The Making of 'The Golden Compass'

By AMRITA VALECHA | 23 December, 2009 - 18:04

The 2nd Kre8tif master class was on the Case Study of 'The Golden Compass' presented by Markus Kurtz, Manager of Production Technology, Rhythm and Hues, L.A.

"The Golden Compass" produced by New Line Studio and directed by Chris Weitz is based on a novel, where every character has its Daemon, an animal representation of itself, which in the movie were all CG. Rhythm and Hues worked on about 750 shots for the film out of which 500 shots ended up in the movie after edit and a total of 500 artists from R&H (from LA and Mumbai) have worked on the film. Michael Fink was the client side VFX supervisor for the movie. Markus Kurtz gave an insight on the preparation that went behind the scenes and the players that were involved.

For the movie, Rhythm and Hues worked on the Daemons, the Golden Compass, Spy Flies, CG extensions of ice and snow and the Daemon Death which had dust effects. Markus shares, "Every character created in CG had to be photo-real and believable. For 'The Golden Compass', integration of the pipeline was very important. Ideally first is the lighting and camera instructions and then we go in to the modeling, background preparations and rigging, then comes the Animation and the Tech Animation and from there it's the lighting and FX and lastly the compositing and then the editorials. If you travel through the organized pipeline it looks like that, but it actually doesn't work this way, it's very easy to forget about the things in the middle."

"At Rhythm and Hues, before we start any CG work we like to look at the concept art. It is very important for the director, the DP and the actor to be in line to know what the common vision is. We spent a lot of time in placing of the characters which needed to be created in CG. Obviously the shot doesn't turn out exactly like what we have prepared, but it's the concept that we have in mind." He continued. In The Golden Compass every character has a daemon which represents their souls, so the Daemons had to be translucent.

With an example of a commercial, Markus showed how the team at Rhythm and Hues works on the CG characters. They would get the real animals to the studio, and study how they could get it computer generated with the biology experts by studying their walk, movement, muscle and bone systems and facial expressions.

"We try to look at the real reference of all the animals and try to mimic them completely. The end goal is to study the animal and understand what the real essence of the animal is. This was necessary especially in 'The Golden Compass' since each animal behaves with a different personality according to their soul. All the animators would actually video tape themselves acting like the character they had to animate. This was a great training for the animators at our studio."

Giving an example of one of the Daemons, he shared, "The problem with the golden monkey was that he had to look like a monkey but he needed human-like expressions. It was hard to make him not look creepy. It took us four months on the look of the monkey. We had to work on the hair dynamics which was done in the tech animation stage. We had to visualize the movement of the hair i.e. in which direction it would fly to add the dynamics to the hair. We would first watch the hair movement of other real characters in the shot and then replicate that on the CG character."

Moving on he spoke on Pre Lighting where the studio actually did a close study on real objects so that they would know how the light reacts with each CG character. "We never know upfront what kind of detail will be required. We need to capture all the details possible and not leave it to the end." he shared.

While compositing the real scene with the CG characters, the studio first tracked shots and then reconstructed the camera and lighting pass. "In one of the sequences we had used a green cushion when Lara has to interact with the CG character, but then we realized we had to insert the blanket and later realized that suddenly her hand needs to interact with the fur. And then suddenly when she gets up, we had to replace her hair too."

Maintaining consistency (including color palettes among shape-shifting Daemons) was also a challenge, as the transformations needed to be smooth. Since these are no ordinary creatures, a special colored sheen was created to make them stand out.

Explaining the CG work in the Daemon Death scene, he shared, "Every time a character in the movie dies, his Daemon dies too. The death of the Daemons had to be portrayed in a unique way where they disintegrate into a cloud of dust which continues the motion of the daemon when it was dying. We developed a fluid simulation for the same. It is the most intriguing shot where the studio pulled off the scene through the fiery disintegration of the dust particles using this fluid simulation."

Markus added, "When we had all the scenes ready, they had to be put together. We could do transitions in between the characters. The primary characters were done by key frame animation while the background CG characters were done with a massive pipeline. We had some shots with 100 characters. It was not possible to balance sequences at the time of shooting as no one had an idea how many characters would be there. Later on to do the Roto and the match move was really challenging."