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PP-post supervisor series-Narnia

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By Mark London Williams“In terms of amount of work, it was enormous.” Coming from a man who produced special effects for The Two Towers, The Return of the King and Titanic, that’s saying something. But Dean Wright, FX Supervisor for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, knows his enormity. And this certainly qualified.The FX vendor list alone more than hints at largeness: Sony Pictures Imageworks and Rhythm & Hues initially split much of the work; as production rolled along, a certain Industrial Light & Magic was called in to lend a hand—along with several boutique visual effects houses.All of them were overseen by Wright working on around 1,600 different shots. Of those, “at least 150” were shared between companies, done when each vendor “handed off rendered elements,” each created on the company’s own array of software.That way, FX houses “didn’t have to share animation files,” but only more finished elements with each other. “It went amazingly well,” Wright says, mentioning, by way of example, the scene when “Aslan (the titular kingly lion) shoves down one of the wolves.”Aslan was created by Rhythm & Hues, and the wolf was the handiwork of Imageworks. Originally, the big digital cat was going to have a flesh-and-blood canine adversary: “A real wolf was planned for on-set,” Wright reveals, though it was ultimately nixed, and the beast “fell into the realm of the digital world,” a line describing much of what currently passes for reality.The game plan called for Imageworks to do “the first half of the film,” and creatures like the aforementioned wolves, along with some matrimonially linked beavers, and a Rupert Everett-voiced fox. R&H got Aslan, Narnia denizens in an encampment, and the, well, lion’s share of battle sequences.The Solomonic dividing-in-the-middle was originally “a pretty safe dividing line, but it kept growing—then ILM came in.” At that point, there was “a summit meeting where all three companies sat down.”It was no small bill to fill, what with “30 to 40 different species of creatures out there interacting with each other.”That interaction wasn’t purely digital, however—making the film also entailed “a hundred days of motion capture” for the various bipeds and horses—the former including assorted Narnian satyrs and fauns.These were done with a combination of effects techniques, including horse heads made by KNB Effects, with humans “in green pants” wearing them and moving around, with more equine body parts rendered via CG. This matched much of the “location” work, which, like those Rings installments, used a whole lot of New Zealand, though “most of the sets were incomplete” and finished with matte paintings and 3D renders.But ones and zeroes definitely had their role to play, especially with the purely digital background creatures. There were numerous takes of individual actions and movements as part of the motion capture, “hundreds for every creature.” That, in turn, fed into the “brain tree,” as Wright describes it, the “AI nature” of the rendering software, which created a kind of videogame logic—which is to say, computer creatures acting differently depending on what stimulus they’re getting, and what they’re reacting to.“Each time, the response will be different,” Wright says. This labor-and-electron intense approach was taken because Wright, along with director Andrew Adamson, felt there was a “bar” set by the actors—including Georgie Henley, William Moseley and Anna Popplewell as the children, and Tilda Swinton as the White Witch. “The cast was just amazing, the kids were unbelievable,” he says.So if the computer creatures didn’t match the level of the flesh-and-blood thesping, “it’d be clear there were two movies—one live, the other CG.”So much of the film “working depends on you being continuously engaged,” he maintains, and that includes seamlessly matching FX, since “the audience is so savvy, too aware of the capability of effects.”To have the time to bring the CG side of the movie up to par with the live side, Wright agreed that “it’s critical to be involved as early as possible” in the production, the old categories of “pre” and “post” production holding less and less sway in the digital era.This is partly due to the reliance on pre-viz for so many films. “Pre-viz to Andrew is like a visual way of writing,” says Wright of the Shrek-tested director. So “as much (pre-viz) as we could get down (in advance) even before I was on,” was done.All of which led to the even newer concept of “post-viz.” Post-viz? “It’s like an early animation blocking pass,” which somewhat describes pre-viz itself, but which is then shown to vendors like R&H, ILM and Imageworks.Even the unfinished digital sets had “down and dirty” versions in the computer, so that everyone had a working sense of Narnia even before the landscape was finished. “Everyone thought (pre-viz) was a luxury,” Wright continues, “but it’s become a continual process.”Part of that continual, barrier-collapsed process extends to the other filmmaking crafts as well. “Every department” Wright notes, had “a department affiliated with the visual FX department.”By way of example, he talks about setting color palettes with the costume design team so there wouldn’t be a “sea of black” in battle and crowd scenes. Descriptions of costumes and creatures were also shared between the departments.Unsurprisingly, “the camera department became very close to us,” owing to much shared interest matching actual versus realized footage. “It was one huge tent, and we all lived in it,” Wright concludes. And while “tent” may have been a literal image for some of the only-accessible-by-helicopter mountaintop locations in New Zealand, the metaphor also extended to everyone aiding and abetting the cause of great visuals in this first tale of Narnia.Besides the digital vendors and KNB, WETA Workshop got involved making armor for the “enfleshed” actors. Despite the many, many hands on deck, the constantly recurring question was always “hey, do we have more time?”And the answer, as ever, was no.“Films are never done,” Wright observes, “they’re just wrestled from you.”Even though Narnia has been wrestled away from Wright, he will probably work on some “extended scenes” for the DVD. And down the line? Well, “Andrew and I get along great,” so if the call comes to turn Prince Caspian into the next Narnia tale, Wright says he’s ready.But first, he plans to “get a little sleep—we literally just finalized this film a week ago,” that being seven days before the first previews.Even the most smoothly executed enormous undertakings require a little downtime.

Written by Mark London Williams

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