Director-screenwriter Chris Weitz almost didn’t make New Line’s The Golden Compass. After finishing the script in 2004, he removed himself as director, citing technical challenges that were more than he could undertake. In May 2006, after his replacement resigned, he changed his mind. But not because there were fewer technical challenges. When production wrapped in November 2007, Weitz’s adaptation of the first novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy contained approximately 1100 visual effects shots, and that number barely hints at the volume of work.
“[The shot count] grew to more than 1400,” says visual effects supervisor Mike Fink, “and then it went back down again.” It went down because in October, about two months before the release date, Weitz moved the original ending, the final three chapters of the book, to the beginning of what will be the second film.
“Even the 1100 shot total is deceiving because a great number of the shots, probably a third, were shared between facilities,” Fink says. “And for a few shots, three, four, even five facilities were involved. In one sequence, we had wolves from four facilities: Tippett, Rhythm & Hues, Cinesite, and Framestore CFC.”
Fink’s initial plan had called for Rhythm & Hues, Framestore CFC, and Cinesite to create the shots, and these three studios did produce the majority of the effects. But as the shot count grew and shots changed, he brought in Digital Domain, Tippett Studio, and Rainmaker to help. “My challenge was to make everybody’s work look like everybody else’s work,” Fink says.
Lyra’s animal spirit Pantalaimon, one of several CG daemons in the fi lm with speaking roles, refl ects her impish nature.
Most of the visual effects centered on photorealistic animals, some of which had speaking roles, and on digital environments and fantastical vehicles. The conceit in The Golden Compass, which takes place in a parallel universe, is that everyone has a personal daemon, a manifestation of his or her soul in the form of an animal. The aristocratic Lord Asriel’s (Daniel Craig) daemon, for example, is Stelmaria, a snow leopard. Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), the leader of the oppressive General Oblation Board (the “Gobblers”), has a clever and curious golden monkey daemon that sometimes reveals the duplicitous human’s true thoughts.
The daemon for the film’s young primary character, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), however, is still taking shape. Like those for all children, Pantalaimon (Pan), Lyra’s daemon, reflects her evolving nature. Sometimes he’s a moth, sometimes a ferret, sometimes a cat, sometimes another animal, but he always talks with Freddie Highmore’s voice.
When the General Oblation Board kidnaps Lyra’s friend Roger Parslow and takes him to the prison at Bolvanger to remove his daemon, Lyra’s epic quest to free Roger and other children held by the Gobblers begins. She enlists the help of a sky captain, Lee Scoresby (whose daemon is Hester, a hare voiced by Kathy Bates), and Scoresby’s friend Iorek Byrnison, a warrior bear voiced by Ian McKellen.
The CG daemon Stelmaria stands by her man, the aristocratic Lord Asriel. Rhythm & Hues created this snow leopard and all the daemons with speaking roles.
All these animals and nearly all the additional animals in the film are digital. However, in a short sequence at Bolvanger and in Mrs. Coulter’s house, some severed daemons are real dogs, and another sequence features a real snake and real owl. “We had more than 60 unique daemon models,” Fink says. He lists, among others, warthogs, jackals, cats, several types of birds and snakes, ferrets, rabbits, wolves, and foxes.
Rhythm & Hues produced the primary daemons, including all those that talk, and the evil mechanical spy flies. Framestore CFC created all the bears, including the stars, Iorek and his enemy Ragnar Sturlusson (Ian McShane), as well as a few hundred armored guard bears, and placed the white bears into snowy digital environments. And, Cinesite created a supporting cast of daemons, most of the environments, and vehicles.
Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey doesn’t talk, so animators used only his body language and facial expressions to explore his evil nature.
Rhythm & Hues: Daemons
Although Rhythm & Hues has created numerous animals for films, including the acclaimed Chronicles of Narnia (see “Animal Magnetism,” December 2005), the daemons in The Golden Compass pushed the studio to new levels.
