Exclusive: Underdog Set Visit!

Last year, ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! correspondent Simon Feldman attended the set of Disney’s upcoming Underdog, based on the popular 1960 cartoon about a dog with super powers. Rather than being a fully animated movie, this new take features live actors interacting with real and computer-generated dogs with Jason Lee and Amy Adams providing the voices of Underdog and his sweetheart Polly Purebred.

While visiting the production in Providence, Rhode Island, Feldman was able to speak briefly with director Frederick du Chau, executive producer Todd Arnow, Visual FX Coordinator Troy Yeatman and Animal Coordinator Boone Narr.

Enjoy, and be sure to click on the four exclusive new images to view the bigger versions!

I arrived at the Providence, Rhode Island Capital Building at 10:15 AM and was met promptly by Todd Arnow, executive producer of Poseidon, Master and Commander, The Perfect Storm and Deep Blue Sea, to name just a few of his projects. Half ironically, he points out, “There’s no water to speak of in this movie”. It’s a hot late-summer day and Arnow is in shorts, a button-down and funky round tortoise-shell glasses. He welcomes me to the set, we chat (see interview below), and then I am led through the back door of the huge white marble Capital Building. The space opens up to the giant domed atrium where they are in the process of filming the climactic aerial fight scene between the crazed, super-powered Simon Bar Sinister and Underdog.

At the moment, Peter Dinklage in full Simon Bar Sinister makeup and costume–burnt prosthetic head applications, pulled-out hair, tattered suit and lab-coat–is sitting casually in his director’s chair doing a crossword puzzle. Moments later, he’s flying through the air, suspended in space on the Underdog set, in the middle of the cavernous 100-foot-high domed atrium of the Rhode Island capital building. On the floor of the atrium is a giant chandelier that has just fallen and crashed to the floor spreading debris everywhere, and around the set are a series of huge marble statues –among them Blind Justice and a Centurion with spear and shield. Dinklage, airborne, is hurtled by a serious of belaying ropes and pulleys straight into the Centurion. He hits it, grabs its shield and propels himself backwards, with his feet, across the room preparing to hurl the shield like a discus at his nemesis, Underdog.

This brief action sequence in fact unfolded over the course of about three and a half hours of meticulously prepared and executed stunt work. The stunt and visual effects coordinators of Underdog and the director, Frederik du Chau, had together mapped out each movement in excruciating choreographic detail. Dinklage’s stunt double laboriously tested all the moves and eventually, Dinklage himself was strapped to his harness and sent for a ride, and then another and another, each prompting slight adjustment of the ropes, the trajectories, the costuming and the props. It was amazing how much planning, care, and sheer physical and mental effort had gone into this one sequence, which I’m told will probably comprise about a minute of real movie time in the end. If this is any indication of the overall attention to detail in this film–and I have no doubt it is–then this looks to be a fun movie with some first-rate action sequences.

By 5:00 pm, there are still about thirty members of the crew working on the details of this scene and Dinklage is still on set waiting to be strung up again for more shots and fine-tuning of the action. Doing

battle with the forces of good is evidently very hard work, but from my angle, looking onto the set, it looks like that hard work will be well worth the effort.

Director Frederik Du Chau

CS/SHH!: How does Underdog compare with your first two movies, “Quest for Camelot” and “Racing Stripes”?

Du Chau: Well, it’s clear they have something in common. My background is in animation and with “Racing Stripes” I got to combine live-action and animation, so I guess they thought of me for this.

CS/SHH!: How would you describe “Underdog”?

Du Chau: Action comedy. It’s got really cool action and it’s funny too.

CS/SHH!: I see you’re looking at your monitor, there, what are you watching?

Du Chau: That’s what we just shot. And this is the Pre-vis, previsualization. That’s the digital template for what the scenes will look like once we shoot. I scouted these locations long before shooting and then did the storyboarding and previs. And now we can see how they match up and overlap.

[He showed me the fresh footage of the action sequence he was in the middle of shooting and the Pre-vis to compare and then the two overlapped.]

CS/SHH!: What are you up to next?

Du Chau: I’ve written some scripts that are in development. We’ll see.

Executive Producer Todd Arnow

CS/SHH!: So, you’ve done “Poseidon”, “Master and Commander,” “The Perfect Storm,” “Deep Blue Sea”–it’s hard not to see a pattern there. Any significance?

Arnow: Actually, it’s pure coincidence. Though I’m waiting for the call, “We’re making a film with a shower scene, are you available?” It’s funny, on “Harry Potter [and the Sorcerer’s Stone]” I thought “no water”! But then, of course we ended up filling a giant tank for filming the water approach to Hogwarts, so I guess I didn’t escape the water theme on that one either.

