From Talking Animals to Firing Dragons – The amazing Journey of Rhythm and Hues

16 February 2017

The goal of every technological enterprise is to be the pioneers. They involve themselves in constant efforts to introduce ground breaking technologies to the world. Hardly in any other field can you see the world going fanatic over something you have introduced. But unfortunately only very few of such firms are really successful in delivering them. Rhythm and Hues, the visual effects and animation studio is definitely one of them! The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have honoured them with four Scientific and Technical Awards for their achievements that influenced the entire motion picture industry.

Rhythm and Hues was established in the year 1987 in Los Angeles by the former employees of Robert Abel and Associates. Robert Abel was one of the major providers of computer graphics for commercials in late 1970s and early 80s. Unfortunately the firm closed in 1987 and some of it’s employees, namely, Charles Gibson, Frank Wuts, John Hughes, Cliff Boulle, Keith Goldfarb and Pauline Ts’o went on to shape the Rhythm and Hues. One of the distinctive features of the company is that it uses its own proprietary software to deliver photo realistic and stylish visual effects and animation. One of their beginning stage projects was ‘A Brief History of Time’, a biographical documentary film about the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking. This 1991 film included various interviews of Hawking’s family members, colleagues and his childhood babysitter. In 1992, it won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in the Documentary section. 

Their earliest feature film to receive widespread recognition was the 1995 ‘Babe’. Directed by Chris Noonan, the film was developed over a period of seven years. Adapted from Dick King Smith’s 1983 novel ‘The Sheep Pig’, its plot revolved around a pig who desired to be a sheepdog. The main animal characters in the film were created by a combination of real and animatronic pigs along with Border Collies. While filming, dozens of trainers and assistants trained more than 970 animals! Of them, almost 500 appeared on screen. When a trainer couldn’t be nearby, they used an animatronic pig for the wide open shots. The animatronic pig was also used for over the shoulder point of view shots and reverse shots. During the post production, special effect engineers used innovative computer modelling over the live animal’s jawlines. The digitally modified lips moved in sync with the speech and this human like talking mouths was a sensation during that period. In certain situations, the animatronic pig was manipulated to mouth words. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and it won one of them, which was for Best Visual Effects. The calibre of Rhythm and Hues was slowly getting visible worldwide.

Their next ambitious project was the 1997, ‘Spawn’ a superhero horror film directed by Mark A.Z Dippe based on the comic book character of the same name. One third of the film’s budget of 40 million dollars were spent on visual effects and the effects took almost a year to complete. The visual effects in the film were a combination of CG work, animatronic creatures and prosthetic make up. There were some stirring CG animations of Spawn’s transformations in the film as knives, hooks and chains emerged out of his body. At the Sitges – Catalonian International Film Festival, the film won the Best Special Effects Award. Rhythm and Hues were connected with developing quick shot of Clown’s eyes tapping out of his head in an effort to terrify the character Cyan.

The scintillating animal talking effect which popularized ‘Babe’ was again used extensively in the 1999 film ‘Stuart Little’ directed by Rob Minkoff. The film used the same combination of animatronics and CG mouth syncing as in ‘Babe’. This was one of the very first instances of a photo realistic CG character in a live action movie. One absorbing feature of ‘Stuart Little’ was that it was extremely difficult to figure out where the animation effects ended and the live action happened. The admirably dressed talking white mouse’s head alone contained half a million computer generated hairs! The film gained an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects. The film also spawned two sequels in 2002 and 2006.

In 2000, the silver screen witnessed the first anatomically correct, completely working, 3D model of a human body through the film ‘Hollow Man’. Directed by Paul Verhoeven, the film featured more than 560 effect shots and the film also gained an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual effects eventually losing to ‘Gladiator’. The film adapted a distinctive style as they tried to connect special effect shots to the actors as much as possible. They wanted the audience to feel that the actor was in the special effect shot or the effect was tethered to the actor. To obtain the invisible effects of Kevin Bacon, the actor who played the lead role, each scene was shot twice, one with the actors and one without. Using a motion control camera, same movements were achieved and the shots were composited in post production. Bacon also wore full length skin tight costumes in green black and blue colors to facilitate the special effects. 

21st century, the booming era of technology magnified the canvas of Rhythm and Hues too. One of their most prestigious works in the start of the century was ‘Fellowship of the Ring’, the first installment in ‘Lord of the Rings’ series. Based on J.R.R Tolkien’s book of the same name, this 2001 film directed by Peter Jackson is considered to be a landmark in filmmaking. The Academy Awards agreed and the film got nominated for 13 Oscar awards! The film was ranked 50 in the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American films. The film made elaborate use of make up, practical and digital special effects. One distinguishable illusion was that the characters all appeared the correct height and a wide variety of tricks were deployed to depict the characters shorter than they actually were. For certain scenes, scale doubles, large and small were used whereas in certain other scenes certain sets were entirely duplicated at two different scales so that the characters would appear to be the required size. A CGI animation system called Massive was developed for the opening battle scene between Last Alliance and Sauron’s forces. This system allowed thousands of animated characters to act on their own which helped to give the battle sequence a realistic sense. Peter Jackson wanted the digital creatures to look reasonable and for this, their surface was scanned from large maquettes before several digital descriptions of their muscles and skeletons were connected. Rhythm and Hues also worked for ‘The Return of the King’ which was the third and final installment in the film series. The film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including visual effects and swept away each one of them! The film is in a distinctive elite club along with ‘Titanic’ and ‘Ben Hur’ for the most number of Oscars won.

