Movie PictureEarlier this afternoon we were invited to Rhythm and Hues, the Oscar winning character animation and effects studio that has been responsible for bringing their digital magic to such films as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Night at the Museum, Superman Returns, and the upcoming films The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and The Incredible Hulk.

This Christmas, they will be bringing their expertise to The Golden Compass, the first in a proposed trilogy of films. The franchise is based on Phillip Pullman's novel series His Dark Materials. This first entry revolves around a young girl who travels to the far north to save her best friend. Along the way she encounters shape-shifting creatures, witches, and a variety of otherworldly characters in a parallel universe.

Rhythm and Hues is responsible for bringing the film's daemons to life. A daemon is the physical manifestation of one's soul. They take on the form of an animal, and have a separate identity from the actual person they belong to. They are one entity; yet they take the form of two different bodies.

We met up with the visual effects team behind the on-screen creation of these daemons. On hand to discuss the hard work that went into making each soul animal manifest itself on screen were visual effects supervisors Gary Nolin and Bill Westenhofer, co-visual effects supervisor Raymond Chen, animation director Erik D. Boer, and Mike Meaker.

This is what they had to say about the project:

Gary Nolin: Welcome to Rhythm and Hues. We are all really glad that you are taking some time to be with us today. We have an enjoyable presentation, I hope. We are going to show you the new trailer that was released last week. Then we have some selected finals that we did. Then we have a little reel about how we put some of our shots together. I want to say some things about our involvement in the project. We first got involved with The Golden Compass last spring. We did extensive bidding on the project. We were bidding against all of the major effects companies. And we were fortunate enough to get awarded all of the daemon work. Which are all of the animals in the movie. For the most part. Bill and I went to London for all of the principle photography from August of last year until February of this year. Ray Chen was here, heading up all of our model building. To work on the shots when we came back. We have been working on the show since that time, and we will be delivering the film in about a week. We are almost done. We will have worked on almost eight hundred shots when all is said and done. By far, it's the biggest show we have ever been involved with. We have five hundred artists both here and at our facilities in India that have worked on the show. We are almost at the end, and we are all incredibly excited about seeing the movie come out in December. At this point I will turn it over to Bill, and he can tell you the specific shots that we worked on. And some general story ideas about the movie as well.

Bill Westenhofer: Hello, everybody. As you may know, there were several facilities working on this movie. This was a pretty big movie by visual effects standards. Our portion of the film consists of the daemons. For those of you who may or may not be familiar with the Pullman series, daemons are a manifestation of people's souls. In this world, the soul lives outside the human body, and they have an animal that follows them around for life. The animal is not a pet. They are as much a part of the person as a soul is to a person in our world. In their performance, they exhibit knowledge of what the character is thinking, and they kind of have their mannerisms. You have to watch for little things, like in the trailer, you will see that Sam Elliot has a little bunny as his daemon. And you will see that the bunny has similar head motions to Sam. We kind of show the connection that way. About the daemons in the film. In theory, every shot that has a human would have a daemon in it. We worked to keep them in the world without making it look like it was being overrun by feral creatures running everywhere. It is a good balance. You certainly want to have a connection with the lead character, which is Pan. She is the lead character, Lyra's daemon. One of the things you will see in the production is that an animal can change forms depending on its mood when the person is still in their adolescence. Pan can be a ferret or a cat, or a bird. We had to handle that transformation, and you will see some of that. Once they hit adolescence, that's like a person realizing who they really are. You will see a lot of adult daemons, and they are a part of that person's soul. They are affixed in their form and shape. And with that, we will now watch the trailer.

Bill Westenhofer: That should give you a taste of what The Golden Compass has. One of the things you would have noticed in there, we did the daemon characters. Since this is a shared production, another company did the polar bears. We are doing all of the animals, except for them. There are also other companies doing the set extensions. We are going to talk a little bit about what it takes to put a daemon in a shot. Like I said, Gary and I were in London when the principle photography was being done. At that time, one of the key things was figuring out how a person could realistically hold a key daemon, and how we would be able to come back later and put that in a shot. How were we going to put the golden monkey in the arms of Nicole Kidman, for example? So we did a lot of tests, and we wound up with every sort of contraption you could thing of. From a little green football to a stuffed cat on a fishing pole. We could swing it into her arms, for those moments when Pan comes running up as a cat and jumps into her arms. We had that. We also had to inform the camera operators how to frame for the animals. How big a hawk would be, or where the monkey would go. All of that stuff had to be worked out. There was another effect we had to work out. It dealt with the daemon deaths. When a person dies, their daemon dies. So they revert back to this dust material. We did a lot of simulations. They were fluid simulations. And we had to move it around as a real gas would move. The daemon itself dissolves into these fine particles before bursting into the sky. You will see that a lot in the battle sequences.

Raymond Chen: I am going to talk a little bit about the development of these animals. We started off with a lot of photographs of actual animals. We also had some concept paintings. A lot of our artists did them here. Or they were provided by the production on the set. And there were a lot of photographs provided by the production. We started with these things, and sort of figured out what the animals would be like from there. We treated them very much like people. We had to figure out how to get their personalities to come across. Pan transforms into a lot of different animals, and one of the things we wanted to do was have his look be similar over many different animal forms. One of the things we did was give him this bandit mask, which came from the ferret. We tried to give a little hint of that in all of his forms. When he is a wood mouse, he has a little dark area around his eyes. When he was a moth, it was a little bit harder. We tried to keep the same color palette as well. We used a lot of golds and browns. We gave him the same proportions as far as lighting goes.

