Inside 'The Water Horse'


Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

You don't have to live in Scotland to know the legend of the Loch Ness monster -- the story has fascinated the world for years, since St. Columba recorded the first documented sighting of the mysterious creature in A.D. 565. And even though the famous photos published in the 1930s were debunked as a hoax, people have flocked to Loch Ness ever since, hoping to get a glimpse of the "water horse" nicknamed Nessie.

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Scottish tourism could get another boost with the Christmas Day release of "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep." The movie, based on the book by British children's author Dick King-Smith, is the story of Angus, a boy who discovers a strange egg on the shores of Loch Ness. It's directed by Jay Russell ("Ladder 49," "My Dog Skip") from a screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs and stars Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin and 13-year-old Alex Etel ("Millions") as Angus. The film -- specifically "Crusoe," the water horse himself -- posed a unique challenge for the creative team at Weta Digital, the New Zealand visual effects house known for its work on the "Lord of the Rings" movies and "King Kong."

Director Jay Russell first read "The Water Horse" nearly seven years ago and was enchanted by it. "I'd just finished 'My Dog Skip,' which had a similar theme involving a relationship with an animal and children during World War II," he says. He got King-Smith's blessing to change the narrative's perspective from a child's point of view to that of an older man remembering his boyhood.

But Russell put the idea aside and made "Tuck Everlasting" (2002) and "Ladder 49" (2004) instead. "With the technology where it was at the time and the cost of that technology, we couldn't get it made then," he says. "Technology needed to catch up. It did, and it allowed us to do things I envisioned without it costing $300 million."

Preparation helped saved time and money, too, notes Russell: "I was very specific about what I wanted so we didn't waste a lot of resources. We put every penny into the movie."

In this article, we'll detail Crusoe's development from concept to screen, outline the other logistic and technical challenges the filmmakers faced, and get insight into Loch Ness mythology from one of the premier experts on the subject.

Creating Crusoe

An early illustration of Crusoe
An early illustration of Crusoe
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Most of the roughly 600 effects shots in "The Water Horse" are of Crusoe -- a considerable challenge because the creature had to grow rather rapidly from infant to adult. "We'd done large-scale creature effects, but we'd never dealt with a character that changed so much. We had to create many versions of the character and make sure they were all related to each other," says animation supervisor Richard Frances-Moore of Weta Digital.

Before Weta Digital came to the project, director Jay Russell developed each of Crusoe's stages with artist Matt Codd. "We decided early on that we wanted him to have elements of other animals, but no particular animal specifically," he says. "If you look at a close-up of the adult Crusoe's face, you'll see horse in it, and there's a bit of dinosaur, but if you look closely there are all kinds of other things going on. There's a bit of a dog's face in there, around the eye there's a bit of eagle. The little antler things we took from a picture of a giraffe. We incorporated elements of different animals into Crusoe so that he would have this odd familiarity, even though you've never seen it before."

The creature's newly hatched first incarnation was based on a baby chick -- bony, scrawny, slimy and more freaky than cute, according to Frances-Moore. "The translucency, the softness, the wrinkles and bags -- we'd love to have had that on Gollum [from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy], but it wasn't feasible at the time," he says. 

Crusoe's second stage was called "the puppy" because of its friendly, playful inquisitiveness -- a combination of dog and seal. Next came the "awkward teenager" and then the full adult version.

To create Crusoe, Weta fashioned maquettes (3-D sculptures) based on Codd's renderings. "With both the infant and the adult, the initial sculptures looked way too reptilian," Russell says. "We added more flesh in the face, around the cheeks … The puppy creature's face was looking too much like a lamb and too cutesy. We had to add more angles, so it looked like something that could live underwater."

Next, the 3-D models were scanned so computer renderings could provide a blueprint for skeleton and muscle structure. From there, the animators could determine scale and the limitations of the character's movement. Visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri remembers when puppy Crusoe needed to fit into a bathtub. "Once we put him in the tub and saw how much room he needed to be able to flop around, we had to scale him down a little bit," he says. "At the size we thought he was going to be, he couldn't be as playful."

The Weta team observed animal behavior to create Crusoe's movements. "Even though this is a fanciful character, we wanted it to appear that it could be a real creature that could exist," says Frances-Moore. "We also made sure that through the different stages we were thinking about what was going on under the skin of the character, where he was coming from … especially in relation to Angus. That keeps the character consistent throughout even as it's changing."      