“We have an extraordinary level of human and animated character interaction,” Fink says. “Lyra’s daemon sits on her, crawls on her, goes into her pockets and under the covers of her bed. She holds it and they cuddle. And in one 40-second shot, Mrs. Coulter picks up the golden monkey, holds it to her shoulder, and promises to find Lyra, so we have the interaction of monkey hair and real hair.”
To help with that interaction, Rhythm & Hues employed a variety of gadgets on set. “The challenging thing is that the daemons are always by their humans and often touching,” says Bill Westenhofer, who received an Oscar nomination for leading Rhythm & Hues’ work on Narnia. Sometimes they gave Dakota a green beanbag to hold. And, for a shot during which Pan (in the form of a cat) runs up into Lyra’s arms, Westenhofer put the beanbag on a fishing pole and swung it across the room. For interaction with the environment, the studio created CG duvets and clothes on which to imprint animal paws and claws.
Because the daemons are an external representation of the person, their actions often needed to reflect the actor’s performance.
“Sam Elliott, who plays Lee Scoresby, has a habit of cocking his head to one side,” Westenhofer says. “So we had his rabbit do that, as if they are parts of the same being. In the past, we might have spent most of our effort getting the animals’ hair and muscles right, but we’ve done this enough now that we could spend 30 percent of our time on the technical challenges and 70 percent on the performances.”
A staff of 400 people in Rhythm & Hues’ Los Angeles and Mumbai, India, studios worked on the daemons, creating animals that closely matched real ones. As the group had done for Narnia, it kept animation controls consistent from one animal to the next.
Of all the animals, Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey was the most technically challenging. “Usually, we can let the hair dynamics do their thing,” says Westenhofer, “but the monkey had a lot of hair that needed to be fairly stiff, so when he jumped up and down, it couldn’t move very much, and it had to compress correctly.” To control the hair, the simulation team put, in effect, a digital hairnet over monkey’s fur, ran a simulation on the hairnet, and those dynamics told the hair how to behave. “It was still expensive to calculate the collisions for every hair,” Westenhofer notes.
The golden monkey’s design was critical because it doesn’t exist in nature, yet it had to look real. But equally difficult, the character had to be evil without speaking. “I think [the golden monkey] is the best character Rhythm & Hues has done,” Fink says. “He doesn’t have any dialog. He has to act.”
The number of people with daemons provided a second challenge. In theory, because every person has a daemon, every shot in the film could easily have included a CG animal. “To keep to the budget, we carefully considered when you could see the daemons and when they could be off camera, but it was a bit of a challenge on the set,” Westenhofer says.
When the crew on set knew where daemons would be, they left a space, but when they didn’t, Rhythm & Hues had to squeeze them in. For a battle sequence at Bolvanger, effects artists put Massive software into action to animate several hundred daemons in the background.
Rhythm & Hues uses proprietary software for animation, rendering, and compositing. When they rendered the daemons, they added a rainbow-like sheen, a little iridescence. “We wanted to show that they aren’t animals,” Westenhofer says. “They’re physical manifestations of spirits.”
Framestore CFC created all the bears, including Iorek, shown above with Lyra and her daemon Pan, this time in the form of a cat created by Rhythm & Hues.
When a person dies in this parallel universe, his or her daemon dies, too, and turns into a kind of intelligent dust. That dust becomes visible in this film during a scene in which a daemon is about to be separated from his human. “We moved a character that we animated with keyframes into a fluid simulation so the particles have momentum from the animation and flow around the character,” Westenhofer says.
Often, Rhythm & Hues’ daemons needed to fit into shots with elements from other studios. “We tried to do everything with pre-composites,” says Westenhofer. For example: “Cinesite would give us a background and a subset of the daemons, we’d composite our daemons into the shot, Framestore CFC would add the bears and send it back to us for more daemons. We did very little sharing of animation files or models. Using the pre-composites made the interactions more feasible.”
Dakota Blue Richards rode a motion-control rig so that Lyra could ride on Iorek’s back.
All told, the studio created 500 shots that appear in the film, plus many more that would have been in the finale. “This was great work,” Westenhofer says. “We love working on good stories. As with Narnia, I am a big fan of the book.”
