| o create the sophisticated and demanding CGI effects for |
Prince Caspian, the recently released second film in the
Chronicles of Narnia series from Walt Disney Pictures and Walden Media, required not just one but two top visual effects supervisors—Dean Wright and Wendy Rogers. The duo, worked relentlessly for nearly two years to oversee the intricately synchronized efforts of over 1,000 digital artists working all over the world.
In Caspian, the Pevensie children are whisked from a London subway station in World War II back to Narnia. To their amazement 1,300 years have passed. In the film, more epic and darker than its predecessor, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the kids join the Prince and a legion of Narnians and forest creatures to take back the kingdom from King Miraz and his hordes of Telmarines in a climactic battle. Wright and Rogers recently talked with CGSociety.org about the enormity of the challenge in creating the CG world of Caspian, with digital effects far more complex than what was required for the first Narnia.
“This is one of the biggest visual-effects films ever made,” declared Wright, who was also the VFX supervisor on Wardrobe, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2006 for best achievement in visual effects along with his team. Caspian required 1,800 VFX shots, compared with some 1,600 for its predecessor. “But the order of complexity increased fourfold,” said Wright. “The amount of work itself was much greater, and we had less time to do it.”
To meet director Andrew Adamson’s exacting requirements and deadlines, Wright added Rogers as a co-supervisor for VFX. Her collaboration with Adamson, who helmed and scripted both of the Narnia films, goes back 15 years. She last worked with Adamson on Shrek, which he also directed. With an extensive background in computer animation, Rogers spent most of the last decade working at Dreamworks Animation in Los Angeles. Most recently she was visual effects supervisor on Flushed Away.
|Adamson, who himself comes from a CG background (he was the VFX supervisor on Batman Forever, 1995; and Batman & Robin, 1997) “wanted us to really break the barrier between the real and CG worlds in Caspian,” says Wright. “We were tasked with making everything more realistic, while we were dealing with more characters and more variety too within each species, and the interactivity between the CG characters and the real actors was going to be increased. |
”One of the more significant CG breakthroughs in recent years is the increased ability of digital artists to create a realistic interplay between live-action and CG characters in the same frame - an advance that is pushed forward significantly in Caspian. Not so long ago, cross edits between live-action and CG characters were used to produce the illusion that they appeared together.
Then, with improvements in the ability to light CG figures, they could pop up in the same frame with the actors. Now, as the VFX team on Caspian has brilliantly demonstrated, it’s possible to seamlessly combine the interplay of CG creatures and live actors in extended sequences.
Following some tentative but path breaking interactions in Wardrobe - Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies, brushes the nose of Aslan, the CG lion deity - Caspian really pushes the envelope. Lucy’s sister Susan jumps on the back of the half-horse, half-human centaur Glenstorm and rides off.
The four Pevensie kids and Prince Caspian swoop down on the Telmarine castle carried by huge black Gryphons (mythological birds) in a night raid. And when Lucy finally finds Aslan, who has been gone for over 1,000 years, she not only hugs the majestic CG lion, she also tackles him to the ground and they roll around and nuzzle each other. The touching scene lasts all of 30 seconds.
|To pull off these complex sequences required Herculean efforts from a group of VFX houses all over the world. Three are European, with two based in London. The lead shop was Moving Picture Company (MPC), which has done digital work on Poseidon, Batman Returns, and da Vinci Code and was cited by the Visual Effects Society for medieval epic Kingdom of Heaven, directed by Ridley Scott. Assisting was Framestore, Europe’s biggest digital effects house. Framestore worked on all five Harry Potter films (as did MPC) and won the 2008 Academy Award for best visual effects for The Golden Compass. Meanwhile, Scanline, headquartered in Munich and Los Angeles, was called upon for its expertise in water effects.|
Doing the heavy lifting for Wright was Weta Digital, headquartered in Wellington, New Zealand, famous for doing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Wright had worked on The Two Towers and The Return of the King, the last two LOTR films. Financing considerations, not dissatisfaction with their work, dictated the decision to switch from Sony Pictures Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues and ILM which along with Weta were the VFX vendors for Wardrobe. After all, Wright and his team were nominated for a best visual effects Oscar for the first Narnia film (Wardrobe received two more Academy Awards nods, with Howard Berger and Tami Lane winning for best makeup).
Not only did the London visual effects firms bid aggressively for the work, much of the crew was English. Based on such expenditures in Britain, Caspian qualified for lucrative tax subsidies, even though none of the shooting occurred in England. The film was lensed in NZ, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia, with sets constructed in Prague at the Barrandov Studios. Division of labor between Wright and Rogers was split on functional and geographic lines. Wright worked out of NZ at Weta, focusing on construction of miniatures and some creature creation—the bear, the werewolf and Jadis the Witch, who reappears briefly encased in ice. Rogers, who was ultimately responsible for 1,000 shots, oversaw the character creation work at MPC and Framestore in London, including Aslan; a new mouse character, Reepicheep; and the torrential River God. In addition the centaurs, fauns and other highly individualized forest creatures.
