The One and Only Ivan is an adaptation of Katherine Applegate's best-selling, award-winning book about a special gorilla who could actually draw. The One and Only Ivan is a Disney story about the 400-pound silverback gorilla who shares a common habitat in a suburban mall with Stella, the elephant, Bob, the dog, and various other animals.
The Disney adventure appears as an impressive mix of live action and CGI on the screen. The movie stars: Sam Rockwell as the voice of Ivan; Angelina Jolie as the voice of the elephant Stella; Danny DeVito as the voice of Bob the dog; Helen Mirren as the voice of Snickers the Poodle; Brooklynn Prince as the voice of Ruby and Bryan Cranston as Mack, the owner of the mall and circus. The One and Only Ivan is directed by Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) and MPC provided the visual effects. MPC was involved in the film from shoot to previous, character and environment builds, and final animation. In total, MPC delivered 1,055 shots as well as a few other smaller sequences such as de-aging contributed by other VFX companies. The VFX supervisor for production was Nick Davis and the VFX supervisor for MPC was Ben Jones. The film began production in 2018 and was released on Disney + that month.
The film and book are based on the life of a real western lowland gorilla named Ivan. The real Ivan lived at the B & I Amusement Center in Tacoma, USA for 27 years after being a pet for six years. The protesters urged that the animals no longer be displayed in the amusement center, and Ivan moved to the Atlanta Zoo for the rest of his life.
The film is aimed at children, whereby all animals can speak, but not in a way that the people in the film can hear or understand. This meant that MPC had to draw a line between completely realistic animals, but also those that could speak and express complex human emotions. This is not the first such approach. Other films like Babe (which won the VFX Oscar) have explored similar approaches, as has most recently MPC's animators for The Lion King and The One and Only Ivan, who approached VFX with the benefit of the new Virtual Production (VP) -Technology developed by MPC for the Lion King.
Unlike the Lion King, the animals in The One and Only Ivan had to interact with both real live-action people and scenes that were entirely digital, most noticeably in the back of the stage enclosure. From a production point of view, this meant that the shooting was split into two parts that were roughly 50:50. “There was a live action shoot that we did with relatively traditional VFX approaches – with puppeteers with green screen puppets or with Ben Bishop, the MoCap performance actor who does most of the shoots for Ivan on the set was standing. The action part was relatively traditional, ”commented Ben Jones. “At the same time, our MPC animators animated master VP scenes, particularly the large 2,000 or 3,000 frame scenes of the animals that performed the required actions. We would then put this on stage for virtual production so the director and DOP could figure out and figure out how they wanted to film. “As the team built on The Lion King's technological innovation, they were able to explore the sets and staging in VR in real time using Unity.
The first phase of the virtual production scenes was the so-called “black box test”. This is where the actors go for the first time and work on the material by “setting it up” in what is usually a square room with black walls and a flat floor. The simplicity of the space should create the freedom to try out ideas. Bishop was on set as Ivan for this rehearsal, as were the puppeteers. In attendance was MPC's animation supervisor Greg Fisher. "He was there from the start as that pretty much informed the animation for the virtual production shoot," comments Jones. During the black-box rehearsal, both Bishop and the puppets were detected as moving. “We weren't exactly sure how to use the MoCap, but we ended up using that data on about 30% of the shots,” he adds. Unlike The Lion King, which was shot in LA with the MPC team in London, this film had the soundstage shooting on location in Pinewood, so the footage could move seamlessly between the crew on set and the MPC London who created the animation.
On set, the director and crew would also have the first changes to the synchronized audio recordings of Sam Rockwell's delivery and those of the other actors. Not only was this key to blocking, but also allowing Bryan Cranston as Mack to have a strong presence that he can conceptually take action against. While Mack does not speak directly to the animals, he does communicate with them based on the personalities the speakers have created for their animal characters. Once the scenes were lensed and animated, MPC turned up the settings in Unity and rendered the best possible version. They lived in the film or in the editing for a long time until we got to the right post production, ”explains Jones. This was also when production declined and re-recorded some lines of dialogue as ADR.
Another consideration for the MPC animators was to avoid the animals getting too advanced in their speech, which would have made Ivan much more of a character from the award-winning Planet of the Apes franchise. While there were witness cameras filming the voice actors as they recorded their lines, the performances were neither motion-captured nor designed to perfectly match the expressions of each voice actor. Rather, the skilled MPC animators created the facial animation and expressions of the various animals by hand as a “collaborative amalgamation of influences,” says Jones.
The team needed to make the animal dialogue believable, but not the caricature, in order for the audience to relate to the animals and still present them in a family-friendly way, idealized by Disney. Ivan was based on a real Silverback gorilla in Florida, from which the animators received plenty of valuable reference material. Bob, the dog voiced by Danny DeVito, was modeled from a photogrammetry shoot of a real dog named Mabel who was on the set. The majority of the animals were rendered in Renderman, with Houdini providing dynamics and some fur simulations. Houdini was also used for the highly complex color simulation that Ivan performs on the glass of his enclosure in the circus.
Filming took about 12 weeks for the live action and about 8 weeks for the virtual production phase. The set for the final virtual production provided the bare set of the cage and the most important props that matched the 3D set at MPC. For the mixed live action environments, the team had to do detailed texturing and lighting work to allow the film to cut between CG and full live action and mixed sets. For example, in the circus ring, the back wall, side curtain, and floor often had to be replaced when the nine different CG heroines interacted with each other and performed in front of the live-action spectators.
One observation Jones noticed was how easily the director and crew worked with the MPC virtual production pipeline. Unlike the Lion King crew, who had done several complex VFX productions like The Jungle Book and had deep experience with the Oscar-winning VFX, director Thea Sharrock was not known as a visual effects director. However, according to Jones, the director and crew never had any obstacles or problems with the virtual production, mostly because MPC presented them with digital versions of tools they already knew well, so having deep technical knowledge wasn't the main requirement for doing great Make scenes and tell the story.
It's always interesting to see the arc between the conceptual art of a film and the end results. At The One and Only Ivan, the final production images match very well, as demonstrated by the Technicolor Pre-Production Art Department's images and conceptual drawings below.