How visual effects brought The One and Only Ivan’s animal stars into our world

Walt Disney Studios is no stranger to turning movie animals into memorable lead characters, and that tradition continues with The One And Only Ivan, a big-screen adaptation of K. A. Applegate’s novel of the same name. Inspired by a true story, the film follows Ivan the gorilla as he attempts to find a new home in the wild for himself and several other animals living in a circus-themed mall.

Directed by Thea SharrockThe One And Only Ivan features Sam Rockwell as the voice of Ivan, alongside a cast of similarly well-known actors voicing Ivan’s animal friends, including Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, and Helen Mirren. Bryan Cranston portrays the owner of the circus, one of the few human characters featured in the story.

In order to bring Ivan’s story to the screen, Sharrock worked with talented visual effects and animation teams led by overall VFX supervisor Nick Davis, MPC Studio’s VFX supervisor Ben Jones, animation director Greg Fisher, and animation supervisor Santiago Colomo Martinez. With The One And Only Ivan now available on the Disney+ streaming service, Digital Trends spoke to Sharrock and the rest of The One And Only Ivan team about the task of bringing their gorilla star’s story to life.

This article is part of Oscar Effects – a 5-part series that puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Visual Effects,” at the 93rd Academy Awards. The series explores the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

Digital Trends: Thea, your prior films haven’t been very VFX-heavy, but this one throws you right into the deep end with visual effects. What was the learning curve on this like for you as a filmmaker?

Thea Sharrock: You know that feeling when you jump into the deep end while holding people’s hands, and you either go deeper because they’re heavier than you or you bring them down with you because you’re heavier than them? It was like that. Luckily, the people who were holding my hands knew what they were doing. It was an adventure.

They always were intent on creating an environment close to what it would be like if everybody was real. Everyone understood that the animated characters were going to be as important — if not more important — than the humans and their performances, and we needed to understand how they felt, what they were saying, and their relationships with each other. That was what would make or break the movie. So everybody was intent on creating a process as close as possible to how it would be if I had real, human actors in the room. It wasn’t easy in certain moments, but it was always fun and it was always within our grasp. That’s what it felt like.

The animals in Ivan are so expressive and communicate so much without crossing the line into something that feels unnatural. Ivan never feels like a character in the Planet of the Apes movies, for example. When working on the animal VFX, how did you walk that line?

Sharrock: It is a fine line. By the time we started filming, and then right through until we finished postproduction, we always had a lot of reference to be able to say “this doesn’t feel like Ivan to me, but this does” when it came to his world. That helped. And I feel as though we were all on the same page in terms of the line we wanted to walk. We understood that, when it boils down to it, we were going to work it out on a shot-by-shot basis. And I think what we wanted to achieve in terms of the animation and how much of a human we could bring into each character was slightly unique. It really meant a lot to us that we achieved that.

We were also all incredibly grateful that our leading man was a gorilla. A gorilla is so much like a human, it never felt complicated with Ivan. Yes, there were always choices. Do we want his eyes to do something a little bit different? What about his mouth? How close do we want to go to his face? All of those choices were there, but it never felt difficult to achieve what we wanted to achieve. When it came to the dogs, though … [Laughs]

Bob [Ivan’s canine best friend, voiced by Danny Devito] is such a crucial character, and there are facial structures that make a dog much more complicated. The other thing is, everybody has an opinion about dogs, because they’re very recognizable. It’s very easy to watch a dog and feel like you pushed it too far. With Bob, we were much, much more critical with him than Ivan.

Greg Fisher: [Santiago Colomo Martinez and I] spent a long time sitting and visiting with gorillas. We visited a zoo and we sat there all day watching them. The way they look at you, the way they hold your gaze or turn away from your gaze — all of that made you connect with them. I’m not saying Ivan was easy, because it was tough to do, and it was tough to get the character across, but that was something I took away from working on a gorilla: How much the connection is already there.

What we had to do was to play on that connection and put a character behind it, and put a voice to that character. That was a pleasure to do. A lot of it is in the eyes, and you can do very little but get so much out of them. That’s one of the strengths we had with Ivan. You don’t have to say a word sometimes. You can just hold a gaze and there’s so much meaning there.

Virtual production techniques have become so popular lately, and were part of production on Ivan, too. What form did the virtual production on Ivan take?

Nick Davis: It was a bespoke system, really, that suited this movie. The movie divided itself quite neatly into two halves. We had a more practical half of the movie where we had traditional sets, actors, and CG animals interacting with our performers. But then in the other half, we had an entirely virtual set up. For that, we needed to have our CG animals emoting and performing with each other in the same sets as the human actors, but in a virtual environment.

The process we created was to start off with the rehearsal room, where Thea was able to actually rehearse with puppeteers and human performers to set up the general gist of the scene. We then took that scene into motion capture, where we captured Ivan’s performance. Ben Bishop was our performance actor for Ivan. That way, Thea could direct in the motion-capture stage, which was where we really fleshed the sequence out. Next, we passed those master scenes to the MPC animation team led by Greg and Santi. They would do what we call “layout animation” for it.

Once we had a master scene and Thea was happy with that, it would become our virtual scene. It would be rendered in Unity, a game engine, and we would put the game engine render onto a fully virtual production stage where we would bring in the director, the director of photography, and their camera crew with dollies, cranes, Steadicams, and all the same tools they were using on the practical shoot. They could then film that scene exactly as they would if they were on a practical film set.

We were always trying to put the tools of our virtual stage into the hands of our filmmakers. There are many different ways you can use virtual production tools, but this was the system we developed for Ivan because it suited the movie and our director and DP. They wanted to have control of the movie and never lose that control down the rabbit hole of a visual effects studio. It was always a sort of live-action shoot.

Is there a visual effect you’re particularly proud of in the film? Maybe something that people might not realize was a visual effect or presented some unexpected challenges?

Santiago Colomo Martinez: Working with Frankie [the sea lion], we had to have him balancing the ball and talking all at the same time. That was surprisingly challenging for animation. There was something like that for each of the characters. They all had something that was really challenging that we discovered while working on them.

Ben Jones: The MPC environments team deserves credit, too, because I reckon a lot of people won’t know that the environment was fully CG in a lot of shots in that movie. That’s something that will probably go unnoticed, but they did such a fantastic job.

What were some environments that blended CG environments like that?

Jones: When there was intimate filming of some of the  characters at nighttime, they were all in CG replicas of the set. There was a practical set that was built and then completely rebuilt in the computer so that we could film the virtual production scenes and get a perfect match with what was happening on the practical set. In some cases, [the virtual scenes with CG environments] were shot back-to-back with live-action scenes in that same set, so it had to be an absolutely perfect match.

There’s that old adage about how you should never work with kids and animals in movies. Has current technology and techniques like this made that old saying obsolete?

Davis: Well, these animals we worked with were very well-behaved.

Sharrock: Mostly well-behaved. They did do crazy things that weren’t even in the script sometimes, but I can’t tell you about those.

Disney’s The One And Only Ivan is available now on the Disney+ streaming service.

This article is part of Oscar Effects – a 5-part series that puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Visual Effects,” at the 93rd Academy Awards. The series explores the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

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