Framestore presents Narnia – The Mane Event

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian is the second of C.S. Lewis’s classic Narnia sequence of fantasy novels to be filmed. A Walt Disney Studios release, presented with Walden Media, the film was directed by Andrew Adamson with cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub. It was produced by Mark Johnson, Andrew Adamson and Philip Steuer. Prince Caspian was released in the US on May 16th 2008 and opened in the UK on 26th June.

A year has passed since Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy – the four Pevensie children – first discovered Narnia. But in Narnia, where time passes at a different rate, it is over 1300 years later. The land is in grave peril. Caspian, a Telemarine Prince, is the rightful heir to the Narnian throne. As the film opens he finds himself on the run, pursued by the forces of his wicked uncle, the usurping King Miraz. In desperation, Caspian magically summons the Pevensies (onetime rulers of Narnia) to his aid.

The four children are plucked from a London Underground station, pulled once more into Narnia. A motley assortment of creatures loyal to Narnia – dwarves, badgers, mice and others – assembles to fight with Caspian and the Pevensies, and the film follows the fortunes of the two sides as they teeter back and forth via spectacular battle scenes and gripping intrigue. Finally, Aslan intervenes to save Narnia, and the children are returned to their Underground station an instant after they left it.

Framestore’s burgeoning reputation for superlative creature work saw the company land the film’s choice digital creature, namely Aslan, the god-like lion who appears throughout the Narnia tales. In addition, the company also created Trufflehunter, a rather old-fashioned badger who befriends the heroes, and Pattertwig, a loyal Narnian squirrel. The Framestore team also created several effects and effects-based sequences, including the children’s translation from the wartime London Underground station to Narnia; a dryad composed of petals; some scenes involving fleeing CG troops, and the film’s concluding scene in which a magical tree opens a door into other worlds, and through which the children return to their own.

Altogether, over 200 people at Framestore worked for some 16 months on over 520 shots for Prince Caspian. The team, led by veteran VFX Supervisor Jon Thum, created work that covered the full gamut of modern digital artistry: furry/hairy creatures, CG environments, particle FX work, CG crowds, as well as a host of traditional split-screen and clean up work.

“One of the initial tasks we faced was that of recreating something which had already been created,” says CG Supervisor Mike Mulholland, “Data from Rhythm & Hues (who created Aslan for the first film) was the starting point for that, though for various reasons we used just the most basic model of theirs, rebuilding pretty much everything else. The animation rig, look-dev and so on were all our own.” Shadi Almassizadeh led the Aslan look development efforts, with Paul Beilby heading up work on the shaders.

Aslan’s eyes played a key role in Framestore’s approach. “In trying to think how we could improve upon the first film’s sterling effort,” says Kevin Spruce, Animation Supervisor, “One of the things that struck us was that his eyes had previously been given a distinctly ‘Egyptian’, almost Cleopatra-like look and shape to them. We felt that this could be improved on, and it’s one of the more noticeable changes in his appearance.”

Not least among Framestore team’s innovations were the tools and technologies they developed to deal with Aslan’s mane. Simply put, CG hair this long, layered and dense causes a huge number of problems in lighting and dynamics. It was, says Jon Thum, the most complex fur groom the company has ever done.

Aslan’s role within Prince Caspian is less active for much of the film, and Framestore’s team had to make sure that he held an audience’s eye whilst oftentimes not doing a lot, save talking. “The actual pose he struck was important,” says Kevin Spruce, “He needed to look regal and important and in charge of the situation, but we had to avoid the ever present danger of over-animating him. We found that if he moved his head too much he’d suddenly look like an excited dog. With a team of crack animators champing at the bit, keen to show off their chops, a carefully controlled performance was crucial. And like any good actors performance, it had to be varied to suit whether it was occurring in close, medium or long shot.”

This truth had to be applied to all of the creatures Framestore created for Prince Caspian. They had to be believable not as participants in a ‘cartoon’ space, but as living, breathing inhabitants of the same space that the human actors occupied. At the same time, it was essential to maintain the otherness of the creatures – their animality. Thus the team members involved in creating the badger, Trufflehunter, paid a visit to a badger sanctuary as part of their research groundwork. Elements in his performance that they took from such research include an alert sniffing of the air around him, a weather eye out for things on the ground, and so on. None of this is made too much of in the final performance – rather it is mutedly integrated into Trufflehunter’s character, much as any actor would do with a role. Look development for the badger was led by Ian Comley. As a new character to the series, no hand-me-down version of Trufflehunter existed, so concept and character development for him were purely Framestore’s responsibility.

