Talk to Me! Making Animals Talk for TV

How’d they do that?
You’ve seen them so often that they seem perfectly natural. But they’re not. Animals just don’t talk. Except, of course, in the movies. And TV. And commercials. And music videos. OK, animals talk! I’ll even tell you how to do it yourself at the end of this article.

Talking animals, of course, are not all that new. The high-tech special effects behind Mr. Ed consisted of giving him an apple to chew on. This was fine for the times, but today’s audiences are pretty jaded we demand extreme realism for our fantasies.

From a Cat to a Pig
The modern age of talking animals pretty much started in 1993 with Hocus Pocus, a not overly memorable film starring Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker as witches – and a talking cat.

In that film, the special effects house Rhythm & Hues used a combination of "animatronics" and digital animation. Animatronics are like puppets on steroids. They’re stuffed with electronics that snake out to a control panel where a puppeteer can manipulate the creatures and make them appear to talk.

As intricate as these robots are, they’re usually not convincing enough to carry all the FX shots. A good movie uses several different techniques to keep the movie-goer guessing. So they added morphing and warping to the mix. Here, the special effects crew hand-animated the frames of the movie by warping the image around the mouth of the cat. They often morphed the two techniques, animatronics and warping, together before compositing them on top of the live action.

With the movie Babe in 1995, the effect’s maturing level of realism essentially made it invisible. It’s the curse of the effects trade: as soon a technique is perfected, it virtually disappears from the consciousness of the viewer.

In Babe, the animators used digitized 3D models of the mouths of each animal. It may seem like overkill, but going to 3D has many benefits. The most important is lip-synching.

Give ’em Some Lip

For realistic lip-synching, animators develop a set of lip positions for different sounds. For instance, to make "F" and "V" sounds, we tuck the lower lip under the upper teeth. These sounds are phonemes, and the corresponding mouth positions are visemes. Depending on the language, there are forty or more phonemes. Fortunately, the mouth looks pretty much the same for most of them. Usually, five visemes provide a basic lip-synching set, but realism is improved with twelve or more.

This kind of phonetic analysis goes back to Disney in the 1920s, but the addition of 3D is a real boon for the animator. Instead of creating the visemes for all possible camera angles, the animator creates just one set. Then he can rotate the 3D image to any position.

With a nicely modeled set of 3D visemes, you’re ready to take on any lip-synching task. The animators lip-synch the model to the sound track, then they orient and scale the 3D mouth so it can be perfectly superimposed on top of the live action.

Getting Real

Prior to Babe, filmmakers treated talking animals with broad humor. They dubbed an over-the-top cartoon voice over a chewing animal. They placed great emphasis on animal tricks, which evoked the ‘ah’ factor. But in Babe, creator George Miller realized that the animals had to be real actors, not cutesy caricatures.

Accordingly, he sought out low-key actors to do the voices. And he had the animals carefully trained to hold still and look into the camera, not dance on their hind legs. The effect was phenomenal. For the first few minutes, you’re amazed by the technical feat, but then you quickly forget about it and get sucked into the story.

In the squealing sequel, Pig in the City, Miller upped the ante with extremely difficult crowd shots. To achieve rooms full of talking animals required lots of blue-screen shots and multiple compositing. The hardest part wasn’t the talking animals; it was the lighting. The background plate lighting had to match the lighting on the blue-screened animals, which had to match the lighting on the 3D models. All the composited animals cast shadows on the other animals as they were added to the scene, which required a lot of painstaking hand work. In general, you shouldn’t attempt a shot like this at home.

Miller proved that animals can really act. Since then, the effect has snowballed. Some memorable characters include the Taco Bell Chihuahua, the poker-playing dogs for the NFL, the talking parrots in Paulie and 102 Dalmatians, the talking fish in the Sopranos and the bulldog in Little Nicky.

Morphing Madness

Only 13 years old and morphing has already been exploited shamelessly to sell everything from gasoline to granola. Morphing got its first job in 1988, metamorphosing a witch in the movie Willow, but it has been relentlessly employed ever since then for countless other causes.

There’s a reason for this madness: morphing works. It grabs your eyeballs and won’t let go. Morphing seems magical, and you can use it in surprising ways.

First, some terminology: morphing is a combination of warping, tweening and dissolving. Any questions? Actually, as strange as it sounds, it’s pretty simple. Warping is the digital effect of pulling an image around as if it were printed on a sheet of taffy. Tweening is short for in-betweening, the process of smoothly going from one image to the next by automatically adding extra frames between them. Dissolving (also known as cross-dissolving) involves fading the first image out while the second one fades in. These are great special effects by themselves, but put them all together and they can be hypnotizing.

Given any image, such as a drawing or a photograph, you can warp it into motion. If you have ever hand-drawn thirty frames of animation only to see it fly by in one second, you can appreciate the assistance of a computer.

Warping lets you animate cartoons or photographs with minimal hassle. Just a few mouse strokes can produce a gratifying amount of animation, lowering the tedium barrier of traditional animation. Warping is the easiest way to make an animal talk. First, you photograph the animal on the set, as usual. Then you warp each frame of the movie to make the lips move, and let the fur come along for the ride.

A Simple Home Project
Now that you know how the pros do it, why not try it yourself? You can make talking animals at home – just don’t expect Babe your first time out.

First take a snapshot of your starring animal. A digital photo is great; otherwise scan one into your computer. Get a good shot of the animal’s mouth, with nothing near the mouth. You might try a blue-screen background for this. You’re going to warp the image, and you’ll want just the face to warp not the scenery.

You’ll need a morphing or warping program. There are many to choose from, ranging from the freeware WinMorph to the professional’s choice, Elastic Reality. Most have similar interfaces using guide lines, you outline the parts of the mouth you want to move, then drag the lines around. You instantly see the magic of warping: as a line moves, the image in a small area around it moves too, making the effect very smooth.

In some programs, you can lock down certain areas that you don’t want to move, like the upper teeth, and make the lips move around them. Notice that if you want to bare the teeth, you’ll need to have some teeth in the first place. But don’t stretch things too far or you’ll get unrealistic results.

For all these effects, real animals are the raw material. Of course, you can produce talking animals – including ants and grasshoppers – by completely digital 3D techniques, but that’s an article for another time.

Say What?

  • Phonemes: The basic units of sound by which speech is represented.
  • Visemes: The mouth positions corresponding to the basic phonemes.
  • Animatronics: Sophisticated robotic puppets manipulated by electronics.
  • Warping: The digital effect of pulling an image around as if it were printed on a sheet of taffy.
  • Tweening: Short for in-betweening, the process of smoothly going from one image to the next by automatically adding extra frames between them.
  • Dissolving: Involves fading the first image out while the second one fades in. Also known as cross-dissolving.
  • Morphing: A combination of warping, tweening and dissolving.

Products mentioned in this article
Magpie (Third Wish Software)


Elastic Reality (Avid)

Ventriloquist (LIPSINC)

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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