'Narnia' DVD Unmasks Creature Effects


On the upcoming DVD of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" (in stores April 4th), the filmmakers demystify the visual effects that made the fantasy land and creatures believable.

Director Andrew Adamson wanted Aslan the lion, Narnia's spiritual leader, as realistic as possible. That's how Rhythm & Hues, the team responsible for the Aslan character, found themselves doing research only a few feet from a real-life lion.

"We did go to an animal training facility. We were actually in a cage with a high def camera," says R&H's Bill Westenhofer at a DVD sneak preview presentation at Sony Imageworks on Wednesday, Feb. 15. "You're looking around you to make sure there's someone slower than you in case the lion gets out.

"We'd take a clip of a lion walking and play it side by side with our animation, and you could see immediately, 'Oh, this muscle wasn't firing right,'" he adds. "With visual effects, 80 to 85 percent was there the first couple of times you try. It's really that last 15 percent that is incredibly difficult to get."

Aslan also required human facial expressions to reflect his noble personality, but since certain scenes were shot before Liam Neeson was cast as Aslan's voice, the filmmakers looked elsewhere for inspiration.

"We went to Gregory Peck from 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' The Atticus Finch character had some of the same regal qualities that we wanted," says Westenhofer. "We took traits of Gregory Peck from that movie and then took our Aslan facial rig and ... built our library of shapes. Wonderfully enough, Liam Neeson's performance gelled perfectly well with our Aslan character."

The filmmakers didn't completely rely on computer graphics though. Three types of hands-on Aslans were made for the film as well, including a puppet for the stone table scene, a full-sized stand-in for blocking and lighting, and a mechanical bull-type Aslan that Lucy and Susan (Georgie Henley and Anna Popplewell) ride to battle.

This mix of CG and practical effects was especially necessary for "Narnia's" numerous hybrid creatures. The centaurs and fauns featured human actors with prosthetic makeup effects wearing lime green tights, which would be replaced by animal legs via computer graphics during post production. The unique nature of this collaboration created an atmosphere of mutual admiration on set.

"We ended up building some practical legs which we sent over for reference, but [the CG ones] were far, far superior to what we were able to build," says prosthetic makeup designer Howard Berger. "The first time I saw the film, and Mr. Tumnus came out, I gasped out loud. It was the first time I had seen Mr. Tumnus with legs. I had spent eight months looking at green legs with orange dots all over them. So when Mr. Tumnus played by Jim McAvoy came out, it was like, 'Amazing. It was exactly how I had always pictured it."

"Narnia" has earned three Oscar nominations for best makeup, visual effects and sound.

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