Narnia: The Dawn Treader’s VFX Crew

For The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, visual effects supervisor Angus Bickerton led the creation of some 1400 shots in the third film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ fantasy series. We highlight a number of the key effects by Framestore, MPC, Cinesite, The Senate and The Mill.


Picture perfect Narnia

The Pevensie children, Lucy and Edmund, and their cousin Eustace, enter Narnia this time around via a magical moving painting of rolling waves and the Dawn Treader ship, brought to life by Framestore. It was also decided that the shot of the flat painting turning into the Narnian scene would be more effective in stereo. Framestore worked with Prime Focus to realise the shot, delivering various elements for re-compositing or creating the shots entirely in stereo.

“To start with,” said Framestore visual effects supervisor Jonathan Fawkner, “we found some moving footage of waves and then, using an over-painting technique in Corel Painter, managed to make a single frame look pretty close to the source painting but based on moving images. Then we used the movement from the footage to drive the painting using an optical flow analysis. It would drive it for about 20 frames before it started breaking. You’d have to go back to the original source material and make a new painting using the over-painting technique and optical flow forwards and backwards between them.”

The camera tracks forward towards the painting but, instead of stopping, it hits the plane of the painting and goes into 3-D depth and the camera continues to fly across the water. “That meant animating the off-set of two eyes so that we had an animated dimensionality,” said Fawkner. “We transitioned into some work done by MPC for the Dawn Treader at sea, using their CG water to drive the painting as we drove the camera that allowed us to go from being a flat painting to a three-dimensional world.”

Aslan roars again

Having realised Aslan in Prince Caspian, the second Narnia film, Framestore resurrected the noble lion for 60 shots in Dawn Treader. These included extreme close-up shots for a conversation Aslan has with Lucy and for a final scene in front of a giant non-breaking wave. “On the last show we had been asked to go for a golden fantasy lion but this time we went with more of a real lion,” recalled Fawkner. “So we changed his colour palette to be a more realistic lion colour. And we introduced a darker mane.”

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Framestore completely ported the previous fur system to an updated 2010 version written by the studio’s in-house software tools group. “In the previous film it had been a massive compositing task,” said Fawkner. “For Treader it was more of a naturalistic process for the lighting TDs. If they put a light in there, it behaved in a way that was predictable. When you’ve got things like semi-translucent hair, it absorbs light at different depths, in the deep shadow of his mane and yet also transmits light if it’s behind him. These things are complicated so we had to completely re-write the shader set.” Aslan was also re-rigged using the studio’s central muscle system to better suit certain points of view of the lion, such as him walking in profile.

To create the fur, artists used a node-based approach, splitting Aslan into four separate grooms for the face, body, mane and tail. They then assembled a network of ‘hair filters’, including hair scale, scraggle, interpolation, clumping, baldness, width and colour. “Each filter has many parameters and each parameter allowed the connection of a texture map for total control,” explained Fawkner. “This was painted in real time in the Maya view port and would give immediate feedback to inform the groom.”

Aslan ended up with about six million hairs, with the overall shape and volume of Aslan’s mane came from guide hairs constructed using Maya curve geometry. “Thousands of secondary guide hairs were then procedurally generated through the hair filters network,” said Fawkner, “and the whole mane driven by the dynamic simulation of just a few hairs.”

One-legged Dufflepuds

For the one-legged dwarf-like Dufflepuds who meet Lucy and the rest of the Dawn Treader crew, Framestore was challenged to augment scores of live-action performances with CG. “These creatures are very active and jumpy so to get the best result we would have really had to have gone fully 3D,” said Fawkner. “But 16 fully 3D characters each with a different haircut and clothes was just a huge amount of work. So it was decided to go with a CG leg and trouser approach.”


Production shot clean plates of the Treader crew reacting to the non-existent Dufflepuds. “Basically it was me and Angus Bickerton running around first like loons on the set,” remarked Fawkner. “Then they shot it again without us and they’d all try and remember what they were looking at.” A separate bluescreen shoot of the jumping Dufflepud actors or stunt performers on trampolines or springboards also aimed to match the previous plates.

“The process involved roughly placing the actors into the shot and selecting them in the Avid,” said Fawkner. “Then we body-tracked each one. After that we stuck a single CG leg onto a body-tracked performance and gave that to the animator to animate the leg underneath. We were able to introduce some z-depth by moving an actor further away but we couldn’t twist him around and show the front of him if what was only photographed was the back.”

