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The making of A DOG'S LIFE

To BIAFF 2013 results | To Full Making Of Index

At BIAFF 2013 Alan Atkinson, FACI & Michael Ridgway won 4 stars and the Best One-Minute prize with A Dog's Life.
It has also been selected to represent Britain in the World Minute Movie Cup at UNICA 2013.

If they can tell the story in a TV commercial in thirty seconds, surely it must be possible for us to do it in sixty seconds; or so we thought.  In fact, it’s not quite that easy, more of an interesting challenge. 

A Dog’s Life started, as do so many of our videos, with a joke from the Internet.  It involved a talking dog, so the first problem was how to make our canine star, Mollie, speak in a fairly convincing way.  (Mollie was in reality a ‘she’ but, because the story involved the dog doing a lot of macho bragging, she became a ‘he’ in the script.)  We began by filming a willing volunteer (Michael Finney), speaking the dog’s lines, in big close up.  This would provide one of the dialogue soundtracks and act as a guide for altering footage of the dog, to make her lips move in sync.   

Mollie was then filmed, along with the two on-screen actors, and although she was remarkably well behaved, it made us understand the warning about never working with children and animals.  To make things a bit more interesting, and to disguise some of the less-convincing post-production work, she had to move her head around quite a bit and we persuaded her to cooperate with some ‘doggie’ treats waved around just out of view.

Now, it was time to transfer the voice-actor’s lips to the dog’s face.  Those more familiar with software such as After Effects would probably know of an easier way, but we did it by exporting footage of Mollie as a series of still frames, either as a ‘Filmstrip’ or a ‘Tiff’ file.  The former is easier but does not allow as many ways of subsequently modifying the pictures.
Photo of the editing suite.

The film of the actor’s lips was loaded into Premiere on one computer and the footage of Mollie onto another (Fig 1). The first attempt involved cutting out the actor’s lips from each frame and pasting them into the corresponding frames of the dog (with appropriate scaling and repositioning, of course). 

The results looked awful!  We appeared to have created some half-man half-dog chimera that was scary rather than humorous – more like a grotesque version of Wallace’s dog Grommit.  Instead, the single frames of the voice-actor’s mouth were simply used as a guide to distort Mollie’s lips and cheeks in the corresponding frames, using the ‘Liquefy’ tool in Photoshop.  In the final version, the effect was deliberately underplayed, as this would hopefully allow the audience to suspend its disbelief more easily. 

Distortion of the mouth was not enough, however, as it needed some black regions for the open mouth and, just sometimes, a glimpse of teeth (attempts at replicating the voice-actor’s teeth were abandoned as the shapes of human and canine mouths and teeth are just too different).  All that this needed was a bit of manual painting in each frame, using a ‘soft’ brush in Photoshop.  Being able to zoom in on the important part of the frame helped a lot.  ‘Before’ and ‘after’ frames are shown in Figs 2 and 3.

Figure 2 illustration.  Figure 3 illustration.

Once they were all modified (and it took a very long time!) the single frames were re-assembled into a video file along with the soundtrack of the actor’s voice.  This was the first opportunity to see and hear the modified picture and speech together.  About four of five versions were abandoned before achieving something acceptable. 

Our voice-actor was not asked to put on a special  ‘doggie’ voice (what would it have sounded like, anyway?  A bit “rough” perhaps?) and, apart from speeding up by about 10%, it was left unchanged.  Should we have asked him to try something different, or altered the voice in post-production?  No one has suggested this so far.

A frequent shortcoming of films based on a single joke is that they offer little more than ‘padding’ followed by the punch line.  However short a movie may be, the audience needs something interesting to watch throughout, so we included some shots of our hero in action, to illustrate what he was talking about.  These involved background scenes, largely created using CGI (computer graphics) into which Mollie would be placed using ‘green screen’.  No problem when she was just sitting still, but we needed her to run and, as we didn’t have fifty metres of green screen material, it meant looking elsewhere.  Well, grass it green, isn’t it?  So we filmed her running across a rather untidy piece of grass, strewn with dead leaves, which was all that was available in late autumn (Fig 4).  By having the camera fixed on a tripod, and making sure that the background scenes included fairly rough terrain, the shortcomings of our grassy ‘green screen’ were not apparent (Fig 5).

Figure 4 illustration.
Figure 5 illustration.
The shots were also shrunk to about half size, as ‘thought bubbles’ over Mollie’s head, which helped to cover up any weaknesses (Fig 6). Figure 6.
The film often gets its biggest laugh at the end, when the dog hangs his head and rolls his eyes in shame.  This was done by freezing the action at a point where there was relatively little movement and exporting a still frame (Fig 7).  Using Photoshop, a pair of eyes were then altered to give them much more white above and below the pupil; this still shot would be used as the lowest layer in Premiere’s timeline.  Next, a mask was drawn to match the shape of the eyes.  This ‘matte’ was used with the ‘track matte’ function in Premiere and allowed the modified eyes show through the still frame of the dog that was placed in a higher layer.  Application of Premiere’s  ‘Motion’ function to the layers then allowed the eyelids to slowly open and Mollie’s eyes to roll skyward, giving a suitably ashamed expression (Fig 8).

We were aiming for a ‘one minute’ film, and the original script was timed at 59 seconds, so you can imagine the dismay when the assembled footage lasted almost twice as long.  However, with fairly drastic cutting, and speeding up some of scenes, we eventually got it down to the required 59 seconds and 24 frames (honestly!).  A Dog’s Life won four stars and the ‘Best 60 Second Movie’ award in BIAFF 2013, so it was worth all the effort.

-  Alan Atkinson & Michael Ridgway

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