some life left in the genre. Apparently, jaded moviegoers still were capable of being won over by a sentimental pig and a trio of singing mice.
Almost immediately, studio brass agreed to open the checkbooks to finance even more challenging projects.
But any new live-action film that makes extensive use of computer-generated imagery, or CGI, will have to compete with the sort of big-budget animated features that each summer raise the bar on technology and box-office success. Anyone who's been impressed by the likes of "Chicken Run," "Dinosaur" and "Shrek" should remember that most animated pictures have a gestation period of at least three years and, from that distance, everything's a guessing game.
"When we started 'Cats & Dogs,' most of what we wanted to do wasn't yet possible," said producer Christopher deFaria during an interview in an editing suite at Warner Bros. "But we had a reasonable expectation that our R&D; and production timelines would meet 10 weeks before this picture was scheduled to arrive in theaters, and that's pretty much what's happened.
"Producers have to commit to that kind of risk, because their movies have to look fresh and be able to compete with other animated pictures in the marketplace."
"Dr. Dolittle 2" director Steve Carr says the movie was given a green light by Fox almost as soon as the studio received reports of the opening weekend haul of $30 million for the 1998 original. (It ultimately grossed nearly $300 million worldwide.) The quick turnaround for "Dr. Dolittle 2" tested the skills of the creative team, especially Carr, who was a novice when it came to CGI and other special effects.
"I had to learn so much," admitted Carr, a veteran of the music video wars whose first feature was "Next Friday." "But, as a director, you don't have to know everyone's jobs better than they do. . . . You have to know that they know their jobs. With visual effects, I knew that Rhythm & Hues had worked on movies that I really liked and made animals talk.
"So it wasn't a great leap for me to give them the freedom to be creative, according to my vision for the movie."
Considering that the studio was investing at least four times the $18 million it cost to make the 1967 original, starring Rex Harrison, it only made sense to hire the top guns.
"With 'Babe,' Rhythm & Hues was in the forefront of digital animation of animals," said John Kilkenny, producer of visual effects for Fox. "In the approval process, [visual effects supervisor] Doug Smith's people would bring the animation over on the first pass, and Steve would ask if we could do something special, like make an animal smile, and the answer was yes. We could shape their lips into a smile, and make their eyes smaller . . . then play with the secondary muscles in the jaw and skin movement."
In "Dr. Dolittle 2," star Eddie Murphy's family spends a lot of time at a cabin in the forest, where his animal neighbors are being threatened with eviction by a greedy developer. The cast of more than 250 characters in the sequel includes bears, beavers, possums, bees, wolves, lizards, owls and even a monkey.
"The director wanted it to appear as if the words were being formed by the animals' mouths and lips, and not just a jaw flapping up and down, like 'Mr. Ed,' " Kilkenny said. "The digital artists at R&H; were able to push the technology to the point that it's articulating lips and tongues.
"It gives them a personality, as well.
"Basically, what audiences will see on the screen are live beasts with computer-animated snouts. Animatronic creatures, or robotic puppets, just wouldn't have been able to give the filmmakers as many options when it came to adding emotional depth to the animals."
"In general, Rhythm & Hues tries to put back as much of the real image as possible," Smith said. "Typically, anything inside the mouth and around the lips is digital, while all the expressive parts of the real animal's face are taken out and put back again. That has to be done seamlessly."
Rhythm & Hues also was called in to work on "Cats & Dogs" although, here, a larger number of the characters were created by computers.
In one remarkable scene, an assault team of "ninja cats" attacks a beagle guarding a research lab belonging to his master, Professor Brody. The scientist, it seems, is developing an allergy medicine that could tip the balance in the covert war between cats and dogs for dominance of U.S. households.
"I wanted to know how a real cat would perform karate, if it wasn't limited by physics and its own physiology," director Lawrence Guterman said. "It wouldn't suddenly get up and move its hips like Bruce Lee, because human hips have a much lower center of gravity."
To create the CGI cats, DeFaria added, "our vendors started with a skeleton, and put muscles and tendons on top of that. That was the only way they could attack the problem of making it look like a cat doing karate. Making a cat do a somersault in midair is a piece of cake compared with creating realistic hair movement, though.
"A large part of our software development went into the creation of hair."
Disney encountered the same problem when it created the lemurs for "Dinosaur." Sony Imageworks likewise went to great lengths to make "Stuart Little's" fur realistic, and the creative team behind "Dr. Dolittle 2" confronted similar difficulties. Adding computerized hair follicles to the snout of an animal is extremely labor-intensive, mostly because they have to be individually executed and made to blend in to the real fur and move naturally with body movements.
"Think 'Shrek' with real fur added," Guterman said. "No one's ever seen an ogre or a dinosaur, but everyone in the audience has seen cats and dogs and can go home and compare."
Audiences now seem to take these great technological leaps in stride, and this presents a different sort of challenge.
"We've gotten far enough that people actually take it for granted they're seeing talking animals and, for the most part, they aren't very amazed," Smith said. "But it's still really complex and labor-intensive work that, because of digital technology, is made to look fairly easy. The filmmakers can't rely on the gee-whiz factor to carry the movie."
In the end, it all comes down to storytelling.
"It only takes five minutes for an audience to become jaded by the technology," Guterman said. 'After that, they'll start wondering what's motivating the characters. The underlying conceit of our movie is that, like 'Toy Story,' there's something going on right under the noses of the humans. The animals may be spies and ninjas, but when their owners look at them, they're acting like regular cats and dogs."