STUART LITTLE is a film from producer Douglas Wick's Red Wagon Productions. It combines live action with groundbreaking visual effects by the artists and innovators at Sony Pictures Imageworks, who have taken digital character creation to a bold new level with the birth of Stuart.
The creation of the film's title character and some of his friends and adversaries represents one of the most ambitious ventures to date into photo-real, performance-based digital character creation.
The Columbia Pictures presentation STUART LITTLE is executive produced by Jason Clark, with Jeff Franklin and Steve Waterman also serving as executive producers under a Franklin/Waterman Production. Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan (writer and director of The Sixth Sense) and Greg Brooker. Rounding out this talented group of filmmakers are director of photography Guillermo Navarro, production designer Bill Brzeski, editor Tom Finan and costume designer Joseph Porro.
The effects team includes Academy Award®-winning senior visual effects supervisor John Dykstra, animation supervisor Henry Anderson and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. STUART LITTLE also features Jennifer Tilly as the voice of Mrs. Stout, Bruno Kirby as the voice of Mr. Stout, Chazz Palminteri as the voice of Smokey, Steve Zahn as the voice of Monty, and David Alan Grier as the voice of Red. Also starring are Julia Sweeney, Dabney Coleman, Estelle Getty and Allyce Beasley.
In a cozy brownstone nestled among the gray monoliths along the section of Fifth Avenue that borders New York City's Central Park, Mr. and Mrs. Little bring home a surprising addition to the Little family... Stuart.
Despite the urgings of Mrs. Keeper at the orphanage to "adopt within their own species," the Littles beam with the pride of new parents.
Producer Douglas Wick explains the family's unusual choice: "The Littles don't really see a mouse when they look at Stuart. They see another living creature who is smart, kind and very alone. Their hearts tell them that Stuart is a perfect fit for the Little family, even though no reasonable person could possibly agree."
As his adventures unfold, however, Stuart is faced with challenges and choices that could risk his truly deserved happiness. These obstacles might present a problem for a typical mouse... but not for Stuart. "Stuart is a guy who doesn't look at the world from a mouse's perspective. He recognizes that he looks different than other people, but that's not important," comments director Rob Minkoff.
Wick observes, "Every child feels like a different species than his parents. As a child, you're always looking at the world at knee-level, and it seems scary and overwhelming. Watching the heroics of someone three inches tall can be very inspiring." Despite an obvious appeal to the younger set, STUART LITTLE manages to strike a balance between children's fantasy and an adult sensibility.
Filmmakers drew inspiration from E.B. White, Stuart's creator, who wrote the original book with this multigenerational appeal. "Stuart actually was born on a train ride," explains Wick. "E.B. White was in a sleeper car, and he was on his way back to Manhattan. He fell asleep, and when he woke up he had a mouse rattling around in his head. He said it was one of the few dreams that he was ever able to use for a story. White was too smart to write a story just for children. It always had layers and nuance."
STUART LITTLE represents a huge stride forward in the field of digital character creation. "We couldn't find a trained mouse that could wear clothes, walk on two feet and deliver lines," jokes executive producer Jason Clark. "So we had to come up with a way to use technology to tell the story. What we did with STUART LITTLE wouldn't have been possible five years ago."
The challenge, however, was to use this futuristic digital wizardry to capture the spirit of a classic character that E.B. White created 50 years ago. Bringing the character of Stuart Little to life on the big screen involved several stages of sophisticated, painstakingly detailed technical labor from the Imageworks team of artists.
Under the direction of Minkoff, Academy Award - winning senior visual effects supervisor John Dykstra, animation supervisor Henry Anderson and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen strove toward the goal of creating a living, breathing, three-dimensional character that exists in our world.
This was no easy task, even for this talented group of effects specialists. "Stuart needed to be totally believable, in terms of both his look and performance," says Chen. "We had to use techniques to bring his photo-realism to a level where the audience completely accepted him and wasn't distracted by the notion that he was created through visual effects. Stuart is far from an ordinary mouse. He talks with both humans and animals, and he has an effect on his world through his interactions. And," he adds, "he ultimately changes the Little family for the better."
