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Bringing Up Baby: How the Dancing Baby Made It on TV

Since Encore Visual Effects, Hollywood, is responsible for all the film andvideo postproduction work on Fox’s Ally McBeal, the show’s producers,Jonathan Pontell, Mike Listo, and Steve Robin, asked us to take charge ofanimating and compositing the now well-known Dancing Baby CGI sequence thatfirst appeared in episode No. 11 of the series, Cro Magnon.

A simple version of the Dancing Baby had been making its way around theInternet for a couple of years-the sort of e-mail friends pass around forlaughs. It was originally created as part of a tutorial for Character MAX,part of the 3D Studio MAX animation software package [manufactured byAutodesk/Kinetix]. The show’s creator, David Kelley, had seen it anddecided it would be perfect for one of the lead character’s many CGI-bornfantasies. So the idea of creating a new character or some brilliant 3-Dinnovation wasn’t the point: Kelley wanted the sequence to help tell one ofhis stories.

Our initial assignment was to simply clean up the low resolution of theoriginal model of the animated baby and composite him into a live-actionsequence-dancing with the title character-on an episodic budget andschedule, which even under the best of circumstances means cutting itclose.

As it turned out, animating the baby in the first place was a bigger jobthan we’d anticipated, requiring us to call in help from Liquid LightStudios, Westwood; plus, waiting for live-action plates to come in left useven less time to get the composite done.

Encore’s Mike Most, visual effects supervisor on Ally McBeal, was onassignment in Australia at the time (last December), so Rick stepped in tosupervise the sequence. At our first creative meeting, it was decided the baby should not only duplicate its Internet-originated dancing movement, but alsoperform other actions, like running and jumping.

Although Encore creates all effects sequences for the show itself (CGI andotherwise), we do not use 3D Studio MAX. We run Lightwave 5.5 on theWindows NT platform and Side Effects’ Houdini on SGIs. Since the dancealready existed as motion files in the Character MAX tutorial, we askedBlur Studios, Santa Monica, to perform a test render for us. There, wequickly realized the resolution of the original baby model was simply notsufficient for broadcast (only about 9,500 polygons), and the baby wouldhave to be reconstructed at a much higher resolution and with a morerefined surface map.

Although Encore does not run 3D Studio MAX, our first inclination at thatpoint was to purchase the software and develop the shots in house, but withthe schedule as tight as it was (about four weeks from legal clearancethrough final compositing), learning new software and working out renderfarm bugs wasn’t the smartest option.

Blur Studios’ schedule prohibited them from taking the job. Theyrecommended that Liquid Light do the animation. That marked the first timein Ally’s first season that we subcontracted animation work for the show.Fortunately, Liquid Light had an opening in their schedule, so JohnBavaresco of our 3-D department and the two of us worked closely withproducer Julie Pesusich and creative director Steve Brinca (co-owners ofLiquid Light) to get the animation whipped into shape.

The next problem was the long wait for the background plates. Ally McBealis shot at Ren Mar Studios in Hollywood, just a few blocks from the Encorefacility, which normally makes the approval stage efficient. For thissequence, however, the plates were shot over a two-week period because oftalent scheduling conflicts.

This moved us behind schedule before we even knew details of the shotsneeded for the CGI and compositing jobs. Liquid Light animators spent theensuing period working on up-rezzing the model while we waited for theplates, finally getting it to around 40,000 polygons, more than quadruplethe resolution of the original model.

Bob Grodt, head of Encore’s art department, drew up a series of storyboardsinstrumental in establishing the overall shot design. Director Allan Arkushalso provided us with photographs on set of a doll which served as a proxyfor the baby during filming, to approximate the character’s position andcamera angles; we used those photos as final boards.

The baby’s main sequence occurs at the end of the episode. The low-resversion of the baby’s dance was played on a monitor on set as CalistaFlockhart (who plays Ally) danced in synch with it. With each camera setup,we wrote down all the information we needed-focal length, lens height,camera inclination, lighting, distance to subject, etc. The data and thebackground plates were then delivered to Liquid Light, so they couldduplicate live camera and lighting conditions in the computer for each shot.

Next, editor Tom Moore used the footage of Ally dancing without the babyand rough-comped in footage of the Internet version of the baby on theAvid, for timing purposes. After producer approval of the cut, Liquid Lightand Encore set out to create the final animations. We needed to pay specialattention to integrating the baby element into the background byduplicating as nearly as possible the lighting and spatial conditions asthey existed on set. Even so, we discovered that the lighting on the firstrender was overpowering the model’s surface, making it look extremelyover-exposed. That was solved by cutting the light levels to one-half. Thebaby then looked fine.

Finally, Encore was ready to integrate Liquid Light’s animation with thelive action. We handled compositing for the episode on several platforms inseveral locations, using a mix of Inferno, Flame and Henry work.

The first composites revealed a baby of a much higher resolution but with astill lifeless look to it. Even with the best technology, the best resultanyone can hope for in a CGI human figure is one that looks like acharacter from Toy Story, because the technology does not yet exist fordetailed, photorealistic, human 3-D figures.

As a result, it quickly became clear that our initial composites had lostmuch of the baby’s initial low-res charm. The flaws inherent in the modeland its motion were now painfully visible. Our solution was to feather thecomposites with a 65-percent transparency and push a little pink into theskin color, which gave the baby an ephemeral quality and softness thatbrought back much of its “cuteness.”

Lightening him and making him partially transparent seemed to take the deadlook out of the baby. With changes coming quickly-adding eye blinks andsubtle expressions and movements, for instance-Liquid Light too was runningout of time to create a final render. Even so, they pushed their hiatusover a week to finish the work. The physical distance between Encore andLiquid Light posed another problem, as renders were laid off as Targa filesto Jaz discs, and were then shipped to Encore via messenger.

Once we got them, we had to read the files and lay to tape, or in someinstances, import directly to Inferno. Thus, the process of getting any newrenders took at least a day. Further, since we didn’t have the luxury ofdaily on-site supervision at Liquid Light, changes were not always asprecise as needed. This, in turn, created the need for yet another render.Par for the course in television, with a daunting deadline right in theheart of the holiday season, we were thus making changes right up to day ofnetwork delivery.

Liquid Light also rendered the baby for a second episode, The Blame Game.Since that time, Encore has reworked the model of the baby for Lightwave3D, and we are creating future shots in house (yes, viewers will eventuallysee the baby again). This will give us more immediate control over theresults in the future and should speed up the process, as well as allowingus to create a more detailed dancing Baby.

Rick Kerrigan has worked on and supervised effects for features andtelevision for many years, including The Empire Strikes Back, The RightStuff, and the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids TV show. Currently, he is executiveproducer and effects supervisor for Encore Visual Effects in Hollywood.

James Pinard has been with Encore producing visual effects for about threeyears. He has worked in television in production and post for over 15years. He recently moved over to producing in a new title design departmentat Encore, called Heroes.