Animated octopus’s and famous miniature bad guys. Rodney Appleyard take a look at the effects behind the second instalment of Night at the Museum.

Small characters can have big personalities. And VFX house Rhythm and Hues has an impressive history of bringing quirky and highly realistic characters to life, including in movies such as Cats & Dogs and The Green Mile.

Its latest effort, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, features many updated characters from the old museum. Some have been sent off into storage inside the national archive – the Smithonian Institute – based in Washington DC. Unfortunately, a cheeky little monkey sneaks a tablet on board the removal truck that brings these characters back to life and wakes them from their slumber.

The Institute itself houses the world’s largest museum complex, with more than 136 million items in its collections. These range from the plane Amelia Earhart flew on her non stop solo flight across the Atlantic, Al Capone’s mug shot, Dorothy’s ruby red slippers and Archie Bunker’s lounge chair.

Security guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), infiltrates the Institute in order to rescue Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and Octavius (Steve Coogan), who have been shipped to the museum by mistake.

Rhythm and Hues’ VFX supervisor Ray Chen says he enjoyed applying his expertise to a healthy number of bad guys, such as the older brother of an Egyptian Pharoah and Ahkmenrah, from the first movie. They want to use the tablet to open up the gates to the Underworld and bring back armies that can take over the world.

"There is a bunch of bad guys who gather together a number of other rogues, such as Ivan The Terrible, Al Capone and Napoleon. We also bring the Lincoln Memorial sculpture to life too. A large number of characters we created end up fighting in a climatic battle scene at the end. They included soldiers from the Underworld, such as hawk headed creatures that are summoned from the netherworld.

"We were able to create these creatures by using big muscle men who wore green hoods. We then replaced their heads with a hawk’s head each, featuring an Egyptian theme. This included attaching digital dreadlocks and claws to go with the look too."

But one of the biggest challenges they faced involved creating an octopus, which fluctuates between being aggressive and menacing. However, in the end it becomes a good guy.

"We had to make a number of complicated rigs to create eight octopus arms that were capable of moving convincingly," Chen says. "But we also worked really hard at constraining the motions to make the tentacles and suckers look even more realistic.

"When the octopus gets wet, we also had to create a slime layer that gets sticky and stringy when people touch it. It had to look like it was genuinely made out of residue and slime. We created groundbreaking software to achieve this slime and layered look. It analysed the geometry of the animation based on the proximity of the ground to the tentacles and the body. As each tentacle moved further away from the floor or from the slime, it would actually stretch out. Once it reached a certain length, it would actually snap. So we could get a nice depth with the slime stretching."

The key to enabling this character connect with the audience involved making sure it could appear very expressive, Chen says. "We needed it to express human emotions with its eyes. When we started building the model, we carried out a number of motion and character studies that helped us to work out how we could actually turn the octopus’ head into something like a face. In the end, we achieved this by taking over the area of the face between the eye, down to the tentacles, and made it look more like a nose.

"We then worked on the eyes and eyebrows, making sure they could convey clear expressions, such as anger and happiness. So we carried along this track around the rest of the face until we were satisfied with the look. It was very hard making sure the octopus did not have a real face but still represented human characteristics."

At first, the artists designed cartoon-like expressions. "It ended up being a fine balance between getting it to look realistic and not too cartoony. We had to go through many iterations, such as determining the colour of it too. One of the other big factors involved making him change from hostile to aggressive and finally to friendly. Basically, he is just misunderstood and simply wants to be wet all of the time. So we had to create two different versions of the octopus – one that was dry, colourless and half faded, and another that was healthy, slick and colourful."

Chen says that Rhythm & Hues is successful at what it does because it has spent so many years building animation that has worked before in the past. "For example, the squirrel we created for this movie was based on the look of other animals we have worked on before, such as the ferret we created for The Golden Compass and the chipmunks we produced for Alvin and The Chipmunks.

"Our animal animation on the hawks for this film was also inspired by some of the work we did on Narnia. We keep on finding new techniques all the time, especially in terms of character animation. We have a huge video library of footage of animal behaviours that animators have studied. It’s constantly getting bigger all of the time."

Sometimes, if they find particular pieces of video footage or reference material that seems to work really well, they will inject it directly into the frame. "Either we are inspired by something we see, or we simply copy the motion. That can include stock footage too. But we also photograph and film animals specifically for motion studies. When we did Narnia and The Golden Compass, we had the chance to film animals that we could then conduct motion studies on. This helped us to understand how we could carry out specific actions."

Although they did not use a live octopus for film reference, they did get hold of a large octopus specimen that the catering staff found on set.

It was actually a piece of seafood, but it helped us to study the surface quality, membranes and how light bounced off of it.

"Our animators also enjoyed working on another really cool character that comes to life – an Einstein Bobble Head Doll," adds Chen. "It interacts with Ben Stiller. This was a great character to animate because it had a lot of expression and humour within its performance. It gave the animators a chance to ham it up. We made him look like he was made out of latex. He basically wiggles around with an over sized head that is too big for his body."

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