Imageworks' cutting-edge technology and digital techniques began conceptualizing Stuart's appearance back in July 1997. Hundreds of sketches and three-dimensional images were made to create a lovable, admirable Stuart. "First, you study mice and what they really look like, and then you extract from that a kind of caricature which gives personality to the creation," says Minkoff.
"We needed to find different ways of exaggerating what seems natural about a mouse, without falling into the trap of being too cute. A texture and edge had to remain." John Dykstra, senior visual effects supervisor, adds, "We knew we wanted Stuart to be a non-human form that reads as a human form." Using the newest, state-of-the-art techniques in photo-realism, Stuart's personality emerged from the animators' creations.
It was crucial that the character possess the ability to respond to the live-action world around him with genuine emotion. "If you don't empathize with Stuart," Dykstra continues, "we haven't done our job."
Animation supervisor Henry Anderson - a pioneering digital animator best known for his creation of the Coca-Cola Polar Bears and an Emmy Award winner for "The Last Halloween" - and his team of animators created a library of motion and emotion for Stuart. Minkoff and Anderson began to shape Stuart's performance by referencing the actions of mime artist Bill Irwin.
His body movements were then interpreted by the animators to inspire their key frame technique of animating Stuart's performance. Conceiving and refining Stuart's form, however, was only the beginning.
"Creating Stuart's fur and wardrobe presented a tremendous challenge," says Chen. "The technology necessary to create this type of imagery was in its infancy when we began this project a couple years ago. We had to create the digital techniques and tools for our artists to make Stuart convincing on film."
More than half a million computer-generated hairs make up Stuart's head; the smallest of his details, down to his dimples and whiskers, had to be designed and added in the computer. The cloth from Stuart's unique wardrobe was digitally tailored not only to fit Stuart's body, but to crinkle and bend naturally when he was animated. To achieve this, digital cloth animators took sewing and tailoring classes to learn how to construct fabric to produce the most realistic effect possible.
The lighting of Stuart in the computer was also a daunting task. Software was developed to make Stuart's fur illuminate like real hair, allowing the artists to adjust even the sheen on his fur. More important than the technology required to light Stuart was the style in which he was lit.
"We treated him like a movie star," says Chen. "We studied the manner in which Guillermo lit the human actors and followed the same style with Stuart to make him fit in more with the look of the picture."
Explaining the lengths to which the effects specialists went to create a thoroughly convincing Stuart Little, Dykstra says, "We photographed a silver ball that had a reflection of the set in it. We used that reflection to accurately position the lights for the mouse, right down to the reflections in his eyes."
Artists perfected Stuart's hands with just as much meticulous attention to detail. As director Minkoff viewed different prototypes of Stuart's hands, he decided to make them more like human hands than mouse paws. Eventually, as more and more screen tests were viewed, Stuart's hands transformed into hands similar to those of a little boy.
The creation of Stuart was just one component of the complex effort that brought the movie to life on the silver screen. Once the computer conjured up a living, breathing character, Stuart's image was then carefully added to scenes, many of which were made trickier because they involved interaction with humans or precision-trained live cats.
Boone Narr's Animals For Hollywood trained 23 cats of various breeds to portray the eight cat roles in the film, including Red (voiced by David Alan Grier), Monty (voiced by Steve Zahn) and Smokey (voiced by Chazz Palminteri). The Littles' pet cat, Snowbell, voiced by Nathan Lane, was played by five identical white Chinchilla Persian cats who were all trained in specific tasks.
"We had a big casting call that went on for months, and we tried cats out to see if they fit the particular characters," says Narr. "A lot of luck was involved in getting the animals' performances just right - where they aren't looking at the trainers offstage, but are truly interacting with the other characters in the movie."
Indeed, the animal trainers needed lots of patience and flexibility when it came to shooting these scenes as cats are not only notoriously difficult to train, but particularly unpredictable when performing alongside other cats.
