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Step by Step: Madame Tutli-Putli

“Those eyes!” is a popular reaction to
Madame Tutli-Putli, a stop-motion animated film featuring characters whose eyes appear to be alive. The reason Madame and her fellow silicone puppets seem so soulful is because actual actors’ eyes were videotaped, extracted, and timed to the puppets’ movements. The effect is captivating, and it has helped Madame Tutli-Putli earn honors at film festivals from Cannes to New York, along with an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short.

Produced through the National Film Board of Canada and directed by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, the 17-minute production took four years to create. The eye-mapping effect was conceived and executed by Jason Walker, a painter and visual-effects artist from Montreal. “I had this in my mind for years, thinking that if anyone tried to do this in animation, they’d have to stick new eyes on the puppet every time it moved. We decided to try to have an actress match the angles of the puppet’s head. And if the puppet goes through a shadow, so should the actress,” Walker says.

This latter point was crucial because Madame Tutli-Putli unfolds on a train, with constantly flickering lights passing by the windows. The film chronicles a dark, surreal journey, and the lead character’s increasing fear is reflected in her tremulous eyes.

The animation was done using stop-motion puppets that had black tracking dots in the center of vacant eye sockets. The directors cast flickering lights upon these puppets using a spinning wheel-like device that caused variations of shadows and light.

Once Walker received the selected animation takes, he analyzed the action and broke it down on charts that would guide the actors in recreating the puppets’ movements. One type of chart, which Walker created in Adobe After Effects and called Wunderbars, contained timelines in which every keyframe change in the animation footage was coded in different colors. “The Wunderbars looked like insignia on a military uniform,” he says.

Then actress Laurie Maher was videotaped re-enacting the head movements of the Madame puppet. Walker used modeler’s wax as makeup on her face in order to match the puppet’s textured surface — a necessary step, because he would later need to extract Maher’s eyelids and eyebrows from the video footage to blend them with the puppet’s face.

While the directors guided Maher’s performance, Walker referenced the Wunderbar to coach her head movements. “We had puppet footage on a monitor and Laurie on a video screen,” Walker says. “Looking back and forth between them, I could determine how her head should turn from one position to the next.”

The lights were also controlled during the videotaping to simulate the lighting that was used when the puppets were filmed months earlier. The painstaking process required about 3 hours to do every six moves. “But only about twice, in well over 150 eye characters, we didn’t get it right,” Walker says.

Walker positioned and scaled each of Laurie’s videotaped eyes to match those of the puppet while back at home, using his Apple Power Mac G4 with 1GB RAM. “I’d have the Wunderbar brought into the bottom of the After Effects window, so I knew exactly where I wanted the puppet to be doing things,” he says.

The live-action frames of Laurie’s eyes were essentially re-animated to blink believably and to reflect the flashes of shadows and light in each scene. Walker used After Effects’ time-remapping capability, and he worked with full-scale images in order to see every motion detail. “If you’re looking at the image at 100-percent scale in After Effects and you want to move it over one pixel, you hit the arrow key on a Mac. But more times than not, that was too big a move. Instead, if I zoomed in to 400-percent scale and hit the arrow key, it moved just a fraction of a pixel. Then I’d zoom back out and go through the frames to see if there was any movement between Laurie’s eye and the puppet’s face. There’s a thing about human eyes where if they move even a fraction of a pixel too much you just don’t get the effect anymore — you’ve seen a glimpse behind the curtain,” Walker says.

After completing the re-animation, Walker used Adobe Photoshop to create feathered masks that blended Laurie’s eyes within the puppet’s face. “The masks were done in a separate layer because the eye video moved around so much. If the masks were on that same layer, they’d be moving around too,” he says. The video eyes were tracked in meticulously by hand, and once Walker knew the eye was in place and rotating properly, he adjusted the color for each scene. “I would take an image into Photoshop, paint it, and then bring that back into After Effects. Then I’d make a feathered cut of that piece and have that travel with the frames. You can really only sell that for about five frames before you have to go back into Photoshop and make another piece. I dissolved these patches from one into another as the puppet moved, which hid the seams,” Walker says.

To complete the illusion, Walker used After Effects filters, adding motion blur and film grain as needed. “One of the problems I had was that the resolution of the stop-motion puppet was so sharp, even high-def close-ups of Laurie’s eyes were softer than the puppet’s. So I’d put a blur over the puppet’s face and bring that resolution down to match Laurie’s eyes. We matched not only the color and movement of the eyes, but also the surface textures,” he says.

The painstaking four-year process spanned three versions of After Effects and five computer hard drives, but Walker says he hopes to pursue this idea further. “I get emails saying that Madame Tutli-Putli looks like she has a soul, which may be a milestone for stop-motion animation,” he says. “I’d like to try this on some other puppet characters before the whole world goes CG.”

CREDIT ROLL

Writing, Direction, Animation: Chris Lavis, Maciek Szczerbowski for Clyde Henry Productions

Visual Effects: Jason Walker

Choreography: Laurie Maher

Digital Compositing: Peter George

Sound Design: David Bryant, Gordon Krieger

Music Direction: Jean-Frédéric Messier, David Bryant

Sound Editing: Olivier Calvert

Re-recording: Serge Boivin, Jean Paul Vialard

Producer: Marcy Page for National Film Board of Canada

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