Framestore CFC: Bears
Two of the leading actors in this film are the Panzerbjorn warrior bears Iorek and Ragnar. Both have speaking roles. “Iorek is a digital co-star,” says Ben Morris, Framestore CFC visual effects supervisor. “And Ragnar, the bad guy, is a second main character.”
Lyra meets Iorek about half way through the film, when he is a drunken, down-and-out bear who has lost his armor. “We have to experience him on two levels,” says Dadi Einarsson, animation supervisor. “He’s a real bear, but also he has to talk and act, and people have to connect with him on an emotional level.”
To create the bears, modelers started with maquettes, sculpted by Neal Scanlon’s crew under the direction of Fink and Weitz. Once the models were rigged, animators began working on walk and run cycles. “You can say, ‘Yes, that’s a good walk,’” Einarsson says. “But, character development is more subjective.” The character they developed for Iorek was more bear than human. “We underplayed the animation and tried to imagine how a bear would talk.”
Once the animators had created the performance, procedural secondary animation moved the bears’ skin. “We had a crew of creature TDs that made sure the skin jiggle was right,” says Laurent Hugueniot, CG supervisor.
The skin moved according to texture maps that specified the thickness of a fat layer; the thicker the fat, the bigger the jiggle. And, when the skin moved, the fur reacted. Framestore CFC bases its pipeline on Autodesk’s Maya with 2d3’s Boujou for tracking and matchmoving, sends RIB files to Pixar’s RenderMan using Liquid, an open-source Maya plug-in written by Colin Doncaster, simulates cloth with Syflex software, and uses in-house tools for skin and fur dynamics.
Above, all the people in the film have daemons, so hiding background characters’ daemons reduced the load on effects houses.
“No matter how many times you do it, fur is really hard,” Hugueniot says. Moreover, all the bears in the film, including Iorek, eventually wore armor that covered much of their backs and bellies, and the fur had to move out of the way of the armor.
“The first thing we noticed was that we couldn’t move the character without breaking the physical limits of the armor,” Hugueniot says. “It was quite a design challenge. Their bodies are very flexible.” A custom dynamics program managed the fur-to-fur, fur-to-armor, and fur-to-skin collisions. To simulate the interaction between Lyra and the bear, the team collided a 3D proxy for Dakota Blue Richards with the fur.
Rhythm & Hues’ “spy fly” causes feline concern.
In one sequence, Lyra hugs the bear, but the bigger challenge was a sequence during which Lyra rides on Iorek’s back. “We basically animated what we needed to tell the story, then we figured out how to shoot it,” Einarsson says.
For that sequence, Richards rode a motion rig powered by animation data. Morris had originally designed the rig for Dinotopia, used it for the Hippogriff sequence in Harry Potter, and then revamped it for The Golden Compass. “On previous projects, we used fairly rigid body sections, but for this we milled a perfect form of the bear’s body,” Morris says. “To get bear’s shoulder-blade and front-arm movement and the lolloping motion of the bear, we built in a rocker.” The actuators, which Fink requested, provided the up and down motion inherent in a running bear and made sure Lyra’s hands moved correctly as she held onto the bear’s shoulders.
Compositing supervisor Ivan Moran worked on set with video feed from the camera to composite shots of Richards (riding the motion-control rig) onto rough CG renders of the bear and the environment. “We could show the shots to the director and crew so they knew what was working, but more importantly, Dakota [Richards] was excited to see them,” Moran says. The composites gave the young actor environmental cues that were unavailable on the greenscreen stage.
To provide reference and photographic plates for Lyra’s journey north, Fink directed a crew, led by Eric Pascarelli, that shot HD footage from a helicopter flying over the Svalbard archipelago between Norway and the North Pole. “The whole last half of the movie is virtual environments,” Fink says. “And, with the exception of some environments created by Cinesite for Bolvanger and a few shots shared with Digital Domain where the bear is in the background, Framestore CFC put their bears in their own environments.”
