Search form

'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' Diaries: Part 3 — Sony Pictures Imageworks & Mr. Beaver

In the third installment of VFXWorlds exclusive production diaries, visual effects supervisor Jim Berney of Sony Pictures Imageworks chronicles the creation of photoreal Mr. Beaver from early test through final animation for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Includes QuickTime clips!

This is the third of four installments in VFXWorlds The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe production diaries.


Sony Pictures Imageworks was involved very early on in testing the animation for Mr. Beaver and his wife. All Narnia images © Disney Enterprises Inc. and Walden Media Llc. All rights reserved.

My Own History With the Book

I first became aware of C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1971 in kindergarten. My teacher started to read the story to us, and I created the world in my head. She only read for a few days and then we moved away, but I still wondered what the rest of the story was. Then while living in Stockholm in 1989, I was traveling on a train, talking about books with a guy Id just met. He was telling me about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I said, I know that book youve heard of that book? I thought, Ive got to complete that story, but, being in college, I never did. And then, here at Imageworks about four years ago, wed just finished working on The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, and I was trying to figure out what the next big property out there would be, and I was thinking: I bet its the Narnia series.

About two years ago, I was in between projects and getting a little nervous. Deborah Giarratana, our rep, always has her ear to the ground about whats coming up, and she told me about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. While she wasnt certain that Id want to be a part of it on a limited budget, what she didnt know was my history with the book. I really did want to do it, and I thought: Theyve got to get it right. I knew the budget would get bigger, because there are not a whole lot of properties left that have this kind of scope and history. When I read the script, it reinforced what Ive always had in my head about the story: that initial walk through the wardrobe was my introduction to fantasy, that initial world, and that theyd really pulled it off in the script. What I liked about it was that the characters were diverse, both good and evil.

The filmmakers originally planned to have one visual effects company bid to do all 1,400 shots, which was giant. They had about 10 main CG characters, but there were 40 different creatures to build, and multiple variations on the theme (not just one centaur, but 10 distinctly different centaurs). Besides Imageworks, the other effects houses they were talking to were ILM and Rhythm & Hues. The first step for each one was to do an animation test on some of the CG characters in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

The Beaver Test

We started with an animation test, which gave us a chance to work with director Andrew Adamson, and he could also see the process hed be working with, and not just the dollar amount of our bid. The test of the Beaver character began with literally just some stills the filmmakers shot while location scouting. They gave us some plates and two dialogues pulled out of the movie, and we started putting a beaver together. I believe they gave us a model from their original rotoscan, and we started rigging it to animate without muscles but furring it and figuring out the plate. We turned it into a day for night and put the lamppost into it, where its a dark glowing forest in the snow and this beaver came down and gave this absolutely random line.

We went all-out just to polish off two shots. The whole team wanted to show creativity, and what we bring to the table with just a digital still and some dialogue. I thought it went really well. I think Andrew did enjoy working with us, but in the end Rhythm & Hues won the bid. Just doing the test was exhausting. It took two or three months, and bidding the whole picture took a good five months. It was a real letdown not to be awarded the show. I went on vacation with my family, and when I got back, I began to pull together The Polar Express IMAX 3-D team. That was well underway when we learned that Dean Wright, with whom wed worked very well on The Two Towers, was finishing the third film and was set to produce the visual effects for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. By now we also learned that production had broken down the visual effects for the film into three different packages. Dean asked us to bid on about 50 shots initially, and it grew from there. By the end of July 2004, we were awarded the characters of Mr. Tumnus, Mr. & Mrs. Beaver and the wolves named Maugrim and Vardin.

Principal Photography

There was a lot of gray area about what our shots might be when I packed my bags and flew into Auckland, New Zealand, a week after principal photography began in August 2004. I shot plates for two weeks, 16-hour days, and then flew back to Los Angeles to get the Imageworks people set on what we were going to do.

Animation director David Schaub and digital supervisor David A. Smith led the team. We knew the broad strokes of the characters they could start on, like building and animating the beavers from the test, and we knew the schedule would be tight. I dont think people here understood that I wasnt planning on coming back until the end of principal. I shot another week in Auckland, and then took a 36-hour-long flight to London with a small 3rd unit. By then we were doing the Bombing of London sequence, which opens the film, and there were also things with trains I had to get.

