The Spiderwick Chronicles Visual Effects Experts

With so many unusual and complicated non-human characters in "The Spiderwick Chronicles," the film's producers knew the job of creating them might be best split between two visual effects wizards. And what better wizards than Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Tippett Studio?

"We wanted to engage them both, but we wanted to figure out who was best suited at doing what," explains co-producer Tom Peitzman. Tippett Studio, best known for its work on films such as "Jurassic Park" and "Robocop," handled creation of the army of creepy goblins, led by Redcap, the slovenly hobgoblin Hogsqueal, and the menacing mole troll. ILM produced the characters of Thimbletack (both as a brownie and a boggart), Mulgarath (in his many forms), the sprites and sylphs. Between them, the two studios created some 600 visual effects shots.

Academy Award® winner Phil Tippett served as the film's creature supervisor. "My job was to wrangle all of the characters across both facilities, to make sure that all of the characters would maintain some kind of continuity within this world," he explains.

The designs for the characters began with Tony DiTerlizzi's drawings, as featured in his original Field Guide in the Spiderwick Chronicles books. "It was a really nice canvass for (Tippett Studio founder) Phil Tippett, (ILM visual effects supervisor) Pablo Helman and our production designer, Jim Bissell, to start with," notes Peitzman.

The team's main goal was to bring DiTerlizzi's two-dimensional characters into three-dimensional reality. "It's a matter of taking the drawings, which are the product of Arthur Spiderwick's observations in the field, and creating what he actually physically saw, to biologize the sketches and turn them into actual creatures," says Tippett.

"The intent of the original book was a marriage of nature and art -- part plant and part human," explains Helman, giving the characters, particularly those who disguise themselves in the Unseen World, an organic base from which to come to life. "For others," says Tippett, "studies of animals, such as rodents and birds, were made, anthropomorphisms of which gave some of the creatures their base" (such as the rodent-like Thimbletack).

Characters were developed in 3D using both traditional clay "maquettes," small detailed models commonly used in the visual effects industry, and computer programs. ILM employed its Rapid Prototyping system to not only build low resolution computer-generated (CG) models of its characters for study, but to apply some basic movement, sometimes putting a staffer in a "motion capture" suit to begin assigning some early moves. "The director can actually see the character moving and can begin making decisions about physical proportions and movement early on," explains ILM visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander.

During the actual animation, it was imperative for the animators to make use of reference video shot during the recording sessions by the actors, to try to include as much of their characterizations in the creatures' personalities as possible. "If you don't," says Helman, "something doesn't quite look right, because the soul of the character is missing."

"That kind of thing is extremely helpful," explains Alexander. "We can add in twitches and other body language that we saw when he was making the recording, and we can put all that expression into the character. The Martin Short reference was extremely helpful for Thimbletack's lip sync, for example."

Seeing Nick Nolte's performance of Mulgarath was crucial for the animators to be able to inject the "cursed being" facet of his character. "ILM animation supervisor Tim Harrington and I were both at his recording sessions, and what Nick did was just an amazing tour de force," Tippett recalls. "He was up there for 2 ½ hours doing Mulgarath, and I can tell you he was dripping sweat; he just put everything into it. would have paid money to have seen this in a theater."

The voiceless characters of the Unseen World -- the sprites and the sylph -- had their own challenges to give them their "Fantasia"-like magic. For the beautiful flower sprites, notes Alexander, "we just played straight off their environments. Since they come up out of a flower bed, we just matched the flowers around them, so that they would completely blend in and suddenly appear." The ethereal flow to their movement was based on that of a jellyfish, he says, even using cloth simulations to create the gentle drift of the petals.

While the millions of dandelion-like sylph required the application of "particle generation" software by ILM (onto which the tiny sylph were applied to each particle), Tippett Studio animation supervisor Todd Labonte and his crew went to great lengths to give each member of the goblin mob a distinct character, whenever possible. "It's a real trick to get a crowd to feel like a crowd of individuals," says Tippet. "Todd and his team excelled at making each individual in the crowd a specific entity, but while still maintaining the feeling for a crowd."

On set during the six month shoot -- both at the outdoor location and on the stages of Mel's Cite du Cinema studio in Montreal -- Tippett, Helman and special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri made sure the magic continued in front of the lens, in preparation for the later addition of the computer-generated visual effects. "This is where you really sell visual effects shots to the audience, by providing as much physical interaction as you can on set, to enhance the CG work that comes later," explains Tom Peitzman.

While actors are quite used to looking each other in the eye while performing scenes, it is a whole other matter to interact with characters that don't yet exist (and won't for many months to come). "People do a lot of subtle things with their face as they're talking to another person," Tippett explains. "There's a great deal of searching that's going on -- the person's eyes will move around the face, they might lean in or pull back as they're trying to assess the validity of the spirit of the other person."

To assist the actors, the visual effects crews had a variety of visual aids constructed and placed -- and sometimes moved -- in the location where, say, Thimbletack or Hogsqueal might be sitting having a discussion with a human character. "We built maquettes, complete with wardrobe, or even just a piece of paper with an `X' on it. It's what really glues the scene together when you assemble the two shots. If someone's just staring off at a fixed eyeline, the scenes can go very flat," says Tippett.

The maquettes are also filmed for reference by the animators. The artists can see how the light on the set interacts with the maquettes, enabling them to recreate the same lighting in the computer of their computer-generated character, allowing them to seamlessly place the character into the shot with the live actors.

Much of the mayhem that befalls the Spiderwick Estate happened under the supervision of special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri. "I did all the mechanical effects on set -- which entailed any interaction between the actors and the CGI characters. All of it was driven by the specifics of the characters and their performances, even the digital characters," Lantieri explains.

That mandated constant communication among Tippett, Helman and himself. "The philosophy was to go as far as we could with live action in a practical way because it ultimately sells the CGI. We figure out the mass, weight and movement of the characters and have anything that results because of it happen in the realm of actual physics."

Each day, Tippett, Helman and Lantieri would view simplified "previsualization" (or "previz," at it is known) animation depicting how the day's scene would unfold, showing where the creatures would be in space and how they would interact and react. "How big would their footsteps be, how deep would they sink in the grass, would they grab with the right hand or the left? For instance, a goblin would never do the same sort of thing as an ogre. Mulgarath is quite large and would interact with things that are much higher and would move much heavier objects. So the trick was to figure out the characters first, then decide what they would come in contact with -- in this case, a huge assault on the house. Then we'd figure out how to execute the large scale movement and how that would interact with the character and computer graphics later on," Lantieri explains.

As much as possible, Lantieri tried to wreak as much of the goblins' and Mulgarath's havoc on the house on-camera. "We did as much damage to the house practically as we could -so when a wall explodes, we did that for real and put the characters in later. Everything they touch, push, shove or break was actually done on set."

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