CS/SHH!: Any water in “Underdog”?

Arnow: Just rain. I mean, in Providence, during filming. We had to work around it because it’s not supposed to be raining in the movie.

CS/SHH!: How would you describe “Underdog”? It sort of seems to defy genre?

Arnow: I’d say it’s an action movie that combines a sense a humor that should appeal to all age groups. You hear “Underdog” and you think cartoony–Scooby Doo, but this is totally different. It’s live action with real dogs plus comedy plus the superhero-in-peril aspect. Underdog is a real character who faces a conflict of conscience and has to discover who he is.

CS/SHH!: What’s the shoot been like?

Arnow: It’s been great shooting in Providence. There are so many interesting locations here that the audience won’t be familiar with from other movies. I really don’t think anything’s been done on this level in Providence. The architecture is terrific, especially the Capital building. It’s the centerpiece of the city and the movie. The city of Providence and the state have been so cooperative. I think it’s rare to have so much freedom to shoot in and around a building that is so unique and historically and architecturally significant.

CS/SHH!: Is the film almost done?

Arnow: Yes, we’re practically done shooting and then it’ll go to London for 33 weeks of post-production. City Site and Framestore will be working on the visual effects there. The movie is scheduled for release in August of ’07.

Visual Effects Coordinator Hoyt Yeatman

CS/SHH!: How would you describe your job as Visual Effects Coordinator?

Hoyt Yeatman: Rocket scientist meets artist. I mean, there’s the technical / technological aspect and the artistic one, and my job is all about bringing them together.

CS/SHH!: How does that happen on a movie like “Underdog”?

Yeatman: I like to think that my job is to make the effects invisible. On this project for example, that means that any stunts that can safely be done with a real dog will be. The idea is for the audience never to know when it’s Leo [the dog that plays Underdog] or a CG dog. It’s such a fine line between the two and we’re really pushing the envelope of what’s been done to make it seem real. And for me, the fun is making that line undetectable.

CS/SHH!: How do you do that?

Yeatman: By blurring the line between traditional “visual effects” and CG. Actually, I think “visual effects” is a misnomer. I don’t think they are really distinct. I just try to use the best of both worlds to make a powerful film.

CS/SHH!: What’s your job here on the set?

Yeatman: I’d say, from my perspective, we’re ‘priming the canvas’ for the work that comes in post-production. Making sure things go exactly as planned so that the all the effects we add later look just right.

CS/SHH!: You’ve done a lot of big action movies with big explosions, how does this compare in scope or content to some of your other projects?

Yeatman: What I’ve really come to enjoy is doing work where the effects are crucial to the characters. We’re not just creating background scenery here. Underdog’s character will be expressed by the work we’re doing.

Animal Coordinator Boone Narr

CS/SHH!: This is a movie about a dog, so you must play a huge role in this production, right?

Narr: Actually I got involved in pre-production for “Underdog” way back in September of ’02. Before the project even got off the ground we had to see what a flying dog would look like. So we created some images of dogs flying–we really wanted it to look real.

CS/SHH!: What was the next step?

Narr: Well, once the project was a go, we did the casting. The dogs were cast first, before the people. Of course, the actors have got to like animals and there’s got to be some chemistry with the dogs. Sometimes an actor just reacts weirdly or is afraid or tentative and that doesn’t work.

CS/SHH!: How many dogs have been involved with this movie?

Narr: We’ve used twenty-three dogs for all the different roles. There’s one Underdog, Leo, a beagle. Three other beagles stand in for him, play Shoeshine or work as Leo’s stunt-double. There are three Pollys, two Riff Raffs, five German shepherds–Simon Bar Sinister’s henchmen, and more.

CS/SHH!: What do the dogs do when they’re not on set?

Narr: Actually, they’ve got their own air-conditioned trailer. We also built a full kennel in East Providence, so that’s where they hang when they’re not here.

CS/SHH!: What’s been the biggest challenge of your job?

Narr: I’d say it’s making sure the dogs’ behavior look natural, so it looks like they’re reacting to the actors and not to the handlers, and of course, just keeping them happy. On this project, because the dogs talk, we also want their body language to look right in the scenes where they’re supposed to be having a conversation.

CS/SHH!: Do you have a training philosophy?

Narr: I like to say that “I teach them to learn.” It’s like teaching them the abc’s, you know. You build up skills, piece by piece and they learn and can re-use them in different ways.

Underdog opens nationwide on August 3.

Source: Simon Feldman