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Gulliver's Travels: Combining Laughter and Special Effects

Jack Black steps in on Jonathan Swift’s fantastical story of the seafaring adventurer Gulliver in “Gulliver’s Travels.” The story takes Gullivers to the elusive Bermuda spot who discovers the land of Lilliput where the inhabitants are tiny. The book was since heralded as a brilliant satire on human behaviour when it was first published in 1726. Since then, the story of Gulliver’s Travels has captured the public’s imagination for almost three hundred years.

In the latest spin of today’s movie wonders, Jack Black who stars and serves as executive producer in “Gulliver’s Travels” brings the story with humongous fun laden with superb 3D visual effects. From his cornered mailroom office, Lemuel Gulliver (Black) walks the halls and tables of the most celebrated journalists in a leading Manhattan newspaper. Gulliver’s untamed imagination then takes him unexpectedly to an assignment from his longtime office crush Darcy, the newspaper’s travel editor. After convincing Darcy of his impeccable travel writing, he is eventually assigned to cover the mystical Bermuda area where after violent waves, washed him ashore to an island called Lilliput where thumb-sized citizens live.

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Gulliver then meets a lineage of royalties in the island from its king down to its most noble subject. After a rough start with the Lilliputians that sees Gulliver tied up and wheeled through the Town Square, then outfitted with a pulley system through which the Lilluput leaders control his every move, Gulliver begins to win over his captors. Gulliver even helps a commoner (Jason Segel) woo a princess (Emily Blunt) – employing, as Gulliver calls it, some “grade-A court-age” – and singlehandedly defeats an armada of the Lilliputians’ arch-nemeses, the Blefuscians.

One of Gulliver’s biggest shock comes with the appearance of a robot designed and built by Lilliput’s ever-scheming General Edward to once and for all eliminate Gulliver. Inspired by a magazine article found on Gulliver’s wrecked ship, Edward devises an intricate assembly of gears and pulleys that “drive” the robot’s motion.


Noted visual effects house hy*drau”lx (“2012”) worked closely with Rob Letterman on the CG ‘bot design and execution. Also making critical contributions to the world of Lilliput was premier visual effects house WETA Digital, which won Oscars for its groundbreaking work on “Avatar,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “King Kong”. Here, too, the robot design married the modern with the less-so. “Part of the original concept of the robot was to have its contemporary design accompany a Victorian-era technology,” says hy*drau”lx’s Erik Liles. “This gave rise to the more mechanical aspects of the robot’s locomotion – its gears and pulleys system.”

The visual effects wizards at hy*drau”lx didn’t make things easy for themselves. The robot begins life as a miniature, trashcan-shaped device that transforms to the gargantuan, exaggerated and cartoonish heap that battles Gulliver. Since the filmmakers continued to sort through these challenges and put the final CG touches on their creation well into the post-production process, during production Jack Black found himself battling a junior-sized version – a robot suit worn by a stuntman. This allowed Black to interact with the robot during filming, helping both the actor and visual effects team map out the no-holds-barred contest we see onscreen.

The entire cast – robot included – appreciated not only the talents of Jack Black the Actor, but the work ethic and dedication to the project from Jack Black, the Executive Producer. The latter was a stern taskmaster for actor Black during some of the film’s action set pieces. For a scene where Gulliver singlehandedly battles the Blefuscian armada, high-speed cameras captured Black, who stripped to the waist and jiggled his bare torso to simulate the effects of hundreds of miniature cannonballs slamming into Gulliver’s stomach, making waves in his flesh.

Even when things were relatively calm in Lilliput, and Black wasn’t before the cameras, he was on set everyday to feed his lines to his cast mates who were acting to Gulliver’s eye line. With over half the film set against enormous green screens situated on massive soundstages, Black’s line readings were invaluable to the other actors.

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Also essential in assisting the actors, as well as creating a cohesive and relatable world, was a groundbreaking camera known as the DualMoCo (the “MoCo” is for motion control), which was used extensively for the first time on “Gulliver’s Travels.” The DualMoCo utilized complex computer technology and synchronized camera cranes to capture, in real time, the bigger-than-life Gulliver and the tiny Lilliputians in the same scene, despite the characters’ enormous height differential. While Black was in one area of the soundstage, performing against a green screen, the actors portraying the Lilliputians would be on another part of the stage, acting “opposite” Black. Adds producer Gregory Goodman: “On screen, you’ll see Jack speaking with a character who’s a tiny fraction of Gulliver’s size. The aim in using the DualMoCo was to make the effect look real and yet like nothing you’ve seen before.”

“Gulliver’s Travels” opens January 8 (Saturday) in theaters in 3D and 35mm formats in all theaters from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Warner Bros.

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