By Mark London Williams
In the film adaptation of author Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first thing that Bill Westenhofer had to wrestle with were “Daemons.”
Westenhofer supervised the effects work of Rhythm + Hues, one of a handful of digital houses — under the overall visual effects supervision of Michael Fink – charged with bringing parts of Compass to life, particularly the daemons, who tend to personify the life force itself.
As fans of the books know, daemons are animal totems — spiritual twins who are joined with their human counterparts for life. Separation means death—for both. The book portrays a neo-Edwardian world where animals talk, witches fly, pocket devices divine “truth,” zeppelins provide regular transportation, a single church strives to impose its own version of truth upon all — and one’s daemon becomes set as a single fixed type of animal when one reaches puberty.
Until then, the metaphor would have it, children are flexible and adaptable. Restriction sets in with adulthood. Westenhofer knew all this going in, having been a fan of the book — an experience that replicated his previous work for R+H on the first Narnia, installment, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But the elation he initially felt, in knowing he’d be working on a story he already loved, was “followed by the terror” of wondering if he’d get it right.
Not only were daemons integral to the story, but they were interwoven throughout the film: every leading character has one. Thus, a crowd scene of people meant a crowd scene of daemons as well (along with “a whole smorgasbord of other animals,” as he describes it). And in the case of Pan, a daemon who is nominally a ferret, it also meant a nearly Gollum-like job of creating a lead character.
For Pan is the soul twin — as we might think of these companions — of the lead character, Lyra Belacqua, the young girl who tracks down a bevy of missing children and, in the process, winds up taking on the church itself.
For much of the film, Pan hasn’t settled into final form, so one of the challenges for Westenhofer was to make the shape-shifting as realistic as possible. He wanted to look at the transformations from a technical standpoint. When a mouse turns into a cat, say, there are “implied momentums,” as he phrases it, in moving from one shape to another, or out of one space into the next.
For example, there will be the “head thrusting forward from the mouse to the cat,” as the skull juts forward. For Westenhofer, then, part of selling the process was to have the newly formed cat “shake off” the sudden movement, as its body finished changing.
But “skull physics” were the least of the challenges. “Editorially,” he says, “there was a huge volume of [FX] shots” that were added later, partly with the realization that not every daemon had been written into the script.
But there were other challenges, too. As is not uncommon with films of this magnitude, several post houses were working on different effects for the film simultaneously.
What was uncommon, however, was something Westenhofer had only experienced previously on Narnia. In that film, under the supervision of Dean Wright, digital shops broke barriers, working not on separate scenes, but on elements of the same scene — creating, for example, various creatures fighting or cavorting together.
So Westenhofer, overseeing this daemon-infused story, expected something similar. But the bar was raised even further. “Most shots were shared shots,” he said. But the difference was that “in the past, one house might have been considered the final compositor” of a particular scene.
Here there were “pre-comps,” with each house finishing up its work before sending it down the post-production pipeline. He likens it to each house getting finished plates to work with. “We weren’t getting an element from Cinesite,” he said by way of example, but receiving instead the equivalent of final footage.
Westenhofer was talking about working in the DI phase of production, and the job of fine-tuning and tweaking the visual palettes of the various digital houses fell to Peter Doyle, the production’s supervising digital colourist – the British “u” being critical.
As for the camera tracking necessary to keep movement in the shots clear, Westenhofer said that each facility would keep track of its own movements, and things worked out. (Indeed, a maxim like “you are responsible for your own movement” might benefit the larger world, outside of postproduction, as well.)
However, not quite all was finished plates and digital fine tuning: While allowing it was rare, Westenhofer noted they’d occasionally “deliver a green screen with daemons in the background.”
Sometimes there’d be creative ways of subbing for the daemon, too. While onset in London, Westenhofer needed a stand-in for Pan during one scene where Lyra is in the lavish flat of main villainess, Mrs. Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman.
Pan gets excited and runs up and down Lyra’s body and rifles her hair. And while for some scenes requiring daemons Westenhofer would have the actors use “green footballs and rods,” here he had a puppeteer, off-camera, swinging in a beanbag to scramble around Lyra’s face and shoulders.
Later, he had to digitize some of Lyra’s hair as it was tousled by Pan, to make the shot as seamless as possible, and in fact, he was surprised by the smoothness of the mix of the digital and the real.
And while there was some use of both Side Effects’ Houdini and Autodesk’s Maya software packages, Westenhofer notes that R+H’s proprietary tools, developed over the years by the 22-year-old company, provided most of the in-house production pipeline.
In that package was some fluid simulation software, used to render the death of creatures. Westenhofer says it was customized to a “dying character sim” — into particles of dust. (Dust is its own currency in the story, but you’ll have to read the book – or see the film).
Written by Mark London Williams