With Buck, the famed St. Bernard/Farm Collie, serving as the protagonist in Fox’s latest adaptation of Jack London’s wilderness adventure, “The Call of the Wild,” there was never any question that he had to be CG, especially if he was going to hold his own on screen with Harrison Ford.
“Here’s the thing: No one is fooled by a CG animal,” said Chris Sanders, who made the transition from animation to a live-action/hybrid after directing “The Croods” and co-directing “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Lilo and Stitch.” “So the question that I confronted early on was: Do we try and make this look like a 100% real dog? Meaning, do we actually have him behaving as though he’s a trained dog on set, but doesn’t hit his marks quite right, and have some takes look as though it was good enough? Or do we have him fulfill the needs of the scene?”
Sanders, of course, went with the latter, working with MPC Film in Montreal (under the supervision of Erik Nash) to make a photorealistic-looking Buck. However, unlike MPC’s work on Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King,” Sanders chose an anthropomorphic style of performance to make Buck as expressive and relatable as possible for his existential journey in the Yukon Gold Rush of the 1890s. “If an animal talks, [as on ‘The Lion King’], you don’t need a lot of expression,” he added. “You have that shortcut. We didn’t have that shortcut. That was the big question that hung over everything we did.”
And this was important because Buck is “The Call of the Wild” protagonist: a joyous, domesticated dog, who gets physically abused and spiritually broken in the Yukon until he bonds with John Thornton (Ford), a grizzled loner with a tragic backstory. Together, they explore the wilderness in an existential journey that sets both of them free.
“I chose to have [Buck] be a real character and to really occupy the position where he belongs. In every other version of ‘The Call of the Wild,’ the dog is never really central because Thornton is. We wanted to overcome the limitations of using a real dog. We could only do this with a CG dog. I do think there is a controversial part to that [with how expressive he is]. You get used to it really fast. But we had to judge the performance moment to moment: Is he too cartoony? Does the audience get what he’s thinking?”
Yet the animation process proved difficult. They weren’t able to locate the precise St. Bernard/Farm Collie breed for live-action reference, so they went with a mostly black Bernese Mountain dog, and MPC built a CG model from scratch. Yet the dark color didn’t read clearly for the night scenes. Then Sanders’ wife, Jessica, came to the rescue, locating a St. Bernard/Shepherd mix at a shelter in Emporia, Kansas (coincidentally, named Buckley). “She saved our ass,” Sanders said. “She shows up with Buckley and suddenly everything is repaired. He’s the right breed and his coloration is dark and light, which allows him to read clearly in any lighting situation. We scanned him and he had amazing eyes that showed a lot of sclera so you could see the direction where he was looking. The studio thought his eyes were actually too cartoonish, but I told them that’s how they were.”
But pulling off Buck’s crucial interaction with Ford and the other actors –Omar Sy is the empathetic leader of the dogsled delivery team; Dan Stevens is the cruel prospector– required another wrinkle in this virtual production: Motion capture actor Terry Notary (“The Planet of the Apes” franchise) served as a live actor stand-in for Buck. He acted like a canine and provided spatial reference, general blocking, and staging, giving the actors someone to play against. Sanders, though, would instruct MPC animation director Omar Morsy and his team to use Notary’s facial expressions or attitude in a particular shot as a starting point for Buck. Yet there was no mo-cap interpolation of Notary’s performance involved: Every aspect of Buck’s facial and full body performance was fully keyframed.
Ford’s presence, however, not only grounded “The Call of the Wild” in a believable reality, but also provided the emotional gravitas that comes with his iconic persona. Early on, in pre-production, Sanders worked diligently with Ford in helping him flesh out Thornton’s reclusive motivation. He allowed Ford to take the lead in composing the letter that takes us inside the head of Thornton. “He wanted to understand why he [ran away] and what he left behind,” Sanders said. “That letter writing scene is something that Harrison dictated to me as he saw it in his head, and I sat with him and wrote it all down long-hand over the script.”
When Sanders signed on to direct, though, he was asked to deliver a family-friendly movie, which he did (shot in an updated, classic visual style of Disney’s “Old Yeller” with Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski). But in post-production, there was a course correction to expand Ford’s presence, spear-headed by Fox and producer James Mangold (who helmed the Oscar-winning “Ford v Ferrari”). And, in working with Mangold and editors William Hoy and David Heinz (the “Apes” franchise), Sanders learned a lot about rhythm and pacing for live action. They reshot the opening with Buck fully grown instead of a pup, cut out extraneous moments with Buck’s various owners, and reshot a couple of heart to heart scenes and more voice-over with Ford.
“It was fascinating to see how [Jim] could cut a scene down to its bare bones and keep it moving,” said Sanders. “We reshot the new opening in town at Universal, I added a scene with Thornton and Buck on the roof of his cabin because, if I was Harrison, I’d sit on the roof under the stars, and we did a scene where Thornton follows Buck and sees him with the wolves. I suggested this because I was frustrated with Thornton never wandering beyond the cabin. I wrote to Jim and he liked it. I learned so much from him. He’s really straightforward about what he sees, but he understood what we were doing as well.”