Tom Hanks’ cat in ‘A Man Called Otto’ is a mix of live-action, greenscreen and CG

Marc Forster’s A Man Called Otto is most certainly not a visual effects film, but it does feature a wide variety of key invisible effects work.

A number of techniques were used to bring the stray cat taken in by Otto (Tom Hanks) to life, including greenscreen shooting and CG. Then there were a raft of environment extensions including a train platform and a suburban location of the film, plus dealing with weather continuity.

Visual effects supervisor Janelle Ralla breaks down the work for before & afters.

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b&a: This is sometimes my favorite kind of film where I feel like it’s absolutely all about invisible effects. Is there something you can say about working on a film like that and the early kinds of conversations you might have had with Marc Forster about it?

Janelle Ralla: Marc is such a lovely director to work for. He is so concise and kind. I joined the film quite late in the process. Marc called and convinced me to come out of VFX hibernation. I flew out to Pittsburgh a few weeks before the shoot and got up to speed fast. We quickly assembled an on set team and workflow in a matter of days. Leo Bovell joined me as co-sup and on-set supervised principal photography. They were battling a lot of weather, Pittsburgh in the winter is not pleasant. It’s very cold! It was a tough shoot.

Otto was not a visual effects film, so although some of the VFX moments had big fx and had to blend seamlessly with the photography, data acquisition was often slightly more challenging than it would be on a big blockbuster film. Most of the exterior of the film was shot on 35mm film which brought its own set of fun challenges as well.

b&a: Can you break down how you approached the cat?

Janelle Ralla: The cat was such an important character in the film. The cat was shot in situ as much as possible during principal photography but the schedule was tight and cats don’t work fast. We had to sometimes shoot with a grey stuffy, nothing at all or with a splinter crew picking up the cat to split in comp. We ended up doing several pickup shoots with the cat. About 10% of the cat ended up being all in-camera and about 20% CG cat. The rest are cat comps, greenscreen plates comped in to the photography.

JAMM Visual, led by Kevin Pierce, completed all of the cat work. They did the CG cat and they did all of the cat comps, which turned out very well. When the cat’s getting dragged under the car and the frozen cat scenes, those are all cg…there’s no way to do that with a real cat.

I remember when we were scouting, Marc was casting cats and he was showing me pictures and I said, ‘That one,’ because of course it’s short hair and it doesn’t have a crazy fur pattern. Marc was like, ‘Oh, but look at this one, it’s so beautiful,’ and it’s this fluffy cat that has the finest fluffiest hair you can imagine! I was like, ‘Um, not that one!,’ but he insisted. In the end, the fluffy cat was pretty great and of course, he was perfect with Tom. His name was Smeagol and there was also a cat double we used a few times.

They ended up loving the cat so much after the first director’s cut that they wanted more cat. Our talented assistant editor Brad Besser scoured through the different cat plates and came up with new shots the cat could be in. For example there was a beautiful wide shot of Tom sitting there writing his letter. Now in the final shot is the cat stretching down at the bottom of the frame, really completing the shot.