Bill Westenhofer: As far as referencing the animals, we here at Rhythm and Hues like to go out and get as much stuff as we can. We've seen this a lot throughout the years. When you go to nature photos, they are quite beautiful. But they always want a glamour photo of the animal. What we want is a close-up of the mouth, or a close-up of the eye. Things you wont find readily available in the public domain. So we will go where we can and try to get in a cage with the real thing. Are there any questions?

How many different versions of Pan are there?

Raymond Chen: We've got Pan as a ferret and Pan as a wild cat. Those are the two main forms that you see Pan in. We also have Pan as a mouse and Pan as a seagull. He is also a sparrow. He's a moth. A film like this sort of changes throughout production. Sequences are added, and sequences are removed. We actually have many versions of Pan, a lot of which didn't make it into the film. We have one that is very huge. That is Pan as a baby snow leopard.

Can you talk about how quickly the actors adapted to acting against a green football in a lot of these scenes?

Movie PictureBill Westenhofer: Dakota (Blue Richards who plays Lyra) actually did a really good job. Part of this you can chalk up to a kid's imagination. They are still in that stage where they are still really quick to imagine the world around them. We did a test with real animals before production began. So she held real ferrets and a real cat. She has cats at home, so she was quite comfortable with that. We also coached her as to what these animals were doing. She adapted to that very rapidly. Nicole Kidman did a very good job as well. She sells that Golden Monkey. We wanted her performance to be as good as possible at any given moment. So we minimized the amount of paintwork she had to do. If she had a big green thing covering her face, that is a lot of work for us to recover. Sometimes she would do the performance with the green football. Or, she would rehearse with the football, get the idea, and then mime it out. Dakota was the one that had to deal with the contact more than anyone else. She did a really good job. The decision to go with all CGI'd characters was one that we decided on early. There was the discussion of having real animals. But for a number of reasons, we couldn't do that. The main reason was their performance. These are not pets. They can't just be running around. No matter how well trained they are, an animal is still going to be looking around for its trainer. And there is going to be a slightly detached feeling to it. These animals really had to sell that they are part of this person. They really had to sell their worry and their concern. So just from a performance standpoint alone, the decision to go with all CGI characters was an easy one to make. But then you balance that with how challenging this is with just the green screen and all of the other effects. If you threw in sixty animals, and a trainer was in the shot, this production would fall apart. It would have been impossible.

Are there any animals in the movie that are real?

Bill Westenhofer: There are. I originally said that there weren't any real animals in the movie, but I lied. That isn't one hundred percent true. There are a couple of dogs that you see in Nicole Kidman's flat. There were trained dogs on the set, but only a handful of those shots were used in the actual film. And the polar bears are not daemons. They are actual animals. They wear armor. They have their own cool story.

What were some of the challenges of working on this opposed to working on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Bill Westenhofer: From our standpoint, it is the same. It was about the performance and the character. With this one, the animal hand a much closer relationship with the human. Especially from a contact standpoint.

Erik D. Boer: In Narnia we had two major sequences that we needed to tag on. The big battle, and Aslan. We had to make sure that we got his performance right. Here, we have Pan changing shape a lot, which was very challenging. You will give me that the face on a moth is very different than the face on a wild cat. We were looking for ways to tie them together with some sort of emotion. We had to telegraph that these two creatures were the same guy. That was quite a challenge. We had a lot of fun with the wild cat. Pan's favorite form is the ferret. That was great to play with that. It is a very reactionary character. There were quick shots spread out over the entire movie. I think we had about eighty sequences. From that point of view, it was a very different movie. It was very fragmented in a way. We had to get the consistency throughout the entire movie just right.

Movie PictureI see massive toy potential here. Do the toy companies ever come to you for details when making the toy?

Gary Nolin: The toy companies actually go through the studio, which would be New Line. Sure. We often give reference to them for that purpose. By all means. In fact, I just brought in this morning a Golden Money Pez dispenser that I found in Wal*Mart. So they are already doing that. There are already a lot of toys our there.

From a technology standpoint, could this movie have been made two years ago?

Raymond Chen: Well, a lot of the technology that we used on this film was developed for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. So, a couple of years ago it would have been possible. It would have been a lot more painful. What we as a studio have been doing over the past couple of years is streamlining what we do. There have been shots that have been added late during the whole production. There is still one shot that is not yet filmed. To have a tight pipeline, you have to have that type of flexibility. You have to turn shots around very quickly.

Erik D. Boer: I would like to add that we could have done this a couple of years ago. But when we did Babe, we didn't animate tongues. But when we did Babe: Pig In The City, we said, "Hey, why don't animate the tongues as well?" And everyone went, "Do we have to?" Every year, we get a little bit better at what we do. Yes, we could have done this a few years ago, but already I think we have taken a major leap forward in portraying these animals. I'm sure that, in a few years from now, we will realize that we were not quite there. That we can push this even further. A lot of that has to do with the experience and craftsmanship that we learn in the studio, and that we are expanding every year.

This is the first in a series of books. Do you know if you will be working on a second film?

Gary Nolin: Yes. We have been thinking about the work there, but not extensively by any means. We are hoping to deal with that soon. But we will see.

The Golden Compass opens December 7th, 2007.