Production of the family adventure film A Dog’s Way Home needed to make its way home to a VFX house, and found that home with Pixomondo.
Pixomondo VFX Supervisor Matthew Welford’s involvement with the project began in August of 2017 when the film was in the early stages of pre-production. The Sony Pictures film was setting up offices in Vancouver to shoot the movie in British Columbia.
Based on the popular book of the same name, A Dog’s Way Home tells the story of Bella, a dog who is separated from her owner and sets off on a 400-mile journey to get back home. Along the way, she meets a series of new friends, including a wild cougar known as Big Kitten.
Welford was installed as the Client Supervisor on the show, which had him involved in all production matters, as well as being on set for the duration of the shoot, giving advice for the VFX work, and using the PXO-created previs for the film as guide to moving forward on the project.
Q: What was the director Charles Martin Smith’s expectations and approach toward the visual effects?
Welford: Charles wanted animals that had great weight and performance. It was also important that we felt a connection between Bella and Big Kitten. Everything had to be grounded in reality. Obviously, a story about a friendship between a wild cat and domestic dog would always require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief from viewers, but we hoped they would feel Bella’s connections with the characters throughout the movie.
Q: Big Kitten is a strong central character in the film – and entirely PXO-created! How was that casting process?
Welford: I was hoping to find an image or video of single live cougar that would serve as inspiration for the digital version. I looked at videos of cougars at zoos around the world; I looked on the internet for images; I looked at wild animal sanctuaries. Charles had certain characteristics he wanted but there wasn’t one cougar that had all of them. He liked ears from this one, eyes from that one, hair from this one….I took his likes and had the PXO Creature Team put together an amalgamation of what he had in mind. I ended up gathering references of about 30 cougars and we designed Big Kitten from all those references.
Q: How challenging was that process?
Welford: It was challenging to create a cougar that looked real but who could also perform actions that were not quite entirely realistic to a cougar in the wild. Often Big Kitten interacts with Bella in a way that a real cougar would never do. They nuzzle, spoon while sleeping, goof around on a slippery ice pond. This was necessary so we could be true to the book the film was based on, and to tell the overall story. Our job was to show some not-always probable acts between these two animals in a way that keeps the audience engaged in the movie.
Q: How do you balance the director’s vision with the existing VFX capabilities?
Welford: Charles and I worked together to figure out the best way to carry out his vision. This film has animal interactions that would never happen in real life. My job was to help find ways to make these types of interactions believable in the realm of this story. We needed to show animal emotions and animal connections without any of the animals speaking. An ice pond sequence between Bella and Big Kitten sliding and spinning, for example, is not something that would ever happen in the real world, but it was an important visual because it showed the audience a deep connection between two animals that furthered their bond of friendship.
Q: How did you split the work amongst the PXO offices?
Welford: The work was divided between PXO’s Toronto and Vancouver offices. We split the work by Character and Sequences. Toronto dealt with Cougar Cub, Kittens, Baby Bella Puppy, Squirrel, Eagle, Rabbit. Vancouver created our hero cougar, Big Kitten, for the 7-month cub and adult stages, along with the CG Bella and Coyotes.
Toronto was led by the very talented Miheala Orzea along with CG Supervisor Sungjune Kim, Comp Supervisor Karen Cheng and Animation Supervisor Steve Hong.
Vancouver was led by Producer Jenne Guerra, Senior CG Supervisor Prapanch Swamy, Comp Supervisor John Cairns and Animation Director Eric Prebende.
Jenne and her counterpart in Toronto, Paul King, then figured out how to best divide and conquer the work load based on skillsets and crew. The supervisors in both locations worked together in making sure they were using the same technologies and pipelines.
Q: Was there any previz or postviz work?
Welford: Yes. Within the first week of pre-production I realized we needed some previz so we could both plan the shoot technically and from a budgetary standpoint. We quickly brought on Paul Lee as the Previz supervisor and, I, as the Client Supervisor, worked with him and his team in creating previz for several sequences. This helped myself and the director really choreograph the shoot to tell the story. Postviz was also used during the Director’s Cut to help create a movie we could screen for the studio.
Q: Where all the wild animals VFX?
