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April 2014
Issue: May 1, 2008

GRAPHICS & ANIMATION: 'PRINCE CASPIAN'

By: Ann Fisher
LONDON — In Prince Caspian, the second film installment of C.S. Lewis’ acclaimed Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, the Pevensie children return to Narnia after a year’s absence only to discover that Narnia has aged 1,300 years.
Jarring time warps are something the film’s visual effects supervisors know well. Just ask co-visual effects supervisor Dean Wright who, after initially reading just three lines of script, spent two years working on what became the enormously complex “castle raid” sequence.

Walt Disney and Walden Media’s Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, to be released in mid-May, literally began in epic fashion. The first highly successfully Narnia adaptation, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), had blossomed from 800 VFX shots to 1,600, marrying rich environments with fantastic realistic creatures and a live-action cast.

As the plot became grander, so too did the visual images. In that vein, Prince Caspian started big and grew even bigger. Aslan, the regal lion at the film’s center, is 15 percent larger and that fact alone challenged the visual effects artists to perfect its fur. There were other challenges, too: an entirely new world of Telmarines, the pirate-inspired race that now rules Narnia under the evil King Miraz; the central castle that had to be created from scratch; the new CG River God creature; much more complex interactions between creatures and children; and bigger battle scenes. The children have returned to help Prince Caspian save Narnia from his uncle, King Miraz.

This film was slated to have 1,600 visual effects shots, but in the end there were about 1,800; nearly every scene has one. Each is, of course, more complex than in the previous film since the creatures and character interactions have evolved into more realistic representations.

DIVVYING IT UP

Wright, who had worked with director Andrew Adamson on the first Chronicles and with Peter Jackson on the final two Lord of the Rings, was co-visual effects supervisor with Wendy Rogers, who had worked with Adamson on Shrek. They divided responsibilities by areas of expertise: he oversaw sequences with live-action integration and miniatures and she with CG and animation. Four visual effects companies were tapped to handle the shots: London’s Moving Picture Company (www.moving-picture.com) and Framestore CFC (www.framestore-cfc.com), New Zealand’s Weta Digital (www.wetadigital. com) and Los Angeles’ KNB EFX Group (www.knbefxgroup.com). Sim Evan-Jones was the editor and Karl Walter Lindenlaub, ASC, the director of photography.

Wright created a guide to help plan how much visual effects work there was going to be, the scope and complexity of those shots, figure out the budget and schedule, and what companies to land it on.

The London companies got the nod this time for obvious and not so obvious reasons. First were their resumes: MPC impressed with their early work on battle epics 10,000 BC (2008) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005), while Framestore boasted creatures like the hippograph in the Harry Potter movies.

Next, Warner Bros. had “basically trained them to work together on the Harry Potter films,” says Wright, to ensure continuity between the two houses, which are linked by proximity and technology. They used a super-fast network called Sohonet, which the Prince Caspian pipeline tapped into. Plus, most of the movie was going to be filmed in Europe and there were a lot of British crew on the production and in post. But maybe  most critically, the British government had just created a tax scheme that enabled productions that spent a certain amount of money in the United Kingdom to qualify as a UK film even if it didn’t shoot any film there. “It’s a little disconcerting as a person who normally works in the US. Why don’t we do stuff like that?” asks Wright.

Down at Weta Digital, Peter Jackson allowed the Prince Caspian filmmakers to use the Miniatures Shooting Unit, led by Alex Funke, ASC, for an entire year. There were 149 days on the shooting schedule for miniatures alone. Wright, knowing the director’s demands on miniatures well, put his faith in Funke and his team’s ability to change course in midstream. In LA, Howard Berger’s KNB EFX team continued their prosthetic work from the first film, building on-set references as well as full-scale animatronic suits for beasts like centaurs, satyrs and minotaurs.

The castle raid sequence was one of Wright’s biggest challenges because of the integration of live action and CG, as well as having to plot out the strategy of the battle scene. It includes leg replacement; characters and miniatures to make the scene seem larger; a six-story set (about a third of the size seen on screen); walls enhanced with matte paintings and 1/24 miniatures; and integrating live-action characters with creatures involving advanced motion control.

MPC did 130 shots of action and character effects, including all the hero animation work on CG gryphons, centaurs and fauns. They used an Autodesk Maya 8.5 pipeline for animation, Pixar RenderMan and Apple Shake 4, plus the proprietary “Furtility,” its fur grooming software, and “Alice,” its crowd software. Hardware was a mix of IBM Z-Pro dual core, dual processors with 6GB RAM and HP xw8400 dual quad-core workstations with 8GB RAM.

Weta handled 200 shots of the environment, plus key character work — the first CG creature, a bear, that attacks Lucy, the CG werewolf and the CG White Witch encased in ice — plus some minimal crowd replication work. For creatures, artists used Maya with many internal add-ons for fur, skinning, muscles and dynamics, and baking. They were rendered in Pixar’s PhotoRealistic RenderMan (PRMan) 13.5.3.

The VFX supervisors pushed Ian Menzies to create a responsive motion-control system that was driven by animation from MPC. After previz, those shots went to MPC to be animated with a CG castle, plotted out with the children’s path flying through the scene. The wing beats of the gryphons had to move just right, the turns had to look natural, even as they were being buffeted by the wind. The digital shot files were sent to New Zealand where Funke’s miniature team took those files, put it in motion control rigs, shot it on the miniature, did a pass and sent it back to Wright and Menzies, now on set in Prague, where animators would marry their files with the New Zealand plates.

Director Adamson would look at it, tweak it, approve it and then pass it to Menzies’ crew who fed it into computer control “gryphon” rigs connected to the motion control cameras to shoot the bluescreen photography of the actors. The loop had to go constantly for every element, and some shots had two to three elements.

“Most of the time the kids didn’t move in a Z-depth way; they just got manipulated around,” says Wright. “Swung and moved and up and down, all the motion was created with the camera and some big wind machines to make them look like they were moving. But that made some very intricate and complex camera moves that pushed the limits of the rig.”

Rogers supervised over 1,000 shots on the film, focusing mainly on the 3D character sequences; the main ones were the Fight to Death and the Battle sequence, the River God sequence, Lucy Meets Aslan, Caspian Captive, Reepicheep Rescue, Reepicheep Lives, plus many scenes with Narnians as extras. The Lucy Meets Aslan scene involved Framestore and KNB EFX. In the first film, Lucy hugs the lion Aslan but in Prince Caspian she actually tackles him and they roll on the ground.

“Many dynamics were critical to making this moment feel physical and believable. Framestore artists were meticulous in their animation and lighting. The results are stunning,” says Rogers. “KNB had a terrific stuffie of the Aslan head and mane which we used on set while shooting. This meant the actor had a physical presence on set to interact with. We obviously had great reference for the character from the first film and we then spent many months finessing groom, especially of his mane.”

Framestore used Maya and RenderMan with their own proprietary fur and fur dynamics system. The fur dynamics for Aslan’s mane was specifically developed for this project, while the fur itself was also updated to deal with specific issues of the mane, according to Jon Thum at Framestore. Framestore artists used Comet, a Maya plug-in, for Aslan’s muscle system. Hardware was Linux-based dual-processor workstations.

KNB’s Howard Berger made a full-size Aslan suit for this production, mainly for the animators to steal the fur Lucy was nuzzling with and then correctly represent it in CG.

“Howard was in [the suit] once. It was hilarious, he got knocked over,” says Wright. “I did don the blue suit once in the film. I played a tree, when the trees come out and they help the kids. It’s my way to inspire the crew. There’s nothing like seeing the supervisor on set in a complete blue leotard.”