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STUART LITTLE - A BIG DEAL IN THE MAKING

MOUSE TO MOUSE
A walking, talking mouse created with a computer mouse, Stuart Little, strides (with tiny feet) into the pantheon of cinema history as the first central character in a movie otherwise populated by human actors. ANDREW L. URBAN reports.

Stuart Little is a proper name, not like Mickey Mouse, a name for a person - or at least a personality. Stuart speaks like a person, thinks and feels like a person, and although he looks like a mouse (sort of), he wears clothes like a person - even brushes his funny teeth like a person. Yet he doesn't exist. The creation of a team of animators working with the mouse of a computer and lots of clever software, Stuart Little is big on the visual but zero on the tangible. (Except perhaps as a piece of merchandise.)

He does, however, have a history: the orphan of Russian immigrants, Stuart was adopted by the Little family when they wanted to adopt a little brother for their son George, but didn't have the heart to choose one of the orphan kids at Mrs Keeper's orphanage.

"A spark of life"

Stuart's 'person' is intrinsic to the success of Stuart Little, the movie; if we are to accept the film as a story of a mouse that speaks, dresses and has feelings (sad as well as happy, scared as well as courageous), we have to believe he is a character. To do that, there has to be a spark of life in him.

The extensive act of creation took 30 animators headed by Henry Anderson, who was, in effect, Stuart Little, in a symbiotic relationship with Michael J. Fox's voice. "It's his mannerisms, attitude and personality, created over a two year period," explains CG Supervisor, Jay K. Redd, who visited Sydney for the Digital World conference in February 2000, accompanied by teammate Sande Scoredos.

"The magic of creating the character"

"We started with the original story and the underlying issue: being different and not giving in to that. . . we all related to him in some way," says Redd. "It was a huge drive for everyone, the magic of creating the character."

As Scoredos recalls, "there was a moment…a moment when we first saw him on the screen and we collectively fell in love with him."

Elaborate and innovative computer work helped create his fur and his features, while animation and the human voice breathed life into him: Stuart Little may not exist, but he's real. But Stuart isn't the only marvel in this movie: Snowbell, the house pet who has to learn to live with a mouse as part of the family, and the other cats who don't see things as pragmatically as that, all have speaking parts. Chazz Palminteri gives the mafioso strong man, Smokey, a decidedly dangerous personality, while Steve Zahn helps create an edgy Monty - alley cats all, but with good dialogue.

"Illusion is the nature of film"

There are reams of paper written on how the animators sought the ultimate results in making us believe, using every trick known to filmmaking - and inventing several new ones. But it's probably more important to enjoy the effect than know how it was done. Just like magic, illusion is the nature of film.

The lessons learnt at Sony Imageworks while creating Stuart Little, are already being applied elsewhere. The Sony team are already hard at work on The Hollow Man, a technology-driven remake of The Invisible Man, starring Kevin Bacon, and a CGI created version of him, a 100% anatomically correct human - who is nothing more than a series of digits in a computer.

"Every organ, veins, everything is CGI," Scoredos explains. "We've had scientists in to make sure it was all absolutely correct. It's not replacing Kevin, just doing things Kevin can't." Like disappear.

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Stuart Little - the story
Mr & Mrs Little (Hugh Laurie and Geena Davis) go out one day to adopt a little brother for their 9 year old son, George (Jonathan Lipnicki) but find it too hard to choose from among the lovable orphans at Mrs Keeper's place.

But the plucky little mouse that's also at the orphanage - badly dressed though he is - wins their hearts. George is not impressed, not to mention the Little's pet cat, Snowbell (Nathan Lane).

But Stuart is desperate for a family of his own, where everyone sticks together no matter what - and no matter what they look like! He wants a family to fill an emptiness in his heart.

By the time he earns that place, the alley cats and the hired thug cats have devised a plan to mouse-nap Stuart.

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