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Adamson Gets Animated About 'Narnia' and VFX

With today's release of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, director Andrew Adamson reflects on his cinematic journey through C.S. Lewis' mythical realm.

Director Andrew Adamson has bounced between Far Far Away and Narnia for the last 11 years. Prince Caspian is his latest Narnia adventure. All images © Disney Enterprises Inc. and Walden Media LLC.

For a little more than a decade, Andrew Adamson has been bouncing back and forth between two make-believe worlds: "Far Far Away," the fractured fairytale land of the Shrek movies, and C.S. Lewis' mythical realm of Narnia. With Prince Caspian, his second Chronicles of Narnia film hitting theaters today, the New Zealand-born director has left the editing room to talk about himself and his career. With his flowing blond hair Adamson could easily be mistaken for David Spade, but his Kiwi accent and the absence of the actor's self-deprecating snark would quickly dispel the error.

"I started the first Shrek movie in 1997, I started The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe while I was working on the second Shrek and I think Shrek 3 started as Wardrobe was finishing. Then I started on this [Caspian] a few weeks after finishing Wardrobe. So it's been about 11 years of overlapped projects. And it's only four movies!"

At age 41, Adamson's experience stretches back to the dawn of the CG age, creating 3D animation and vfx for commercials back in New Zealand. "I was planning to be an architect," Adamson admits. "I didn't think I would be doing this, but it was a series of accidents -- actually, it was literally a car accident that stopped me.

By dint of luck, Adamson stumbled into computer animation after missing a university enrollment deadline. He was soon recruited by PDI and came to the U.S. to work on his first feature.

"I missed the university enrollment deadline because of the accident; then I just sort of stumbled into a job doing computer animation." Recruited by DreamWorks' Pacific Data Images division, Adamson relocated to the U.S. and went to work at the company's L.A. facility where his first job was as TD on Barry Levinson's whimsical fantasy Toys. "That was my first film. From there I realized you can tell stories rather than just do something for when people go to the bathroom. It just went on from there so it wasn't a very deliberate path."

Adamson served as visual effects designer for Joel Schumacher's Batman films before making his move into directing. His first effort -- the original Shrek -- was the first to win the brand new Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2002, and Adamson's directing career was off and running.

Like other animators who have transitioned into live action (Kevin Lima and now Brad Bird come to mind), Adamson's familiarity with the logistics and technical aspects of an animated project is an invaluable plus in shepherding films teeming with vfx and imaginary characters. "Emotionally, directing live action is very similar to directing CGI. The pitfalls, the things you despair are all the same: the story, the characters, 'am I getting what I need, am I getting the audience to movie in the right way?'

Adamson was determined to make Caspian a bigger film than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Above, Edmund rides on a gryphon, about to embark on a night castle raid. 

"Doing a live-action picture vs. an animated one is largely like the difference between a sprint and a marathon," he reflects. "The intensity is the same but the duration is different. In animation you get a lot more chances, you can refine things over and over again. Live action, obviously, when you've got 500 people looking over your shoulder, you haven't as many chances.

"Well, this is kind of like both, because you do the live-action part and then you have to go and do the part with all the animated characters. But the nice thing about doing a combined live-action/animation film is that you don't necessarily have to reshoot things. You can give lines to animated characters that you do six months down the track. In both films, I actually redid scenes with animated characters and added lines later on that made the live-action part work better."

A global consortium of vfx houses was used, lead by MPC, Framestore-CFC and Weta Digital. Above is the brave minotaur Asterius.

Adamson admits that he was determined to make Caspian a bigger film than its predecessor The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. "I didn't quite exploit locations to the same level in Wardrobe. That film started small -- in a winter landscape that we shot onstage -- then expanded into a bigger and bigger world. This time we wanted to shoot in more real locations and take advantage of them. We used a huge variety of cameras: from cable cameras to vertical cameras, to the largest camera crane we could find: a 100-foot one. We actually strung cables in the woods and had someone run along with cameras. The problem is there's always a natural tendency to put more challenges in front of yourself. There's also the audience's expectations: the last film was this big -- they're going to expect at least that. From there on it just expands. The film takes over and begins rolling on its own."

For Caspian, a global consortium of vfx houses took over from Wardrobe's team of Sony Pictures Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues and ILM: The Moving Picture Co. (MPC) in London was the film's lead shop, assisted by neighboring Framestore-CFC, Peter Jackson's New Zealand-based Weta Digital and ScanlineVFX in Munich and L.A. (Studio C and Rising Sun Pictures also receive mention in the film's credits.)

"It was a financial decision," Adamson explains. "I was obviously very happy with all the effects in the first film, but when we started looking at where we were shooting and where we could do post-production, the British effects firms were very aggressive in their pricing.

"There's a huge affinity for this property in England," he says of C.S. Lewis' beloved parable. "We had an English composer, an English editor and production designer, a German cinematographer -- we had enough things to qualify for the British [tax] rebate scheme. Suddenly, the financial side of doing the effects in the U.K. became very attractive. On top of that the companies really wanted to prove they could do it."

Blending human actors with digital beings presents on-set and post challenges. In the last Narnia film, faun legs were used on-set (above). This time the cast wore blue tights that were digitally replaced in post.

The weak U.S. dollar didn't help either, with Adamson commenting that "it's hard to shoot anything in L.A. these days -- it's so expensive. We did all our stage work in the Czech Republic."