“We have moonlit sequences in glacial valleys, warm late-morning sun raking over blue ice,” says Morris. “As they go farther north, it gets more foreboding, but there’s enough light to see what’s going on.” The effects team built the environments first, added the characters to get the right feeling, lit the sequences, and then sent separate render passes for all the elements to the compositing team. “Working on this film was almost like working on a photoreal CG movie, where the only element in the shot is a little girl shot on a greenscreen stage,” he says.
Approximately 40 compositors worked on Framestore CFC’s 260 shots. “The biggest challenge was comp’ing a white bear in a white environment,” Moran says. “For the environments, we didn’t use beauty passes. It’s almost impossible to render one pass in which the ice looks right everywhere. For the hero bears, we had a raw beauty pass, but added a lot of top-end detail.” Compositors layered in eye highlights and reflections, specularity, wetness in the bears’ mouths, and iridescence in the fur. In addition, the compositors tweaked the lighting on the armor. “Every shot becomes a picture of its own,” Moran says. “We get everything right, except the left toenail might be too bright or the blue shadow on the eye is too strong.”
The compositors worked from back to front, layering in the multiple environment passes and then the bears. In one sequence, they surrounded an arena with 120 guard bears and then put Iorek and Ragnar inside. “I remember when we were bidding this show with Ben [Morris], thinking how difficult it would be,” Moran says. “Everyone would be looking at the 11-foot-tall bears wearing armor and talking.”
Morris knew the team was successful when the producer and director began talking about Iorek as if he were an actor. “They weren’t talking about how many millions of hairs he had or what color his teeth were. I knew we’d cracked it. We’d given them another actor in the film,” he says.
Cinesite: Environments, More Daemons, Vehicles
Cinesite added verisimilitude to the film by providing 15 daemons, including panthers, raccoons, praying mantis, rats, and a beetle for the supporting cast of humans, and a raven for the master of Jordan College (which parallels Exeter College in Oxford). Because the studio created many of the digital environments, their work often became the starting point for elements added by others. Cinesite, in effect, provided the virtual background plate. “We’d supply our 3D environments as our backgrounds, then Rhythm & Hues would animate to the layouts we had done,” says Sue Rowe, visual effects supervisor. “The same goes for Framestore CFC with the bears.”
For the most familiar part of the parallel universe, Cinesite built stylized versions of London and Oxford using a mix of 3D, 2.5D projections on geometry, and matte paintings in the background to adapt footage of existing locations. For the Bolvanger battle, however, they built a completely digital environment. This battle takes place inside a cirque, an icy amphitheatre-like semicircle formed at the head of a glacier.
Lee Scoresby’s daemon is Hester, a hare voiced by Kathy Bates and shown here cocking his head like actor Sam Elliott. Because the daemons represent the humans’ spirit, animators at Rhythm & Hues often used actors’ mannerisms in the animals’ performances.
To create the Bolvanger environment, Cinesite started with helicopter footage in HD shot by Fink in Svalbard, and with live-action elements of actors filmed on a greenscreen stage. “We created geometry for the mountains, and then projected the footage that Mike [Fink] brought back onto the surfaces to create an inhospitable, frozen environment,” Rowe says. The artists then placed a 3D Art Deco building made from glass and steel in the center of the cirque. “We thought at first that maybe we could have used a simpler option, but we could have never done the shots with a simple matte-painted approach,” says Thrain Shadbolt, CG supervisor.
Once the 3D artists had finished the snowy environment, compositors layered in the actors and their CG daemons and digital witches. “There are a number of shots during the battle sequence where you see our daemons running between the legs of the children,” Rowe says. “Cinesite has been well recognized for environment work, so we were really keen to get into character work. The daemons gave us that step into character animation.”
Modelers worked in Maya and Mudbox to create the daemons and approximately 70 wolves. As part of the studio’s evolution into character animation, a team of technical directors developed a new feather system for the raven under the supervision of 3D supervisor Ivor Middleton. Cinesite bases its pipeline on Maya; its fur and feather systems are plug-ins to Maya.
The feather system grew the raven’s feathers from curves placed on the bird’s surface, using parameters to control the length, size, and density. Painted texture maps specified direction, inclination, curvature, twist, bend, and other settings, and a rig controlled main flight feathers that automatically drove corresponding feathers. To fix any collision problems caused by automatic interpolation, the effects artists used keyframe animation. Ten randomly selected texture maps provided the look of the feathers, with a procedural displacement shader adding barbs and other elements to alter the shapes.