In the one-minute sequence, Framestore had to arrange 250 individual performances, re-timing elements on occasion if the Dufflepuds needed to jump higher than had been shot. Some of the creatures were realised entirely as CG assets to enhance performances and fill out the scenes, since on set only 10 costumes had been available. “It wasn’t really until we got to the end of that process that Angus could say: ‘Yes, it’s working’,” recalled Fawkner. “Just adjusting the amount of motion blur, for instance, made such a difference to how the animation felt.”

Background environments and the revealing of invisible elements also made up a significant part of the Dufflepuds sequence, when Lucy enters the mansion of magician Coriakin through an invisible door. “Lucy walks through the door and the camera goes around the outside and looks at the garden beyond,” said Fawkner. “That was all completely re-built from the set photography and from a LIDAR scan because basically it was her looking around a big blue box. I think the stereo really sold that shot, too, of having the door open in the middle of nowhere.”

Later, the invisible mansion is revealed to the Treader crew. “We had two buildings,” explained Fawkner, “one essentially textured with the views of the sky and the hills in the background, and one textured like a building. We got two point clouds and we off-set them in space from each other and literally just rotated those two point clouds around so that it went from one view to another, but with a sort of three dimensional look to it, rather than it just being a straight dissolve. We also animated some ivy over the top of it, just to make it a little bit more interesting.” A similar reveal gag for the invisible Dufflepuds relied on 2D filters to glassify the creatures and then bring them into view via compositing.

The wave that never crashes

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_Framestore_Wave In one of the final scenes in the film, the characters encounter Aslan in front of an ominous non-breaking wave, before leaving Narnia through a magical hole in the water. The scene was shot at Jumpinpin near Brisbane on a large flat spit of land, with Framestore inserting the wave as a computer generated fluid simulation.

Markers placed on the beach set out the proposed location of what was conceived as an enormous standing tidal wave. “Our problem was that it was to be on screen for minutes and minutes,” said Fawkner. “And in broad daylight. The other problem was how to realise the wave given that it was kind of alive but also static. We also had to work out just where all the water was actually coming from.”

To alleviate these concerns, Framestore came up with a system to describe a wave’s natural movements, as Fawkner explained: “It was something like A: flat water without breaking, B: starting to get white water on the crest, C: bigger white water, D: it has tipped over, E: a complete tube. We thought we could easily oscillate between A and C without it ever going completely over because we couldn’t conceive of it ever getting back from a state where it has crashed.”

For the corpus of the wave, artists displaced the surface to make a wave shape and then increased the rotation around an off-set centre to get a more advanced or less advanced wave. “On top of that we had four levels of Tessendorf displacement which had to be tuned to give it the right sense of scale,” said Fawkner. “Then we developed some nice shaders that allowed the wave to refract and diffuse light in a naturalistic way.”

“We went from a deep oceanic colour near the bottom to doing a glorious azure kind of sea,” continued Fawkner. “On top of that we stuck a particle system which was driven by the fact that we knew where the crest of the wave was. We modulated the particles based on our stage map – A, B or C – and also by undulating Tessendorfs which went into a fluid solve for how the spray would be blown off the top of the wave.”

“We also still had this problem of where does this water come from? It was just kind of shooting up from the ground. Fortunately, for most of the shots the camera was quite low to the ground, so we could composite in some elements of crashing waves or some running in reverse. That seemed to generate the right level of noise at the bottom to suggest that it might have been coming from somewhere.”

Inside the standing wave, Framestore utilised Maya particles to form a sandy cloud look, also relying on its proprietary deep shadow Occvox (occlusion voxels) software, and raytracing in RenderMan. The magical hole through which the characters leave Narnia was achieved using Exotic Matter’s Naiad software in conjunction with Framestore’s front-end called Fluidity.

The Moving Picture Company

Setting sail with the Dawn Treader

A number of methods were used to realise the film’s titular ship at sea, each generally requiring digital augmentation by MPC under visual effects supervisor Adam Valdez. In Queensland, Australia, production built a full-scale replica of the Dawn Treader on a steel turntable and motion rig situated on a peninsular of land overlooking the ocean. This gave an almost 150 degree view to the horizon that could be changed depending on the angle of the sun. The set was then re-erected inside a bluescreen stage for shots of the ship at night, in a storm and during the Dark Island sequence.

Final shots were a mix between the practical photography, real ocean plates and digital water simulations, along with the addition of a digital crew, mast, prow, sail, rigging and other fixes. “They found a steel-hulled boat that they sailed around the waters of Australia and New Zealand and did a bunch of helicopter plates,” said Valdez. “We would track the camera and the boat and completely replace it with a full CG boat, including the crew. We also did a fair number of shots to extend the base of the ship where it meets the waterline. Any time we see the side of the boat meeting the water, it was never really in the water, so that was either a combination of ocean plates being married up or a little bit of CG water or a CG boat hull.”

