EXCLUSIVE: WETA's Matt Aitken Walks Us Over the <strong><em>Bridge to Terabithia</em></strong>

Creating the imaginary land for the film adaptation

It's a magical make-believe land - Terabithia.

From the imaginations of AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson, comes the new film, Bridge to Terabithia. But, those creatures didn't just come out of no where - the good people at WETA worked tirelessly to get them looking spectacular. The film is an adaptation of the children's novel by Katherine Patterson; it's directed by Gabor Csupo, of Nickelodeon cartoon fame.

I had the chance to speak with Matt Aitken, one of the animators at the New Zealand workshop about creating the world of Terabithia. He told me making this land was a little different than working on King Kong and The Lord Of The Rings.

Check out what he had to say:

Matt, this truly is one of the best children's films I've seen in a long time.

Matt Aitken: Thank you. I think the visual effects is just one component. I was very happy to work on the film; I think it has real potential for greatness.

What did you work on?

Matt Aitken: We were responsible for the digital creatures; we worked on all the characters, and the realization of the land of Terabithia, especially at the end where it opens up. We did the bridge transformation, but a little bit of everything of the creatures and environmental stuff.

Do you see the movie differently when you see it on the big screen?

Matt Aitken: We have it set up so when we work on it, it looks the same as the theater. We spend a lot of time here making sure our screens match what's going out on the big screen. But also, before we hand it off to the production, we make sure it looks clean; each and every individual shot looks good in the environment. What's great for me is I've seen it a couple times, and seeing it cut together, the way it sounds, you get that experience! We work without sound, so there's a huge different experience watching the film with the score and the dialogue all mixed up.

When do you think you'll be able to see the finished film?

Matt Aitken: In a few weeks; I'm going to take my six-year-old daughter along to see it, and it'll be great to show her. I use her for some early looks; she's got a real critical eye, and she'll be very critical. She understands what's going on, and she can say, 'Oh, you're going to put that there.'

How did WETA get involved in the film?

Matt Aitken: It was all about timing for us; when we were working on The Lord Of The Rings and King Kong, we were booked for years. We came off King Kong, and we knew Peter Jackson, who's not only our founder, but our main client, he was going to be writing his next film for a while so we had the time for other productions. Walden Media and Disney came to us and we were thrilled to work on this film, to work on the creatures and the land of Terabithia that had to be created.

Did it help to have Gabor have a background in animation working on this film?

Matt Aitken: Yeah, he was great to work with; from the background animation to the creatures, he knew exactly what he wanted them to look like. What you create in these situations is three or four looks; Gabor created something exactly how he wanted. We were really balancing between keeping it scary and adding a bit of danger to it, but bringing it down with humor - finding that balance was something that was key, and Gabor was great about helping us through that.

Did you talk to Katherine Patterson about what her vision?

Matt Aitken: No, we didn't have any direct contact with her, but she was always a presence in the background, and was always involved. I was aware she was there, but for me, it's a great book and I didn't want to mess it up.

Did you know the book before?

Matt Aitken: I didn't know it before; as soon as we started talking to the production, I went out and got it before I read the script.

Do you put yourself in the land of Terabithia when working on this?

Matt Aitken: Yeah, it's really an opportunity to be as tall and wonderful and beautiful as it can; it's really an opportunity to let your mind sour. You can draw on that, and it really does parallel the experience of the kids, and follow the process they're going through.

Did you have those same experiences at school?

Matt Aitken: Not that I can remember, but it's easy to identify what those kids are going through in the writing of the book and the screenplay. You just go on that.

How did you communicate with Gabor about your progress?

Matt Aitken: He was in Los Angeles, so we had video chats with him in a twice-a-week slot where we would get together and review the process. We had what we call digital pre-production, which is building the creatures and building the environment. We would then start animating them, and concentrate on their movement, and make sure they move, and we were reviewing that with Gabor and he was greatly involved in that. Then we move onto making sure they look real, and animating them, and draw the digital lighting, and produce the final look of it. He and the production team were very involved in that.

After this, what are you working on next?

Matt Aitken: We are embarking on a big project with James Cameron - his film, Avatar. We're going to be working on the last big of effects for the film, and we're getting knee deep in that. This is his original screenplay, and we're going to realize his vision.

Is there a chance of working with Peter Jackson again?

Matt Aitken: Oh yeah, he's working on the script for his new film, The Lovely Bones; we're very much looking forward to working on that.

You can check out all the amazing work WETA did on Bridge to Terabithia when it opens in theaters February 16th; it's rated PG.