NarniaWeb Set Report #2: Creatures & VFX
Exclusive: Prince Caspian Set Report #2 – Creatures & Visual Effects
I think one of the most impressive technical achievements of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe film was the marriage between practical effects and digital effects. Characters like Tumnus were created in the makeup chair from the waist up, and in post-production from the waist down. Instead of being in competition, the digital and practical effects worked as a partnership. The same is true with the next film, Prince Caspian, and both departments have definitely made some improvements… which is a good thing, because Director Andrew Adamson wants the scale of Prince Caspian to be bigger than that of the first film.
But the funny thing is, since I was there during the filming, I only really saw Howard Berger’s side of it. All I saw of Dean Wright’s work was green pants, red dots, and blue screens. This makes me even more eager to view the final film, and see what it all ends up being.
After reading this report, be sure to check out our interviews with Dean Wright (VFX Supervisor), Oscar-winner Howard Berger (Makeup, KNB EFX), and Shane Rangi (Asterius). I’ll include parts of them in this report, but the full interviews are really interesting.
Creatures on Set
Our first stop on the second day was the Aslan’s How exterior in Ústí, where we spent most of the day watching the crew film a shot where Peter and Edmund emerge from Aslan’s How. The dirt road leading to the location was lined with several trailers that had their doors wide open. Each trailer seemed to have a different purpose. One of them was full of weapons, and I saw someone putting the finishing touches on a sword. Another trailer was full of costumes, and a few more had actors getting their creature makeup on. I even saw a large group of stuntmen rehearsing a sequence from the battle. Like everything else, Adamson wants the battle to be even bigger and more complex than in the first film. Dean Wright later told us, “The goal [of the Narnians] is to sort of keep [the Telmarines] at bay, kind of hold them off till Aslan can come and help.”
It was here that I got my first glimpse of one of the biggest improvements from the first film that I saw: the dwarfs. It was just like Berger said when we interviewed him: they look like real dwarfs instead of just little people. They look quite believable and I could imagine them being able to fight well in a battle. One difference I noticed is that the ones I saw had mustaches. In the first film, Ginarrbrik had a beard but no mustache.
As William Moseley (Peter) and Skandar Keynes (Edmund) emerged from Aslan’s How, the creatures on either side began cheering. The crowd contained fauns, dwarfs, centaurs, satyrs, and yes… minotaurs (there are no minotaurs in the book). I was told that the minotaur actors are a big concern on set because they can’t keep their heads on for long in the heat. Many of the actors had to wear green pants with red dots taped on. The dots are used to track the motion of the actor’s legs so that the animators can match it to the movement of the computer-generated legs. I noticed that the creatures were wearing very little armor. Kimberly Adams (Associate Costume Designer) explained that Adamson didn’t want creatures wearing clothing in this film.
“Suck your paws!”
Of course, I smiled from ear to ear when Shane Rangi walked onto set in a bear suit, because the Bulgy Bear is a funny and memorable character in the book. In the film, he will be 100% computer-generated. Shane’s main purpose is to give the animators physical on-set reference. But I think having a real actor on set instead of having to imagine the Bulgy Bear also helps the other actors. Shane spent most of the day waiting behind the camera with his bear head off. After they finished the shot, they put Shane’s head on (which took about 15 minutes). They began shouting random directions at Shane, such as “move your arms!” and (best of all)… “suck your paws!” I hope that means the Bulgy Bear will suck his paws in the film, just as he does in the book. After he had waited in costume for hours, they only filmed Shane for about 20 seconds (just for reference). He laughed and took a little bow. That’s filmmaking.
After they finished the shot, they had to shoot a “clean plate.” All the actors had to leave the shot so they could film just the background for a few seconds. This helps them remove parts of the shot they don’t want, such as the actors’ legs. A long way off around the clearing, I noticed several pink markers set up. I believe these were being used to track the camera, so that the digital effects can be added later.
Trufflehunter and Reepicheep?
In between takes, I noticed two detailed stuffed animals behind the camera that were partially covered with a tarp. I assume they are being used as stand-ins for CG characters (they did the same thing with the Beavers for the first film). The first one I saw appeared to be a Badger. Not much else to say about it. It just looked like a tall badger. Of course, I suppose that must have been Trufflehunter!