The day before I went to London, the filmmakers put in a greenscreen shot of a corner of Paddington Station they had shot without me. I had a little QuickTime of the shot with a camera tilt-down on my laptop and I had about two seconds to talk to Dean before I left. He said just collect the pieces, that train, Paddington Station. It was a scavenger hunt, getting these random pieces of the puzzle. It finally came together and its amazing how well it works in the final shot, which was filled out with CG extensions.

Filming in cold, harsh conditions with children was a challenge during principle photography.

When I got back from London, we shot multiple stages and multiple units in Auckland for a couple of months, during which my wife and sons moved down to be with me. At the end of October 2004, there was a big exodus to South Island, where we did various locations here and there, and finally ended up in Christchurch shooting the battle stuff just before Christmas. I got back to Los Angeles in January 2005 and had a month to get some of the simpler non-character stuff together. Just as I was getting back in the swing here, we took off for the Czech Republic for five weeks shooting in the snow. You cant shoot kids in cold weather all day long, but you need a little bit of it to make the whole thing look believable. Dean and I spent three days doing helicopter shooting in the Northern Czech Republic, then we went back to Prague, where we were setting up a big wave tank for the water sequence. We got back to Culver City tired, and started shooting miniatures, while the rest of the Imageworks team was continuing character animation.


Andrew is used to exploring his animated characters for a year before starting filming, but we didnt have that luxury. In February 2005, we needed to get going to finish what were eventually 580 shots in eight months. At our peak, we had a team of 150 people working fulltime. We had to explore the look of the characters within the sequences with blocking, and once Andrew had bought off on that primary stage, wed fur it. Wed developed incredible fur combing tools on Stuart Little that allow the artists to create very specific fur shape and style, and also optimizations where we could actually render something as complicated as Stuart Littles head with 500,000 hairs in an hour-and-a-half. I anticipated that the level of fur detail these characters would need was a problem, and that wed need to create a pipeline where we could make that happen very quickly.


Part of the challenge of creating Mr. Beaver was to make him talk and walk convincingly, but retain a natural quality.

The Creatures: Making Beavers Walk Upright and Talk

The first characters we started working on were Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who are principal characters in the movie. Theyre very interactive with the kids, and theyre the most anthropomorphic of all the critters. The animals were all supposed to look like real animals that just happen to talk. With the beavers, youre kind of eased into them, so by the middle of the film when theyre really moving around and gesticulating like humans, youve bought into the fact that theyre real. Originally, we slightly underestimated how much musculature the beavers would need. Beavers are fat, jiggly things, but Andrews very sensitive to what muscles move and how. We figured wed need to have two sets of muscles to deal with the challenge of having an animal that normally walks as a quadruped walk bipedal, so we did walk cycles for months, but it was very hard to get the muscle movement. It wasnt really two full sets of muscles, just some muscles that work in the bipedal movement but not in the quadruped mode. Its scary to have to use two sets of muscles, but we knew there werent many places where hed make that transition from quadruped to bidepal. We got the look of the back of Mr. Beavers head bought off first, so we did all those shots, and then the shots where he was sitting, to give us time to get the bipedal walk down. Once we got Mr. Beaver figured out, Mrs. Beaver was much easier. The way we did end up exploring their characters is actually in the Beaver Hut sequence. We worked out different facial expressions and body gestures. In some shots there were really big arm movements that made them look very endearing, which Andrew would approve of. Thats why he specifically didnt want us to look at the video of Ray Watson giving his lines as Mr. Beaver. He wanted us to explore the characters within the scene so wed discover the beaver-like characteristics on our own without the human performance to influence the animation. We also did a great effect close-up of Mrs. Beaver when she comes out of the water dripping and shakes off, which looks awesome.

What was difficult about the beavers, according to David Smith, was that they had to have both the physiology of a beaver and the more anthropomorphic kind of motions. That was a struggle, because when you put a muscle in one place, it would kind of mess it up for the other directions. We basically had a customized set of muscles you could turn on or off, or blend, too, if needed. Fortunately, they were usually in one mode or the other.

Since joining Sony Pictures Imageworks in 1996, Jim Berney has served as visual effects and CG supervisor on a number of notable projects, including The Polar Express: An IMAX 3-D Experience, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Hollow Man and Stuart Little.

Attached Files 
2750-narniabeavers1.mov630.08 KB
2750-narniabeavers2.mov534.09 KB