In the dozen years since the release of "The Golden Compass," the first book in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, the novel has won legions of fans and been made into a play and a radio show. Now it's a $180 million movie opening on Dec. 7, written and directed by Chris Weitz ("About a Boy"), starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig and featuring some of the most complicated effects sequences ever seen on film.
In this article, we'll explore the unique challenges posed by bringing "The Golden Compass" to life and explain how its visual effects evolved, from concept to execution to final product.
Shot at England's Shepperton Studios -- and also in London, Oxford and the North Pole -- the film follows a young British girl named Lyra (newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) on her journey to rescue a kidnapped friend. It's a fantasy on an epic scale, set in a parallel universe where armored polar bears do battle and people's souls take the form of animal companions known as daemons. It required nearly two years to complete -- and the skill of hundreds of special effects artists in three countries.
"There were 1,100 to 1,200 CG [computer-generated] shots, average for a film like this, but the level of complexity far exceeded most," says visual effects supervisor Michael Fink, who worked on the film for 22 months. "There's an animated character in just about every one of those shots." Fink, the effects supervisor on "X-Men," "X-2," "Lethal Weapon" and "Batman Returns," says "The Golden Compass" is more complex than all of them combined.
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One big challenge, Fink says, was the frequent interaction between humans and digital creatures -- like when people touch their daemons. The effects team had to come up with a way to make the computer-generated fur react to contact with a human hand. But the tougher problem was "a fully CG, fully animated fight between two bears in front of 100 to 120 other bears in the middle of a live-action movie," he says. "We had to create a photo-real environment with bears that you'd really believe are fighting."
Fink notes that such a sequence would have been impossible five or six years ago and "could have been done badly" two or three years ago. "Lighting is the biggest issue -- lighting a white bear in a snowy environment, or any environment, is one of the hardest tasks in CG," he says.
The armored bears, or Panserbjorne, were the work of London effects house Framestore CFC. Los Angeles-based Rhythm & Hues worked on the main daemons, and a number of other special effects companies handled various CG tasks.
On the next page, we'll meet the Rhythm & Hues team and learn how they created the daemons.
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.
Animation and Live Action
During production on green-screen soundstages at Shepperton Studios, the actors held and acted with a variety of objects that would be replaced by computer-
"We used every sort of contraption you can think of, from a little green football to a cat on a fishing line that we could swing into Lyra's arms for situations where Pan is a cat," says Rhythm & Hues visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer. "We had to get [Lyra's portrayer Dakota Blue Richards] to put her hands in the right place and react in the right way." An on-set puppeteer would also act out Pan's part and read his dialogue with Richards.
Other aspects of daemon placement were equally tricky, such as when Pan and the Golden Monkey fight in Mrs. Coulter's living room. "It's the little touches that fool the eye into believing he's in the scene," says Westenhofer.
In scenes with many daemons, like battle sequences, R&H animators used "Massive," an artificial intelligence program, to add background characters. They would coordinate and share materials with the other effects houses.
Rhythm & Hues was also responsible for creating a plethora of other effects, including: a daemon death effect, the electrical sparks in the Intercision machine, the mystical particle called Dust, and a complex grand finale sequence involving the aurora borealis.
"We worked on about 80 shots for that sequence," says R&H effects producer Gary Nolin. "But the decision was made to end the movie slightly earlier and have that scene begin the second movie." The second film in the series, based on "The Subtle Knife," is the next step in what New Line Cinema hopes will be a franchise as successful as the "Harry Potter" films or the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
"Every year we're getting better at what we do, and already we've made another leap forward in realistically portraying these animals," says R&H animation director Erik De Boer. "Some of it has to do with the technology, but it's [more] the experience and the craftsmanship that we have and are expanding on every year."
Mike Fink, the film's visual effects supervisor, is equally proud of his work. He says his favorite sequences are the ones "that don't look like visual effects shots. You don't want the audience to suddenly think they're in a fake place, a different place ... The more invisible my work is, the happier I get."
To learn more about "The Golden Compass" and movie special effects, check out the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Michael Fink interviewed on Nov. 7, 2007
- Gary Nolin, Bill Westenhofer, Erik De Boer and Ray Chen interviewed on Oct. 15, 2007