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Out of thin air

Special to The Times

It was only a matter of time. A property that had spawned Grammy-winning albums and two TV series was bound for a big-screen treatment sooner or later. A mere 49 years after their creation, Alvin and the Chipmunks will be making their feature film debut Dec. 14. In the transition, the little guys have gone CGI in a live-action world, but they haven’t lost sight -- or sound -- of their roots. ¶ A visit to the set found evidence of their footwork everywhere, or at least signs of where their footwork would be added later in painstaking detail. Talk about working without a net; try working without three costars. That’s what the cast and crew of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” did during the film shoot. Jason Lee stars as Dave Seville, the squeaky trio’s reluctant guardian, and found himself spending much of his time talking to thin air. On this particular day in May, he’s come upon the chipmunks after their misguided attempt to clean his house. ¶ The story is a modern-day biopic of the fictional characters, but the look is old Hollywood. A charming old cottage has been built on the Sunset Gower Studio soundstage, complete with a courtyard garden. On its back porch, hair and makeup artists spend their downtime working on the latest crew addiction -- Sudoku puzzles. (They joke that it’s cheaper than drugs.) In a room off the kitchen, director Tim Hill watches the monitors as Lee rehearses, and three vocal stand-ins provide fine Chipmunk impersonations.

A visual effects artist rigs a flower with string and pulls it at the appropriate moment as a visual cue to mimic the chipmunks’ actions while Lee tries to reason with Alvin, Simon and Theodore. In take after take, Lee manages to make talking to a flower rather than a bunch of little critters look easy.

“It’s like, imagine this little bottle of water is Alvin, that fork over there is Simon and that spoon is Theodore,” said Ross Bagdasarian Jr., the son of Alvin’s creator and the original Dave Seville. Bagdasarian, who is producing the film with his wife, Janice Karman, praises both Lee and David Cross (as a manipulative music producer) for their ability to work with thin air.

ROLE CHANGE

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For his part, Lee is enjoying the clean-cut change from his role on TV’s “My Name Is Earl.” “It might be something that wouldn’t be expected of me, there’s no cursing in it, I’m not the smartass sidekick, there’s nothing jaded or cynical about it,” he said between set-ups. “It’s just a pure movie with a lot of energy.”

On a nearby stage, a big song and dance number is being filmed with more chipmunk stand-ins. Three young male dancers wearing color-coded baseball caps hold poles with stuffed chipmunks on the ends. These “stuffies on sticks” will help guide the CGI later, letting the computer artists know where to place the chipmunks throughout the song.

There’s another invisible presence on the set. Ross Bagdasarian Sr. died in 1972, but his son wanted to make sure his work lived on. He and Karman decided to produce Chipmunks projects for a year, to honor his father’s memory. That year turned into 30 years of songs and a revived cartoon series in the ‘80s, and they’re as enthusiastic as ever, though they won’t be handling voice duties for the characters this time as they usually do. For the film, Alvin is voiced by Justin Long, Simon by Matthew Gubler and Theodore by Jesse McCartney.

They have scattered the elder Bagdasarian’s effects throughout the set. The upright piano that he used to write such hits as “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song” now sits on the set in Dave Seville’s living room. Above it hangs a picture of a flower in a vase that Ross Sr. painted. The cottage is based on a home built in 1919, the year he was born and bears the address 1958, the year the Chipmunks were born.

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Their idea for a feature film had been germinating for a decade, finally coming to fruition in the last year and timed to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the first hit Chipmunk novelty song, “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas, Don’t Be Late).”

In January, Fox execs saw a weekend in December that they could call their own, so they began work on a film that would normally require a much longer lead time. They brought on Hill, who had experience combining live action and animation with his previous movie “Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties.”

“We’re halfway through shooting and the wheels haven’t come off yet, so we’re all very happy,” deadpanned Hill, who acknowledged that the tough part was to come. “You think a lot of the work’s done when you’re done shooting, but that’s not the case with this. The stars of the movie are still not in it.”

Indeed, the work on set is literally only half the picture. Film is being shuttled off to the animation team at Rhythm & Hues Studios as soon as scenes are edited. A September visit to the Playa del Rey facility found a warehouse full of workers devoted to the little fellas. The first job of the CGI crew was to figure out how to adapt the original characters to their new environment.

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“It’s a challenge taking a 2-D animated character and trying to represent that in the 3-D real world,” said visual effects producer Karey Maltzhan. “It’s way more challenging than replicating the real animal, because everyone knows what that animal looks like. What does this character look like when it’s supposed to be a real living thing?”

A collaborative design effort scaled the guys down to real chipmunk size and appearance as the 270 staffers and freelancers, including 73 animators, work six- and seven-day weeks to make their deadline this month.

In an editing room, completed sequences show the little rascals running amok through Dave’s home in all their furred and goofy glory. Alvin is still mischievous, Simon is still bril- liant and Theodore is still the baby. And for better or worse, their songs will still stick in your head.


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