Dawning Glory
December 17, 2010

Dawning Glory

Faithful to the source novel, Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace enter Narnia via a picture on the wall of an attic room in Eustace’s house. The picture is a seascape with the eponymous “Dawn Treader” plowing the waves.
Released in the UK and US on December 10, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third installment in The Chronicles of Narnia film series from Walden Media, the first in the series to be distributed by 20th Century Fox, and the first one to be released in Digital 3D. Michael Apted directs, and the producers are Andrew Adamson, Mark Johnson, and Philip Steuer.

Framestore was delighted to be invited along for this voyage, to once more bring Aslan the lion to majestic life (as it had for the series’ second film, Prince Caspian), as well as to create an array of other Narnian miracles.

(For a full look at all the complex VFX work created by Framestore as well as a number of other facilities, see “Swimming in Effects” in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of CGW.)

Set a year after the events of Caspian, the two younger Pevensies, Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley), are transported back to Narnia along with their appalling cousin Eustace Scrubb (Will Poulter). They join the new King of Narnia, Caspian (Ben Barnes), in his quest to rescue seven lost lords and save Narnia from a corrupting evil that resides on a dark island.

Each character is tested as they journey to the home of the great lion Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) at the far ends of the world. Leading Framestore’s 170-strong crew on the project was company veteran Jonathan Fawkner (Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, The Dark Knight). “Dawn Treader is a sequel and features many of the same elements seen previously,” he notes, “so on paper it might not look all that exciting. But the work we won (alongside MPC, Cinesite, The Senate, and The Mill) included some key sequences; allowed us to showcase our fluid dynamics solver, as we had the opportunity to refine and improve a creature that had to emote in a complicated way; and, finally, we got on board early and had the luxury of a post schedule that gave us the time to do it all to a very high standard.”

Fawkner continues, “In addition, we enjoyed a particularly collaborative relationship with the clients, VFX supervisor Angus Bickerton and VFX producer Barrie Hemsley. So, [there were] lots of interesting things to do and a happy client at the end—What more could you ask for?” Shooting on Dawn Treader started in Australia in July 2009, concluding that November. The shoot was attended by Fawkner (for Framestore) as well as by Ivan Moran. Turnover was from January through March 2010, with most of the work delivered by October 2010.

As well as Aslan, who features in some 60 shots, Framestore’s work included three other main sequences: The Dufflepuds, the entry to Narnia (or Painting sequence), and the Standing Wave (leading to the return to Earth). Altogether the company created 278 shots for the project.

The Lion Kings
Framestore had already made its mark on the franchise when it triumphantly took on Aslan in the second film (see “Animal Kingdom” in the May 2008 issue of CGW). This literally divine creature is simultaneously a figure of awesome majesty and fearsome power, but also a friend and intimate confidante of the Pevensie children, particularly Lucy. It was no surprise for the production to return to Framestore for Aslan’s appearances in Dawn Treader, but it was not simply a question of taking him out of his digital box and setting him to work. “We were really happy with many aspects of the existing rig,” says Nico Scapel, head of rigging. “But we wanted to bring it in line with Framestore's centralized rigging tools.”

Scapel's ongoing project to refine the rigging at Framestore once more paid dividends on Dawn Treader. “We had shots where Aslan was walking and you saw his full body,” continues Scapel. “The old rig didn’t allow the legs to be stretched far enough back to make the gait look realistic. When this issue arose, we were able to iterate a change on the rig and then see a render the next day, which makes a huge difference.”

For Aslan’s animators, the hardest thing to implement was restraint. Mark Brocking, who headed Aslan’s eight-person-strong animation team, explains: “The producers felt that Aslan’s nature — he’s God, basically — precluded all but the most minimal signs of normal animal behavior, yet he still had to be utterly alive and real. For instance, when you have a conversation, you tend not to gaze steadily at your interlocutor — you look away then look back every few seconds. It’s a natural part of our physiological behavior, so ingrained you only notice it when it doesn’t occur; but if someone looks at you while talking for more than seven seconds or so, it starts to feel weird. But Lucy and Aslan have a very lengthy conversation in front of a mirror and his gaze never shifts once. So you look to other, almost subliminal signs that show the audience that this creature lives—breath cycles, blinks (slightly offset for greater naturalism), nostril flare, a slight shift of the weight, a swish of the tail. But all the time we were being told to tone it down. It was a very fine line we had to walk.”

