« South of the Border | Main | Exclusive: 30 Second Cloverfield TV Spot »

January 8, 2008

Cover Story: 'The Spiderwick Chronicles'

Iain Blair (postmagazine)
SAN FRANCISCO - Based on the best-selling series of books, the fantasy adventure The Spiderwick Chronicles tells the story of the three Grace children — twins Jared and Simon (both played by Freddie Highmore), their fencing-enthusiast sister Mallory (Sarah Bolger), and their recently divorced mother Helen (Mary-Louise Parker) who move into their great-aunt's abandoned home, the ancient and somewhat dilapidated Spiderwick Estate.

Directed by Mark Waters, shot by Caleb Deschanel, ASC, and edited by Michael Kahn, ACE, the film is a tour-de-force of visual effects by San Francisco's Industrial Light & Magic (www.ilm.com) and Berkeley, CA's Tippett Studio (www.tippett.com), who both used cutting edge post techniques to bring the various creatures to life.

Visual effects pioneer Phil Tippett was creature supervisor and oversaw the design and development of the film's fully-digital fantasy characters Thimbletack, Hogsqueal, the Troll, Red Cap and the army of goblins and bull goblins. On set during the entirety of principal photography, Tippett worked in conjunction with the team from ILM to make certain props and materials were available to shoot the scenes with the actors so the digital characters could be successfully integrated by the visual effects companies during post production.

The team at Tippett Studio — including visual effects supervisor Joel Friesch, computer graphics supervisor Russell Darling and animation supervisor Todd Labonte — was responsible for the final animation of Hogsqueal, the Troll, Red Cap, the goblins and bull goblins, and worked closely in tandem with the ILM crew for scenes in which the two companies shared characters.

At ILM, visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander, an award-winning effects expert whose credits include the last two Harry Potter films, guided the development, animation and integration of the film's ogre Mulgarath and the ill-tempered Bogart. Alexander's team also created a variety of fantastical supporting characters, such as the majestic Griffin, a rapacious Raven, the Snake, Sylph and a host of magical and elaborately-detailed Sprites. Alexander also oversaw the effects artistry involved in creating the seamless interaction between lead twin characters Jared and Simon. Other key ILM team members collaborating on the visual effects included animation supervisor Tim Harrington and visual effects art director Christian Alzmann.

According to Waters, whose credits include Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, dealing with a film full of visual effects was "quite an education. Even getting the basic script into shape was a never-ending process. I started working on this back in 2004, and kept reworking it and overhauling all the effects shots for the creatures right up until we began shooting in September 2006. It was a bit like a moveable feast, in that we kept saying, "we can come up with a better version of this scene or this effect — let's not limit ourselves by the fact that we're shooting in just a few weeks. Let's change it now and come up with a great new concept."

Waters and his team ended up doing a lot of previs in order to get a handle on some of the more complex effects scenes. "We'd take an entire effects sequence, like the 'Journey to the Glade,' and as we were shooting other sequences we'd be working at night and weekends doing previs of some of the most difficult visual effects, and that happened all the way during production," he says. "And then we purposely wrapped early in December in Montreal, where we did the bulk of the shoot, and then shot an extra three weeks later in the spring in LA, as we wanted to really study the footage and see what we had, and then come up with new ideas to make all the effects sequences that much grander." Ultimately, says Waters, the post team spent close to nine months, "just man-handling all the material and figuring it all out."


Over at Tippett, Joel Friesch reports that the studio did a little over 300 effects shots, with a team of 100 artists working for over a year. "I think that from design to end shot, it took about 18 months, and we used Maya as our main workhorse for animation," he says. "We modeled in Maya and Mudbox, then used a 3D paint package and Photoshop'd certain paint in, mostly with Maya and RenderMan. Then we used Shake to do all our compositing."

Although the companies split most of the effects work, Tippett and ILM also collaborated closely on some 30 shots. "Initially the plan was to split the whole show in such a way that Tippett would supervise all the animation and we'd supervise the visual effects work," explains Alexander. "But it didn't turn out that way. In the end, we just split the work so both houses worked independently, and then on the crossover shots we worked very closely together."

"Tim Alexander and I are old friends, and we go way back on other shows, so that made it very easy," notes Friesch. "We could just call each other and say, "I need this or that, or what are you doing about this?" The biggest problem was getting our schedules to line up, so that when their part was done, we could get it right away, and vice-versa. And technically, it all meshed very easily."