The other one I saw appeared to be a mouse… but it had white fur with brownish spots on its back. In the book, Reepicheep is described as having dark fur. Wright and Berger later confirmed that Peepiceek and the other mice will be in the film, so I suppose there is a possibility that it wasn’t Reepicheep that I saw.
“[Reepicheep] is very cool, he’s very dashing, he’s very dangerous,” Wright later told us. “He has a good look. He’s cute, you know, you want him to look cute but he’s also got an air of danger, because when he actually going he’s got to fight he takes out guys, you don’t want to laugh at him when he’s doing that.”
The centaurs were a tremendous challenge to create for the first film. Most of the time, they were created using real actors with computer-generated horse bodies. The actors wore green pants and had to stand on green platforms so that they would be the correct height when they added the CG horse bodies. They are still doing that with background centaurs on this film.
But they have also devised an ingenious new method of giving the main centaurs more freedom with their motion. Cornell John (Glenstorm) walks on what they called “power risers.” Power risers are sophisticated-looking stilts that are worn almost like shoes. I was amazed that Cornell was able to keep his balance, but he seemed to walk almost effortlessly. The only problem was that he didn’t seem to be able to stand still for very long without falling over. He always had to be walking or shifting his weight. So, at the end of the shot, when he had to stand still, a crewmember jumped in and held his back (I don’t know if they timed it so the crewmember wasn’t in the shot, or if he’ll be removed in post-production). But the power risers give him much more freedom with his motion. He isn’t confined to a small green platform. Plus, as he walked, it appeared that his body bobbed up and down slightly, which I think will make his motion more realistic when the CG horse body is added. Here is a video I found on YouTube of someone using Power Risers, very similar to the kind Cornell John wore.
Even though he’s not how I imagined him in the book, I liked the look of Glenstorm. He had blondish long hair that looked like dreadlocks, and a huge sword. Cornell also wore prosthetic ears.
It was always interesting to visit a set and be told that it would look different in the finished film. The walls of the Telmarine courtyard were about 60 feet high, but we were told they would be 200 feet in the finished film! The exterior of Aslan’s How was also about 60 feet high and had a giant blue screen at the top. Director Andrew Adamson told us that it will be about 2 1/2 times bigger when we see it in the film.
The set with the most blue screen that I saw was at Modranská, where the second unit was shooting a very complicated sequence for the battle. I am going to try to describe this set in my next report, but it’s going to be difficult because there were blue screens at seemingly random places. I have no idea what it’s going to look like in the end.
As if that wasn’t strange enough, across the street there was the exact same set, only smaller. I was told that this set was built for Giant Wimbleweather (yes, he’s in the film!). The actor playing Wimbleweather is 7 feet tall, so they built a smaller-scale set to make him look even bigger. Dean Wright said that the CG creatures in that scene will be scaled down to about half-size.
Between these sets, actors sat and waited, many getting some rest as they waited to be called onto set. Most of them had their creature makeup from the waist up, and chroma key pants from the waist down. The whole thing really was a bizarre scene.
Rob Derry and Asterius
After Isis Mussenden (Costume Designer) gave us a tour of the costume shop, Ernie Malik (the film’s publicist) introduced us to Rob Derry from KNB EFX. He was holding the remote controls to the Asterius mechanical head (a minotaur), which was on the table beside him. It took about two months to build.
Asterius is a good example of the most noticeable difference between the creatures in this film and those in the first film. He looked like an elderly minotaur. The pale skin around his eyes was visible, and his hair was a mixture of black, white, and gray. Dean Wright (VFX Supervisor) later told us: “[Howard Berger] wanted to bring more of a variety to the characters that we have, in terms of ages and sexes and all that. So we don’t just have 23-year-old fauns.”
