Getting Grumpy: VFX In Land Of The Lost

Source: Universal / Getty Images

For the Land of the Lost series, the Kroffts created 40 minutes of stop-action dinosaur animation that was repurposed over the three-year run and used many times. That was the first time video and stop-motion were combined and used on television.

Much to the pride of this team, the film is also using groundbreaking technology to create visual effects; as always, photorealism is the goal. “This is not ‘a routine expedition’ for us in VFX,” puns Oscar®-winning VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer. “We are responsible for many things in this film…from creating key characters like dinosaurs Grumpy and Alice to extending the sets and Sleestak armies.”

Naturally, Westenhofer and his team at Rhythm & Hues were heavily influenced by Jurassic Park and the benchmarks set 16 years ago for dinosaur design. With the tools they had in front of them, however, they were determined to take the Land of the Lost dinosaurs to a whole new level…especially for Marshall’s cunning antagonist, Grumpy. Explains Silberling of the T. rex’s motivation: “It’s Moby Dick. Grumpy is obsessed with Marshall and will stop at nothing to track him down.”

Logically, the Rhythm & Hues team began designing Grumpy by using existing illustrations of T. rex. Combining some of these characteristics with nontraditional ones separated Grumpy from the pack. For example, little horns were added on the back of his head. A 3-D model of Grumpy was then sculpted and scanned into the computer. Creating movements such as arm placement that will show actual wrinkling, the animators began working on the endless details it took to make him photorealistic.

Grumpy is a fully functioning character in the movie that interacts with the other actors, so he has to have a personality. Laughs Ferrell: “Outside of The Flintsones, I think this is the first time you see a dinosaur vindictively pursuing a character.”

Ferrell, Friel, McBride and Taccone found their imaginations put to the test when they shared scenes with Grumpy. In place of the carnivore, one of the digital technicians would hold a 16-foot pole to serve as a marker for the performers. Nicknamed “Grumpy on a Stick” by the crew, the setup had a brightly colored ball on the end that allowed actors to find their eye line.

Shooting in the Land of the Lost Dumping Ground while they were on location in the vast Trona Pinnacles near Death Valley, California, also proved difficult for the VFX team. This set is where the dinosaurs come to feed and where the Grumpy chase sequence begins. “The Grumpy chase, when he is in active pursuit of Marshall, is huge and was a really hard challenge for Rhythm & Hues,” notes the director.

Continues screenwriter McNicholas: “This chase is a huge chunk of the script. When I went to the desert and saw how Brad had set this up, I was amazed. It was incredibly elaborate, packed with jokes and information.”

From shot to shot, it was a constant concern for Silberling, Beebe and VFX supervisor Westenhofer to make sure there was enough room on the screen for the dinosaurs. “It’s challenging to make sure you have space in the frame when you have a 40-foot-long animal,” notes Westenhofer.

Improv on Land of the Lost didn’t exist only on stages and locations. It also happened in the digital world. Recalls Westenhofer: “One of my favorite moments is when Will Ferrell chose, on the fly, to fist bump Grumpy. This will be the first time on the screen you shall see a person do this. It will be hysterical.”

Throughout the story, the cast interacts with dinosaurs. Both on land and on wires, it proved a tremendous challenge for VFX to marry images of real people interacting with CGI characters. To ensure authenticity of look, Westenhofer worked closely throughout production with DOUG COLEMAN and his stunt team to get the exact angles he needed. When a stunt using people was taken as far as it could be taken, the VFX team jumped in to extend the action.

At one point in the film, Marshall must hop onto Grumpy’s back and take a ride. As this visual effect combines both stop-motion and motion-control rigs, the scene was quite complicated to pull off. Prep for this sequence began a month before shooting, with a nine-person crew from Rhythm & Hues operating the high-tech computer and camera gear on set.

To capture the motions of a prehistoric ride, Ferrell was placed on a mechanical saddle that was programmed to move in different directions. So the filmmakers could get a rough sense of the scale of the final product—and see what was happening on the spot, the computerized pre-viz image of Grumpy was laid on top of the live visual feed.

The dinosaur and creature action in Land of the Lost does not stop with Grumpy. From showtune-loving baby pterodactyls that hatch out of eggs and thousands of spiders that crawl out of fruit given to Marshall by Chaka, to a giant crab that gets cooked, the VFX team had more than enough work on its hands.

Signature action pieces, such as the raft falling over the Devil’s Canyon waterfall when the earthquake hits and Marshall, Will and Holly passing through time and space into another universe were handed to Rhythm & Hues to create digitally. Even more challenging, they had to seamlessly retain the comic elements of the film as they designed the environments.

Indeed, an entire world—from the dirt on the ground to the three moons of the sky, was created from the bottom up. Extending backgrounds where the sets end and creating a landscape for the Land of the Lost flora and fauna took much creativity and manpower from all involved in the project.

During an 84-day shooting schedule, one week of shooting in which the VFX department was in total control took place on a blue-screen stage. When principal photography wrapped, Rhythm & Hues switched gears to full throttle as 150 artists were brought on board to finish environments, imagine dinosaurs and add the most intricate of details for the world that time forgot.

