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September 2014
Issue: February 1, 2007

VISUAL EFFECTS: AFFORDABLE FANTASY

By: Ken McGorry
LOS ANGELES - Director Gabor Csupo and screenwriter/producer David Paterson are not your typical LA filmmakers. One, along with Arlene Klasky, is the co-founder of Klasky Csupo, here, the production house that specializes in traditional animation — and broke box office records with its Rugrats movies in addition to numerous TV series. Paterson is an indie filmmaker at heart (Love, Ludlow '05) and a family man living in a New York suburb.

Neither man had worked on a major live-action motion picture before Bridge to Terabithia and neither would expect to be plunked down in New Zealand with a film crew, a handful of American actors, two American school buses and, situated on the south island, all the digital talent that Weta FX could provide this new film.

Paterson co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Stockwell. His mother, Katherine Paterson, wrote the classic children's book of the same name in 1975. But it took her son 15 years to bring this production before the cameras, and one major factor Paterson points to is production company Walden Media. (Disney is distributing Terabithia.) Paterson credits Walden (Narnia, Charlotte's Web and more) as one of the few companies dedicated to adapting classic children's novels into high quality feature films that remain true to the original stories. Walden also succeeds by marketing its films to a novel's potent core audience: young readers and reading teachers.

But to succeed, you would need Weta, fresh off its major work on King Kong, to take on this smaller film (at roughly one-tenth the Kong budget). And Weta did: the shop's VFX supervisor, Matt Aitken, was charged with ("only") 130 FX shots. And you would need that great, revered story, thanks to Ms. Paterson, to hold viewer interest. The film's conservative number of VFX shots leaves lots of room for storytelling and, say Paterson and Csupo, preview audiences agreed that the new film offers just the right balance of visual wizardry.

A ROPE & IMAGINATION

The film's premise follows the book fairly closely: a fifth-grade boy and girl, both somewhat outsiders, become fast friends. They discover a hidden forest possessing magical properties — especially when one's imagination is applied. Claiming the realm their own the youngsters name it "Terabithia." The forest, accessible only by a rope swing, becomes their haven as well as the setting for imaginary battles in which the friends use fantastical means to vanquish fantastical enemies. Hence the visual effects.

"In the novel there are references to battling giants and ogres and such, but they were never really assigned names or personalities," Paterson says. "What I'm very proud of is, although we did create a Terabithia which did not exist in the book, we still followed the truth and points of the novel."
For the film, threatening Terabithian creatures are imaginative recreations of bullies at school. Stockwell came up with the flying insect army and the fierce squirrel/ogres. Paterson developed the giant character who bears a resemblance to a female school bully.

LIVE ACTION & CG

Csupo got involved with the film, not to become a big live-action/VFX director but "because of the beautiful story. Live action? Animation? What does it all come down to?" asks Csupo rhetorically. "Do you have good characters and are you able to tell a good story to the audience."

Compositing layers is "not entirely new" to Csupo, "but the CGI with live action was a nice change for me as far as the budget and quality control. Weta was fantastic to work with: very dedicated, very talented, they have all the tools, and it was a blast." Csupo filmed Terabithia in 35mm with DP Michael Chapman from January to April of last year.

"Simultaneously, Matt Aitken was already on the set," Csupo says. "We were planning all the visual effects and camera moves. We storyboarded all the Terabithian sequences ahead of time. We shot a bunch of empty plates for placement of the creatures and POV shots of the kids on the set."

Aitken used a "silver ball" — a reflective chrome ball — on location to capture environmental lighting, Csupo says, "so they could render the elements accordingly to the light conditions so it would totally match the background plates we shot with a live camera." Another ball — a gray one — helps give exact lighting positions and shadow areas. "He'd hold that up at the end of every take and use it as a reference for lighting when creating the creatures." Back at Weta FX, Aitken's people rendered these balls in a CGI environment to match on-location shadows and light-source conditions exactly.

Klasky Csupo (www.klaskycsupo.com) designed all the Terabithian creatures, Csupo says. Creature design, artfully illustrated by KC's own Dima Malanitchev, actually served as a selling point to help studio heads visualize the project. Weta took the chosen illustrations (there were more designed than actually made it into the film) and modeled them in CGI.

"Once they are modeled in the computer you can do all kinds of tricks with them," Csupo says, "to change their costumes, change their color. When you multiply them in a crowd scene in the end of the movie it feels like hundreds and hundreds of characters are coming out."