The last time we see the Lion-God is on a beach at the end of the Narnian world. Not only is Framestore’s work on display in the foreground figure of Aslan, but also behind him in the form of an impossible natural phenomenon—a 60-foot tall “standing wave,” a bowed wall of water forever cresting but never crashing down, stretching along the shore to infinity on either side. Finally, the children enter a portal that opens within the wave to return to our world.

Wave Hello, Say Goodbye
The problems created by the standing wave were as much psychological as technical, reckons Mark Wilson, CG supervisor. “We all know what a wave looks like and what it’s supposed to do. As soon as you have it doing something other than that, you’re fighting against a whole slew of perceptual expectations,” he notes.

So Fawkner and the team started out by examining and deconstructing aquatic waves to see what makes them tick. “If you watch a wave as it generates, it starts as a small hill, gets bigger and bigger as it peaks, and you get white water along the top, then it curls over, and there’s a point at which gravity takes over and it collapses. We broke that process down into A, B, C, D, E, and said that our wave must never get to D and E. If we allowed it to creep over, how could we get it to recede? Waves never do that. So our wave cycles go A, B, C, B, A. You could imagine someone at one end of the wall of water creating the pulse, and it moves along the wave, which rises to C and then recedes.”

“For the corpus of the wave, we came up with a method that allowed us to procedurally deform geometry, distorting the surface, rather than doing any sort of fluid dynamics,” Fawkner adds. “On top of that distortion, we had a lot of other distortions that had ripples and waves of various sizes that gave it a sense of scale—still just displacement on the surface. Then we needed foam and white water ,and we had an algorithm that told us where that white water was going to be on the crest of little waves, and another algorithm that told us, depending on whether we were at A, B, or C, how much foam there was going to be, and that drove a particle system.”

Fawkner explains: “What normally happens as a wave crashes is your particles get left behind as the wave moves forward, but we suggested that a mighty wind was picking water up and flinging it off the top, so that it looks like a wave breaking. So we had this particle stream sitting on top of the wave, which ebbed and flowed as the wave changed state.”

“The tricky thing was that it’s a long sequence, so it had to really stand up to detailed scrutiny,” comments Alex Payman, lead compositor on the sequence. “In addition, when the heroic mouse, Reepicheep (created by MPC) decides that he will surmount the wave in his coracle, we had to send the little craft up and over the top of our wave. Suddenly, we’re close up on that particle system, we’re in bright daylight, and we’ve a camera very close to the surface of the water. It was pretty merciless.”

As the film draws to its conclusion, a hole opens up in the standing wave, through which the children will pass as they return home. The Framestore team developed a corkscrew-like hole, a fluid solve for which they used Swedish company Exotic Matter’s Naiad software, in combination with Fluidity, an in-house front-end developed in tandem with the software company. The children walk through this hole and then look back at Aslan. As the watery door closes, sheets of water are pulled together and the shot dissolves into a mass of bubbles, and from that to a shot taken in a tank of the children ascending up to the surface of what will magically become their room again.

Picture This
Faithful to the source novel, Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace enter Narnia via a picture on the wall of an attic room in Eustace’s house. The picture is a seascape with the eponymous “Dawn Treader” plowing the waves. The children see the picture first come to life, with the waves suddenly rolling and churning, then a trickle and quickly a flood of water enter the room, filling it and drawing them into the Narnian sea, from which they are subsequently rescued by Caspian and the crew of the ship.