This constant pursuit of our heroes by Grumpy led to some physically demanding days for the cast. The principal players wore harnesses for a week and were hoisted 30 feet into the air as they were snapped up by man-eating vines inside Grumpy’s feeding station. Take after take, they dangled over a pile of more than 300 handmade bones, gaining momentum (and soreness) when they joined hands and swung back and forth.

To add to the glamour, prior to shooting on location in Dumont Dunes, the cast was fitted with butt molds. These molds were crafted in plastic and hidden under their costumes so they could easily (and rapidly) slide down the steep 45-degree-angled sandy hills without hurting their respective posteriors in the process.

As Dr. Rick Marshall, Ferrell was required to engage in multiple stunts. From saving Holly by jumping onto a swinging cage raised above a deep pit to being thrown aloft by Grumpy, the maneuvers were challenging for the comic performer. Even though he was harnessed and had rehearsed with the stunt team, it was still a bit scary. “Out in the desert at Trona Pinnacles, they rigged this crane and pulleys that hoisted me 30 feet into the air…as if I was being picked up by my backpack with Grumpy’s teeth,” says Ferrell. “Fortunately, we got it in one take, because it would have taken a lot of psyching up to do that again.”

As his character was scripted to fight Enik the Altrusian while on high wires, Danny McBride also learned to get comfortable above ground as well. This was also the first big action-movie experience for Anna Friel who, among other things, became skilled at swinging Holly’s leather belt as a weapon against the Sleestak.

Jorma Taccone also had his share of physical challenges. He had to learn primate mannerisms that included walking while staying hunched over and running while using his hands as well as his feet. To get into character, Taccone watched National Geographic Channel DVDs. When it came time to suit up, however, he realized he had no idea how tough it would be to maneuver in that posture.

While Holly and Will are not brother and sister in the film, they bicker just as much as they did on the show. Though McBride and Friel had it down to a science, sometimes the play fights got a little out of hand. Recalls Friel: “Danny would joke that during the fight sequences I was dangerously close to clocking him in the eye. During one take, I did hit him a bit, but he said he was fine. Unbeknownst to me, he went to his makeup trailer and came out with a big black eye and bleeding. I never felt so bad. He milked it for all it was worth, and good on him.”

Contests McBride, who says he was indeed walloped by his co-star: “Anna will say that clocking me was an accident. She will say that I was in her way. But if you review the tape, you’ll see that she is lying through her teeth. And it was a hard hit. I’m not going to lie. Almost brought a tear to my eye, but I had to keep cool and you know, act like it didn’t hurt.”

Michael Lantieri and his special effects team of 25-plus were handed the arduous task of simulating a major earthquake at the Sleestak Temple Plaza that threatens to annihilate the Land of the Lost and all its denizens. The effects included having tons of simulated heavy debris fall about our heroes.

One of the big-ticket items used was nicknamed the “Weber Pod” (as it resembles a Weber barbecue) by the crew and required five cameras to capture every angle. Explains Lantieri: “It’s a giant egg-shaped pod on the end of the stage that weighs 18,000 pounds. We knocked the legs out from underneath it and tumbled it down the stairs into the temple. It is always a challenge to be safe and get it to do what you want it to do, but it worked.”

By allowing debris to fall and shaking the cameras and sets with giant motors and concentric cams, the team simulated the quake with a combination of maneuvers. Continues Lantieri: “We built extra lighter-weight debris that we put on trips and releases so that we could drop them into the set on cue…as we moved the camera through. We took existing pieces of the set, split them and used hydraulics to split the 15-foot Sleestak head sculptures open.”

It was an intricate game of rigging to re-create the earthquake and tumble huge boulders across the set. Lantieri and his team took pieces of the set rock walls and cut them apart in giant pieces that measured 20 feet by 30 feet. They then attached motors and hinges to the pieces so that they would shake and loosen up. Much like the shifts that would occur in an actual earthquake, the parts moved out of sync.

The prop department joined the SFX department in creating items for Land of the Lost that weren’t par for the course of a typical film. At one point, the cast is slimed with Grumpy’s T. rex snot, which the SFX team designed from a coagulated methylcellulose. Ever the fringe scientist, Marshall even dowses himself with dinosaur urine that looks quite real but was actually green tea.

One of the key props for the film was the Tachyon Meter, Marshall’s homemade invention that enables his crew to transport to other dimensions. The prop department, helmed by SCOTT MAGINNIS, worked with production designer Welch and rendered a drawing that included flashing lights, see-through pumps and electronic readings. From a hodgepodge of objects, including an old iPod, they made by hand four identical versions of this measurement tool to be used throughout production.

Explains Welch: “The cumbersome strap-on Tachyon Meter is the kind of cobbled-together technology that you look at and think, ‘This guy is out of his mind.’ But at the same time, you think, ‘Maybe this actually works…’”

In addition to the Tachyon Meter, the props department souped up a vintage Toyota Land Cruiser for Marshall’s road adventures. The roof housed all manner of scientific gadgetry to allow him to stay mobile and prepare for anything that could possibly happen to a rogue scientist.

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