The only hiccup in the process came early on. "We had some color correction issues right at the start," he adds. "Every house does their color correction and the handling and color of plates and so on a little differently. So we'd done some tests real early in preproduction, and probably the first thing we did was meet with ILM and get all our guys together and make sure we were all seeing the colors the same way and doing color correction the same way."

For Tippett, the hardest effects shots were of the goblins, when they run out of the woods to surround the house. "It was too big to just hand animate, but not big enough for a crowd program like Massive to take on," recalls Friesch. "So in the end we did some hand animation cycles and used a particle-based system to move particles around the house, which were then replaced by the animation cycles we'd done of running goblins, and that worked really well."

That sequence is "a perfect example" of Tippett and ILM collaborating closely, he adds. "That whole set is a combination of plates, and the house is kind of a 'Frankenplate' of different shots that ILM put together for us so that we could then put in the goblins."

Friesch, whose credits include Enchanted and Charlotte's Web, says that creating the Spiderwick creatures and monsters, "was so much fun, and a relief after doing so many 'fur' shows and furry creatures. And it was also a great test for us, as we had to refine a lot of our existing techniques to create sequences such as the goblins attacking the house, and we're all very pleased with the results."

"This was even bigger than Potter 4, which had about 250 shots, so it was quite a stretch for me," sums up Alexander. "It was a real challenge, but very exciting."


Over at ILM, their part of the puzzle included creating some 370 visual effects shots for a total screen time of 30 minutes. "We had 215 artists working for 15 months to create the shots, and out of the 357, about 230 were 3D shots," reports Alexander. "There were over 203 character animation shots, but then there were also all of the Sylph shots that weren't necessarily animated but simulated. On top of that, there were also all the digital matte paintings and so on."

For Alexander, the biggest challenges were creating the sequences with the Sylphs and the Griffin. "The Sylphs had a look that was very hard to define," he says. "We had shots with five of them in it, and shots with thousands, and trying to get a pack of a thousand dots to look like anything proved to be very tough." (They look essentially like dandelion seeds that you might come across drifting on the wind, but with tiny faces on them.)

To deal with this, the team used various scale models. "For close-ups, we had a full-rez model so we could see their face, and then each hair was modeled and put on the model and sim'ed," he reports. "Then we'd go down from there all the way to the point where we were just projecting a 2D texture onto the particles, depending on what scale they were to camera. But even the middle rez Sylph had the ability to be either simulated or hand-animated. And on top of that, we simulated the hairs on their head as well."

The Griffin was modeled as a half-bird, half-lion creature, "so there's that underlying geometry," explains Alexander. "Then we have these two, very stubby wings, and then we placed individual feathers, all modeled, for his wings. So there are layers and layers of feathers that were modeled and then hand-placed, and those get simulated and they collide with each other, so that the feathers don't penetrate each other. Then the rest of the body feathers and the feathers on its head were procedurally generated by putting hair splines on the Griffin, and then adding feathers to the splines."

Other work included creating digital environments for many scenes and all the doubling shots for Highmore. All animation was done in Autodesk Maya, which was then imported into ILM's in-house Zeno, where the team did lighting and simulation work. "All of our cloth sims were done there," he adds, "and we also have our Fez system that lives both in Maya and Zeno, so an animator can choose which package he wants to use." All compositing was done in Apple Shake. "We do have an in-house package as well," says Alexander, "but we're mainly a Shake house."

As part of their pipeline, ILM also relied heavily on CineSync. "It's what we used for doing all the reviews with the director," reports Alexander. "We used to do transmissions, which were basically run over either satellites or T1 lines that you had to privately rent. It's expensive and takes a lot of equipment. But then Rising Sun in Australia came up with CineSync, and all you need is two computers. So to do all our reviews with Mark, who was down in LA, we had a Mac set up at each end, and at the start of the day we'd trade the files that we wanted to view with them, as for the system to work you need to have the files at both ends. You don't actually transmit any image data while you're doing the session. All you transmit is sync information. So then we could open up a movie file at our end, and it also opens up at their end, and if we hit 'Play' they see it play, and if we hit 'Stop' it stops on the same frame at their end. We could also draw on the frame and they could see it, and vice-versa." For video chatting, the teams used i-Chat, "so we could see the director on one screen, and on the other we'd have the movie file," he adds. "It worked great."


Posted by dschnee at January 8, 2008 6:59 AM