Derry began playing with the controls and making Asterius move his lips and eyes. He told us that it takes three puppeteers to operate the head while filming, and that the range of the remote control is about one mile (but he usually stands within 500 feet of Shane). It certainly looked like an improvement from Otmin. I asked Derry if Asterius has any lines in the film, and he told me that he doesn’t currently have any lines in the script, but the mouth was built with the ability to form words. In the first film, Adamson decided on the day of filming that he wanted Otmin to say a line, so maybe Asterius will end up with a line or two. “It says ‘Shhh’ in one scene,” Berger later told us. When I asked Shane Rangi (Asterius) if he would be doing any voices in the film, he said he wasn’t sure yet. “I haven’t done any ADR for it. But you know, we’ll see. I mean, out of the six characters, I’ll only be credited as one.”
Derry turned the head upside down and showed us the skullcap inside, which was specifically built to fit Shane. He said that he has to take the skullcap out every day to let it dry because Shane sweats so much. Wearing the Asterius suit all day in the heat, Shane describes himself as “a walking waterfall.” They used stainless steel for the mechanical heads this time around because they had problems with rust on the first film. Derry said the mechanical heads weigh about 15 pounds each! We all took a turn holding it (I was so afraid I would drop it), and I couldn’t imagine wearing that thing on my head for hours. “We’re not doing as many mechanical heads this time,” Berger said. “Last time we did 25. This time we’re actually just doing six: Two satyrs and four minotaurs. Not a big mechanical show.”
As Derry talked about Asterius, I noticed a strange sight beside us: a pile of “dead” creatures including minotaurs, fauns, and satyrs. It was very creepy how realistic some of them were, and how they were all piled on top of each other. I was later told that they will be used for the background.
SHANE RANGI INTERVIEW
In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Shane Rangi played the White Witch’s head minotaur, General Otmin. Before that, he was a stuntman and also played the Witch-king in “The Lord of the Rings.” In “Prince Caspian,” he will only be credited as Asterius, but he has a few other parts as well in the film that he discusses in this interview. Asterius is a new minotaur that the filmmakers have added to the story. In the film, he fights on the side of the Old Narnians. We interviewed Shane Rangi outside the lunch tent at the Usti locatin, not far from the Aslan’s How exterior set:
Ernie Malik: Shane prides himself on the fact that he’s never done a role looking like Shane Rangi.
Q: Can you list all the characters you’re playing in this film?
SR: I was cast as Asterius. I also play the physical characters for the wild bear that the kids find in the story. I also play the physical character of the Werewolf, Bulgy Bear. What else? I know there are a couple others.
Ernie Malik: You also physicalize Aslan on set.
SR: Yeah, I physicalize Aslan. And also I play another minotaur as well.
Q: We saw you a little bit in the Bulgy Bear costume. Do you have a lot of things where you have to get into one costume and then have to change and switch over?
SR: No, not too often because once they set up scenes, they try to keep that one character there that whole time, unless of course they shoot one day and it’s cloudy and another day and it’s sunny, and there are two different characters. And in the morning if it’s sunny and in the afternoon it goes cloudy and they change shots. But normally once I get into a character, I’m that character all day.
Q: So, are you in scenes with yourself?
SR: Am I in scenes with myself?… You know, that’s kind of funny, I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t think so. But who’s to know? In probably a year, maybe I’ll go “that’s me. And that’s me too.”
Q: Do you get to play the Werewolf as yourself or are you in full…
SR: I’m in full costume as the Werewolf, yeah. I’m sort of like a suit performer, I suppose.
Journalist: That’s a specialized talent.
SR: Apparently it is!
Q: What are traits that make someone a good suit performer?
SR: I don’t know if there are really any. I just know that as an actor, I like a challenge and suit performing is definitely a challenge. And the other cool thing I love about it is that I like pushing my body to the limits, and suit performing definitely does that. And apparently it’s been said that I do some of my best acting when my face isn’t seen.
Q: I know you did Otmin in the first movie. Did you do Aslan in the first movie also?
SR: No, Aslan in the first one was a big sculpt, or they just had the head and shot it and did the rest in visual effects.
Q: What has been involved as far as playing Aslan this time? Do you actually get down on all fours?