“We had two sets,” explains Fawkner, “a wet set and a dry set. The dry set was the attic room in which the children acted, and the wet set descended into a tank, allowing the water to rise. So a lot of what you see in the room could be done in-camera. What we had to do there was augment the water that gushes out of the painting, as there was a limit to what they could realistically pump into the set.”

Originally, the production had planned for the painting to be a flat object that started moving, but when the decision was made to make Dawn Treader a 3D project, they realized that this offered a great opportunity to make the picture into more of a window onto Narnia, through which the camera could pass, taking the audience from two to three dimensions as it went.

Says the sequence’s lead compositor, Jan Adamczyk, “We still did a moving painting effect, using Corel Painter’s overpainting technique. We’d take moving footage of water, and then on a still frame, we used the impasto-like brush effect. This gave us something that looked a lot like the source painting but was based on footage of moving waves. We drove that painting with the moving footage. This was somewhat painstaking because you could only get 20 or 30 frames before the system would break down and not look right. So you’d stop it after a few frames, re-paint, and then drive it forward another few frames.” In addition, Framestore created a matte-painted Cambridge background, seen through the window and modeled to allow for realistic geometry. At the end of the film, the children return to the same room via the previously described wave portal. For this sequence, the wet set went into reverse, rising up with the water descending and, as the meniscus passes over the camera, the children are revealed to be dry. This sort of shot is quite familiar to movie-goers and is usually achieved by simply running the film backward—though this can look a little “off.”

Framestore’s team aimed for a more ambitious version by doing a multi-pass (not motion control) of each actor on the dry set, acting as if the water has just gone down. They then re-created that by having the children swim in, land on their marks, and bringing the water down. “It took pretty much all of our allotted post time,” recalls Fawkner. “There were many anomalies and rough edges to finesse and smooth out, but the result is an amazingly accomplished version of an effect that is often done quite badly.”

At The Hop
The “Dawn Treader” visits a number of islands on its voyage, each with its own curious character and inhabitants. None, perhaps, are more curious than the Dufflepuds, a race of one-legged, giant-footed dwarfs whose bouncing perambulations provide a welcome sequence of comic relief. Full-CG was the obvious route for these creatures, but with 16 of them needed this was precluded for budgetary reasons. The solution devised by the Framestore team with Bickerton was a mixture of real actors for the top half of the Dufflepuds, hair and some clothes, and CG for their lower bodies, skin, and more cloth. Some 250 individual performances of the actors bouncing around and acting were filmed on a bluescreen, and test-composited on the location Avid system by Fawkner to ensure correct placements and camera angles.

Each performance was selected by Bickerton from the bluescreen, put together in the Avid, and the actors were then scaled down to dwarfish size, meticulously body tracked, given an animated leg, and composited into the scene. This meant that Bickerton could only really make final animation notes after it had gone through the whole animation process—cloth rig and all—which could make it quite a laborious process.

Notes Julian Goldsborough, lead compositor on the sequence, “The proportion of the Dufflepuds’ bodies that were CG varied according to the actors and their movements. When, for example, the performance did not quite match up to our ambition for the character, we did insert a full-CG body and costume, in some cases very close up on screen. But the main challenges presented by the sequence were organizational as much as anything. Keeping track of 16 individual performers, all separately named, body tracked, and with a bespoke CG leg and/or trunk was pretty demanding.”

Scapel’s team created the bespoke rigs. “Rather than try to save time through using a single rig that would morph into all 16 variants, we decided to treat each one as an absolute hero character. We built a system wherein we could share rigging information, easily transferring any identical aspects—the bone placements on two sets of hands, for example. Using our modular system, each figure could be put together from a huge range of elements, almost like a construction kit. Also, with all these characters we started from a single mesh, devising a system that enabled high-quality deformations independent of the proportions. This high-level anatomical work also informed the work we were doing on Kreacher and Dobby for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” (For an in-depth story on the creation of Kreacher and Dobby, as well as a host of other cutting-edge effects in Deathly Hallows, see “On the Road Again” in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of CGW.)