Welford: No, we used the best approach depending on budget and type of work. Production asked for the buffalo to be CG but since those animals were only in two shots, it would have been a very expensive build. For animals only used once or twice it can often be cheaper to shoot the real thing. It also depends on what the animal is doing. In this instance, the buffalo was just standing doing what buffalo do, so I knew we could get that on film rather than create another VFX shot. I found three buffalo in the Vancouver Zoo, took a small camera crew and shot the live buffalo for the plates. We also used stock footage for a squirrel shot along with a moose.
Q: Bella the dog, was played by a real-life rescue dog named Shelby. How closely did you interact with her?
Welford: There were several occasions where I ended up wearing a green suit in place of a wild animal that her character would be interacting with in the film. Later, PXO would insert that animal digitally during the VFX process. One day I was pretending to be a cougar cub sharing a real steak with Shelby, and another day it was a pack of ham. My hands stank of raw meat for a week! But I think those were some of Shelby’s favorite scenes. She really enjoyed those takes and steaks!
Q: How closely did you work with the animal trainers and the American Humane Association?
Welford: It was very important to work closely with both groups. Since I substituted for the CG animals in my greensuit, I was one of the few crew members who interacted with Shelby on a daily basis. I was in constant contact and conversation with the animal trainers when working on those scenes with Shelby. We always wanted to make sure that what we were asking Shelby to do was safe for her, and for those around her. We also needed to give the trainers enough time to teach Shelby how to perform specific actions.
Some of the animal trainers were also in green suits as well, so I’d work with them to make sure they were placed in the best position to facilitate the VFX work that Pixomondo would be adding in later.
Ultimately, our first priority was the animals’ safety and welfare. If there was ever a situation where it was not possible or safe for Shelby to do a specific action, we would then figure out how we could make it happen with VFX.
Q: Can you give an example?
Welford: There are key points in the film where Shelby drinks water from the river. We worked with the province of British Columbia to test the river water make sure it was suitable for consumption. There was one instance where we did not get test results back in time so we did not feel comfortable allowing Shelby to drink the river water. That’s where VFX stepped in with solutions. We put bowls of fresh drinking water in the river and then digitally removed the bowls. That’s just one way VFX can help with safety in a situation like that.
Q: It appears that more and more films are using VFX to create animals be it through mo-cap or CGI. We’ve seen it in the recent Planet of the Apes films, Netflix’s Mowgli, Disney’s Dumbo, and the upcoming Lion King. Why do you think that is?
Welford: The films you mention require the animal characters to do actions or perform in a way that you simply cannot ask a real animal to do. Or the scene itself may endanger the actual animal, or it may jeopardize the safety of those working with the animal. VFX allows animal safety and welfare to become the number one priority which was very important to all of us on this film. Obviously, we were never going to put a real cougar and a dog on set together and make them lick each other’s faces. That is where VFX steps in.
Also, today’s advances in VFX means things we would have done practically in the past can now be done by VFX if needed. It’s not to say we should always do things as VFX but rather it gives us the flexibility when absolutely necessary. It comes down to what will best tell a story. In the case of A Dog’s Way Home the animal characters required the kind of facial performance and interactions that we could only do with VFX, so using VFX was the best way to tell this particular story.
Q: Do you think a book like this could have been made for the screen 10 years ago?
Welford: It would have been a much more expensive movie to make. The technology just wasn’t there and we would have had to develop something from the ground up. That would have been expensive and time consuming and therefore not very cost-effective for a studio. Today we have tools like Ziva, a creature muscle simulation system, and Yeti, a fur grooming toolset. Their existence brings down the cost of creating amazing VFX and gives movies like this a better chance of getting greenlit.
Q: From start to finish, how long was this project?
Welford: For me I was on the show over 17 months from pre-production through the studio final.
Q: What is the VFX shot count?
The film has about 671 FX shots. Pixomondo did about 450 of them including 270 in Vancouver and 180 in Toronto.
Q: What was the size of your team?
Welford: 170 crew in both PXO locations. My onset team was 8 people.
Q: How was the collaboration with the director?
Welford: Charles was fantastic to work with, always open to ideas and suggestions, but had a very clear vision of what he was after. From the first day until the day we finished the movie, we were in constant contact. I would always be able to come to him with ideas or issues and he was there to listen. I can’t say enough good things about our relationship. I should also add in our fantastic DP Peter Menzies Jr. He worked tirelessly to make sure both VFX and Charles were always happy. We all shared the same tent onset so was a great partnership between the three of us.
Q: What is your VFX background?
Welford: I have an MA in Digital Special Effects. I started my career in London nearly 20 years ago as a compositor.