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The Chronicles of Narnia's Visual Effects Revealed

By — February 15th, 2006

Dean Wright and Howard Berger Interview

Get a look inside the Oscar-nominated world of Dean Wright and Howard Berger

After three months at the box office, world wide success, and now three Oscar nominations, I think people are getting the idea that The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a pretty amazing film. Just to give you an idea of the amount of money this movie has made world wide, it has well over tripled its budget of $180 million, taking in over $650 million; domestically, it's made over $280 million.

Yeah, I'd say the folks over at Disney are pretty pleased with how the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006. But there are some other folks who are also extremely elated with the success of this film - Sony Pictures Imageworks. Yes, that's right, the people who brought us The Polar Express had a major role in the development of the characters in Narnia.

That's why this afternoon I was invited to the Sony Pictures Imageworks studios in Culver City for a presentation on more of the special features created in this film. We also had the chance to congratulate many of the people who have been nominated for the Academy Awards in Visual Effects and Make Up. I had the chance to speak with Dean Wright and his team of Visual Effects, Jim Berney, of Imageworks, Scott Farrar, of Industrial Light & Magic, and Bill Westenhofer, of Rhythm & Hues. Howard Berger from K.N.B. was there to talk about the make up; his partner Tami Lane was not able to make it. And, unfortunately, the entire sound team of Terry Porter, Dean Zupancic, and Tony Johnson who were nominated for the Oscar were home sick with the flu.

However, we were treated to some of the most amazing clips from the movie and how they were created. A few weeks ago, I was invited to Disney Studios to see a few of the features on the DVD. That presentation was only the start of what we saw and heard today. After hearing DVD Producer Andy Siditsky talk about those features, I couldn't wait for the release of the DVD. Today's presentation made me want to go to the theater again and see this movie on the big screen.

I will always be amazed at the amount of work that goes into the special effects in movies. And not only that, but how flawless it looks on the big screen. In this movie, it's beyond flawless.

The presentation began with Dean Wright honoring his team for the Oscar nominations, and the other nominees in attendance. We were able to see about a five minute clip of different scenes from throughout the movie; then, they were broken down into segments to detail how they were created. If numbers mean anything to you, Dean told us that Narnia included 1670 effects and over 1000 of them were complex CG characters, there were over 40 distinct different creatures, there was CG water, CG ice, CG land. The creatures were created on set and by Howard Berger and his team at KNB. There were 59 people who worked solely on the Make Up and over 200 people working on the Visual Effects at one point of the movie �" that's a lot of people doing a lot of work. It paid off big time.

Dean explained about six of the major characters, namely Aslan, Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, Varden and Maugrim (The White Witch's henchmen wolves), and Fox. They were all integral in the story line, "They had major screen time, they had major interaction with the kids." That meant director, Andrew Adamson had a major role in the development in these characters as well. Dean said "Andrew insisted that every digital character had to look real, act real, and be as real as any of the cast on set, and they would look as real as any creature you would see in the real world."

That is dedication, and that is why this film did so well. So the task at hand for Dean's team was to make sure "they talk and be as believable as the cast, but not break the illusion of being an animal as well." Dean gave major props to his team as he went on. "Of course, the artists that you are sitting amongst here today were up to the task and delivered an excellent film!"

We were then treated to about an hour's worth of footage that will be on the DVD and behind the scenes filming, that won't be on the DVD. Sorry folks, those are just the benefits of being in my position. But don't worry, I'll do my best to hype you up and get you ready to get in your car and drive to the movies and watch this film.

As I was watching some of the footage, I was completely blown away at how many layers each frame, shot, scene, and character took. In one clip, we were able to see how they created the castle. Now, normally, you'd just look at the castle on screen and think it was just one drawing. Well, you'd be extremely wrong. Just to create the non-moving castle, there were nine layers of CG work �" from the initial peaks, to the ice at the bottom of the building, to the windows, to the bridge. You name it, and they had to create it. Oh, and I'll mention again, the castle didn't move.

I bring that up, because we were also shown a clip from the final battle scene. There were again over 1000 different creatures fighting at one time, and they were all different. Even if it wasn't a significant change, the animators did not want the same creature out there. Next time you watch the film, look for the breast plates or the horns or the color of the horse. You'll see that there are not two of the same creatures out there.

As far as Aslan, Andrew used a real lion for shots, for the movement of the mouth, the muscles, facial expressions, and actual scenes. Bill Westenhofer was in charge of creating the life-like Aslan and the final battle scene for the big screen. Bill talked about what it meant to him to be the head of this character. "This was a book I cherished as a child, so it was initially thrilling to know that you're going to work on this creature that is critical for the success of all the films, that's the most important part of the rest of these books. Fortunately, I was blessed with a fantastic team at Rhythm & Hues. We spent two years working on the character that you see on the screen."

He and the team designed three different fake lions; one for laying down during the sacrifice scene, one was a full size Aslan built for all the stand-in work, and the third was a running version that Georgie (Lucy) and Anna (Susan) rode.

But a little known fact that came up was that originally, they were only going to have one ‘blue-form' Aslan. It came down to the decision of not using that and being able to build the other models.

One of the funny things that was in the clip about Aslan involved the two girls. Bill decided he wanted to have the running Aslan constantly on and moving, even when the girls weren't on it. Georgie, the youngest of the children, gave the robotic lion a look and the lion gave her a look back. It was so cute to see her interaction with the puppet!

I talked about the battle scene earlier, but we were shown what went into getting everything to look so real. All the Centaurs are real men; they really run, but they're wearing green tights with tracking sensors to get their real movements while they're running and fighting. If you want to talk about layers, that final battle took six �" eight weeks to shoot; it's ten to fifteen minutes of the movie. Each frame of the movie took nearly ten hours to render �" allow the graphic to come alive.

Movie PictureAt the end of the presentation, Dean said something that really hit close to me. He said that this is the first movie where all the departments worked so well together on scenes, shots, frames, and characters. This affected me because I know how hard it is for certain artistic and creative departments to work together �" it doesn't happen, ever. And for this to be the first film it happened on, maybe certain studios should take note on what to do.

The team at Disney, Sony Imageworks, KNB, Rhythm & Hues deserve all the credit they get �" and they should win the Academy Award for this movie. If I had an Oscar ballot, they'd have my vote!

One small note that came out of today; no one confirmed that they will be working on the second film, Prince Caspian, but Dean hinted that he can't wait to be with his team again and the rest of the people who worked on this movie!

Not surprisingly, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is still in theaters; it's rated PG.

The DVD release is April 4th with two separate choices, a special edition two-disc set with extra bonus features and a single disc option with still tons of special features. You don't want to miss out!

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