Prior to his assignment as VFX supervisor on Terabithia, Weta Digital veteran Matt Aitken was digital models supervisor on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and pre-pro/R&D supervisor on King Kong.

Weta concept artist Michael Pangrazio took Malanitchev's 2D creature designs into Photoshop and rendered them with a more photoreal look for subsequent 3D modeling and texturing. "We wanted to maintain the wonderful, expressive nature of the designs that we got from Gabor and Dima," Aitken says, "and Michael really found that midpoint."

"Maya is the basis for our 3D pipeline," Aitken notes. "We're using Mudbox now as well. It's a new piece of software great for adding fine little details. Typically we'll model the creature in Maya and detail it in Mudbox."

NOT AN ENT

"She's much less tree and more human than the Ents ever where," Aitken says of Terabithia's forest giant. Although she first appears tree-like, when we later see her more clearly "she's much more human. We built her more as a hero creature as we built Gollum or Kong and used some tools that we developed for King Kong to add the foliage to her. In terms of the way we detailed [Kong's] skin; the way he's driven with an internal muscle model; we developed 'clothing' for the giant in the same way we'd clothe a digital double."

FANTASY ON A BUDGET

Contrasting Terabithia with his indie work, Paterson says the difference "is very simple. There's more money and more headaches. The more money there is, the more people you have to collaborate with." As both producer and a creative on the $20 million project, "you have to make business decisions while also being an artist."

Paterson points out that today a film can easily run up to $70 million without any visual effects and he sees Hollywood applying the brakes to such spending "because it makes it so difficult to turn a profit. The brilliance of Walden," he says, "is they say, 'Hey, we're going to make good art for not a disgusting amount of money.'"

Another savings, says Paterson wearing his producer's hat, was that in New Zealand $20 million was worth roughly twice as much. The production used only five American actors (who required tutors) and all the other smaller parts and extra roles were filled by local NZ kids who were on summer vacation during North America's winter.

"The film was very modestly budgeted but very cleverly approached," says Aitken. "We had to do quite a lot of digital asset-building to create the characters and creatures and the environments that we needed." There were about 12 distinct digital hero creatures.

To make crowds — the Terabithian citizens and an airborne insect army — Weta migrated individual assets across to its proprietary version of Massive crowd-multiplication software. (Massive was originally developed in-house by Stephen Regelous for LOTR, then spun off as a commercial software company: Massive Software. "It draws on libraries of motion clips," Aitken says, to impart a sense of individual motion to individual characters. "We usually generate those motion clips from motion capture. We can easily add keyframe animation to create motion clips."

Aitken points to one unusual scene at the film's end. Our boy hero is introducing his little sister to Terabithia and the world of imagination and she imagines her favorite purple flowers springing up in every direction — living carpets of purple flowers all through the forest. "We used Massive to grow the flowers. It's like a crowd of flowers, really, and we get a great degree of control over how fast these flowers should grow, how we can break the broad expanse of flowers into discrete clumps. We were able to [simulate] a timelapse effect and then use Massive to build this big sweeping shot."

This was Aitken's first show as a VFX supervisor and he oversaw the whole effects package "from soup to nuts. It was a very satisfying experience. We had to be really smart because we were working with a much more constrained budget than Rings and Kong. But the last thing we wanted to do was compromise the quality of the work. We approached it very much the same as those big shows." He adds that, with Weta's extensive experience in creatures and environments "there wasn't a lot of working out how to do this stuff. It all flowed very smoothly. The teams all had very highly developed suites of tools for getting these creatures together and getting them ready for shots. And we had a great animation team just coming off Kong and working at the top of their game."

"My experience with [Weta FX] was absolutely fantastic," Csupo says. "They were really eager to give us everything. The movie looks twice or three times as big as the budget. The Weta people put their heart and soul into it. I think Walden and Disney got the bargain of the century."

The point of visualizing the fantasy creatures in Terabithia was not to bring them to life for the audience, Paterson says. "If you were to come upon these kids in the woods, you'd just see a couple of kids rolling around on the ground and not see a single one of these creatures." Instead he credits Gabor Csupo with finding the best means to show the audience what the young protagonists were seeing in their minds. Paterson is proud that preview audiences, when asked what the film was about, often answered "friendship and imagination," rather than VFX.