Emily Elizabeth (played by Darby Camp), her uncle Casey (Jack Whitehall), and Clifford leave their apartment building in the film Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Paramount Pictures

Making Movie Magic

Courtesy of Blair Clark

Note: This is a longer version of the interview that appeared in the November 22 issue of Scholastic News.

How do you bring a beloved cartoon dog to life? That was the challenge faced by Blair Clark, the visual effects supervisor for Clifford the Big Red Dog. The first live-action movie to feature the supersized pup hits theaters on November 10. Clark recently spoke to Scholastic News about how he and a team of more than 100 visual effects (VFX) artists created movie magic.

Scholastic News: Can you briefly explain what visual effects are?

Blair Clark: Visual effects are used to get images into a film that can’t be photographed in real life. It could be something that doesn’t exist—like a huge red dog. Computer-generated imagery, or CGI, is the main tool used in creating visual effects today.

What inspired you to pursue a career in visual effects? 

BC: Growing up, I loved monsters and horror films. My dream was to have a career in the movie industry creating monsters, either through makeup or stop-motion animation. I went to an art school, studied film, and was able to get a job working on the first Gremlins movie. After that, I made stop-motion puppets for films like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Computers showed up not long after that, and here we are.

Why was your job on this movie so important? 

BC: Because Clifford is so big and bright red, it was very important to make him look and act like a real dog. He had to be convincing as a living, breathing character interacting with the actors. It was also important to keep him sweet and similar to what the readers of Norman Bridwell’s books were used to.

SN: What are the basic steps involved in developing visual effects?

BC: Let’s use the example of Clifford standing on a busy street in New York City. We knew that Clifford was going to be about 10 feet tall for these scenes. The shots would include a group of people having to look at Clifford, pet him, and react to what he does. But since Clifford is a visual effect, he wouldn’t be there when we shot the scene, so we made a big red two-person puppet! It was the same size as Clifford would be, and our puppeteers, Jon and Rowan, could make him look and move around in a way that our VFX Clifford would eventually perform. 

Once filming was complete, the photographed “shots'” were sent to our visual effects company, and the work of animating Clifford began. He would be placed into the scene, covering our puppet that we photographed in New York. Any part of the puppet that wasn’t covered would be erased, so all that would be left is the CGI Clifford.

Then we began animating him, making him move in a realistic way. Then Clifford and any other objects like his collar were placed into the shot, and everything was checked—from making sure his hair looked correct to adjusting the wetness of his nose. There were quite a few steps in making our Big Red Dog look great!

Paramount Pictures

Blair Clark (center, holding tablet) talks to the cast on the Clifford set.

SN: Were any scenes especially challenging to create?

BC: It can be challenging anytime there is physical interaction between an actor and a computer-generated character. Things like petting or riding Clifford are good examples of difficult things to figure out. But I think one of the most important challenges—and some of the moments I’m most proud of—were when Emily Elizabeth is talking directly to Clifford and he is listening carefully. It’s so important to make sure the actor knows where to look and also not to just stare in one place. And Clifford needs to do similar things—listen and subtly react—all while doing things that aren’t really noticed, like blinking and breathing. 

How much did you and your team observe real dogs?

BC: Quite a bit! We used videos of dogs we found on YouTube to talk about certain movements or mannerisms we thought would be appropriate. We also photographed puppies playing and jumping around as reference for Clifford when he’s a puppy. 

What advice do you have for kids who are interested in visual effects?

BC: Go to museums! Read books! Draw and sketch your creative ideas—even if you don’t think you’re very good at drawing. Have fun with taking pictures or making short movies, and then experiment with trying to make them better. Don’t get discouraged. I still benefit from every bit of exploring and experimenting I did when I was younger.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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