Search form

'Peter Pan': Hook, Line and Tinker

Mark Ramshaw spoke with the visual effects wizards behind the newest live action Peter Pan feature about how they accomplished the startling and massive visual effects.

The visual effects artists on the newest film version of Peter Pan help bring to life a breath-taking imaginary world. Credit: Industrial Light & Magic. All images © 2003 Universal Studios, All rights reserved.

In 1904, two years after penning a short story about a character named Peter Pan for the book The Little White Bird, James Matthew Barrie decided to write an entire play about the diminutive hero. Initially deemed too difficult to stage and too complex for audiences, it nevertheless took flight, going on to become one of the most celebrated family plays ever and a hugely popular childrens book. A hundred years on and Pan has proven ageless and endlessly appealing. While the House Of Lords commemorates its centenary by proclaiming 2004 to be the year of Peter Pan, Universal, Columbia and Revolution Studios have pooled some $100,000,000 to bring the tale to the big screen.

This isnt by any means the first filmed version of Pan, the show was first filmed as a silent in 1924, given the Disney treatment for a 1953 animated musical, has been produced three times for television and even sequelized by Steven Spielberg in Hook. But this new edition, directed by Australian PJ Hogan, is the first to remain true to the source material (albeit breaking with theater tradition by casting a boy in the title role), utilizing a wealth of visual effects to bring the magic and majesty of Neverland to life.

Visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar of Industrial Light & Magic, veteran of movies such as Men In Black, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, began talks with the director some two years ago. PJ said he wanted an exotic look that was neither real nor fantasy, he recalls. We hit upon the description of painterly, like something from a storybook, with gorgeous saturated colors.

For his part, Farrar relished the opportunity to work on such a show. Visual effects have always been there to produce the wow element, and we are here to entertain. But with projects like A.I., Minority Report and now Pan, were no longer doing rather bombastic effects. I feel were getting the opportunity to help create worlds that have never been seen.

Peter Pan proves what amazing visuals can be achieved when production designers and visual effects artists work in tandem. Credit: Digital Domain.

Keeping Pan Theatrical

Though a seasoned director, Hogan crucially lacked any experience with visual effects. That was quite a worry for him, says Farrar. My reaction was to discuss the look of the movie, and tell him not to worry about exactly how it would be done. Then once we got started we got into the habit of providing a large canvas for him to select from, presenting up to five different looks for any given element.

The director also wanted to retain some of the theatricality of the original play. Shooting the entire movie on a soundstage helped in this respect, while also providing Farrar and his team, along with production designer Roger Ford, and cinematographer Don McAlpine, as much control of foreground elements as possible. Then by plugging the areas with bluescreen, we were able to use CG and matte work that stretches the scenes for miles beyond, so you never feel set-bound, adds Farrar.

Every time you look up what you see is CG, he continues. The set in Queensland was huge, but it was only built to 40 feet high. So for Hooks galleon it only went as high as the first crows nest. All the ship and sail detail above that had to be added, along with the clouds and sun, and even the parts of the ship that stretch down into the water.

Flying Free of Photorealism

Farrar readily admits that a need to create artistically led special effects proved a little tricky. Youd think not having to worry about photorealism would make things easier, but this has to be the most difficult film Ive ever worked on. Even just from the color management point of view it was such a challenge. We literally had entire color teams, dealing with such issues as the need to tweak Tinker Bell to suit any given background.

With Tinker Bell, the original intention had been to create a fully CG character, using Ludovine Sagnier merely for reference. In the event the actress displayed Chaplin-like comic abilities, her facial performance was utilized whenever possible, though some CG facial animation for both Tinker Bell and Pan (played by Jeremy Sumpter) was required.

For this, ILM augmented its established digital doubles approach (making use of proprietary tools ISculpt, Caricature and Zeno for sculpting, facial animation and rigid body simulation, respectively), with reference provided by a six-camera setup to capture a wealth of expressions from multiple angles. In addition, a simulation system was added to animate the leaf costumes worn by the duo, while the CG Tink and Hook (Jason Isaacs) also required new tools for handling tufted and spiral-curled hair.

Its hard to find any scene in the film that doesnt have a touch of magic added by the vfx fairies. Credit: Industrial Light & Magic.

Extensive work was also required to give the characters the power of flight. Weve seen a lot of movies where the flying doesnt look so hot, says Farrar, We knew first and foremost that you need to control the actor, using wires attached to their limbs, and then be ready to swap bits of their bodies to animate as necessary. Theres no motion capture, and classical animation isnt applicable to the human form, so we had to very carefully select animators, who could reference what the real actors were doing, then rely on their skill and sense of timing and movement.

