Framestore CFC, one of six studios that created effects for
the fantasy film The Golden Compass put armored bears in leading roles
Two of the lead actors in New Line Cinema and writer-director Christopher Weitz’s film “The Golden Compass,” which is based on the first book in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, are armored warrior bears with some human characteristics: They have opposable thumbs, and like many of the animals in this fantasy film, they talk.
The Golden Compass” has around 1100 visual effects shots supervised by Mike Fink and created by six facilities, and as with most of the animals in the film, artists and animators created the remarkable bears using computer graphics. In one dramatic scene, the two warrior bears fight to the death.
In this universe, everyone has a daemon, a visible representation of his or her spirit in the form of an animal, and the story centers on an attempt by an evil authority named the Magisterium, which represents thought control, to separate daemons from their people, and thus remove their free will.
The Magisterium begins its experiment with children. Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) represents the Magisterium.
An epic quest by a young girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards) to save her friend Roger (Ben Walker), who is kidnapped by the Magisterium, drives the story. Lyra’s uncle Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) gives her an Alethiometer, a truth-telling device, to help with her journey, and a pilot named Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott) suggests she recruit a Panzerbjorn armored bear.
In early life, the Panzerbjorn forge their armor as a rite of passage. It covers their back and belly; it’s part of their existence. But townspeople had tricked Iorek out of his armor and Lyra discovers the splendid Iorek in a disheveled state. Iorek regains his armor, and the two become friends, maintaining a close bond through the last two-thirds of the film.
“At first, he’s a gruff, down and out has-been, a drunk and semi-slave,” says Dadi Einarsson, animation supervisor at Framestore CFC, who led a team of around 40 animators. Framestore CFC created all the bears in the film and many of the environments in which the bears appear.
“When we had our initial roundtable with Chris [Weitz] and Mike [Fink], Chris outlined his vision of Iorek,” Einarsson says. “He talked to us about how Iorek is a stoic, underplayed character. He wanted him to be bear-like.”
To learn whether it was possible for a bear to talk, and if so, how, Fink visited the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in London. “My worry is that we’d end up with the real common mistake people make when they animate an animal,” he says. “They build controls for the face that are similar to those for human faces. That helps give the animals human expressiveness, but they end up looking like humans.”
At the RVC, Fink learned that bears had the physical attributes – a voice box and facial muscles - necessary for speech, but the power of language was beyond their mental capacity. “They had enough tonal range and the nerve endings to make sounds that might sound like words,” Fink says. “But they’d have to want to.”
Thus, rather than create humanistic animation controls, muscles and shapes, he had the modelers at Framestore CFC build realistic bear musculature. “That way, when they animated the bears talking, they would have expressions bears could make,” Fink says.
“You might see a couple of expressions that are almost like smiles, but they could also be interpreted as snarls because the muscles are the same. The animation is not anthropomorphic.”
Framestore CFC started by working in Maya from models based on maquettes from the production art department, and then developed the rigging for walk and run cycles for all the bears – Iorek, Ragnar his nemesis, and around 120 guard bears. In addition to modeling, animating and lighting in Maya, the studio also uses boujou for camera tracking and match moving, renders with Renderman using Liquid to generate RIB files, and composites primarily with Shake, but with an occasional assist from Inferno.
Both bears had the same rig, although Ragnar stands 12.5 feet tall and Iorek 11.5, and similar models based on a hybrid between a polar bear and a grizzly. “The particular problem with this rig is that the bears are quadrapeds, but they can stand on two legs,” says Einarsson. “Iorek walks on his hands, but these bears have opposable thumbs like human hands.”
Iorek and Ragnar’s faces also presented problems: “Iorek has a long snout, so it was tricky getting a round shape on his lips for an ‘oooo,’” says Einarsson. “And, when we stretched the corners of his mouth to make an ‘eeee’ shape, he looked CG. So, rather than being literal with mouth shapes, we treated him like an actor who doesn’t move his lips or articulate his face too much and concentrated more on important shapes to sell a word, and on expression in his eyes and brows.”
Ragnar, who talks with actor Ian McShane’s voice, had a wider range of emotions than Iorek and the animators had more fun with him. “He desperately wants to be human,” Einarsson says, “so we gave him more expressions in the way he talks.”