Animation Difficulties

Crusoe in his "puppy stage"
Crusoe in his "puppy stage"
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

Crusoe's physical design and movement wouldn't have been effective without a consistent personality. "The idea of Crusoe being hungry all the time was something we played with because it allowed us to motivate him. It helped explain why he was always getting into trouble," says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. But the designers didn't want to humanize the creature too much

-- otherwise, the audience might judge Crusoe like a human.

It was a delicate balance, and changes were made even in postproduction. "We made adjustments in the muscles around his eyes and the mouth so we could get those expressions that suggest a personality," says director Jay Russell. "We were tweaking that almost right up until the day we finished the film."

Crusoe's voice is a combination of real animal sounds compiled by sound designer David Whitehead, who recorded animal sounds at a zoo. "The infant sound is a terrier dog, tweaked around and sped up," says Russell. "Once we had the palette of sounds, we manipulated them to fit the personality of the scene."

Pre-visualization animation, a technique that has replaced storyboarding on many films, helped the filmmakers plot the action and develop Crusoe's personality. This was particularly important when Crusoe had to interact with his surroundings -- like water, his bulldog nemesis Churchill, and, of course, young Angus. It was the biggest challenge apart from Crusoe's physical evolution. Meanwhile, stand-ins were devised so the actors had something with which to interact. Alex Etel, who plays Angus, acted with silicon puppets -- and sometimes a tennis ball on a stick. Etel and the bulldog both had digital doubles, too.

The film's many water scenes were a bit tougher for Etel, who took scuba lessons and was submerged in an 8-foot-deep, 4-million-liter tank for a good portion of filming. Shooting in the tank, which was partially surrounded by a 24-foot blue screen, posed a whole new set of challenges and headaches. First up was the issue of how to create a stand-in for Crusoe.

"We had what ended up being a rather clumsy apparatus," Russell says. "You remember those mechanical bulls from 'Urban Cowboy'? We built one of those in blue, shaped like the creature, and put it on a track underneath the water. But [when] we … started to pull it, the drag and weight of the water was so much that it looked like the boy was on a sea turtle, it was so slow. It was a complete disaster."

Then, success. The crew took the head from the bull contraption and attached it to a Jet Ski painted blue, with a driver in a blue wet suit. This provided the motion and splashing needed for the scenes, which allowed Weta Digital to enhance the real water with digital water.

"The water was a huge challenge … We'd done water before, but not like this," says Weta's Richard Frances-Moore. The designers also spent a good amount of time creating digital moonlight for nighttime water scenes.

Filming Locations

Crusoe and his nemesis, Churchill
Crusoe and his nemesis, Churchill
Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment

The majority of "The Water Horse" was shot in New Zealand for its proximity to Weta, its film industry infrastructure and experienced crews. The natural settings were also great substitutes for 1940s ­Scotland. The production spent five and a half weeks in the area around Queenstown, New Zealand, whose lack of modern houses and roads made it ideal for a period movie.

"When the clouds come in over the mountains, it could be Scotland," says animation supervisor Richard Frances-Moore. "The only thing missing is that in Scotland, there are old walls and buildings everywhere, so it was valuable to actually go to Scotland to get the representation of the age of the landscape."

"There was no way I was going to make a movie about the Loch Ness monster and not shoot at least part of it in Scotland," says Russell. Visiting Loch Ness for the first time during scouting, he was struck by the masses of tourists staring at and photographing the lake. He soon found himself "hoping that this damn thing would come out of the water. It's that desire in all of us that there's something out there beyond our imagination that we can't explain."

Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu, seen previously in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, was the New Zealand double for Loch Ness. "We didn't have any cover, but we never stopped for the weather," Russell says. "We were incredibly lucky. We had these 70- to 80-mile-an-hour winds every other day, but the crew was so used to it."

Russell, who remained in New Zealand during postproduction to work closely with Weta, says that his first extensive visual effects film won't be his last -- as long as he can work with Weta again. He's not that keen, however, to direct a "Water Horse" sequel. "I feel I've done it," he says. "I've made the film I wanted to make."

For more information about "The Water Horse" and the Loch Ness Monster, check out the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Jay Russell interviewed Nov. 21, 2007
  • Richard Francis-Moore interviewed Nov. 27, 2007
  • Alex Etel, Joe Letteri, Adrian Shine interviewed Dec. 6, 2007