Is it cheaper to use computers to make dogs now or what?
February 20, 2020 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I recently saw the trailer for the new Call of the Wild movie with Harrison Ford. It appears that basically every single animal in this movie is computer-animated. I find the effect...deeply unsettling. Can anyone shed any light on why the decision might have been made to just build fake dogs and give them unnervingly human facial expressions? Is it cost? The logistics of using real animals on a film shoot? Why would they do this?
posted by helloimjennsco to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Working with animals in film/television is a notorious pain in the ass. Looking at that trailer, there's no way they'd get a real dog to do 75% of the stuff in that trailer, either because it wouldn't be safe or because it would be too hard to get a dog to do them on cue.
posted by Automocar at 8:42 AM on February 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Animals take time to train, assuming you can find the animal that looks exactly like the one you want. Then you need back ups so they'll have a face animal for the close ups, one that does some tricks well, one that does other tricks well. Then their is cuing the trick in a way that works on film, filming the trick is a pain because you can't do it too many times or the animal gets stale/bored. If you are using wild animals the difficulty level is exponential. It can take months before a film even shoots to get animals ready & trained for a film & then you can only shoot a few hours a day.

There are rules about just what you can do with live animals on set, hours they can work as well. Taking them out into the wilds to film would just add to costs & time. Throw in the stunts they want the dogs to do are dangerous and sled dogs are not easy to train as they are bred to go go go & pull a sled not act, hit marks or anything else they would have to do in the film. CGI is cheaper, easier & doesn't end up with injured animals, though I agree with you the animation in that was ridiculous & looked more like Babe pig in the city than actual dogs being dogs.
posted by wwax at 8:50 AM on February 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's a movie based on a novel about a dog (and told from the dog's perspective); in the novel at least, no human character sticks around all that long, and there are as many notable secondary character dogs like Curly and Spitz as there are people. Once you've hired Harrison Ford, sure, he's going to be all throughout the trailer, but if it's reasonably true to the novel (big if), the protagonist dog will get much more screentime than Ford does.

If the dog is the true lead, then to have them show emotion and an inner state, they either need to have a voiceover or they need to convey a lot of subtle emotions on their face. And if you want subtle emotions from a dog, these days it's easier to use an animated dog than try and have a bunch of identical looking dogs trained for all the very specific things you want.

Once you have one animated dog, it sticks out a lot less if every other dog is animated using the same technology. If all the dogs are animated, then a lot of people (you may not be one) will subconsciously accept that's just what dogs look like once they've been watching them for a few minutes; if there was a real dog standing next to an animated one you'd constantly be reminded that the animated one is animated.

And once you have the dogs animated, you sure as hell aren't going to try and have real bears or wolves or caribou, since those are a lot more dangerous and difficult to work with.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 8:57 AM on February 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Wow, looks terrible. My opinion is that when they think they'll have enough "family friendly" moviegoers to make a profit, they go for the cheapest and easiest, which means CGI over real animals. Little kids do not care. But the number of actual adults who would find this tolerable, well, I am skeptical it would be many.
posted by tiny frying pan at 8:58 AM on February 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't underestimate how badly box office can be damaged for a sentimental, family-friendly film by reports that dogs were injured or killed in the course of filming. There was a case like this relatively recently, although honestly I've blotted the details out of my head and I'm not googling. At a certain point, it's just safer to trust that the kids won't notice or mind the lack of realism of the CGI puppers.
posted by praemunire at 9:27 AM on February 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

I think what's most unsettling is that this CGI dog is dipping in and out of the Uncanny Valley.

At 0:18 he looks like a real live dog, but by 0:49 he's looking like Scooby-Doo.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:30 AM on February 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

I saw the trailer in a movie theatre and it's even weirder and more unsettling on a big screen.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 9:33 AM on February 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As a former Call of the Wild reader in my youth, I think you probably want all the animals in this movie to look as unrealistic as possible, because if they stick to the source material it is going to be an incredibly brutal film, culminating in part in the murder of murderous First Nations people and stalking them to ensure they never return to their native land -- answering the "call of the wild" by going feral.

I mean this book is so insanely problematic that I am just boggled at its release and wondering what they did to the script, never mind some bad CGI.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:34 AM on February 20, 2020 [9 favorites]

Best answer: It seems to me that it would be essentially impossible to get packs of analog canines to do exactly what you want, when you want, where you want and how you want them to do it. Now let's set up lights, get craft services going, wake the star from a drunken stupor, all at the Golden Hour.
posted by humboldt32 at 10:25 AM on February 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: VFX artist checking in: in my experience the best guess I can make is some combination of:
- Low budget and/or short schedule (obviously)
- Poor planning when shooting on set that required unsavory compromises (e.g. you would put the camera in a different place if there was a real dog there)
- Indecisive creative input, last minute nonsensical changes that weren't planned for (e.g. let's change the dog's color for no reason)

When done properly, CG animals can be much better than real ones. The bear in Revenant is a great example.
posted by misterdaniel at 12:13 PM on February 20, 2020 [4 favorites]

Training animals is hard and time consuming, and all it takes is one hit of bad luck (like an injury or illness) and you have to start all over with a new dog. With CGI, you have as many backup dogs as you need. I have friends who professionally train animals for films and most of them are either stuck doing commercials and piece work, or looking for another career.
posted by Pastor of Muppets at 12:29 PM on February 20, 2020

I'd just add that filming on wild locations means transporting your trained animals (since most of the film industry trainers are in Los Angeles, maybe a few in Vancouver) - and then you often need to re-train them for the new location since smells, terrain, etc are all different from the training areas. It's extra money and time which isn't easy to spare.

Also with CG you can get the animal to make facial expressions and movements that are more anthropomorphic so that you can have the dog, say, arch an eyebrow or look ashamed in ways that you would be crazy lucky to capture with a trained dog. That's also what makes it look so fake - but cheesy performances are still the gold standard in family movies.

That having been said, I watched that trailer in shock in the theater - not only are all the animal scenes clearly computer generated, I'm not convinced that Harrison Ford isn't actually in more than a few scenes as well. It's just creepy.
posted by Mchelly at 5:58 PM on February 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

2nding misterdaniel - studio people will feel more confident knowing they can call for an animal expression change or whatever, right up to the release date, without having to re-book the actors, animals,trainers, crew,etc.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:37 PM on February 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

The amount of specific acting and expressions that we see the dog doing just in the trailer is well past what an actual dog can be trained to do. A lot of time when you have an animal character in a movie it's being played by a number of similar-looking animals, and each one has it's "specialty". Like there will be a dog that is good at following a particular path, a dog that does good facial expressions, etc. You'd need a small army of trained dogs for this movie! Also, usually the trailer is the first thing that is done when a film starts in postproduction - so the effects and animation can sometimes be developed a lot further after the trailer comes out, and look a lot better in the actual movie.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:46 PM on February 20, 2020

When done properly, CG animals can be much better than real ones.


If the definition of better is "can do the things the scripts calls for," yes I guess. If the definition is, "looks anything at all like a real animal," then no.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 11:24 AM on February 21, 2020

Seconding the reply about avoiding risk to real animals.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 1:02 PM on February 21, 2020

« Older New washers or new taps?   |   Instagram and Faceboo queue. Can someone like... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.