Sir Ian McKellen voices Iorek, a choice that happened well into the process. “When they changed to Sir Ian McKellen late in the process, we had to redo a lot of the animation,” says Einarsson. “Not Iorek’s characterization or how we approached him in terms of animation, but we had to re-animate the scenes based on the way lines were delivered.”
For example, in one scene Iorek explains that he was exiled from his kingdom, although he was next in line to the throne, because he had fought another bear in single combat, “and was defeated.” “We have Iorek put his head down, twist, turn and walk away on the line ‘was defeated,’” says Ienarsson. “The pause between ‘and,’ and ‘was defeated,’ controls when Iorek turns. But, the first actor had read the line slightly differently.”
To add secondary motion to the bears after the animators had created the main performances, creature technical directors (TD)s used a layer of digital fat rather than create a muscle-based system.
“The bears look like their skin is too big for their bodies,” says Laurent Hugueniot, CG supervisor. “They have flabby skin that wobbles all the time.” Texture maps defined the amount of fat on the geometry and provided general settings that described how much spring the skin had, and then the skin jiggled based on the depth of the fat.“We tried to minimize human intervention,” says Hugueniot. “If you fine tune [the digital fat] properly, it behaves itself.”
Character TDs also tweaked the armor, which tended to constrain movement. “We had to cheat a lot with the armor to loosen it and resolve intersections,” Hugueniot says. “We had to place it so it would move without colliding.” That included keeping the bears’ fur from colliding with the armor.
Each bear had around three million hairs, created using a proprietary system based in Maya. They have short hair on their noses, a bit longer hair under their chins, and very long hair over the rest of their body and legs.
“Basically we have a surface that we put guide hairs on,” says Hugueniot. “The guide hairs describe the grooming, but it’s one thing to see a group of hairs and another to make them obey the guide hair orientation. So we use linked nodes, a bit like a Shake tree, to organize all the hairs into a final position.”
When the bears are moving, the fur has to move out of the way of the armor. For that, Framestore CFC used a proprietary dynamics system that managed the various fur and armor collisions. “We’d do the armor first and then the fur,” says Hugueniot.
One of the most dramatic and difficult sequences with the bears is the fight between Iorek and Ragnar that takes place in an ice rink in front of Ragnar’s palace. 120 guard bears surround the rink.
To design the shot, Einarsson, lead animator Pablo Grillo, Morris, Weitz, Fink, and director of photography Henry Braham met on set toward the end of principal photography, in January 2007. “We had cut an animatic from the storyboards,” says Einarsson. “Using that, we stood together and shot the sequence scene by scene using a scale model of the palace and fight arena with one-inch cardboard cutouts of the bears and a lipstick camera.”
“The DP held the camera,” Einarsson continues, “which was about the size of a pen, and acted out the dolly moves with his hand. We recorded that, cut it together, and it became the basis of the 3D layout of the animation cameras. Within a couple hours, through this very interactive process, everyone who had a say in the sequence agreed on the camera. It saved us weeks of back and forth.”
For the guard bears, animators used the studio’s “choreographer” program to apply animation cycles that created the illusion of 120 spectators watching the fight. “It’s not procedural,” says Einarsson. “It’s an animation layout tool that manages large numbers of characters. You place the bears; it manages the different animation cycles.”
To help with composition and color tone, the studio created internal artwork. “We tried to mock up each view,” says Ivan Moran, compositing supervisor. “And throughout, we’d work out concepts for the snow. The beauty of doing it this way is that an artist can quickly mock up something and show it to the client.” It also helped the technical directors, painters, and lighters maintain consistency, as did “over the top previs.” “We really set the mood at the previs stage with the lighting,” says Hugueniot, “Although some shots varied later, a large proportion remained faithful to the previs.”
The fight takes place, as does much of the last third of the film, in a virtual location. “Often with CG films, you design a style that plays through the film and can help with creative decision,” says Ben Morris, visual effects supervisor at Framestore CFC. “This film was driven by the production designer and Mike Fink scouting locations in Svalbard, a real archipelago between Norway and the North Pole.”
Under Fink’s direction, Eric Pascarelli’s crew shot HD footage and thousands of high-resolution stills from a helicopter. Framestore CFC used the footage and stills to create virtual environments for shots with the bears. “A white environment is amazing,” says Morris. “It can change color in a matter of minutes. So we walked a fine line balancing white bears in white environments.”
