One small step for a dancer

Special to The Times

IN what has to be one of the strangest requests he’s ever gotten, Savion Glover was asked to attend penguin school ... and he did.

The tale begins with “Happy Feet” director George Miller -- who melded digital animation and lovable animals in 1995’s “Babe.” Miller was convinced the only way to tell the story of Mumble, a plump seabird with a terrible singing voice but a gift for tap dance, was to cast the virtuoso hoofer.

It took a filmmaker with confidence in digital technology to think to record the exuberant performances of a Tony Award-winning tap dancer and channel them into a small computer-generated penguin shaped like a football.

Glover stepped up to the challenge, literally, attending penguin school with 15 other dancers where choreographer Kelley Abbey taught them how to curtail their natural range of motion and move like flightless birds with stumpy legs and little flippers.


In keeping with the movie’s theme of dancing to the beat of your own drum, Abbey taught the dancers musical numbers that fused percussive dance styles from around the globe, including Zulu, gum boot (South African tap dance), riverdance (Irish step dancing), Navajo and Samoan slap dance, flamenco, hip-hop and breakdance.

Once Glover learned the group choreography and crafted his solos, capturing the essence of his dance moves and transferring them into the digital realm became the job of hundreds of artists and technicians based at Animal Logic Studios in Australia.

For Glover’s primary performances, the crew used motion capture technology, a recording process that required him to tap dance on a small stage under 60 lights in a black bodysuit that had 40 reflective sensors near his joints. As Glover performed, the light from his reflectors was recorded by an array of 60 cameras and turned into data.

But capturing Glover’s every move onstage was only the beginning. Mumble’s final performance in the film is in fact an amalgamation of more than 50 artists, including Elijah Wood’s voice, mo-cap performer Matt Lee’s facial expressions and gestures, five motion editors who refined Glover’s performance, 10 computer animators who enhanced it, and more than two dozen background technical artists responsible for lighting and surfacing the 6 million feathers covering Mumble’s body.


One thing Miller says he’s learned in the four years it took to make “Happy Feet,” which lands in theaters Friday, is that “the very essence of an artist is never destroyed. It’s no different from live action in that everyone has to bring their artistry to bear.”

As Abbey puts it: “Every one of those tens of thousands of little penguins is an individual life force. I can still see who’s who onscreen.”