Reepicheep rides again

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_MPC_Reepicheep MPC revisited its character animation work from Prince Caspian for Reepicheep, the valiant talking mouse, making him slightly older. “That ended up being a very subtle set of changes,” recalled Valdez. “We saturated his colour a little, gave him slightly bushier eyebrows and some extra ear hair and made his whiskers a little more wirery just to give him a sense of age. He’s also a little more pot-bellied than he was in the last film.” Artists also gently brought Reepicheep’s eyes forward to make close-up angles on the character more distinguishable, with the fur groom ported over and the rest of the facial model slightly re-built to better control mouth and eye shapes.

For a sword fighting lesson that Reepicheep gives to Eustace, MPC based its own animation on previs work by Mike Makara. A stuffie on set made of large rodent pelts, along with eyeline markers, helped actor Will Poulter engage the non-existent mouse, as well as providing reference for MPC’s digital artists. “We then sent our animators off to fencing school where they learned what sort of presence you have with a foil and how you balance and use it,” said Valdez. “This was also essentially a teaching scene, giving Eustace the basics of swordplay, and I think that shows the in the quality and flow and elegance of the shots.”

Digital water simulations were carried out in MPC’s version of Flowline that runs inside Maya, then rendered in RenderMan. “We would simulate surfaces,” explained Valdez, “and then do localised simulations for any time the surface is disrupted, such as for boat wakes or any time a creature splashes the water or water collides with objects.”

“The storm sequence was difficult because it required a huge particle system,” continued Valdez. “We started with an animated surface and the layout department figured out how big the waves should be, what the cameras were going to and then animated the boat. That was handed off to FX who then divided the shots up by their technical problems. So you would have wide shots with giant rolling waves, then say shots with water rushing off the boat.”

MPC animated the water to be layered with different detail to give wavelets along the surface. Then, a final collision simulation was produced with the Dawn Treader actually traveling along the surface. “It’s kind of a weird circular process,” recalled Valdez, “because you’ll do the wave, then the animator will do the boat and the animator is figuring out how the boat is reacting to the wave, making it go slow, or rocking to the side and carving through the wave. Then you give that to the sim guy and he runs the sim, but what’s he actually doing is running a sim for the intersection of the boat and the wave surface. Those two things have already been computed so he’s generating the crashing water as a result of these two pre-animated elements. If that looks insane, like the boat is moving too fast or the waves are too big, we have to make decisions about whether to cheat physics or get the boat to slow down a little bit. You want the best of simulation but you might want to cheat physics as well.”

Eustace the dragon

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_MPC_DragonAt one point on their Narnian adventure, Eustace discovers a stash of golden treasure and begins pocketing his new found riches. But the result is that he is cursed into a flying and fire-breathing dragon, a digital creature generated by MPC. Basing their design on a maquette by special effects and make-up supervisor Howard Berger, MPC artists produced a dragon to suit the film’s classical production design. “I think what is expected these days is that you have to believe in the dragon, so you couldn’t do anything krinkly or ornate. We also came up with the idea of connecting him visually with the curse of the treasure he had stolen, so we sewed in this gold effect into the shading.”

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_MPC_Dragon_ReepicheepEustace as the dragon was modelled in Maya with fine detail created in Zbrush. MPC used its proprietary plug-ins for Maya and other tools for muscle and skin simulations. To ensure the flight of the creature was believable, artists added thick skin at the base of the wings and to where it met the arm joints. The final look of the skin was based on crocodile reference which had the appearance of scales but retained a leathery feel. “I knew we would have these medium and tight shots, so when the skin deformed I didn’t want it to be distracting and have that standard, CG stretchy look,” said Valdez. “We spent some time figuring out how to preserve the surface area of the skin and use more folding – so that any of the studs around his body or the texture wouldn’t squash and stretch too much.”

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_MPC_Dragon_Reepicheep2“There was also a desire for him to have a very monochromatic colour palette,” noted Valdez. “He does have variation in his colours, but he is pretty much a kind of ruddy orange with gold. That turned out to be quite hard to light and make look natural in different environments. Our digital photography was fairly stark and natural in its look, so you had this very saturated creature with a fairly complex shader and a lot of detail. That really came down to compositing in the end. The lighters provided us with lots of material and then we figured out how to exaggerate the gold in certain circumstances when the lighting didn’t necessarily justify it.”

