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'The Water Horse': Weta Dives into the Family Film

Weta Digital changes direction with The Water Horse, so Tara DiLullo Bennett finds out how from Joe Letteri.


Stories and sightings of monsters inhabiting the lakes of Scotland are centuries old, with the most famous culminating in the photo snapped of what became known as the Loch Ness monster in 1933. People have theorized the creatures are everything from a monster-sized eel to a plesiosaur that somehow escaped extinction in the land locked loch, but scientists have never found actual evidence any of them exist.

Hollywood is now taking the tale to the big screen showing how that creature might have come to be in director Jay Russell's spin on author Dick King-Smith's book The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep (opening Christmas Day from Sony Pictures). Instead of Nessie, the creature in this story is called Crusoe and he's found still inside his egg by a little boy named Angus (Alex Etel). At home, the egg hatches and births a mythical creature known as a Water Horse in the Scottish Highlands. Together Angus and Crusoe become fast friends but how do you hide a slippery creature with a penchant for trouble from the rest of the not so friendly world? Such is the story of the charming, family movie.

But for Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri, who has just become a full-partner at New Zealand-based Weta Digital, the bigger question became how do you bring Crusoe to life? With his team of digital artists under the guidance of Russell, Letteri and his crew finally brought the mystical to life. Letteri talks to VFXWorld about the challenges and process of making The Water Horse happen.

Tara DiLullo Bennett: How was Crusoe conceptualized?

Joe Letteri: We had a couple of ideas of when we started. The main one was the classic picture of the Loch Ness Monster. We knew as an adult we needed him to look like that especially because we were going to do the gag in the film of the guys taking the [infamous] photo. Just trying to come up with what that would be and the closest thing we could think of was a plesiosaur. It looked about the right thing. As we started thinking about him being smaller and smaller, we started thinking more of like a seal, with flippers and a little more friendly.

Jay had done some concept art before he came here showing Crusoe in all his stages. The idea was that when we first see Crusoe, he's hatching from an egg. Jay wanted to go with the look of a bird, where they come out messy and kind of ugly but cute. We wanted that idea so he has more of a beak. He snaps at Angus so you don't know if he is dangerous. But the next time you see him, he's grown into a puppy phase. We used seals for the body type and the performance, even though he different from a seal because of the flippers. But we went for the idea of a seal with the way he moved and the playfulness. In the face, it was more puppy dog because this really in a way is a boy and his dog story. We didn't want to humanize Crusoe, but we wanted to be able to recognize his emotions and a dog is best for that. We kept going back to that. So that left the one phase to fill in which was the teenage phase, where he is halfway in between the two. We played it like a teenager, where is just more awkward and doesn't quite fit in. That was part of the story too because it's the part where he is separated from Angus and find his own way in the world. You see in the movie the two parallel stories for a few minutes as they both go through that phase.

TDB: Was there a time when you considered using performance capture for Crusoe like you did for other Weta Digital created creatures like King Kong or Gollum?

JL: We always thought that he would be an animated character. We never gave any consideration to doing Crusoe with motion capture because with all the animal references the performance that we wanted, it really required an animated performance to do that.

TDB: Despite not utilizing performance capture, Weta Digital still has immense experience with creating full-blown CG characters and Crusoe falls into that category. How did that prior work inform how you approached creating Crusoe?

Designing the various body stages for Crusoe were critically important, because he was a main character that could only communicate via body language and facial expressions.

JL: There's a couple of different things that happened simultaneously. One was looking at broad stroke character design. Once we had the basic forms that we knew we wanted for the different stages of his life, Weta Workshop did some sculpts and we molded them and scanned them so we could get started on the basic body design. We did rough scans and immediately got them into previs. By putting them into shots, we could start working out the character and that told us a lot of what he needed to physically perform. At that point we could make adjustments in the flippers or tail and where the neck joints need to be. You start to see what you want him to do and how flexible he needs to be. The previs told us a lot to help us develop the personality.

Then you start looking at how you are going to rig and animate this. There we draw on our history of our muscle animation system and our skeletal system. We use the same ideas as we would for any other creature, and, in a way, Crusoe was an offshoot of Kong, because you have a lead character that doesn't speak. He has to carry his moments just with facial expressions and body language. There are squawks but no dialog. So we used the same ideas that we did with Kong: not humanized but the emotions needed to be understood. We built a facial system using the same controls we would have for Gollum or Kong, but now making them drive the types of muscles that you would see in a dog's face. We used that to get the same expressions as with the smiling, worried or frightened. We've all seen a dog splashing in water or bolting when scared, so those ideas drove the facial expressions.

TDB: Was there a breed you focused on for the performance?

JL: Not any one in particular because they all have different ways of expressing themselves and we looked at lots of them to synthesize something to get the feel we wanted.

TDB: What was your approach in terms of Crusoe's look and texture?

Making the skin of the creature look and feel real was a key design element for the team at Weta.

