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'Aquamarine': Going Down Under For Mermaid VFX

Tara DiLullo chats with Morgane Furio of Animal Logic about Aquamarines leg and waterworks.

Australia-based vfx company Animal Logic worked with a creature effects designer to give Aquamarine a 21st century spin on the lovely fish-out-of-water story. All images © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Stories of sea-women, or mermaids, have been captivating societies since the time of ancient Syria. Forever immortalized and romanticized in books, songs and more recently in Disneys animated The Little Mermaid (1989), one truth has definitely evolved for modern filmmakers interested in tackling the challenge of bringing a half-woman/half-fish to life: its a lot easier in theory than in execution. Maybe thats the reason there havent been many live-action, big-screen mermaid films since Splash (1984), but director Elizabeth Allen didnt let that stop her when she dove into adapting Alice Hoffmans book Aquamarine (Fox, opening March 3), which weaves the sunny story of a sassy, young mermaid that gets her human legs, finds two human best friends and captures the heart of a cute boy.

Actress Sara Paxton takes on the mermaid role in the movie version, while Australia-based visual effects company Animal Logic took on the test of making this human girl look anything but onscreen. Under the guidance of Animal Logics visual effects supervisor, Morgane Furio, coupled with the work of creature effects designer, Jason Baird, Aquamarine gives a 21st century spin on the lovely fish-out-of-water story. Furio talks with about his teams work on Aquamarine.

Tara DiLullo: Aquamarine was shot primarily in Australia, so was that the immediate connection with Animal Logic doing the vfx work? If not, how did you get the project?

Morgane Furio: We enjoyed a number of discussions with Liz (Allen) and the studio about various approaches to the film. Those discussions led to us bidding and being awarded the project.

TD: The character of Aquamarine is a canny mix of practical effects and vfx. How did that mix evolve in the initial meetings?

MF: Overall, Aquamarine is a very 2D centered film. As the budget was limited, we had to find some clever solutions using Shake and a fantastic team of compositors. At an early stage it was decided that the tail would be prosthetic, since Aquamarines mermaid body would rarely be seen in full.

The biggest challenge was achieving Aquamarines death-defying somersault scene, when she meets Claire [Emma Roberts] and Hailey [JoJo] for the first time. Liz wanted to have this graceful somersault shown from the girls point of view and then from a birds eye view. Jumping out of the water, arching her back and re-entering the pool with the beautiful nightlight needed to be done under great control. As a full CG shot was not an option, the only way to achieve such a performance was through a combination of elements shot separately that would be put back together in Shake to form one single action. First we shot the background plate of the pool with a black dummy tail being pulled out of the water and a black sand bag being thrown from above to give us a nice splash.

When you have some interaction with water, I always prefer to shoot practical water and enhance it through CG if necessary. We decided to shoot Aquamarine in the studio on a special rotisserie rig that was designed to enable a 360-degree spin for both Sarah Paxton and the animatronics tail.

Vfx supervisor Morgane Furio found that its better to shoot practical water and enhance it through CG.

TD: What were the major sequences you created for the film?

MF: The major sequence we created was the stormy sequence, when Aquamarine is pushed out to sea by her rival Cecilia [Arielle Kebbel]. Aquamarine turns back into a mermaid, her legs transform into a tail and the weather turns nasty, revealing the angry mood of her powerful Dad. All the performances where shot in the studio in a water tank before a greenscreen. We then created the stormy ocean background using ocean plates shot in Queensland and stock footage of time lapse cloudy sky. Both ocean and sky plates were heavily enhanced through morphs and grading. Weve added some 3D spray and white caps and camera shake as well as running mist. Liz wanted to show the three girls fighting with the elements and I think that weve fully satisfied her vision.

TD: What other elements did you put together for the film?

MF: We also created the talking starfish earrings, the water tower 3D extension, the fire works, the gummy worm surfing a wave and many other smaller sequences.

TD: About how many shots did you create overall for the film and what was the percentage (i.e., wire-work, full CG character creation, etc.) of the kinds of work you did?

MF: Altogether we created the films 154 vfx shots. These were ranging from full 3D wave creation, full 3D set extension and 3D sea enhancement, to complex multi-layered composites, morphs, 2D character animation, 2D mood nail effect, lightning, underwater glow, sky replacement, face replacement, wire removal, split screens and beauty corrections. A nice diversity, really.

TD: Of course, you get the challenge of creating a character that belongs in water always one of the biggest CGI challenges, so what were the particular water issues in this film and how did you tackle them?

MF: Water is an amazingly complex element. The best way to get it right is to shoot as many practical plates and combine takes together or add CG enhancement where needed. Thats the way I approached Aquamarine, shooting practical water interaction, practical whirlpool, splashes, waves and full ocean plates. The task was then to carefully choose selects that once combined together would generate a proper base that would than be treated, morphed and dressed up with CG extra elements like spray and mist.

One of the challenges was Aquas leg transformation. We originally planed the transformation to happen in the dry portion of a whirlpool. After several attempts, the result was not convincing enough, so I proposed to Liz to forget about the whirlpool funnel and do the transformation under the water keeping only the surface spinning. It took our Shake artists a good dose of patience to get the right balance for the rebuilding of this shot. And after a lot of hard work, I am really happy with the result. I think that the underwater transformation is very convincing.

A major vfx challenge was Aquas leg transformation. After several disappointing attempts, they did the transformation under the water keeping only the surface spinning using Shake.

TD: What software systems did you use on the film? Did you have to use any proprietary systems or tools and how were they used?

MF: On the 3D side, we used Maya 7.0 and RenderMan, as well as boujou for tracking. On the 2D side we used Shake 4.0, Furnace and Sapphires. To generate our mini surf wave, we used proprietary systems that allow pearls of water to merge together and separate, as well as a surface shader that simulated light scattering through micro bubbles.

TD: Did the film add any new tools or techniques to the Animal Logic repertoire that you take to new projects now?

MF: The film didnt add any new tools, really, but it has definitely added new techniques, especially in generating some 2.5D treatments.

TD: Was there a shot that was the biggest headache to create and then what shot were you most proud of in the end?

MF: There were some headache shots like the mini surf wave, the tail transition and the love tear. They all had different reasons for headache, but in fact all of them shared the water challenge in their own way, and at the end we managed to get through all of them with great satisfaction. My favorite shot is part of the stormy sequence, where looking back at the shoreline we see Aquamarine reaching for the buoy with Claire and Hailey following in the distance. This shot was entirely built from scratch with Shake, using altogether, actions extracted from seven different plates and required intensive grading and fine-tuning.

Tara DiLullo is an east coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites and