NarniaWeb Interviews Howard Berger

We’d like to thank Howard Berger from the KNB EFX Group, Inc. for this interview. Berger’s group was responsible for prosthetics and animatronics in the making of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and he has a unique view on the creation of the film. He also shared with us several incredible pictures of the animatronic Aslan.

NarniaWeb: What process do you go through in designing a creature of Narnia? What kind of computer programs (if any) did you use in the design process?

Howard Berger: we were very lucky as Richard Taylor and WETA’s crack design team had already done a year of work that Andrew Adamson was very fond of, so we were able to take their initial concepts that were primarily designed for CGI characters and then redesign and modify them to work on real human forms. This all had to happen quickly so we did small study sculptures called maquettes, and worked everything out in 3-D clay sculptures. This way Andrew could view everything from all angles. It was very helpful.

Anamatronic lion head

Anamatronic lion head

NW: Can you give us a breakdown of how they create the prosthetics (in layman’s terms)? How long does it takes to create a prosthetic (face mask, etc.) and what kind of maintenance does each prosthetic need?

HB: The first stage in creating prosthetics is that we need to life cast the actors that wear them so they fit just right. On this show, we did not have that luxury, so a lot of the makeups and creatures had to be built generically and then retro-fitted to the actors once we arrived in NZ. The average time-frame from start to finish, meaning from sculpture to mold-making to foam-running is about 2 weeks. When figuring out what we needed to do with the makeups on set, we designed everything to be applied in less then 2 hours as my team of 42 great makeup artists, suit dressers and mechanics had so many characters to execute each day for the 150 day shoot.

NW: The book mentions many different types of evil creatures in the Witch’s army. Are there any more creatures that the public has yet to see or have they simply been cut from the film?

HB: We created 23 individual species for the film. We have Minotaur, Minoboars, Cyclops, Ogres, Satyrs, Fauns, Boggles, Male Goblins, Female Goblins, Giants, Red Dwarves, Black Dwarves, Hags, Male and Female Centaurs, Gorillas, Bears, wolves, beavers and of course Aslan.

Aslan on the Stone Table

Aslan on the Stone Table

NW: What was your most common inspiration in the design process: descriptions from the book itself, Greek and other mythologies, common conceptions (unicorns, for example), or was it mostly your own imagination?

HB: Andrew Adamson’s imagination when he was a child and read the book for the first time. I based Mr. Tumnus off his description and wanted to create what was in his head. I also utilized my own children’s imagination. I have a 12, 10 and 8 year old who are very fond of the books and their ideas and concepts are so pure and not influenced by anything else. I would have them come to KNB at least once a week and review the sculptures and art work and listen to what they had to say. “Dad, that is not how the Minotaur horns would curve,” or “Dad, that hair is too dark for Mr. Tumnus, he has more blonde in it.” They were always correct and I would tell Andrew what they thought and once in a while he would agree. Although Kelsey, Travis and Jacob do not get credit on the film, they had a lot to do with the designing and influence for me.

NW: How did you differentiate the Narnian creatures from the Lord of the Rings creatures and did you find this a difficult process using many of the same people with similar styles? What response would you make to people who suggest this film is just a copy of Lord of the Rings?

HB: Narnia is a whole different world then Middle Earth. Andrew Adamson’s vision is very different then Peter Jackson’s. KNB’s work is very different from WETA’s, so of course it would all be very different. That’s like saying will KING KONG be like RINGS as it is all the same people involved. They are all very different films on every level. 

Andrew, Anna, and Georgie

Andrew, Anna, and Georgie

NW: What design was used for the Dryads in the movie? The book describes them as people, but people who look tree-ish. Where did you take your inspiration for the movie design?

HB: Actually, in the 11th hour the Dryads became CGI effects that effects supervisor Dean Wright and his team are handling. I think there was not a clear idea yet while we were filming what they might be, so it was decided that they be actors in flowing wardrobe filmed, but then replaced digitally later on in post.

NW: How much did you work with Douglas Gresham, in defining the look or behavior of CGI characters?

HB: Douglas was amazing! Just his shear presence is striking and inspiring. I had not had the opportunity to meet him until after we were on location filming and he walked on set, saw all the creatures and loved them. I asked if CS Lewis would approve and he stated “This would be beyond Jack’s wildest dreams.” I figure if Douglas was happy, that CS Lewis would be happy and I was very happy!

NW: Did you find yourself in a cameo role in the movie?

HB: Yes, we did a day of motion capture with the gorilla and I wore the suit. It’s funny, when I first met Andrew and saw the artwork at the office, there was this great piece with a gorilla. I had not been hired yet, but I said that if I was, I would do the gorilla for free. Unfortunately Andrew remembered that and I did as promised. As filming began, I was so busy and my plate so full, that we hired a great Kiwi stuntie, Thomas, to play the gorilla. He did a great job and is about 20 year younger then me and has a six pack where I have a keg.

Aslan on the Stone Table

Aslan on the Stone Table

NW: What do you think was the hardest creature to design or work with? What was your favorite creature?

HB: The hardest and favorite is Mr. Tumnus. He was tough as I wanted him to be exactly how Andrew imagined him when he was young and read the book. Also, I love James Macavoy and he made the experience so wonderful. He was on for the ride, which was very important as myself, the great Tami Lane (who was my key prosthetic supervisor) and Sarah Rubano would put poor James through 3 1/2 hours of makeup each day, usually very early in the morning. It was hard and at first I was very nervous about the makeup, but we pulled it off and I think it is a beautiful addition to James’ performance.

NW: How long were you involved in the movie production itself?

HB: I was on the film for over a year. Heck, it is still going on as we are now starting all this publicity and KNB is building a bunch of display art pieces for Disney as there will be traveling exhibits all over the world. I like it as I could live in Narnia all my life.

Howard Berger and his team

Howard Berger and his team

NW: How did you get to work on this movie? For those interested in your career path what is the best advice you can give them?

HB: I have to thank my best friend Richard Taylor. He really pushed me and KNB on Andrew, who soon fell in love with us as I feel we delivered like gang busters, plus I really got to spread my wings and be more then just the makeup effects guy, but a major part of the film making experience. Andrew really allowed us to do what we felt was best under his supervision. I have to say it was the greatest film experience I have ever had as it was pure happiness and joy every day and I was allowed to immerse myself into the world of CS Lewis 100%, which I don’t get to do on other films. As for following a career path, well that is easy: just follow your heart and dreams. That may sound corny, but it is true as that is what I did and look at me now! My father always said that if you want something bad enough it will happen, and so far all my dreams, hopes and desires have come true. I feel very lucky everyday I wake up and go to work at KNB with my business partner Greg Nicotero as I get to have fun all day and get paid for it.

NW: Have you begun work on the next movie?

HB: No not yet, but I have re-read the book and have been thinking a lot about it. I feel we will need to handle the dwarves a lot differently as they are very large acting parts. On LWW we had 7 little people from Thailand and India who were great and also Kiran Shah who plays Ginarrbrik the Fat Dwarf, but I feel we may want to think about scaling down full size actors for these parts and go from there. I am just guessing and it will be up to Andrew ultimately, but that is what I feel right now. I also know exactly what I want to do differently on all the other creatures as I learned so much from the first film.