ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar discusses the challenges and complications of handling crowd scenes with lots of furry creatures in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
In what was admittedly a process of discovery, Industrial Light & Magic collaborated with both Rhythm & Hues and Sony Pictures Imageworks on The Chronicles of Narnia. Scott Farrar tells VFXWorld what it was like to handle more fur than ever before in a series of complicated crowd scenes along with the unprecedented sharing of digital assets.
Bill Desowitz: Start off by describing when ILM came in and your involvement in the project.
Scott Farrar: Rhythm & Hues was the lead house and we came in later on with Sony Pictures Imageworks when they started handing out work because it was such a monumental task. Truthfully, if you look at the scope of the work in the film, logistically, it would be very difficult for one company to do all of the work.
So we were involved with the original bid, which we didnt get. Then we were contacted a year or so later after they shot the production and Rhythm & Hues was well involved in developing Aslan and the fur and so forth. We were asked to take a look at a bunch of the crowd scenes and the Cair Paravel [the great Narnian castle] and some other characters too. So eventually we received some 230 shots and the hard part about doing these shots was that each one tends to be terrifically complicated.
BD: How many people at ILM worked on this?
SF: At the highpoint, 200-plus. We ended up working more seven-day weeks than any show Ive ever done. Normally, ILM does a show where we have a couple of furry creatures in a scene. Here we had 20 or 30, so it was logarithmic. Plus we had a very short timeframe to get it all together [10 weeks], build our assets and go into shot production. For instance, meeting Aslan or when the White Witch comes to the camp to make a deal, where you have all of those characters in the background, well, most of those were shots with a row or two of people in green tights and markers and that was it. The issue was to replace the green legs with either fawn fur legs or satyr fur legs and then behind that row upon row of either hero or second tier type people.
After you put the horse body in and connect it to the human body, the expectancy for the hooves to touch the ground. The little problem with that was not all the people were the same size so one horse body did not fit all. So we were scaling up and down and wider and thinner. And there were also centaurs and minotaurs and those were predominantly human actors again wearing furry uppers and then we had to make a connection with the lower leg and get rid of tights.
BD: You had to digitally match the lower half with the upper half and actually make them move?
SF: Thats right. In all cases, we had to track every single human character and then create the legs that were fur, animate by doing matchimation, which is matching the movements of the weight box but also include some sort of a foot movement thats appropriate for the type of beast that it is, somewhat mimicking but not always the steps of the actor and then just the background cleanup. This is absolutely staggering. It includes any scene where you have a bunch of actors standing in green tights and youre seeing off into the distance, so wherever you pull out the green legs, you have to replace with clean backgrounds, so theres plate recon. It was massive. We did have clean plates in many cases but the problem was you couldnt just unilaterally pull out the green legs and put in a clean plate because youre also matchimating to the feet and so you have to retain part of it. And so you go through an extraordinary amount of paint and roto cleanup after youve put in all of your character legs. This was a process of discovery on our part too. We suspected it would be complicated, but it was revealed to be far more complicated as we got into it.
To help us, this was a show where assets had to be shared. And that also was one initial complicating factor. We knew we had to share shots with Rhythm & Hues as well as Sony. Everything we do is done in layers and the background layer tends to be done first and then you build layers upon that. So we build all the backgrounds and the beavers have to go in and thats Sony then it would go to Rhythm & Hues and theyd put in Aslan. Conversely, if it took a different course, it would end up with us. And in some cases, even though Aslan was in the foreground, we still did the composite.
BD: So how did you work out the sharing of the assets?
SF: We had a big get together at Frozen Lake [the Narnia production company] with Rhythm & Hues and Sony. We went through all the shots and more or less came up with a rule set of how we would share the shots, what order that each layer had to be completed with due dates and then whoever had the shot last would do the film out.
The other thing to try and help us get into it quicker, since we didnt build these creatures Rhythm & Hues did most of them was to take the creatures and import them into our system and come up with a semi-decent turntable. We worked around things. Lindy DeQuattro, who was our digital production supervisor and was elevated eventually to associate visual effects supervisor, did tremendous work. Luckily, we could import their information. Everybody always worries about proprietary software. And so without revealing anything about how they constructed things, we could see what the shapes were and if the information wasnt working, then we still had to do a lot of adjusting to work out what the fur looked like, the colors and so forth, so that we got approval from director Andrew Adamson.
BD: Did this run through Zeno?
SF: No, Zeno is not ready to do furry creatures yet, so we stayed in the old pipeline. So there was a lot of asset building just getting things ready to go into shot production. And we had 20 different creatures, and in many cases five different models of each creature, so its 100 creatures that had to be developed and then put into shot production. The final battle that was mostly all Rhythm & Hues. But the hand-to-hand combat was all us. So in many cases, you have only one or two human actors in the shot and all the creatures in the background. That is where [animation supervisor] Jenn Emberly and her crew spent a lot of time getting those ready so we could start to render and light the creatures for the shot.
And at the same time, we worked on the Cair Paravel, which was the sequence at the end where the kids get crowned. It was basically some steps and four chairs and about four pillars and a lot of greenscreen and a few people. All the rest of it had to be added all the rows of centaurs and all the buildings and all the supplemental characters. So we had teams running concurrently and we broke it down into sections with team leaders. Then we had a bunch of sims to do for everything on all the fur and all the hair and all the muscle movement. And the big problem with sims is you never quite know how its going to look until you do a full on render with fur, so we hit those over and over again until we liked it and Andrew liked it. And Andrew was the type of person who was really open to more ribcage movement, more muscle movement and more fur blowing in the wind movement. So once we got onto his taste level, that was a big step.
Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.