Having worked with motion control for so many years, the ILM team also appreciated the importance of the relationship between camera, subject and background. Whats wrong with some of the Superman films is that they go and shoot an aerial plate then try to recreate the movement with the actors in the foreground. Its just impossible. So wed do matchmoves for everything, tracking all the camera moves.

In any given shot in Peter Pan, a character might seamlessly blend from completely real to digital double. For any move in a wire harness, youre naturally inclined to move your legs, points out Farrar. Thats not something youd need to do if you could really fly, so the answer is to take the bluescreen performance and then replace the body from the waist down.

Farrar chuckles at the recollection of some of the tricks used to make the blends completely invisible. One joke I make is to say the secret to visual effects is keep it dark and out of focus! Of course you cant do that, but when possible we did use visual sleight of hand, so to speak. A couple of times PJ would say, Why did Pan have to go out of frame at that point?

Not surprisingly, its Tinker Bell who clocks up the most air miles, and therefore required the most replacement work. Extra effort was also required to successfully convey her size and weight, create suitably iridescent wings and add a unique pixie glow.

ILM needed to develop new software to seamlessly integrate Tinker Bell into the film. Credit: Industrial Light & Magic.

We would speed her up, change her mass and alter her position so that she always appeared very light and tiny, while also paying attention to the idea of macro photography, to ensure she wouldnt simply look scaled down, explains Farrar. For the luminescence, we came up with the idea of having Tink look like a little candle. She provides the illumination, incorporating a subsurface light scattering effect, and then everything else quickly falls off to darkness. Rather than use a cheesy 2D effect we hit upon the idea illuminating a volume of animated pixie dust particles in the same way as sunlight coming through a window.

Bringing Neverland to Colorful Life

Beyond the extensive digital doubles work, much of ILMs lot focused on bringing Neverland itself to life. This included a spectacular introduction shot, in which Pans return is heralded by the rapid transition from winter to spring. Neverland is completely iced over, then as it begins to warm the ice cracks, Hooks ship rights itself and flowers come into bloom, says Farrar. Its a one-off, yet we spent about six months writing all the software and shaders for it,

Finding a way of generating and animating the little fluffy clouds of this dream world required further research and development. The director had in mind a cotton wool consistency, but how to achieve that without having fabric-like strands? It was a real headscratcher. When the children arrive in Neverland they bound off the clouds as they would trampolines, and then when Hook realizes theyre up there he blows a hole right through. We need to be able to integrate the actors, and have the clouds flexing, stretching and responding to movement, all with a beautiful lighting scheme.

Color plays a huge part in the style of Peter Pan. Credit: Industrial Light & Magic.

A single illustration by Hogan, depicting a pink, magenta and cyan-tinged formation ultimately provided the color reference for the entire cloud world. With the matte department working on the more distance formations, custom-written software was written to enable ILM artists to paint cloudscapes using Photoshop, flesh them out in 3D and then output them to RenderMan for some scenes. A volumetric solution, achieved using Maya and Mental Ray, offered more control for scenes in which the children more directly affect cloud shape. (Softimage|3D, XSI and Alias Power Animator were also utilized at one point or another on the show.)

Having worked on the show for nine months in Australia, then back at ILM from May 2002 until near the close of 2003, Farrar now marvels at what was achieved: At the highest point we had 300 people working on the show. I tell ya, once we get up to full steam its amazing what this company can do. Even though we had other shows going on, we were sometimes turning out over 40 finals a week, despite most shots being complex and many frames in length. Weve never done so many shots in such a short space of time, and in fact even worked on a couple of hundred more than never made it to the final cut.

Nevertheless, with the shoot running four months over schedule and ILMs determination not to sacrifice quality any step of the way, something had to give. Thus Digital Domain stepped in to take some of the workload, principally an extensive sequence in and around a castle and a CG incarnation of the storys famed crocodile.


Digital Domain brought Capt. Hooks worst nightmare to life. Credit: Digital Domain.

Digital Domain Assists with a Castle and a Croc

The castle sequence had already been started, but it was somewhat in turmoil, so there was still the opportunity to bring someone else in to take ownership, says visual effects supervisor Mark Forker, who led a Digital Domain team peaking at around 100 personnel. Don McApline had already done some extensive tests, creating a look heavy on blues and devoid of red, so we adopted that and continued matching what ILM had already started.

With the physical set reaching only to the first story, Digital Domain found itself providing extensions for more than half the shots. Rather than build the castle set in its entirety, Forker and his team created a kind of 3D LEGO system, producing components for arches, stairways, windows, walls, ropes and other elements visible in the physical set. Sections could then be quickly slotted together. Maya and RenderMan were the tools of choice for the set work, while additional particle and water droplet work in the shots was achieved with Houdini and its V-Mantra renderer.

