There was only ever one top choice for who could handle BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA’s visual effects with just the right mix of magic: Weta Digital, the visionary, Academy Award®-winning wizards who transformed the whole of Middle Earth into something palpably and unforgettably real for awed film audiences in “The Lord of the Rings.” Based in Wellington, New Zealand, Weta Digital is an artist-led facility that specializes in creating creatures ? taking projects from conceptual design all the way through to state-of-the-art 3D animation.
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Richard Taylor, a director of Weta, saw BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA as a perfect match for Weta Digital’s specialized art form ? and a distinct challenge. “It was a very exciting project for us,” he says, “because it was a chance to make real a world that is very intangible. It’s not like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ where you can lock it all down to certain descriptions and cultural influences. These creatures in Terabithia are completely from inside the minds of children. They’re make-believe in the best sense, which actually makes it harder to find visual solutions.”
Once Weta came on board, another creative duo began to add their efforts to the mix: Weta’s visual effect supervisor Matt Aitken (who has worked on such films as “X-Men” and “Lord of the Rings”) and the film’s New Zealand-based production designer, Robert Gillies. The two worked very closely with one another to assure that every aspect of film’s design – both the real and the fantastical – would be woven together as a piece.
Aitken’s work began by taking Dima Malenitchev’s drawings and turning them into moving, leaping, stunning 3D images. “The illustrations are incredibly evocative but they’re still in two dimensions. It’s not the same as say, taking a photograph of a Squogre or a Hairy Vulture, which is what we really needed to do,” Aitken explains. “So the first thing we did is explore what these creatures would really be like in three dimensions, through a lot of experimentation. Then we start making computer models, adding in the skin, the hair, the fur, the feathers and other fine details.”
He continues: “We go through a lot of iterations for each character, figuring out each and every nuance of the facial expressions and how their hair and skin moves. And we do this for a long time before we even start putting the characters into the film’s shots.”
Adding more complexity to the creatures is the fact that many are hybrids – mergers that mix imaginary beasts and monsters with qualities of real-life humans back in the real world. To create this effect, the Weta team referenced photographs of several of the actors in the film, then enmeshed subtle details with their wholly imaginary creations. Explains Aitken: “For example, The Squogre involves subtle elements of Cameron Wakefield who plays Jess’s schoolmate Scott Hoager and the Hairy Vultures are a combination of a crow with Elliot Lawless who plays Gary Fulcher, while the Giant has elements of Lauren Clinton who plays the bully Janice Avery.”
Most everyone on the set developed a favorite creature of his or her own. The Giant especially struck Gabor Csupo’s fancy. “It’s an extremely beautiful creation and I love that this is a character who turns out to be something different than what it first appears, who takes a wonderful emotional turn,” he says.
While Aitken focused on creatures in the computer, Gillies was working with hammer and saw, building key sets including a traditional farm-house for Jess’s home, and perhaps most spectacularly, the tree house that becomes the launching pad for Leslie and Jess’s creation of Terabithia. “For building the tree house you had to kind of tap into your inner kid,” comments Gillies. “Although we started with an illustration that Dima had drawn, we went into the forest in New Zealand and built the house according to the trees we found there just like any kid would in any woods around the world.”
For many, the set became a favorite. Says producer Hal Lieberman: “It’s represents every kid’s dream tree house.”
In further enhancing ? not to mention enchanting ? the look of the film, Gabor Csupo also worked closely with two-time Academy Award®-nominated cinematographer Michael Chapman, AKA “Chappy,” who has shot more than 40 feature films, ranging from Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and “Taxi Driver” to the action classic “The Fugitive.”
“I was so happy when I heard Michael was going to do the film because he is like a legend,” says Csupo. “And then he came in to talk with me and he was like an excited child. He acted really humbled and said ‘This is such a beautiful story and it’s exactly the kind of movie I want to do at this time in my life.’ So I knew it was going to be great.”
Csupo continues: “We work together very well because Michael has a very different mind-set from mine. “He’s very practical minded and, with his 40 years of experience in the movie industry, I couldn’t have been happier than to have a great pair of eyes like his.”
With the decision to use Weta Digital as the visual effects house, it made sense to shoot the film in New Zealand, but it wasn’t until Csupo arrived in that lush island nation that he realized just how perfect the natural environment there ? rife with pristine forests and awe-inspiring landscapes filled with a sense of possibility ? was for a film about turning reality into fantasy. “Auckland is already a magical place,” Csupo says, “and there’s so much talent there.”
Between the natural beauty of New Zealand, the eye-popping digital creations of Weta and the powerful performances from the cast, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA began to come alive on celluloid just as it had in the hearts and minds of every child who ever read the book.
For David Paterson, seeing the story that had begun with his own childhood heartbreak come so thrillingly to life brought everything full circle. “It’s been a long, long journey but it’s been completely worth it,” he says. “To continue the legacy of this story is wonderful, because in the end, it’s always going to be friendship and imagination that keep the world going.”