Framestore CFC is -- as always - along for the broomstick ride of a HARRY POTTER movie. This time around, for THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, the company's CG contributions included a herd of centaurs, a sinister house-elf named Kreacher and, for the first time, the title sequence.
Heading the team for Framestore CFC was veteran vfx supervisor Craig Lyn. "We have made a name for ourselves producing creatures with real character for the POTTER films, creatures such as the Cornish Pixies and Buckbeak the Hippogriff," he recalled. "The centaurs and Kreacher gave us a chance to build on this reputation, both technically and artistically."
The centaurs of J.K. Rowling's vision are not the cute, prettified creatures of Disney's FANTASIA, but rather fierce, mysterious beast-men, in which the human half leans toward the caveman in appearance. They feature chiefly in one key sequence in HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX: an encounter with Harry, Ron, Hermione and the appalling Professor Umbridge in the Forbidden Forest.
"Purely from a technical point of view, there were a number of aspects to the centaurs that Framestore CFC hadn't tackled before," said Lyn, "Skin moving over muscle, the muscle dynamics and the dynamic hair simulations, for example. Not only that, but there were up to twelve of them onscreen at once."
As originally scripted, the centaurs had a great deal of dialogue, and so were the focus of much of the team's initial development work. A huge amount of effort went into pushing the new skin and muscle methods for doing overall bodies, with particular reference to the facial aspects. Ultimately, changes to the script during production meant a much reduced -- and virtually silent -- role for the centaurs. "It was sad for us," added animation supervisor, Max Solomon, "But it made sense in terms of the film -- they've got so much story to tell in just a couple of hours."
The team strove to create a whole animal, rather than just a man with a CG horses hindquarters added: the approach taken in some other films. "We wanted to make it feel like a man was thinking and making the horse part move," added Solomon, "One of the trickiest shots is where Bane -- one of the centaurs -- is caught by a rope, rears up and falls to the ground. We had some rearing horses but the mechanics of a horse rearing is different --what they do is throw their heads down low in anticipation, and then throw their heads up. So we had to make it feel like a man jumping, keeping the back very straight, and yet like a horse as it lay thrashing on the ground."
CG supervisor Ben White concurred, "The centaurs presented a double challenge. Trying to combine believable human and horse torsos was a great deal harder than doing either one separately. When the centaurs move around they have to move in a convincing horse like manner, and yet still have the characteristics of a human, which is very tricky stuff to do , both in terms of animation and the movement of muscle and skin. To really push the realism of the characters we developed a new method for doing sliding skin over underlying volume. We prototyped the skin and muscle behavior in Houdini, then our R&D department then developed this into an in-house Maya plug-in, which we used to actually run the shots."
Kreacher, whom Harry encounters briefly at Sirius Black's house, is an elderly, somewhat sinister house-elf. Lyn is particularly proud of the work that went in to winning the job of creating him. "The number of shots Kreacher is in isn't huge, but at the same time it's a tricky bit of work because he's a humanoid character who acts, delivers lines and fills the whole frame. Three of the guys on our side decided that they really, really wanted a shot at him. On their own initiative they built, modeled, textured and did a turntable of his head and sent that off to the client. And it was that work which won us the gig."
Although he delivers just a few lines, Kreacher's words are loaded with meaning, and his body language is similarly freighted. Explained Solomon, "You tend, as an animator, to animate -- to put in the traditional, slightly heightened stuff, with the creature hitting its marks perfectly and so forth. But we soon realized that that was not what was wanted here. So we worked against our instincts, and it was quite strange. We kept thinking he's not really doing much, he's not moving, he's not really acting -- but actually that does feel more real. A little hunchbacked old man doesn't actually move or gesticulate a lot, so doing almost nothing was the right choice."
Added White, "We took an entirely muscle based approach to Kreacher's facial animation system, extending the functionality of the tools we designed for the centaurs and taking them even further, to give him skin that's appropriately soft and stretchy for such an elderly character. We filmed actor Timothy Bateson as he sat in a chair and did his vocal takes, using his facial expressions and mannerisms as reference (although no motion capture was used), and these were incredibly useful for the facial performance. But the actual combination of body language, stance, how Kreacher moves around and how he reacts to Harry -- that was entirely the creation of our animation team. This subtlety of animation, combined with the sophisticated skin shading and really believable eye lighting gave us something I'm really proud of. It's a beautiful, understated little performance: you feel that you can really see his mind in his eye, like he's a living being."
London-based Framestore CFC (www.framestore-cfc.com) is the largest visual effects and computer animation studio in Europe, with more than 20 years of experience in digital film and video technology.
The company has won numerous international awards, including two Technical Academy Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, three BAFTA Craft Awards and 13 Primetime Emmy Awards.
Work in the pipeline for 2007/2008 includes: HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, HIS DARK MATERIALS: THE GOLDEN COMPASS, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN and THE DARK KNIGHT. Work continues on the first animated feature, The TALE OF DESPEREAUX, and, for television, PRIMEVAL 2.