The other shining star in the portfolio of Rhythm and Hues is ‘Golden Compass’ which released in 2007. Directed by Chris Weitz, this fantasy adventure film went on to receive the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Rhythm and Hues were entrusted with the process of creating the main demons in the film which contributed to around 800 shots in the film. Fluid simulations were used to visualize the dust particles in the fantasy universe and for an important battle scene shot on greenscreen, the numerous background demons were created using the MASSIVE software. More than one third of Rhythm and Hues work for Golden Compass was done in India using Indian VFX artists. 

Talking about India, their next extraordinary achievement has a lot to do with India. Remember Richard Parker? Not the parent of spidey Peter but the ferocious Bengal tiger who became the sole companion of Pi Patel in the ill fated ship journey. Directed by Ang Lee, ‘Life of Pi’ which released in 2012 was definitely not just another film. It is impossible to believe the tiger and the entire pacific ocean were actually CG created. The visual effects were so moving that we actually thought Pi Patel was adrift in the Pacific Ocean with the Bengal Tiger. That is what the best visual effects do. They make you believe that they aren’t there! For the film, the team spent almost a year on Research and Development to develop the tiger. The team also dedicated seizable time studying real tigers to ascertain how they would react to situations narrated in the ‘Life of Pi’. Nearly 86% of Richard Parker scenes used CG tigers whereas the remaining scenes used one real tiger, mainly in situations where the tiger was in a completely different location from Pi Patel. In other words real tiger was used in shots where it was just the tiger in the frame and his movements needn’t be specific. But the greatest challenge was that, this set their bar for computer graphics very high. The animated tiger had to look like the real tiger! It had to be as photo realistic as anyone has ever done with an animal. Watch the film again. Can you really point out which is the CG Tiger and which is real? The film also treated ocean as one of the characters and the irony was that Suraj Sharma, who played Patel, didn’t even know to swim! To create the ocean impact the team build a massive wave tank and after four months of effort, a 250 foot long, 100 foot wide and 9 foot deep tank was build on one of the runways in a Taiwan Airport to hold 1.7 million gallons of water! One of their walls was even mobile so that they could take advantage of sunlight. Using high efficiency wind blowers and tactical camera work, they were able to create a deep sea swell. To get realistic expressions from the actor, he was blasted using typhoon strength winds and water cannon! After filming, they then had to apply their magic to turn the tank’s surface to make it look like an ocean. They sky, and the vastness of pacific ocean were all then digitally created! It is no surprise that the film went on to bag the Oscars for Visual Effects. The film also won three other Academy Awards including Best Director for Ang Lee.

The impact of Rhythm and Hues is not just limited to Feature Films. Perhaps there hasn’t been another series outside Feature films that became a worldwide celebration for its enthralling visual effects. The scale of ‘Game of Thrones’ is the biggest as far as Television Shows can get. Or wait. Why television shows. It is not very often that we even see Feature Films in such huge canvas. Perhaps, it is better not to compare and just enjoy the product as it is. 

Remember that episode in 5th season when Khaleesi was cornered in a pit fight stadium? As Game of Thrones and of course Khaleesi fans had their heart in their mouth, along came the saviour. The Dragon. The visual effects in this ‘Dance of Dragons’, the 9th episode of 5th season was supervised by Rhythm and Hues. For the famous fight scene, the stadium had to be widely extended, the crowds had to be duplicated and digital doubles were needed when the fight broke out. There were only 500 extras on the set and the remaining thousands were digitally manipulated. An amazing fact was that almost 68000 applied for that job of extras in the scene! Just goes to show the power of Game of Thrones fan base. The star of the scene, the saviour dragon had to fly and fight but the real challenge was in the detail work on the ground as they had to provide extreme close ups, precise and moving facial animation and alertful integration with live action. For the dragon to fire flames, flamethrowers were controlled by motion control rigs on set. 34 foot high green screens were built for the scene but a storm blew that down and they had to finish up keying just of the clear blue skies! The detailed skeleton and the underlying muscle system which enabled the dragon’s realistic movement under the skin is what made the animation so powerful. The attackers who got killed were a combination of stuntmen and digital body doubles. The dragon animation of Rhythm and Hues were also used in ‘Battle of Bastards’, the 9th episode of 6th season. This is considered as one of the best episodes of the series and it is widely rumored to be the costliest episode ever in Television History. 

To narrate all the important works of Rhythm and Hues, one might need a book! ‘300’, ‘Hunger Games’, ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks’, ‘The Incredible Hulk’ are some of the other stand out projects of theirs. From talking animals to photorealistic creatures and fire dragons, Rhythm and Hues have come a long way! One may not be wrong to say that they are one of the best creators of realistic digital animals!

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