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Grant Freckelton Talks 'Guardians of Ga'Hoole'

Bill Desowitz chats with Art Director Grant Freckelton about Animal Logic's sophomore CG-animated feature, Guardians of Ga'Hoole, directed by Zack Snyder.

Based on a popular children's book series by Kathryn Lasky, Animal Logic's sophomore feature Guardians of Ga'Hoole is their second tour of duty with director Zack Snyder.

What does Animal Logic do for an encore after its Oscar-winning Happy Feet? It tackles the even more ambitious Guardians of Ga'Hoole, adapted from the popular children's book series by Kathryn Lasky, under the direction of Zack Snyder (Watchmen and 300). Produced at Animal Logic's Sydney, Australia-based digital studio for Village Roadshow Pictures, the Warner Bros. Pictures release is set for 2010.

Co-scripted by John Orloff (A Mighty Heart) and John Collee (Happy Feet), Guardians captures the first three installments of the series about a young barn owl and his friends as they combat an evil band of rogue owls. The sophomore feature from Animal Logic will offer unique Australian characters set in a fantasyland of forests, deserts, canyons, oceans and islands. It is estimated that Animal Logic will employ 300 artists, and the company will be actively recruiting during SIGGRAGH 2008 in Los Angeles.

Guardians not only reunites Animal Logic with Snyder, but also provides the director the chance to collaborate once again with the studio's Grant Freckelton, who was visual effects art director on 300, and serves as art director on the new feature. Freckelton discussed with AWN the particular artistic and technical challenges posed by Guardians and his thoughts about teaming with Snyder again.

Bill Desowitz: What's it been like so far working on Guardians and how has your 300 experience prepared you for working again with Zack Snyder?

Grant Freckelton: Well, 300 was almost an animated film, so I guess that helped! I worked very briefly on Happy Feet before doing 300, and before that I was art directing and supervising animated promos for Cartoon Network, so I had some experience doing animated work prior to Guardians. In fact, I felt my experience doing animated work helped me prepare more for 300 than 300 helped prepare me for Guardians.

That being said, working with Zack for two years on 300 has meant you get to know his language and style, and you can respond quicker and more effectively to his needs. It also means we've developed a level of trust, so right now, while he is dedicating a lot of his time wrapping up Watchmen, we're able to keep on working in Sydney with a level of comfort at both ends.

As for what it's like? In the moments when you don't feel overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the project, it's awesome. Two things I love in life are escapist movies and natural history, particularly birds. I was a birdwatcher as a teen and in recent years have gotten back into birding -- so along comes a project about owls that have their own culture and society and where they not only talk, but also fight crazy owl wars? And they need someone to do design work for it? Count me in!

BD: How has your collaboration with Zack been similar or different from 300?

GF: There are a lot of differences between 300 and Guardians. The biggest difference for me has been the fact that 300 was developed by Zack for two years before we started working on the film's visual effects. Guardians has been a reverse of that, where the film was developed in-house at Animal Logic eight months prior to Zack's involvement. It represents a shift in Animal Logic's position from being simply a fee-for-service effects house, to being a fully fledged development and production company.

Grant Freckleton.

I remember it being an exciting day when I learnt that Zack had seen the artwork we had created and had been so impressed with what he saw that he wanted to direct the movie. Coming from a director of his caliber, it was a huge compliment and it legitimized the notion that we shouldn't sit around and wait for the next cool project. Sometimes you have to just start making these things yourself!

BD: How have the books been helpful as a guide and how would you characterize your primary stylistic contribution?

GF: Lasky's books are obviously a huge inspiration, not only in terms of story and characters, but also in the rich universe she has created. One thing that we love in escapist movies is universes -- if you're into a movie enough, you can go and buy an "Art of" book and find all this other stuff out about the world. In the art department, there are heaps of classic art books that show how designing fantasy movies is as much about creating an entire world as it is about creating a bunch of sets. Even though with Guardians we're having to compress the story in places more so than we did on 300, we still like to drop in references from Lasky's universe that might become relevant in future movies. (Ga'hoole fans: Keep an eye out for the hagsfiend statues!)

BD: Talk about working with this uniquely Australian setting, and what it's been like basing the look on reference textures, lighting and geological formations found primarily in Tasmania's wild Southwest coast, as well as the advantages of using the new Red One digital camera.

GF: The thing with Guardians is even though it's produced using computer animation, we're always striving for photorealism in our backgrounds. It's a film that is more Lord of the Rings than Toy Story, so in that respect we like our backgrounds [as much as possible] to reference real-life locations as a basis. Even if there's a giant, skyscraper-sized oak tree on an island in the middle of the Sea of Hoolemere, we prefer to start with a photo of a real island in a real sea to work over.

Freckleton worked with Snyder for two years on 300 (above). The trusting relationship they developed has made it possible for Freckleton to work on Ga'Hoole while Snyder is wrapping up Watchmen. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Production Designer Simon Whiteley has spent a lot of time in Tasmania and had wanted to use it as the inspiration for Ga'hoole's kingdoms from day one. The walls of his office were covered with holiday photos he'd taken of Tassie forests, lakes and mountains, as well as macro shots of its flowers and plant life. The thing that strikes you about Tassie is that it is vast, rugged, full of natural beauty and perfect for a fantasy setting. Also... it's not New Zealand! After Lord of the Rings, so many fantasy films shoot in New Zealand and we were keen to do something different.

So in late 2007, Simon and Digital Supervisor Ben Gunsberger organized a helicopter shoot using the new Red One camera. They flew from Hobart to Strathgordon, over the Arthur Ranges and Port Davies in Tassie's southwest. They came back with six hours of 4K footage on two 500 Gig Lacie drives. That was cut down into a three-minute sizzle reel of Tassie locations, which are completely untouched by humans. No roads, no farms, just wilderness all the way to the horizon. And from an art director's perspective, what was cool is that the footage not only moved, but you could freeze it at any point and grab a 4K, uncompressed, grain-free and sharp still frame. These hi-res stills have been invaluable in producing concept work for our environments, and later on in production we plan to do a few more shoots to grab elements for matte paintings and FX shots.

BD: This is obviously still an early stage, but tell us about the demands of gearing up right now at Animal Logic and what that entails for a production of this scale.

GF: The earlier you are in the process, the [fewer] people there are and the more hats you wear. In development, there was no screenwriter or director, so it was a process where a handful of artists got together and not only created artwork, but also wrote story treatments and character profiles and talked about how to adapt Lasky's world to the screen. As the project progresses, it becomes a process of removing a lot of hats and learning to delegate to your team so that you're utilizing each artist's strengths.

We're still in preproduction, so the emphasis is still on designing our world and characters, as well as a lot of R&D as we try and solve both creative and technical problems. How does an owl put on a helmet? What does an owl helmet look like? And how do we deal with feathers interacting with that helmet? We've still got a lot of slots to fill in our crew plan, so I still find that my day might swing between theorizing a cultural history for owls of St. Aegolius one hour, to discussing the second joint in a barn owl's hallux [i.e., big toe] the next. One of the joys of crewing up for a project is getting the team together, especially new talent, and seeing what each new artist brings to the table.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.