Another factor that helped push Caspian's post-production across the Atlantic was of all things, the L.A. traffic. "When I was making my first film in L.A., I lived in Silver Lake. My composer was in Venice, Rhythm & Hues was in Marina Del Rey, Sony was in Culver City and the studio was in Glendale -- I was spending hours a day going from place to place. In [London's] Soho everything was a five-minute walk."

Dean Wright, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's visual effects supervisor and second unit director returned for the second Narnia film. Because of Caspian's scale, a second effects supervisor joined the project: Wendy Rogers, a colleague of Adamson's dating back to their PDI days. "Dean was on the last film and Wendy an addition on this one. I've worked with her a number of times over the years. Dean is from a production background while Wendy has more of a digital effects background. It meant I could let more go this time in terms of the digital side of things."

As with any film, blending human actors with digitally whipped-up fantasy beings, filming presented on-set as well as post-production challenges. "We had a lot of people in blue tights," Adamson says, "and on power risers -- stilt things with springs on them. They're used for circus acts. Wendy actually discovered them -- all the centaurs wore power risers [to bring them up to centaur-eye level].

Adamson says the most complicated shots to handle were the ones that went through multiple effects houses. This shot features the badger Trufflehunter.

"On the previous film we used some faun legs [on set] that kind of worked, but we really didn't use them enough to warrant them. We didn't have many people in fur pants this time -- just people in blue pants. It's a painstaking process [to patch together or replace actors with creatures], especially when you have these crowd scenes. It's a constant thing on set, asking people from the facilities -- 'do you really want people in this shot or not -- do you want to replace everyone or just put [animal] legs on people?' It's always a balancing act when you make that choice. Sometimes you leave people in and wish you hadn't. In some cases, they actually remove the people entirely and put CGI [creatures] in instead -- it's easier than putting the [digital] legs on them and tracking the actors. Sometimes the centaurs were fully CG, sometimes they were a combination of a real horse and a CG person.

"[In Wardrobe],we designed armor for the centaurs so the effects houses could create clean joins [between horse and human]; we decided not to make it easy for them this time. In the last film and this one, we really wanted to find that right balance between human body and horse body, how they belonged together and then how they moved. When a person rides a horse they're moved by the horse. The centaur is thinking and the horse body is moving with those thoughts. It becomes quite challenging." Adamson laughs when recalling one shot where a centaur is seen running with a human-style pumping arms motion: "Wherever possible, I would put swords in their hands to prevent them from doing that."

He estimates that some 1,000 Narnian creatures appeared onscreen, of which only 150 were real people onset. "We had 300 real Telemarines [the enemy army the Narnians are battling], which we turned into 5,000" via motion capture and motion control cameras. "You put your 300 guys close to the camera and then extend them from that point out."

Adamson says the most complicated shots to handle were the ones that went through multiple effects houses. "The live-action plates were augmented by Weta with backgrounds that had some characters from the Moving Picture Co., which were then finished off with [the lion] Aslan and [badger] Trufflehunter by Framestore. I think three vendors were the most we got to in this one.

"I edited the film in hi-def. I had a big screen in the edit room so I could watch scenes as the audience would view them. There were times I told myself: 'I don't need to be in a close-up here.' That's helped to give film a greater expanse."

For Adamson, the most important recent advance in vfx is the increased ability to create sophisticated interaction between live-action and CG work. Here, an epic battle takes place to determine control of Narnia. 

As post-production neared its end, "you end up getting very involved, particularly when there's bottlenecks and the quickest way to resolve things is just to be there as much as possible. I was doing four to six hours of visual effects daily, sitting in a dark room with a pointer going: 'See this, this little bit here?' I literally put the last visual effects shot on at 2:00 Monday morning [April 28th, three weeks before the film's opening], so it's been right to the wire.

"The process of directing for the last month or so is letting go. I think Woody Allen said that directing is just choosing your compromises. All along the way you make decisions that have consequences, and in the last few weeks you make decisions that are final. You're just trying to finish the film because people are literally grabbing prints out of your hand and shipping them off, We actually finished this film one reel at a time to make the print date -- they were printing reel one before we had finished reel five.

"It was a difficult film to finish as any film is. You're now saying this is as good as you're going to get and you hope it is good enough."

For Adamson, the most important recent advance in vfx is the increased ability to create ever-more sophisticated "interaction between live-action and CG work. A lot of time they used to cut between live-action and CG characters who weren't even in the same frame. Then the lighting got sophisticated enough to for them to be in frame together. Now we've got a little girl rolling around with a CG lion with her hands in his mane.

"The other thing that is becoming more and more achievable are complex simulations. [ScanlineVFX] created the water god [seen at the end of the film]. It was a really masterful effect: to control water like that is incredibly difficult. They told us they'd been waiting do a shot like that for 10 years." Adamson recalls the earliest days of CG animation when water and fur were two of the hardest textures to simulate. "Now we have wet fur."

After his 11-year Shrek-and-Narnia sprint, Adamson plans to take a year off before settling on his next project. Other than a planned return to New Zealand, "I'm developing some stuff and looking to do something quite different," is all he'll say about his future. And what of his past -- does he ever miss his earlier life as a pixel pusher, sitting at a workstation for hours on end? Was he tempted to go hands-on while wrapping up Wardrobe, just for old times' sake? "I'm not getting on the keyboard anymore; I gave that up a while ago. The one thing I really miss about it, though, is listening to music. I used to have my headphones on and listen all day. But when you're in meetings continuously talking to people, you can't sit there listening to music. I really miss that."

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.

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Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.