In addition to environments and daemons, Cinesite also built a 147-foot-long sky ferry that lands in Lyra’s Oxford. “Because we see the sky ferry in a normal environment, we worked on making sure the surfaces had small details like dirt, rivets, and dents,” Rowe says. Bigger challenges, perhaps, were the Noordelicht, a CG sailing ship, and Lee Scoresby’s balloon.
Cinesite created most of the virtual backgrounds and vehicles in the film, including this sky ferry landing in a stylized version of Oxford.
“We built a CG version of a complete boat with paddle wheels, funnels for the engine, sails, and rigging,” says Shadbolt. “We had to do simulations for the water and paddle-wheel effects, cloth simulation, and a heck of a lot of work in modeling, texturing, and lighting.”
For cloth dynamics, the simulation team used Syflex software controlled by a complex rig that used proprietary scripts and plug-ins to manipulate the sails, rope ladders, and rigs. In one shot, a digital double, animated with motion-captured data, climbed CG ropes. Particle simulations in Side Effects’ Houdini sent water through the paddle wheel as the boat moved through real water elements. For the balloon-powered vehicle, however, the crew used a complex rig rather than cloth simulation.
“The challenge for us was that we had so many different kinds of scenes,” says Shadbolt, “the creatures, complex vehicles that had to match set pieces, and environments. We tried to push the technology as far as we could within each. It was huge.”
Tippett, Rainmaker, Digital Domain: The Finishing Touches
Working from Rhythm & Hues’ reference wolves, Tippett Studio built wolves with four color variations, using its proprietary Furocious to render their coats, and then added the wolves to the Bolvanger battle. Rainmaker helped by providing backgrounds and matte paintings for the Gyptian Encampment sequence, and created an animated spirit projector that Lord Asriel uses to show 3D moving images to the scholars at Oxford. But, of the three studios that picked up shots, Digital Domain had the largest chunk of the work—approximately 150 shots.
Bryan Grill supervised a team that created the golden alethiometer, which is not a compass, although it resembles one, that appears in 60 shots. “The studio had a prop that people interacted with, but it didn’t have any effects,” says Grill. So, the artists at Digital Domain made the alethiometer magical by color-correcting the prop to look golden, giving it animated glints and, using 3D and 2D, sliding particulate imagery (visions) inside.
“A lot of our 3D work was creating the cogs, sprockets, and mechanical clockworks, so when we went into the fantastical world, we had a connection to the mechanical material,” says Grill. Once in the vision world, particle dust based on the images repeated the theme of “dust” that connects people and their daemons.
In addition, Digital Domain created the environment for a scene during which Lyra and Iorek cross an ice bridge. For this, they used Maya for modeling and lighting, Houdini’s rigid-body dynamics to break the bridge, the studio’s Storm software for volumetric particle effects, RenderMan and Houdini’s VMantra for rendering, and The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing.
“It was tough,” Grill says. “We had some shots from Framestore CFC that gave us a look to match to, but we had to build our own shader from scratch and use a lot of 2D techniques. The compositor could change the look of the ice by changing textures or moving them deeper, which affects the bounced light in subsurface scattering.”
Also, during the Bolvanger battle, Digital Domain did pre-comps for 65 shots that had to match perfectly with the surrounding Cinesite shots.
Because so many facilities shared shots, Fink had people on his crew who did nothing but coordinate data between London, Los Angeles, and Berkeley, California. “It wasn’t something we had planned,” Fink says. “It grew out of the nature of the film.”
That the visual effects in the film have an internal consistency is a tribute to Fink and to all the visual effects studios that found ways to cooperate and blend their work with that of their competitors. It seems somehow appropriate for a coming-of-age fantasy about which Philip Pullman quotes Sir Philip Sidney: “Everyone is welcome, and no one is shut out, and I hope each reader will find a tale worth spending time with.”
Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at BarbaraRR@comcast.net.