Dark Island and attack of the sea serpent

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_MPC_Dark_Island The Dawn Treader crew encounter new evils and creatures near Dark Island, an environment also created by MPC. “Our FX department came up with these throbbing, living columns of smoke that had these glowing lights in them,” explained Valdez. “The compositors then had the renders, which took days and days to do, and put them on two-and-a-half-D cards. It was a nice collaboration with matte painters, FX guys doing column renders and then compositors using Nuke’s 3D environment to bring it together. We also layered in a combination of volumetric fog renders for the immediate atmosphere and lots of elements. Then there was a lot of heavy grading to foreground bluescreen photography of the Dawn Treader.”

Eventually the Dawn Treader is attacked by a giant sea serpent, a creature that went through a number of design iterations. “The end composition everybody picked was the most far out design that we had,” said Valdez. “I think everyone reacted to the concept art that had all these crazy spines.” Early animation tests of the re-designed serpent ensured that the creature could move appropriately before it was free-form sculpted in ZBrush and completed in Maya.


For the attack scenes, animators started with general layout and blocking while the design of the serpent continued. This had to also match with the motion of the Dawn Treader. “Our boat was travelling in Maya through the scene with the right speed and continuity and directions,” noted Valdez. “These days the departments like FX actually really do rely on the correct speeds and continuity to do their work. We had a large team on the sequence – maybe 150 people – so it really helped that the scene had all in the right continuity and was not just a bunch of shots.”

Wreaking havoc on the Dawn Treader, the sea serpent effects extended to damage on the ship, water simulations and the surrounding Dark Island environments. “The scene was scheduled around the water simulation,” said Valdez, “so we had certain beats of the scene being done first, because the water sim guys needed them done early. We came up with a way of re-using a water cache for the ocean surface at different storm levels. We did a roller coaster ride for the beats of the scene to match the action. Ultimately, the sea was really an extension of the creature and the Dark Island above us.”


Cities, evil mists and the White Witch


Responsible for a number of city and island environments, the evil green mist and the White Witch was Cinesite, under visual effects supervisor Matt Johnson. The city of Narrowhaven was one of several environments created by the studio. Production shot a location in Australia with a practical harbour wall, to which Cinesite added CG housing and structures set on steep rising cliffs. “Everything had to have a very natural kind of feel and needed to look very empty,” said Cinesite visual effects supervisor Matt Johnson, “because the good energy had been sucked out by the evil green mist. The banners and awnings are just subtly flapping in the wind, just to give a little life to an otherwise drab environment. The CG had to look quite organic and not have too many sharp edges or straight lines.”

The green mist tendrils – which embodied pure evil and unknowingly took the form of the Dawn Treader crew’s greatest fears – were a recurring effect in the film. Cinesite relied on fluid simulations in Houdini and about 15 passes to achieve the final look. “First we started by animating an eel shape that was emitting particles,” said Cinesite 3D supervisor Stephane Paris. “We were able to play with the speed and movement to make it seem more evil.”


To create the White Witch, Cinesite took greenscreen photography of actress Tilda Swinton and digitally massaged her into a more ethereal being. Artists generated a 3D model of Swinton’s head and animated it in Maya. “We kept her face and shoulders,” explained Johnson, “but then gave her face a more magical look and created CG hair and rendered mist passes for her body.”


“In the comp what they had to do was to block out the moves and interact with things. That was then sent to tracking who had to re-track what Tilda was doing to match the 3D sim of the smoke. It was a combination of shooting/comp/tracking and going back to 3D. We wanted to make sure as she flowed, her hair flowed as well.”


The Senate Visual Effects

Establishing shots, magical maps and a star

The opening shot of Dawn Treader is a crane move over what initially appears to be Narnian tower architecture. The sudden flyby of a Spitfire plane and the continued pull-out reveals the location to be wartime Cambridge, created with the help of digital work by The Senate Visual Effects. To orchestrate the 45 second-long scene, The Senate previs’d the move to have a Technocrane feel over the tower and then back to street level as the Kings College gatehouse comes into view. Production emulated the move with live action extras and street activity in Cambridge in front of a large amount of bluescreen.


The Senate then matchmoved the live action and added in the requisite tower, plane and other structures. “We modelled the buildings in Maya using thousands of bracketed photos we had taken,” explained Senate visual effects supervisor Richard Higham. “It also happened coincidentally that the tower itself had a lion head repeated around the sides of it. We got in quite close and used Mudbox for the extra detail to add in blemishes and weathering.”

