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Inside 'The Golden Compass'

Designing Daemons
Freddie Highmore provides the voice of Pantalaimon, who protects the compass from the evil spy flies.
Freddie Highmore provides the voice of Pantalaimon, who protects the compass from the evil spy flies.

Rhythm & Hues was tasked with creating the main daemons, including the integral characters Pantalaimon and the Golden Monkey. The R&H designers also worked on the spy flies and divided shots with Digital Domain on the alethiometer (the golden compass itself). Effects producer Gary Nolin says it's the biggest project the 20-year-old company has ever worked on -- all told, more than 500 artists were involved.

In the film's universe, where animals representing humans' souls never leave their sides, "just about every shot where you'd see a human would have a daemon in it," says R&H visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer. R&H had actually done much of the groundwork for the animals when the company worked on "The Chronicles of Narnia." They built destruction kits (animated body-parts libraries, if you will), where they could find perfectly designed antelope legs or ferret paws if they needed them. Faces, however, had to be custom-designed.

There were hundreds of animals to create. Animators studied specially shot footage of snow leopards to produce Stelmaria, the daemon of Lyra's uncle, explorer Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig). They designed a true-to-life snow leopard with a very specific eye color. "The eye colors are meant to match the actors'," says R&H visual effects supervisor Ray Chen, "so with Daniel Craig, we had that icy cold blue."

The Golden Monkey (the daemon of Mrs. Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman) posed one of the trickier challenges. It isn't based on a real monkey, but rather a blend of capuchin, spider and three types of tamarind monkey. "Tamarinds are beautiful monkeys with ugly faces, so we used a face that was more like a capuchin, the size and build from a spider monkey and capuchin, and fur from a tamarind," Mike Fink explains.

The effects team also had to figure out how to express the daemons' personalities. "Mrs. Coulter is a beautiful woman but she has a dark heart, and the Golden Monkey exhibits that part of her personality," Westenhofer says. "He's a nasty little guy."

Lyra's daemon, Pantalaimon ("Pan"), transforms according to his mood -- so at various times, he's a ferret, a wildcat, a wood mouse, a cobra, a bird and a moth. His personality, reflecting the smart, spirited Lyra, had to come across in its many incarnations and be consistent within the various designs. "We wanted to have his look be similar across the many animal forms and make him as cute as possible," says Chen. "When he's a ferret, he has a little bandit mask around his face, and we put a hint of that in all the forms he takes, such as the dark area around the wood mouse's eyes. We also tried to keep the same palette of browns and golds."

Pan's design required several evolutions. The wildcat incarnation was particularly tough, Fink says. Its "macho look" had to match Pan's toughest persona, but it wasn't very visually appealing. "So we worked on the shape of his eyes, his coloration, the shape of his head a little bit," Fink says. "He's definitely a Scottish wildcat, but he has a slightly softer look, younger in the face."

The animators also added a sheen to the fur of the daemons, which makes it clear "that they are somehow different and special," Chen says. "You can see the difference when you see the real animals that don't have the daemon quality to them."

Once the daemons' designs were established, Rhythm & Hues had to figure out how to insert them into live-action environments and have them interact with the human characters. We'll learn about that process on the next page.