Visual effects giant MPC shared that led by production VFX supervisor Jason Billington and animation director Matt Everitt, 370 artists across MPC Adelaide, Bangalore and Mumbai delivered 720 shots for Universal’s movie Strays.
Strays follows Reggie, an abandoned border terrier, who forms an unlikely bond with a misfit gang of stray dogs. Together, they embark on an epic trek across town to help Reggie find his way home- facing various adventures and overcoming challenges along the way.
To deliver director Josh Greenbaum’s vision, MPC’s goal was to create a believable world where the boundaries between real and digital animals are indistinguishable. The film encompasses moments of subtle emotion, exhilarating full CG action sequences, and side-splitting comedic gags.
“The VFX work was a true collaboration between Josh Greenbaum and MPC’s artists,” said Billington. “Josh was an incredibly creative and inspiring director, always open to our ideas and encouraging exploration as we found the tone of the show.”
One of the key elements of the movie was the exploration of the behaviour of dogs and their imagined conversations. MPC’s team worked closely with the performances captured on set, to ensure that the dogs appeared to be engaged in realistic dialogue, as well as highlighting the distinctive personality of each dog. Simultaneously, showcasing the impeccable comedic timing and dialogues delivered by the film’s leading comedic talents, Jamie Foxx and Will Ferrell.
Much of the VFX work incorporated CG muzzle replacement techniques for the dogs. The muzzle replacement work was varied, ranging from replacing the muzzle below the eyes, to complete head replacement. Additionally, certain shots featured full CG dogs, while one specific sequence required a full CG eagle.
MPC crafted and developed over 30 assets for the movie, encompassing highly detailed full CG versions of the hero characters. Among the notable dogs were Reggie (voiced by Will Ferrell), Bug (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Hunter (voiced by Randall Park), and Maggie (voiced by Isla Fisher). The dogs required full facial systems with a seamless blend across the entire face and neck to allow MPC’s artists to utilise different areas of the live action dog depending on the performance requirements. Each dog also boasted a distinct and diverse groom, encompassing various fur styles and textures such as short, fine, straggled, long, flowing, and silky.
“Strays was one of the first shows at MPC to use our new, Houdini-based grooming system for hair, fur and feathers called LOMA, a proprietary Houdini/USD based toolset which allows us to create, control and simulate grooms for much more detailed & art-directed characters than before,” said Billington. “This technology works in conjunction with our industry leading shader development for hair, which calculates physical properties of hair strands, such as the medulla, cortex and cuticle- animal and human alike, in much more physically based manner, resulting in never-seen-before realism for furry creatures.”
The Eagle sequence posed a significant challenge to the team. It entailed the creation of both full CG dogs and a full CG eagle, intricately connected, and prominently featured in close-up shots. This required attention to detail in the assets and multiple simulations for every moving element. Considerable time and effort was put into pre-visualisation, during which new jokes and ideas were pitched and incorporated into the final film. The sequence aimed to maintain a sense of peril, but at the same time elicit laughter from the audience as our heroes are carried over treetops, hundreds of feet in the air.
Integrating these elements seamlessly into background plates, captured using various cameras at different times of the day, posed a more intricate challenge for MPC’s lighting and compositing artists. Ensuring consistency across the entire sequence demanded a comprehensive approach.