The artists began by creating sky domes with digital matte paintings for infinite distance, used 2.5D for midground environments, and 3D for environments in which the bears walked in deep snow. “They kicked show with every footstep,” says Morris. “And all the terrain around them was shaded properly in 3D; it wasn’t projected textures.”
For the bears, the TDs rendered raw beauty passes with extra passes on top; for the environments, separate passes. “There are a couple methods for doing 3D and crossing into the 2D realm,” says Ivan Moran, compositing supervisor. “One is to render a beauty pass fairly complete and then the compositors get a few mattes, fix things, and put the element in the plate. The other extreme is to provide 30 or 40 lighting passes and then the compositor basically emulates a Renderman shader and puts it all together.”
For “The Golden Compass” the crew found a middle ground for the characters. “For Iorek and the bears, the compositors got the characters lit correctly but fairly raw,” Moran says. “Iorek’s armor in particular took a lot of comp work. It needed to look otherworldly, so we added specular hits.”
Much of the compositors’ work on the bears centered on their eyes. The eyes are all about getting the right reflection and right reflection level,” says Moran. “Sometimes we had reflection passes with contrasty pings; other times we used flat, broad reflections. We have different reflection passes for full-blown sun and more subtle ones with midtone detail when the eyes are shadowed.”
The two hardest shots for Moran were the “huggie” shots and the all CG shots of the bears in the white virtual environment.
For the “huggie” shots, Dakota Blue Richards who plays Lyra hugged a puppet, a polar bear head covered in green, on a greenscreen set. “She runs into the shot and hugs the puppet, but it’s not quite the right size,” says Moran. “And more importantly, the puppet isn’t wearing fur that remotely resembles our fur, so we had to use quite a few tricks to make it look like her hands nestle the fur.”
The effects crew tracked in a 3D proxy for Lyra to rough up Iorek’s fur, which helped, but it wasn’t enough. “It’s inordinately difficult to get a body track to touch fur all the time and also line up with the hand in the greenscreen,” says Moran. “So if she’s touching something fairly flat in screen space, we took a matte from the greenscreen key and fed it into 2D warp filters to warp the fur slightly and give the impression it’s being brushed.”
That worked when Lyra (Dakota) moved her hand quickly. When she moved slowly, the character TDs matched her fingers with a CG model and moved the hair with dynamics. Then, the compositors went to work.
“The hardest thing was shadowing,” says Moran. “Because she’s hugging the puppet, we had some shadows from the puppet on her, so it was a question of getting the color and density right. And, adding extra detail where the fur should be coming over her glove. It’s finger-by-finger work, and the shot is 500 frames long. If she wiped her hand from left to right for 20 frames, we’d pick a middle frame, set up the warps, set the shadow levels and render it out. When we were happy with that, we’d move to the next 20-frame section.”
When they finished with those adjustments, the compositors then removed the green spill from Lyra’s coat and added fake bounce light on her face. “If we get this kind of shot right, we make it feel like the character is interacting with the creature, but if the shadowing is not quite right, it’s not believable,” says Moran. “And this was a long slow shot where the audience had a lot of time to focus on mistakes.”
For the environments, the TDs prepared a beauty pass as a guide and then output lighting components as separate passes. “That way, they can reconstruct the environment in a controlled way in Shake,” says Morris. “It helps us avoid doing expensive long renders when a specular highlight needs to shift.”
Although Framestore CFC often created the virtual environments for the bears, in some shots, they added their bears to environments created by Cinesite, and some of those shots included daemons by both Rhythm & Hues and Cinesite. All told, six studios worked on the film.
Rhythm & Hues created the mechanical spyfly and all the daemons that talked including Lyra’s shape shifting Pantalaimon, which could be a cat, ferret, fox, mouse or a moth, as well as Mrs. Coulter’s evil, but not talkative golden monkey, Lord Asriel’s snow leopard and Lee Scoresby’s hare.
Cinesite provided the vehicles, a supporting cast of non-talking daemons, and mastered most of the environmental work. Tippett Studio built wolves for the Bolvanger battle. Rainmaker created an animated spirit projector and matte paintings for the Gyptian encampment sequence.
Digital Domain put visions inside the Alethiometer, created an icy environment for a scary bridge-crossing sequence, and pre-comp’d 65 shots for the Bolvanger battle. That battle, which had bears, daemons, witches, and wolves created by different studios all in the same shots, was one of the most complex sequences in the film.