Narr had eight trainers hiding in various spots on the set to direct the cats in their performances. In Snowbell's case, the trainers' main concern was the cat's interaction with Stuart, since the relationship between the two natural adversaries is pivotal to the film.
"Snowbell doesn't like mice. It doesn't matter who the mouse is, he just doesn't like them," explains Minkoff. "The fact that Stuart is adopted as the Littles' child only makes it worse. Snowbell feels like he's been pushed out of the family, like he's less important. After all, he's displaced by a rodent, which has got to hurt when you're a cat."
As if a computer-generated title character and short-tempered felines weren't enough to challenge filmmakers in this complicated production, they also had to find a trio of human actors to play the Little family... and find the voice of Stuart.
"How did we arrive at the choice of Michael J. Fox for the voice? He seemed to have the right kind of personality to fit Stuart's 'can-do' attitude - very positive, very sincere, very winning and yet with an edge," says Minkoff.
As for the Littles, "The casting was incredibly challenging," says Wick. "They needed to be an eccentric family, but the kind of eccentric where you secretly wished you were like them. They needed to be the attractive side of eccentric. It was very hard."
Then, Geena Davis and Hugh Laurie entered the picture. "What was remarkable about Geena and Hugh is that they seem to come from opposite ends of the spectrum, but there's an incredible amount of chemistry between them," says Clark. "They're very unique choices for the roles."
"Geena has so much humanity," says Wick. "She has so much humour, but she's very much her own person, and she doesn't quite seem like anyone else."
English actor Hugh Laurie was suggested by Sony casting. "We looked at the film of Hugh and we all said, 'This is Mr. Little.' We started frantically calling London, and luckily we got him."
The casting of George was particularly complicated, because the audience has to sympathize with the little boy even though he dismisses Stuart throughout most of the movie.
"Stuart has to work to win over George," says Minkoff, who was the first to suggest Jonathan Lipnicki for the role, even though the actor was a few years younger than the age the part was written for.
"We brought him in, and he was just magic. He's totally charismatic. He has incredible screen presence," says Wick. "And he also seemed like a Little. We gave Hugh a pair of glasses similar to Jonathan's, and we had the Little family."
Production began on STUART LITTLE on the soundstages of Sony Pictures Studios in the summer of 1998. Three months before principal photography began, a crew of 100 construction artists were hard at work building sets that sprawled across four stages on the Sony lot.
On August 3, principal photography began in the upstairs interiors of the Littles' house. When designing the Littles' residence, production designer Bill Brzeski and his art department team created a 105-page style guide with detailed sketches and palettes for constructing the house interiors and determining how things would exist in Stuart's world.
Everything in the house - hardware, cabinetry, even the windows - were made from scratch. The "idealized present" is how producer Douglas Wick describes the overarching aesthetic for the design. Stuart's bedroom - decorated for a toddler - sized human child, not a three-inch mouse - and his parents' room reflected a kind of timeless decor, where a colorful, eclectic assortment of charming antiques was used in place of trendier furnishings.
Not only did Brzeski create amazing human-size sets, but because the star was only three inches tall, he also had to pay close attention to floor space and the foreground and background space. He carefully selected floor patterns and moldings to ensure that they would be visually pleasing when blown up on a full-size movie screen.
Stage 12 housed the downstairs interior of the Littles' house, which included a beautiful marble foyer, living room, music room/library and kitchen, all crafted to perfection by Brzeski with basic primary color themes.
"The family unit is what propels the story of STUART LITTLE, " says Brzeski. "Therefore, antiques, modern artwork and set dressing had to combine for a comfortable, practical and homey environment that people might find in their own living rooms."
Concurs Wick: "We wanted Stuart to be about family. It would feel like your own family, feel like your own life." "When you walk into the Littles' house, you get the feeling you are surrounded by gentle people," says Brzeski.
"The decor of the Littles' home is not so conservative and traditional that it feels dated, yet it is not so fantastic that it dominates the scenes. There's a computer on the desk, a TV in the kitchen - things are modern, but don't stand out," says Brzeski. A backyard with a cozy back porch and a swing set furthers the mood.
