The art of computer animation can render the impossible possible in this day and age, and one Malta-based company has just gone and proven that all over again.
Stargate Studios Malta is a visual effects and production company, part of a larger group that has studios all over the world.
The Maltese studio mostly focus on visual effects, commercials and corporate material… but now, they’ve just made a dog talk.
Sabuesos (Hound Dogs) is a new Spanish television series about a very human-like Jack Russell Terrier. This little dog is part of a dynamic detective duo that goes around solving weird cases with the hopes of one day opening their own detective agency.
“Our job in this series was to animate the dog’s face to make him speak and show emotion,” Stargate’s James Spiteri told Lovin Malta. “We sent people on set in Madrid to supervise the filming. It was very challenging for us because the dog had to speak Spanish.”
“This was a wonderful experience for all of us. It was very different as it’s the first time we animated a talking animal,” James said. “We had to create a workflow for him and add new artists and get new machines too. In all, we had 22 people working full time on this project.”
Stargate Studios worked on a whopping 900 shots spread out over 10 episodes to humanise the dog
“We flew the dog down to Cadiz where we did photogrammetry — a process which measures surface points using photography,” Spiteri said. “We used 95 specially rigged cameras to shoot the dog in one go from different angles.”
That means that they took enough snaps of this terrier to get a good representation in 360 degrees of its face and head.
The team then used this information to build a digital 3D model of the dog’s head, and rigged the virtual dog with jaw bones, teeth and full facial muscles.
“It’s the digital version of the clay model,” James continued. “Since we had full control of all the muscles and micro movements, we could create a realistic looking talking dog.”
Stargate Studios have been working on this comedy series for the past year, giving this unsettlingly clever and cheeky terrier, Max, the ability to speak in Spanish.
James explained. At the same time our team of animators were busy adjusting the dog’s mouth’s movements frame by frame to match the mouth of our reference voice over artist.
“We had to track the dog’s face through the footage we took in order to accurately place the digital head in the same position as the real one. At the same time our team of animators were busy adjusting the dog’s movements to match the voice over artist. ” James explained. “After doing the tracking, we had to animate a model. After, that we had to create the look development. We needed to recreate hairs, textures and lighting effects in order to create a detached model of the dog’s head.”
After all that comes the compositing, which is the final step. That means integrating the 3D model onto the footage of the actual dog, using the tracking data to make sure the digital model moves perfectly in sync with the real dog on set.
“One of the bigger challenges we faced on this project was sourcing enough good local talent able to perform to international standards,” James said. “Recruitment is honestly one of our main challenges.” In fact, Stargate are currently looking for more people to join their awesomely artistic ranks.
“Ambitious projects like these are possible thanks to the financial incentives of the Malta Film Commission,” James told us.
The series premiered in Spain on the first of August and was watched by a staggering 1.4 million people. This season has 10 episodes to it, however the team at Stargate are already hoping for a second season.