Underdog, a new family adventure comedy, opened in the US on 3rd August 2007, with a UK debut scheduled for January, 2008. Featuring the talents of Jason Lee (My Name is Earl), Amy Adams (Junebug), Peter Dinklage and James Belushi, Underdog was directed by Frederik Du Chau (Racing Stripes) and produced by Spyglass Entertainment and Classic Media. Framestore CFC provided many of the films’ spectacular digital VFX.
Underdog is the latest in – it must be admitted – a long line of superhero movies to hit the big screen. It tells the not unfamiliar story of an ordinary Joe who, victim of a bizarre laboratory accident, finds himself in possession of incredible powers. Oh, did we mention that the ordinary Joe in this movie is a beagle named Shoeshine?
“Thank you, Framestore CFC, for making everybody believe that a dog can fly. You really raised the bar on making a duplicate digital dog, and in turn gave the movie a hero with a great personality.I can’t wait to work with all of you again!” Frederik Du Chau, Director.
Shoeshine (voiced by Jason Lee) gains unparalleled superpowers, including the ability to speak. He is soon befriended and adopted by a lonely 12-year-old boy named Jack (Alex Neuberger). The two develop an even greater bond when the boy learns of the dog’s incredible powers and secret identity as the crime-fighting pooch named Underdog. Dressed in his very own superhero outfit, Underdog flies over Capitol City, protecting its citizens from unforeseen tragedies and keeping a close eye in particular on a beautiful Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named “Sweet” Polly Purebred (voiced by Amy Adams). When a dastardly, mad scientist named Simon Barsinister (Peter Dinklage) threatens to destroy the city, Underdog, truly “man’s best friend,” may be the citizens’ only hope.
The film is based on a long running syndicated cartoon series of the same name from the 60s and 70s, originally intended as a satirical antidote to the plethora of superheroes around back then. Now, at a time when every Marvel and DC Comics hero who ever drew breath seems to have a project in development, a gentle poke in the ribs about the whole genre would seem a timely move. As is often the way with old cartoons, the updated version has been shot for ‘real’, with all of the VFX challenges that that entails.
Framestore CFC delivered some 258 final shots for Underdog, created by a team of over 130 people during an 18-month period. As well as spectacular 3D environments and stunt work, the company also developed some of the best photo-realistic creature work that it has done to date. The job was overseen for the company by VFX Supervisor Rob Duncan.
“As far as the hero dog was concerned,” Duncan recalls, “With Cinesite handling most of the muzzle replacement for the dialogue, we were delighted to have won the bid for the digital dog replacement work – challenging shots that couldn’t be performed by real animals. This included the flying sequences, which they’d unsuccessfully tried to do using real dogs on boards, as you might for human actors. There was also a whole range of other actions required: crashing, fighting, landing and take off. In addition, Underdog sports a spandex shirt and flowing cape, so the cloth simulators got a good workout.”
However, Duncan has no doubt about what the team’s greatest challenge was. “It was the fact,” he says simply, “That not only were we having to create a believable, photo-real digital dog, but that this dog also had to perfectly replicate and match a real dog, to the point where the action could comfortably cut from one to the other. So much of our effort went into matching Leo – the real dog performer – precisely. And in fact we also had to do it for two other lead dogs too.”
Mike Mulholland, CG Supervisor on the project, elaborates. “Each of the three main characters (Shoeshine, Polly, Riff Raff) were cyberscanned, and the scans used as the base information for our CG models. Due to the problems inherent in cyberscanning fur, and the fact that they were moving creatures, all models were checked against photo reference to ensure accuracy. A combination of Lightwave and Maya was used for all our modelling work, with a combination of Photoshop and Bodypaint to texture, Maya to animate and light (with the addition of a lot of proprietary plug-ins), RenderMan to render, and Shake to composite the renders.”
The hard work involved did, however, offer some real advantages to the production. They were able to subtly tweak scenes – including adding new dialogue – featuring the digital version of their star, adjusting the tone of the film according to how it was coming across to the test crowds – a luxury unavailable in most post production scenarios.
Attending the shoot for Framestore CFC over several months in early to mid 2006, was TD, Ben Loch. Most of the shoot took place in and around Providence, Rhode Island. A climactic chase sequence within the film actually takes place within the city’s Capitol Dome, which was faithfully scanned and virtually recreated by the Framestore CFC team. This was one of three large-scale purely digital sequences, the others being a lengthy ‘dig’ scene wherein Shoeshine has to bury a ticking bomb deep below the earth’s surface. This sequence leads directly to the third, when the bomb goes off and our hero is rocketed out into space.
The film’s external VFX Supervisor was 30-year film and television veteran, Hoyt Yeatman, who used an invention of his own – a high dynamic range imaging lighting rig – to capture the required on-set data. Mike Mulholland has nothing but good things to say about Yeatman’s kit. “Underdog definitely had the most complete set of on-set data that I have come across,” he says, “Which made life much easier from a TD’s standpoint.”
Highly gratifying to the team were early audience responses to the film’s tests, which showed that younger audiences accepted completely both Shoeshine’s reality as a dog and his spectacular adventures. All of which perhaps goes to show that, contrary to popular wisdom, old dogs can be taught new tricks, given the right trainers.
Directed by Frederik Du Chau
Produced by Spyglass Entertainment and Classic Media
To view trailer click here.