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INTERVIEW: David Whitehouse on 'Mad Buddies' VFX

David Whitehouse pursued a career in music while nurturing his love for animation in his spare time. He opened his own animation studio in 1994 with a vision of creating South Africa’s first long form animation. The company achieved this in 1997, producing 52 minutes of Superheroez, the first CGI television series created in South Africa.

David has gone on to win multiple awards in varying aspects of animation production. He has remained an active composer and writes music for both television and film, always believing that film, music and storytelling have the power to transform lives.

David Whitehouse is the Executive Producer of Loco VFX, a "new kid on the block" in the South African CG animation industry, which recently worked on Gray Hofmeyr and Leon Schuster's new film, Mad Buddies. We caught up with David to get a behind-the-scenes insight into what it was like working on the film and went into creating the video effects for Mad Buddies.

What scenes did you produce for Mad Buddies?

We produced just over 230 VFX shots in the six month period starting 1 November 2011. The VFX work involved everything from run-of-the-mill green screen composites and rig removals, all the way through to full CG creatures.

How much collaboration was there between you and the film-makers?

With the process of VFX being collaborative by its very nature, we worked with Gray Hofmeyr, the director, and Marc Baleiza, post production supervisor, on an almost-daily basis. Gray had a very clear idea of what each shot needed, and in the case of the CG creature shots, would often act a sequence out for us, contorting his face and body into positions a contortionist would be proud of. He also has an uncanny knack of pulling a scene right back, almost dialling it down and making it incredibly subtle and, through that subtlety, creating a powerful sequence.

How long did it take for you to create the effects from idea to finish?

The VFX process is iterative and tweaks to shots are an unavoidable reality. Often the shots that seem simplest on the written page have subtleties that need an incredible amount of attention to detail to ensure the visual effects are seamlessly worked into the shot. That was just a long way of saying that it depends on the shot. Sometimes a shot may only need half a day's work while others can literally stretch out over months.

What was the most challenging aspect of the production?

Definitely the ostrich sequence! It pushed boundaries further than we thought possible. Even with the extensive R&D we'd done ahead of time, we quickly discovered how remarkably complex a creature the ostrich is. They're just wired up in physiologically strange ways, so we often had to animate counter-intuitively to get his body to move in believable ways. There's a very good reason for real-life ostriches not being able to fly!

That reality made itself apparent on an almost daily basis!The CG control skeleton had complex, physiologically accurate muscle systems which made the muscles flex and slide underneath the skin, but sometimes the realities of an ostrich's physical limitations forced us to animate around them, aiming for aesthetically pleasing poses, as opposed to scientifically correct ones.

Apparently, you had to add the golf ball in post-production because they forgot to film it?

Well, not quite…using a CG ball gave Gray a lot more control over the ball's trajectory and speed. He wasn't completely happy with how the setup cut together and using CG ensured he had more options once the movie went into edit.

Tell us a bit more about Loco VFX...

The company was founded by George Webster and I early last year. We'd worked together on freelance contracts in the past and we'd always said that, should the right project present itself, we'd combine our strengths and open our own studio.

We'd been asked to quote on VFX work on a dinosaur movie which was in preproduction in LA and as we came out of the bidding process on that one, we were asked to quote on the VFX for 'Mad Buddies'. On the strength of a test we did (a shot similar to the frog shots in the movie), we were awarded the work.

What other films have you worked on in the past?

I've been doing animation and VFX for a long time but hadn't worked on a feature before "Mad Buddies". I'd always focussed on TV commercials, corporate graphics and 3D illustration but when the opportunity of starting up a new studio with George - on the back of a fantastic project like 'Mad Buddies' - presented itself, it was a no-brainer. George has worked on the latest instalment of the "Free Willy" franchise, the "Knight Rider" TV series and a Chinese feature entitled "Tang Shan", amongst others.

What other projects are you currently working on?

We've just come off two viral commercials for Ryobi which should be released any day now. Currently we're busy with some conceptual development work on a feature, and some technical R & D on another, as well as early stage development work on two in-house projects.