|“I was very proud of Aslan,” says Rogers, who was born in Melbourne, Australia. “He’s very tactile in the scenes--we made some advances in the fur shading and lighting—and a step up from the previous film.” Indeed Aslan is 15 percent larger, and he will keep growing throughout the series based on the C.S. Lewis books. The CG high point comes towards the end of the film when Lucy finally runs into Aslan and they physically engage. “We knew from the beginning it was going to be very difficult because we wanted the interaction to be totally convincing,” she notes. “On set we had what we called a ‘stuffie,’ which was a lion’s head with a mane that we used regularly as a lighting reference whenever we had an Aslan shot,” says Rogers. During the run-in-and- rollover shot, an actor was wearing the head and the mane and the rest of the costume that makeup man Berger created. “She was hugging something big and pushing it over and rolling around.” Next, it was necessary to clean out the lion’s suit and head, and clean plates were shot. “We had to put in a CG lion, animate and render it, and they would eventually roto a digital double,” she recalls. “It was very painstaking work, but Framestore did a meticulous job. You really feel she’s touching him, a thing that really makes you feel that Aslan is physical.”|
|MPC worked a year on Reepicheep, a two-foot rapier-wielding mouse, who makes his debut in Caspian, and will play a more prominent role in the next Narnia film. As voiced by English comedian Eddy Izzard, he all but steals the show. “He wasn’t cast until quite late and we had done all the character and CG creature development, but left out Reepicheep’s facial characteristics,” says the VFX supervisor. “When Eddy recorded it he brought a whole new dimension to the character and we made a number of changes.” A lipstick camera was used to capture his facial expressions for precise modeling.Water effects are notoriously difficult and one of the most eye-popping characters in Caspian is the animated River God. As designed by Jon Thun and his crew at Framestore, he emerges as a giant vortex standing 120 feet tall, sucking water from the river. To visualize him, Scanline, based in Munich and Los Angeles, was called in. Known for its water simulations, Scanline pushed its Flowline software toolset to the limits.|
“You have to have a very light touch,” notes Rogers. “You want to retain the natural phenomenon feel but you also want to control it and give a real character. We wanted it to be organic with a life of its own, and in the end it was very close to the original artist’s conception.”For his part, Wright enthuses most about the spectacular “night raid” on the Telmarine castle, which was his most important task. Gryphons carry the Penvesie kids on their backs or in their beaks as they descend with Caspian and Narnain Trumpkin to mount a surprise attack on the castle stronghold from above. “We wanted to make this the most spectacular flying sequence that you’d ever scene,” he says. The set piece took almost two years from conception to completion, whereas the live film shoot lasted a mere seven months.
|Key collaborators with Wright on the castle raid and the rest of the film were MPC’s Greg Butler and Guy Williams from Weta Digital. Both had worked with him previously on LOTR. “I moved very early to lock them in for my team—before there was even a script,” he recalls. “It was like casting the movie—I went with the best.” |
Exacting coordination, not just between the VFX units in London and Weta in Wellington, but also with the live shoot in Prague was essential. At the studio in Prague, a six-story version of the castle front and its massive courtyard was constructed. (With CG extensions, the castle appeared 200 feet tall, three times as large, on-screen.) For starters, motion control whiz Ian Menzies was brought in to create a rig system similar to the one used in the Harry Potter films where the kids appear to be flying on broomsticks. Using animation from MPC, “Menzies built a motion control rig that would replicate the full range of actions by the gryphons—the wing beats, the head movements, the back movements, the legs—anything an animator would want to do with these mythical birds to make them look more realistic,” notes Wright.
After a detailed previz, it was back to MPC. “Nearly final animation was created to drive the shots we were going to use for the film,” he notes. The trajectory of the Gryphons’ flight path was plotted against an animated overview of the castle. “You could see things that didn’t work as well, so we’d refine the move,” he says. The perfected result was sent to Weta where two detailed miniatures of the Telmarine fortress had been constructed. Cinematographer Alex Funke, ASC , head of Peter Jackson’s Miniature Shooting Unit, was recruited for five months of camerawork.
The first miniature, scaled at 24:1, depicted the entire castle and the rock base it sat on. “To call it a miniature was a misnomer,” says Wright. “It was big enough to walk into.” The second was a 100:1 scale miniature which encompassed a thousand buildings and took in the entire castle/palace and Telmarine village. Only a small portion was part of the set in Prague. “We would run the move using the miniatures to make sure they worked well with the actual castle that had been built on the set in Prague instead of just using a digital stand-in,” he explains.
|Once completed, the plates moved to the Prague soundstage, where MPC director of animation Adam Valdez and his team were deployed to work on changes. Once Adamson, Wright and Valdez signed off on a final version, the ball was tossed to Andrew Bull, an expert in camera motion. His job was to program the camera to move around the kids on wires against blue screen. “The actors on screen would seem like they were realistically twisting and turning and bouncing on the flying birds, but the controlled camera was doing most of the moving,” notes Wright. Menzies’ motion-control rig was then coordinated with the computerized camera. After some dry runs and tests onstage, the scene was finally filmed. Sometimes there were two or three elements for each individual shot. “The process was very time-consuming and complex, but at the end of the day the kids look like they are really flying, not just hanging on wires and being thrown around the set, so for all the effort it was really worth it,” says Wright. |
Visual effects work on Caspian in post wasn’t completed until the end of April, only weeks before the film’s mid-May global release. In the last week alone, 300 shots were completed. “It gets tighter and tighter on every movie,” says the VFX supervisor. “In the past we had to finish earlier. Now with the digital intermediate phase, we can push things until we have to stop. If we think we can improve it, we’ll keep at it, but it takes nerves of steel.” Whether Caspian has set a new benchmark in visual effects, “I’ll leave it to others to judge,” he says. “But I think we topped ourselves, and I think it’s the best work I’ve been involved in, in all my years.” He’s sitting out the next film in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, already in pre-production. “My good buddy and effects genius Jim Rygiel is taking over,” he says. “He can live in Narnia for a while.”