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"Hop" -tical Illusions: How James Marsden learned to see invisible bunnies for Universal Pictures' new fantasy-comedy

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"Hop" -tical Illusions: How James Marsden learned to see invisible bunnies for Universal Pictures' new fantasy-comedy

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James Marsden has battled Marvel super-villains in the "X-Men" trilogy. He's been rescued by the Man of Steel in "Superman Returns." He's even come face-to-face with Con Ed workers in Times Square in Disney's "Enchanted."

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So why should a guy who's worked on this many big special-effects pictures suddenly be worried about working with a CG bunny?

But that's really what happened on "Hop," that Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment production which will be released to theaters on April 1st. Early on in the shoot, Marsden confessed to Chris Bailey - the animation supervisor of this live-action / CG film - that he was kind of concerned about being able to make consistent eye contact  with an Easter Bunny who wasn't really there.

"James talked about all of these live-action films that he'd seen where these other actors were on screen with CG creatures. But you never really believed in the CG creatures because the actor's eye line was all wrong. They weren't really looking at the computer-generated character that they were supposed to be interacting with," Bailey explained. "And since James really believed in 'Hop,' really wanted to this movie to work, he was actively looking for tips about how he could make all of his scenes with E.B. seem as real as possible."

Copyright 2011 Universal Studios. All rights reserved

Lucky for Marsden, the team behind "Hop" - director Tim Hill, animation supervisor Bailey and director of photography Peter Lyons Collister - has worked together on a number of these live-action / CG projects. Among them "Garfield - A Tail of Two Kitties" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks." So at this point, these three are extremely well versed when it comes to ways that performers can bring CG characters to life in live-action settings."

"For some actors, it helps to act out the scenes beforehand with a plush toy. Show them where the CG character is going to stand, where they're going to move to, how quickly this character is going to cross the room," Chris continued. "In other cases - like when the CG character is going to jump into the live-action performer's arms - we'll sometimes give them something to catch. Throw a black beanbag at that actor so that they can then react to the weight and the movement of that prop."

But in Marsden's case ... Because James's character - slacker Fred O'Hare - had so many dialogue scenes with E.B. ... Well, Marsden wanted to make sure that he did everything he could to make the teenaged son of the Easter Bunny come across as a real charact; become someone that the audience could care about and really root for.

Copyright 2011 Universal Studios. All rights reserved

"And the key to pulling that off is maintaining eye contact. And given that the CG character you'll be performing with is most likely going to be moving around while they talk ... Well, you have to then factor that into your performance," Bailey said. "In order to make your reaction to this creature who isn't really there seem that much more real, you have to remember that this CG character isn't always going to be the exact same height throughout the entire scene. That -- just like real people do -- they're going to bend at the waist, turn to the side, bob their head as they talk. And the whole time - in order to make this work, make this scene seem believable -- you have to maintain eye contact with this invisible creature as it moves."

And while James had done something similar while working with Pip, the CG Chipmunk in Disney's "Enchanted" ... "Hop" moved things to a whole new level. Which is why Marsden worked his (cotton) tail off on this motion picture. And in the great tradition of Jimmy Stewart in "Harvey" and Bob Hoskins in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," James eventually mastered performing with a hare that wasn't there.

"He worked ridiculously hard on this movie," Bailey recalled. "I remember one night where we basically worked all night on 'Hop.' And - because I was shuttling back and forth between the first and second unit - I became kind of brain dead around 5 a.m. I couldn't remember the blocking of the scene we were about to shoot, i.e. where E.B. was supposed to be. And James, he was as tired as I was. But he remembered where all of the marks were. So James actually carried me for that one scene in this movie."

Copyright 2011 Universal Studios. All rights reserved

Speaking of tired ... Given that the folks at Rhythm & Hues were still working on "Hop" two weeks ago,  these animators & artists have every right to be exhausted right about. But according to what Chris told me yesterday on the phone, the whole production team was energized when they came together weekend before last to watch the cast & crew screening of this new Illumination Entertainment production.

"It was so much fun to see this movie with the people who'd actually worked so hard to bring the characters that Peter de Sève designed to life. The artists & the animators who'd made that candy factory Phil Cruden designed look so good," Bailey enthused. "More to the point, it was great to finally get the chance to work with Chris Meledandri on something. He and I have been trying for years now to find a project that we could work on together. And it finally happened with 'Hop.' "

That - in a nutshell - is what made this Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment production so enjoyable for Chris Bailey. That he got the chance to work with some old friends (i.e. Tim Hill, Peter Lyons Collister, Chris Meledandri and animation historian Tom Sito - who did some story work on "Hop") as well as make some new friends (i.e. James Marsden and Peter de Sève). Not to mention helping to introduce to the world a certain rabbit who dreams of being a drummer.

Copyright 2011 Universal Studios. All rights reserved

Which - when you think about it - doesn't seem like a half bad way to spend a year of your life.

But because he spent so much of his time finishing "Hop," Bailey missed out on the chance to join his friends at Rhythm & Hues as they geared up to tackle "Chip-wrecked,"  a third "Alvin and the Chipmunks" film  for 20th Century Fox.

Which is okay with Chris. As proud as he is of "Hop," Bailey's looking forward to the chance to explore other opportunities. Maybe even work on a new project or two with some of his old peeps ...

Copyright 2011 Universal Studios. All rights reserved

... No, not those sorts of old peeps ... from his days at Disney.

"I'm proud of the work that I did on hand-drawn features like 'Hercules' and animated series like 'Kim Possible," Chris said. "But the live-action / CG stuff that I'm doing these days is so much more enjoyable. So much more exciting. Because - while there isn't really enough time to do it over - there is still always time to do it well."

And if you want to see a well-made fantasy-comedy, be sure and check Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment's "Hop." Which hops into a theater near you this Friday.

Copyright 2011 Universal Studios. All rights reserved

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  • While I did enjoy Despicable Me, Hop just doesn't look good at all.

    And is that Enchanted sequel still a go? And funny enough, Amy Adams is playing Lois Lane in the 2012 reboot of Superman.

  • I think this movie looks cute! I love James Marsden and am really beginning to love Russell Brand doing voice work for characters. I never realized he could be so versatile.

  • Recalling an interview with Bob Hoskins a few years back. He said something to the effect he was "seeing weasels" for long time after finishing "Roger Rabbit" -- sort of a hangover from months of visualizing cartoon characters on the set.

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