The Senate was also responsible for a number of effects inside Coriakin’s library on Magician’s Island, including moving 3D letters and flipping pages on a spell book Lucy reads, and additions to the library environment. For a shot of Coriakin appearing out of invisibleness in front of a table of glass jars and books, Higham referenced octopus footage that appeared to show the creature changing its skin colour as camouflage. “Angus Bickerton really liked the organic and physical nature of that,” remarked Higham. “It wasn’t just a light thing – it seemed to emulate from the physical object the octopus was attached to.”


A plate of the actor performing the scene and then a clean plate of the same move were shot on set. Artists then modelled a basic shape of Coriakin from a cyberscan, projecting it onto the clean plate. “That becomes the texture and if you’re doing it from one frame, you just play the shot,” explained Higham. “At the beginning everything will be invisible, but as you travel forwards, something will start to look odd. The perspective shift won’t look correct.”

“Ultimately, that had a certain flatness to it,” continued Higham, “so we then modelled the bits and pieces of what was behind Coriakin and used that to peel into his body using refracting shaders. We also went for that octopus look – a bit like when you drop some ink on a tissue and it bleeds through – we wanted that to be the overall reveal. The actual 3D render of Coriakin was then used as a matte in compositing to reveal the transition. The trick was we didn’t actually render something in 3D that we would use as a master beauty for this shot. You’re actually giving different passes that can be further played with.”

Coriakin unravels a magical scroll containing a map of Narnia and the locations of the seven swords of the lost Lords, which must be found by the Dawn Treader crew. “We shot the actor unrolling with a real scroll first,” said Higham, “and then got him to do it without the scroll, which we later matchmove animated to his hand.”


Fully unraveled, the map measured 18 x 9 feet and contained 3D models of various islands, waterfalls, the ocean and clouds. Around the border, The Senate animated scenes that were nods to the previous Narnia films, like the rotating tree from Prince Caspian. “The border animations were initially painted backdrops from production and then isolated clips from the previous films,” noted Higham. “We did all this in After Effects and rendered it out. Just one quarter of the map was over 7,500 x 3,000 pixels and rendered as an actual file sequence. The shaders would be referring to 100 or 200 frames of a huge image – and that’s just the border!”

The Senate also contributed shots for the Island of Ramandu visited by the Dawn Treader crew, where they also find Aslan’s Table. Scenes of the approach to the island were made up of plates shot off the Australian coast and combined with island reference photography, matte paintings and salt waterfalls. Shots near Aslan’s Table were mostly filmed against bluescreen and included complicated environments and atmosphere placed beyond the live action set.

The crew encounter Lilliandil, a star appearing from the sky that transforms into the figure of a girl with a continued glow. “They actually shot a light bulb on motion control and with miniatures in heavy atmosphere,” said Higham. “We would animate our star over the top in 3D and that gave us all the proper interactions of light.” Particle and fluid sims were used for the star, with 2D techniques to sustain the actresses glow throughout the scene.

The Mill

The Naiad water nymphs

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_Mill1 A magical Naiad water nymph who greets Lucy on her arrival to Narnia and later warns against travelling to Magician’s Island was created by The Mill. “We were asked to reference a young girl for the Naiads,” said The Mill 2D supervisor Sara Bennett. “She was leaping through the water and it was hard to make for an elegant girl as she’s doing that. So we decided to get rid of the legs and just have it more like a fishtail or a dolphin. Angus Bickteron also shot some performance artists swimming around the water to drive our animation.”

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_Mill2“The concept was that she would always be made of water and water was always flowing from her,” continued Bennett. “That led to one problem where the early water sims started to make her look a little messy, and you couldn’t read her features. So we changed this so that the ocean was part of her body jumping in and out of the water. She sat above the water with more like drips coming off her. Generally her face was very solid so we could read her expressions as well.”

10Dec/nar/DawnTreader_Mill3A Naiad model was generated in Maya based on a human form and then modified with a tail. Blend shapes were used for the Naiad face. Artists took the model into RealFlow to create water simulations, and rendered using Next Limit’s renderkit. “We were actually working with Next Limit on new software they were alpha testing,” said Mill effects artist Andy Guest. The actual sea surface was created in RealWave, which is part of RealFlow. In some shots, The Mill blended real ocean plates with their digital Naiad, and added occasional 2D splash elements to integrate the character in the scene.

1 thought on “Narnia: The Dawn Treader’s VFX Crew”

  1. Don’t forget that Narnia’s Dawn Treader is releasing April 8th on Blu Ray DVD! Help spread the word. Tweet this reminder to all of your friends with #narniavoyage to support!

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