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Where the Wild Things Are

Date posted: 09.12.2009

Releasing this Friday, Where the Wild Things Are is the adaptation of a much-loved children’s book by Hollywood outsider Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich). Set in a dark fantasy world populated by strange creatures, it features spectacular visual effects by a London post-production house.

Based on the 1963 short novel of the same name by Maurice Sendak – who insisted on Jonze as director – the film is an altogether darker and quirkier version of the book, largely aimed at an adult audience looking to reconnect with their inner child.

Where the Wild Things Are is the story of Max, a boy facing the hardest challenge of all: growing up. Frustrated by the minor role he plays in his family life, Max resorts to creating his own world, one inhabited by enormous hairy creatures – the Wild Things of the title –  who finally fulfil his need for attention.

With a cast combining Jonze regulars such as Catherine Keener (Max’s mum) and new faces such as Max Records (Max) and Pepita Emmerichs (Max’s sister), the real scene-stealers are the eight Wild Things. Their final on-screen performance is a painstaking marriage of performers disguised in elaborate suits, computer-generated imagery (CGI) and voice talent. James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) and Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) lent their vocals to some of these fearsomely charming beings, whilst a bunch of actors was tasked with bringing life to the eight-foot tall animatronic suits on set in Australia.

The elaborate effects that gave the creatures the all important visual impact were the work of Soho-based VFX experts Framestore. One of the capital’s most important post-production outlets, Framestore – whose recent credits include Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and titles from the Harry Potter saga – was tasked by Jonze with one of the most taxing challenges.  In late 2008, a visual effects VFX team (which would eventually grow to 250 strong) began to work with the aim of producing over 1,000 shots – or 1,400 'character appearances'– in just six months.

"The prep time you normally get – to assemble your crew, organise the pipeline and so on – that just wasn't there. If we'd just created a set of top grade VFX within the time we had it would have been remarkable, but for the team to have brought life of such depth, complexity and emotional truth to these seven creatures, that was a truly extraordinary achievement," remembers Tim Webber, Framestore’s Visual Effects Supervisor.

Combined with the outfits created by renowned US experts Jim Henson’s Creature Shop (the company behind memorable characters including Elmo from Sesame Street and The Muppet Show’s Miss Piggy), the result is a group of unruly, emotional big boys with a somewhat disturbing soft-toy quality.

Whilst the animatronic suits give the Wild Things a tactile texture and feel on camera, CGI was necessary to give them human-like traits that will allow them to express emotions such as love or fear, central to the storyline. Using a technique known as ‘sequence projection’ often used to animate animals, Framestore worked tirelessly to reflect the performances delivered by the voice actors, videotaped by Jonze for this purpose, to achieve the degree of quality the director craved.

Realising the impact of the CGI work in the final result, Jonze set up his own office in Framestore’s production floor to work closely with the animators, spurring an intense and hugely productive collaboration which prompted him to proclaim that "the work Framestore did is so thoughtful and nuanced and felt. Working with artists at this level, is like working with great actors..."

Where the Wild Things Are opens nationwide on 11 December. To read more about the visual effects work, visit Framestore’s website.

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