Brzeski's designs were influenced by contemporary filmmakers as diverse as the Coen Brothers and Vincente Minnelli, who also used color as a technique to create emotion, and such film classics as The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story. Brzeski also studied the art of American painter Edward Hopper, who used bold color to create rich images.
Filming also moved to Stage 30, where Esther Williams' spectacular waterbound films were shot in the 1940s. As big as a football field, the stage became a storybook version of Central Park with 150 extras hustling among balloon carts, snack stands, and children and families excitedly preparing for the race.
The stage's 750,000-gallon water tank doubled as the boat pond and the starting line for the boat race. Thunderstone, a model shop, built elaborate model boats for the race on the pond. The collection of ships included Stuart's brother George's The Wasp, a simple schooner with a teak deck and traditional linen sails, and George's nemesis' boat, The Lillian B. Womrath, twice as large and intimidating as the other boats and featuring black sails, a black hull and bright red trim and masts
"We built remote-control boats that have sails that look like they're inflated in the wind, and we have a track system laid down in the pond so that the boats look like they're sailing," mechanical effects supervisor Eric Allard says. "When the director yells, 'Cut,' we can reverse the switches, the boats come back to the starting point, and we can do it all again."
Lifeguards were on duty at all times during shooting on the Central Park set, and divers assisted by helping retrieve items that mistakenly fell into the boat pond during filming.
A 55' super techno-crane extended over the pond to photograph the boats. Historic Stage 15, where film classics such as The Wizard of Oz were shot in years gone by, became the home for the movie's re-created section of New York City's Fifth Avenue. A real tar street was poured, complete with street grades, manholes and cracked sidewalks.
In the middle of this ersatz metropolis sat the exterior of an old brownstone where the Little family has lived for seven generations. Covered in vines and flowers and even crumbling here and there, this dwelling plays a key role in the story as Stuart has to learn to adapt to his new home... and find his way back to it after he is led astray.
Some unusual things happen on the set when your co-star is a three-inch tall mouse. Between takes, English actor Hugh Laurie, who plays Mr. Little, could be seen talking to the empty palm of his hand (he was practicing his lines with Stuart, whom he calls a fine and generous fellow thespian).
"There is something Brando-ish about him," comments Laurie. "The first thing he said to me when I met him was, 'Stay out of my light.' He's just aware of his image, as all these big stars are."
When asked if Stuart was sensitive about his stature, Laurie states, "Height jokes were not well-received in the first week. And he made it pretty clear that anything to do with cheese was not funny. We had a couple of good cheese jokes, actually, but they had to go."
Geena Davis, who plays Mrs. Little, says Stuart's enthusiasm on the set was infectious, and his cleverness was to be admired by all of the crew. The actress had met him and worked with him before. "The scenes were eventually cut from the movie," she reveals, "but he was in A League of Their Own. He had a very tiny part."
Stuart's onscreen brother, actor Jonathan Lipnicki, enjoyed goofing off with Stuart during their downtime off the set. "He's cool," states Lipnicki, his eyes sparkling with admiration. Lipnicki was particularly dazzled by Stuart's willingness to do his own stunts. "He does sharp tums on the boat and all these tricks to win the race," says the nine-year-old actor.
If there's one thing Stuart proved during 12 weeks of production, it's that size doesn't matter. At a mere three inches tall, Stuart Little easily won the respect of his much larger co-stars.
After a smooth and enjoyable shoot, principal photography wrapped on STUART LITTLE in mid-November 1998 on the Sony lot. "This was a great collaborative effort," says Dykstra. "There were hundreds of people making this movie, and they all had a common vision."
This vision was about more than the magic of special effects - it was about creating a sweet, funny, engaging, utterly charming story. "You can have the greatest special effects in the world, and it won't make a good movie," reflects Allard. "It's all about story and character. If you have a good story being effectively told with characters you can identify with and care about, it doesn't really matter what the techniques and the effects are."
"What would make me want to see this movie?" reflects director Rob Minkoff. "Getting the opportunity to see Stuart come to life."