JL: We extended the ideas that we have been doing with skin development. When he was an infant, we tried to get a translucent feel so we did multiple layers of sub-surface, so we could put skeletons into the body. You can see when he is backlit, the bones blocking the lighting. We wanted that newly hatched bird look. The next time you see him, he's a puppy and a little bit fatter, so we incorporated a layer of fat in there. It blocks more of the light but it affects color at a deeper level. So we were still building off of what we have done in the past and just incorporating those ideas into Crusoe.

TDB: Did you previs a lot of the film?

JL: We used the previs as a shooting guide and tried to stick to that as much as possible because Jay was directing us with the previs. We had a lot of meetings. So we were looking at camera angle and pacing as well as just what the effects were going to be. We had the previs on set constantly. Stephen Rosenbaum, who was our onset supervisor, used it to check everything shot to shot. It was great because we didn't use motion controller things but a lot of shots would come back and we could drop our previs Crusoe onto the plate and he lined up really well in a lot of cases. It was great the way that worked out.

TDB: Did you try to use a lot of practical elements when Crusoe was in his environment or did you just go all CG?

JL: We tried to shoot as many interactive elements as we could. We shot out on a lake in New Zealand here that would double for Scotland and we would have a jet ski out there to give us the speed and the wake. Or we built a big water tank in our back lot that was 100' x 150' and we had a riding rig for Angus for a scene where he is riding Crusoe. It was all very helpful at the start but in the end we had to replace it all because once Crusoe is in there, he moves differently than a jet ski. He bobs and turns so all of those things gave us great reference, but we ended up painting a lot out. We also shot a lot of elements to replace things with as well. We tried to use live action elements wherever we could because doing digital water is still really hard so we reserved doing digital water for where there was no way we could get live action elements in there.

TDB: Ultimately, how did you meld the practical and the physical together?

JL: We used 2D helper elements to glue everything together. There is a lot of little handwork. It's hard when you are putting a creature in a lake to create a simulation that works for the interaction with the creature and matches up with what the water is doing on the lake so it's still pretty much impossible. We use a lot of 2D elements to by hand layer it all in until it looks good.

Weta not only had to tackle the creature, but also lakeside environments as well. 

TDB: Besides the proprietary skeletal and muscular software, what other software tools did you use?

JL: We wrote new water software based on what we developed on Kong, so that was all proprietary. The water was the biggest thing because it underwent a rewrite to get it up to the size of what we needed to do for The Water Horse. A lot of the other tools were evolutionary and still continue to be used and will be used. Plus, we still use off the shelf packages as our backbone. We use Maya as our 3D environment. We use RenderMan to do our rendering. Shake is for our compositing and we started using more Nuke on this show because it's got nice 3D capabilities for 3D for environments and background extensions. It's our standard workflow. Anything that we create that is proprietary plugs into that so it's more artist friendly to look at a front end that you are familiar with rather than learning new systems.

TDB: How many animators did you have assigned to post?

JL: It varied during the life of the show but at our peak we were at about 250 artists and just under 650 shots that we did.

TDB: What other vfx did Weta Digital create for the movie?

JL: The ride out on the lake was done with environments that we created from the scenery around the lake so there was a lot of big environments cycs and matte painting and compositing to make that all happen. There was a lot of rig cleanup and paint out for the shots with Angus on the rig. The things you always have to do when fitting a character to a rig is just a lot of tricks to glue the two together which comes down to a lot of hand compositing with camera match moving to lock everything into the shot.

TDB: What were the biggest challenges and accomplishments for Weta Digital on this film?

JL: The biggest issue that we dealt was really working out his personalities through the four phases of his life. Each phase had an overall feeling to it with the anxiety or the playfulness. We have never really done this with a creature, animating it through its whole growth. We keep it in mind when we are designing it but this is the first time we have shown it all the way through. So we still needed to make a consistency and establish little things that he and Angus would do in a reaction to one another that you would see later on and recognize that the bond still existed between them.

TDB: What sequences are you most proud of in the film?

JL: When you first see him hatching, he looks really good. You get the impression of this scared little thing coming out of its shell, but you also know this thing is going to cause trouble. So that's why the puppy phase, from an overall performance point of view, was the most fun because he was trouble. It wasn't like him causing it but it follows him and that was a lot of fun.

TDB: Was it fun putting your stamp on these mystical stories that have lived in story form for so long and now they get to actually live?

JL: Yes, it was. We had some fun like the gag of the guys shooting the famous photo and then a magical underwater ride that Crusoe takes Angus on, they are seen gliding past a sunken Stonehenge. Little things like that were fanciful and reminded you of the spirit of the story.

TDB: After doing so much work on other more intense films, was it nice to do something that appeals to families?

JL: Yes! The thing that really attracted me to doing the film when the script first came in is that it's a good story and a good family film. We've been doing these big effects films and for those of us with younger kids, it was nice to be able to do a film we knew we could take them to on the first day. It was really nice and it was enjoyable to watch when it was all finished and that's what we wanted.

Tara DiLullo Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books, 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1 & 2.