Bringing Slime to Life: The Making of Flubber

The movie, Flubber, is a lighthearted, science-fiction film released in 1997, starring Robin Williams.  It was directed by Les Mayfield. The movie is a remake of the 1961 Disney film, The Absent-Minded Professor.  It is clearly not intended to be taken too seriously and is chock-full of humor and creativity.  However, it is important to understand some more of the background information of this movie in order to truly appreciate it.  While it may seem like it was an unimportant childrens’ movie, it raised the bar for visual effects in other movies, because of the animation techniques that were developed.

The film begins with Professor Phillip Brainard (Robin Williams) attempting to discover a new sustainable energy source.  He wants to use this invention to save his university from bankruptcy. He is also getting married to Dr. Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden), the president of the college where he is employed.  Due to his complete focus on his research and his general absentmindedness, he is close to losing Sara. They are engaged to be married, but just before the wedding, Brainard makes an important development in his research, resulting in a living green goo he dubs Flubber (a combination of the words flying and rubber).  Brainard eventually has to best his nemesis, a man named Wilson Croft (Christopher McDonald), who has profited before by stealing Brainard’s research. Croft, at one point, steals Flubber and even tries to marry Sara.  However, Brainard, with the help of Sara, Flubber, and his robot Weebo, defeats him, raises enough money to save the college, and marries Sara.

There is far more to the making of this movie than there appears on the surface.  The director and animation team had to work extremely hard to produce the visual effects necessary for it.  The animation techniques and software in 1997 were far inferior to what is used today, so it was a painstaking process to make Flubber look reasonably realistic.  There were discussions about using the same animation software that they used to create the T-1000 in Terminator 2.  This idea was considered unsuitable for Flubber, however, because the software wasn’t adaptable enough.  According to the lead technical animator, Philip Alexy, “Jeff Light, a technical director with animation expertise, was playing around with a modelling tool in Softimage 3D called MetaClay. It had the ability to create a mesh based upon placed spheres of influence, meant only to be used to build up masses of this CG clay into a model, and then use the resulting mesh as a reference. The breakthrough came when I took over Jeff’s research and applied it to something animated” (Failes).  Essentially, the two were pioneers of a new technique for CGI. Surprisingly for a movie from the nineties, the animation looks remarkably good. It is obvious how much effort went into every single detail.

The animation team also used a tool they refer to as a “mental ray” in order to give, “physically-accurate refractions through the Flubber (unlike RenderMan at the time, which ‘faked’ it)” (Failes).  This tool just added another level of realism to the lovable slime ball. Unfortunately, it had to be used sparingly because of how time consuming it was to implement into even a short clip. During the first scene where Brainard discovers Flubber, he tries to take a Polaroid picture of them together, but the flash scares it, causing it to fly around and wreak havoc.  The reason this scene was so important to the animators was because the Polaroid of the two together is displayed multiple times.  Therefore, Flubber had to look as perfect as possible during a still shot.

Flubber, now almost exactly twenty-one years old, is not only a reminder to us of Robin Williams’ wonderful acting talent, but it is also a landmark in movie production.  The director, crew, and other staff were clearly intent on making this movie a classic that people could enjoy for many years. It is often completely overlooked, but the secret ingredient that truly made this movie special was the quality of animation.  It is unfortunate that this movie isn’t more applauded for its advancements in that field, but hopefully its achievements will become better known as time goes on.

 

Author: Garrett Freiling

Works Cited

Failes, Ian. “’Flubber’ Turns 20: How ILM Made the Shape-Shifting Green Goo Come to Life.” VFX Blog, 23 Jan. 2018, vfxblog.com/2017/11/26/flubber-turns-20-how-ilm-made-the-shape-shifting-green-goo-come-to-life/.

Garis, Mary Grace. “Proof You Need To Rewatch ‘Flubber’.” Bustle, Bustle, 13 Nov. 2018, www.bustle.com/articles/171054-27-things-you-notice-when-you-rewatch-flubber-a-forgotten-disney-classic.

 

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