The VFX Clues in the Perplexing 'Cats' Trailer

It’s been 24 hours since Universal unspooled the first trailer for its upcoming Cats, and while it features a stirring performance of the musical’s signature song, “Memory,” by Jennifer Hudson, backlash quickly set the internet ablaze due to what many felt was a hysterical look for the jellicle cats.

Seth MacFarlane tweeted “Stewie just saw the Cats trailer” with a gif of the Family Guy character looking traumatized. And Jordan Peele retweeted a fan-made video of the Cats trailer set to the music from Us.

Oscar winner Tom Hooper’s (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) upcoming film is based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which is based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, whose original Broadway production featured actors dressed in lavish makeup and costumes while incorporating feline movements into the performance.

The filmmakers have't completely revealed how the new motion picture is being made, but a behind-the-scenes video that was played in April at CinemaCon showed castmembers such as Hudson, Taylor Swift and James Corden performing their roles in performance-capture suits with body and facial tracking markers, while they appeared on greenscreen and bluescreen sets. At that time, the studio didn’t unveil the finished look of the actors as cats, a decision that was attributed to complicated visual effects work.

A new behind-the-scenes video released this week instead shows the actors rehearsing and real sets, with Hooper saying they used a "digital fur technology to create the most perfect covering of fur," though it sure seems to be much more than fur that's animated.

As to the backlash, to be fair, the less than two-and-a half minute trailer is all the public has seen of the film at this stage (Cats is slated for a Dec. 20 release). But some headlines about the trailer have already used the term “uncanny valley,” pointing to a perceptual zone that has been used to describe a CG-animated character that appears very close to — but not quite — human and which to the viewer doesn't feel right or might seem creepy (think Polar Express as an example). In the case of Cats, the faces of the actors portraying the cats is clearly identifiable, as is human anatomy and movement.

So much so, in fact, that one has to wonder to what extent the filmmakers considered the use of makeup and costumes, as was the case in the Broadway production. Or, so long as they are taking a delicate digital route, if they considered character design that was more stylized and less humanoid.