PJ wanted to be able to look up and for it to be almost like an Escher painting, with walls and stairways that didnt make sense. None of the shots really showed that enough, so we actually added a couple of seconds to one where they enter the castle for the first time. They agreed it was just great.

As the sequence unfolds, Digital Domains work really comes to the fore. The sequence has a cacophony of battles all taking place in an around portion of the castle, says Forker. Once Pan starts to swordfight, hes almost entirely up in the air, so those sections are all 3D. It got to the point where PJ thought he was looking at a final to see a bit of rig removal work. He didnt realize he was looking at a completely CG environment.

For the Croc, Digital Domain worked from a painted-up maquette designed by modelmaker John Cox over in Australia and scanned by XYZ RGB in Canada. Theres usually a lot of extra work involved when working from scans, but these were just beautiful, adds Forker. From there we built up a low res model to animate for previs and generated our displacement maps, for the full model, animated in Maya and output to RenderMan.

CG supervisor Brad Parker and several other members of the Digital Domain team had previously worked on Lake Placid, which provided something of a head start when determining how a croc should look, move and interact with the water. To accomplish the latter, Forker shot a day-and-a-half of water splashes on set, added a few embellishments from Digital Domains own library (including some last seen in Placid), and also utilized its proprietary fluid simulation system, previously used in The Fellowship of The Ring. That provided a way to have the Croc procedurally affect the water as he leapt out and landed back in again.

While the finished creature does perform a few such improbable moves, hes essentially a realistic-looking creature, one driven by a detailed skeleton and muscle rig. Yet the director hadnt initially wanted something so convincing. He wanted a character, even to the point of him sitting up on his haunches. I wasnt a huge fan of that style, feeling that the point of the Croc was to scare not humor the audience. When it came to the animatics, we showed him both alternatives, and he chose the more aggressive version over a playful, sillier interpretation.

Digitally Doubling Peter

Digital Domain was also called upon to perform a small amount of doubles work, for two scenes that proved difficult to nail live. In one scene that has the hero caught in a net and another in which he launches into the air after kissing Wendy.

In the first scene it was proving hard to avoid having both the net and Pan look like they were being dragged by wires, so we got the best reference we could then basically remade three shots in 3D, Forker explains. For the second the angle on the original bluscreen wasnt satisfying, so we replaced the arms and legs to make him appear more nimble.

We worked from the original Cyberscans of Jeremy Sumpter, but then created our own rig and textures, adds Forker. The work required some very intense animation, though we didnt have to worry about face and hair issues.

Just as ILM made use of in-house compositing software CompTime, so Digital Domain turned to its own well-established solution, Nuke. We only used Flame for about 5% of the work, the rest was Nuke, says Forker. The amount of rig work meant we needed a large roto team, and there were also times on set when we simply said not to worry about pulling up a bluescreen, so that added to the workload.

Sony Pictures Imageworks to the Rescue

Digital Domain had expected to take on even more scenes, but, like ILM, found the number of shots ballooning. A third studio, Sony Pictures Imageworks, was brought on board, and in fact all three studios have a hand in an end battle sequence further complicated by a technically demanding color scheme that dramatically changes from a yellowish daytime light through deep orange and crimson to cobalt blue as the sun rapidly sets.

We not only needed to look and see what ILM was doing, but the scene also had our work intercutting with Sonys, says Forker. Wed animate our CG Pan and theyd need to add environment CG, plus animation, including a trail behind him. What we ended up doing was taking our part of the shot all the way to completion, then breaking the entire thing back down and handing them the pieces, the mattes, 3D character models, Maya files and so on. Quite often theres an element of competition when working with another studio, but with Imageworks it felt just like one big company. Nothing was held back. Im sure wed have all liked even more time to share and keep things looking unified, but in the end Don McApline and digital intermediate colorist Steve Scott did a great job of homogenizing all the work to create a single vision.

Such was the ever-expanding nature of the show that R!ot also pitched in, taking around 50 shots, including opening scenes of an idealized picture book version of London. Then, as R!ot found itself running out of time, things eased up at Digital Domain, so the closing shots were handed back again. With a need to match the opening scene, more sharing of material was required.

This is certainly the most collaborative project Ive have been involved with, says Forker. There was such a sense of camaraderie between all the studios. Id love to work with all these people again.

Mark Ramshaw is a freelance writer. He has worked as a computer game programmer and producer and a magazine editor, but now avoids grown-up office work by writing about the visual effects, video game and music industries. He is also contributing editor for 3D World.