In terms of technical hurdles faced by the creature teams, the ‘LA sequence’ was probably the toughest: a sequence in which Lucy is reunited for the first time with her beloved Aslan. Meeting him in woodland, she runs to him and throws herself upon him. He in turn allows himself to be bowled over to one side by her and embraces her with a loving paw. Featuring a very high level of human/CG interaction, the scene required everyone to be at the top of their game. The animation required meant that, in turn, one of Lucy’s arms had to be repositioned – in other words, removed and rebuilt as CG. 2D Supervisor Mark Bakowski’s compositing team integrated Aslan using painstaking rotoscope and digital paint techniques combined with digital fur simulations to create interaction with the lion’s fur.

Leading up to this is a sequence in which Lucy walks through an area of enchanted woodland, as if in a dream. She encounters a dryad. “Like Aslan,” says FX Supervisor Mark Hodgkins, “Dryads – a kind of woodland fairy – appeared in the last film, but were created by another company. The production wanted a different look this time around. Whereas the Dryads had previously consisted of human forms superimposed on CG petals, the film makers had decided on a purely CG approach this time. The idea was that Lucy would first see the petals being carried as if by currents of air, but that they’d be ‘purposeful’ currents. Working in Houdini, we created a slider with which it was possible to take the dryad from (as it were) a pile of petals on the ground, all the way up to a fully formed human shape – or any stage in between. We were working around the fully formed body that the animators had created in Maya, with our petals coming together to form the (nearly) whole figure, who would gesture to Lucy before once more un-forming itself.”

Two important VFX sequences in the film are the children’s departure from and return to the Strand London Underground station. An establishing exterior shot of the station was given wartime verisimilitude by Matte Painting Supervisor Kevin Jenkins, who added barrage balloons and a matte painting of Trafalgar Square to the background. For shots of the children waiting for their train on the station platform, the production built a partial greenscreen set on a sound stage in New Zealand. A beautiful beach location had been found in the North Island, called Cathedral Cove, which had a natural archway similar in shape to the interior of a tube station. A circular track was built on both the sound stage and beach, on which a camera was dollied around the children, and whilst this was happening the train station appeared to rip apart and land them on a beach in Narnia.

The set included a moving train carriage and a portion of the platform. To extend the station and add a train full of people moving through it, Framestore used reference material from the London Transport Museum and photographic surveys of the set as textures, and then animated tiles, posters and debris flying through the frame. Framestore designed the transition to the exterior plate using digital projections of station tiles ripping away and stroboscopic glimpses of the CG train intermittently obscuring and revealing the beach. The footbridge within this sequence, which wrenches apart, was the creation of Weta Digital.

The bookend to this sequence comes at the films end, when the forces of evil have been despatched. Aslan brings the children to a withered oak tree. Under his benign gaze it magically transforms, its twisted trunk opening to reveal a portal through which the children return to their world. The twisting tree was also under the aegis of Mark Hodgkins. “It worked procedurally within Houdini,” he says, “We needed the tree to be growable from the trunk’s mesh. So we’d set it up and grow it overnight, and then take a look at where it was the next day – see what needed pruning or building up. It was a kind of digital gardening.”

The two elements of the reverse journey back to the Underground station were shot many months apart, which led to a sticky continuity issue with Lucy’s hair. “Unfortunately her hair had been brushed different ways in each take,” says Jon Thum, “And a morph between her hairstyles would never have worked. We ended up 3D tracking and re-projecting her hair from one plate onto the other: painstaking, but effective.”

In addition to the enormous contribution in visual effects that Framestore made to Prince Caspian, the company provided two more crucial services: those of creating the titles and the Digital Intermediate. The titles came to Framestore Design’s team with the brief that they needed to be simple and elegant. Font and main title had already been created, and Designer Sharon Lock was tasked with typesetting and positioning the text, as well as developing an appropriate look. Lock employed a sort of aged chrome metal look for the ‘Prince Caspian’, in 3D with some subtle lighting effects bedding it in to the shot.

Framestore’s Digital Lab team were involved with the production right from the start, setting up the colour pipeline before shooting began. Senior Colourist Adam Glasman attended the set in New Zealand, and mini-grading suites were set up in Prague, all done with the aim of providing various VFX facilities with useful colour information and of expediting the post production DI. Director Andrew Adamson and Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub then worked with Glasman in a dedicated DI suite for some three months on the grade.

The film was printed on to Kodak Vision Premier film stock, which produces richer images with deeper blacks. Adamson, who has a background in VFX, was acutely conscious that much more could be achieved with the blacks using this stock, knowledge that he put to good use in his hands on working relationship with Framestore. With some 2000 VFX shots to bring in to the final grade, Adamson was delighted with the opportunities for perfecting his work that the Digital Intermediate afforded.

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release presented with Walden Media of a Mark Johnson/Silverbell Films production

Producers Mark Johnson, Andrew Adamson, Philip Steuer
Director of Photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Director Andrew Adamson

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