SR: No, I pretty much have the front feet, the mane, and the head. The main reason we’re playing physical this time is that Lucy interacts with him. And from a digital point of view, it’s hard for them to recreate hair around when she hugs him and stuff like that. So basically I’m just there for visual effects. So when she hugs, they just do a splice, roto it out, and then put that onto the digital lion. And plus, for eye lines as well.
Q: Do you do any voices in this movie?
SR: No. Well, Asterius I don’t know yet. I haven’t done any ADR for it. But you know, we’ll see. I mean, out of the six characters, I’ll only be credited as one.
Q: What is the most difficult suit to wear?
SR: You know what’s funny is someone actually asked me that this morning. To me, pretty much all suit work is difficult. The most difficult on this one though would have to be the Werewolf, simply because the suit was built for a guy that was about 5’10” and a little bit slimmer. So I had to squeeze into it, and they were hoping I could squeeze into it so I could play the character, which I did. But you know, he’s all hunched over. All the weight of the mechanical head and that is out in the front so there’s a lot of weight and a lot of pressure. So yeah, probably the Werewolf.
Q: So the Werewolf is going to be replaced by CGI or is that going to be you?
SR: A bit of both. They were quite impressed with how the physical stuff worked, and there is going to be some physical stuff that will be better.
Q: Yeah, the mechanical heads they make are–I mean, we saw the Asterius head and…
SR: Yeah, that’s what’s funny. I haven’t seen any of that stuff yet. All I get to do is hear it going “zzz zzz zzz.”
Q: Do you do a fair amount of background and stunt work as well?
SR: I do. I’ve been acting for 20 years now, mainly theater. But I got into stunts through The Lord of the Rings. And I got pulled up into the stunt team by the American coordinator, George Marshall Ruge, so I’ve been doing stunts for the last 7 ½ years. So I do a bit of both. And normally if I get taken on as an actor, the main reason why I get it I think is that I can do a lot of physical stuff.
Q: Do you miss doing the stage stuff?
SR: You know, I actually love theater. Theater is one of the forms that, as an actor, there’s no second take. If there’s a line that has to be funny or a line that you want to grab the audience with, and if you can deliver it and you’ve got them, there’s no better reward than having that instant gratification. But, in saying that, theater doesn’t really pay that well. And on film sets they have some fantastic catering (laughter), so free food all around.
Q: Are the suits more or less uncomfortable on this film than the last one? Have they made any improvements?
SR: Well you know, the big improvement on this one is that, in the first one as General Otmin, I was 100% blind pretty much, unless I stuck on the stunt head, which then I only had visibility of about 15%. So they’ve made a little bit of an improvement in that aspect of being able to see. The only trouble is that this time around, the minotaurs are done a little bit different in that all we can see out of the neck which is just underneath the chin. And unfortunately, in order to make the eye line straight and correct, you’ve actually got to hold your head down. So, you’re view is only about a foot and a half in front of you, which still makes it a little bit hard. If you guys get to see the behind-the-scenes footage, I’m sure that you’ll see why.
Q: Have there been any days where you’ve had to spend all day in the heat?
SR: With the bear costume, I’ve been lucky. The bear costume is actually one of the most comfortable. Even though it’s a big costume, there’s a lot of space between me and the suit. And on days like this where there’s a little bit of breeze blowing, it gets in there and gets all the hot air out. I haven’t been in it yet on a hot, hot day. I’m sure it’ll be like being in a microwave oven. But, the minotaur Asterius, I was in it. Not the Friday just gone, but the Friday before. We had a nice day out here, about 36 degrees [97 degrees Fahrenheit], not a cloud in the sky, not a breath of wind, and I can honestly say that day I was a walking waterfall. And that’s the trouble when you don’t have hair. It just builds up and just runs.
Q: Did that affect the mechanics at all?
SR: No, I’ve got a skullcap in the mechanics. But one day I’m going to get Duncan from I.T. He’s got this little thermometer that he can just point in the suit. I’m going to get him to come down on one of the hotter days and see how hot it is.
Q: Does Bulgy Bear have a mechanical head also?
SR: No, because Bulgy Bear is basically 100% digital. I’m just in there for visual reference, so we don’t need a mechanical head. But the head itself is actually pretty cool. It’s better than the one I’ve got now. (laughter)