Legend of the Guardians: Flying High

With Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’ Hoole, Animal Logic reaches a new stage in its filmmaking capabilities. Miguel Gonzalez spoke with Hollywood blockbuster director Zack Snyder and the AL team about this groundbreaking 3D animation.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’ Hoole is the second animated feature created by Animal Logic (AL) – the first being the successful Happy Feet, which the company helped make but was ultimately “George Miller’s film from beginning to end”, according to managing director Zareh Nalbandian. This time, things were different: “Guardians was conceived here, from its initial concept frames to the very last scenes of the movie,” said Nalbandian.

Like Happy Feet, Guardians was fully financed by Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures – and the  producers are currently waiting for a final certificate for the Producer Offset. It will receive a wide international release as a tentpole project for the studio, which optioned the rights to the 15-book series written by Kathryn Lasky and then partnered with AL to develop and produce a film, from a script by John Orloff and Emil Stern that covers the first three volumes.
The story is set in a world of owls. Young Soren dreams of the Guardians of Ga’ Hoole, the mythical warriors that epic stories say saved owlkind from the evil Pure Ones. Little does he know that soon he’ll be on a journey to find them and save the owl kingdoms. With a working relationship dating as far back as the tests that got the blocksbuster 300 green-lit, US director Zack Snyder seemed like a natural option for what Nalbandian describes as “a hero’s journey; unusual material for animation which lent itself to a visionary director”.
“AL showed me the artwork they’d done, like a pitch approach, and I thought it could make an amazing movie. I got really excited about making it,” recalled Snyder. “I feel an artistic affinity with AL; they have a certain aesthetic level that they need to reach with all of  their work, and that’s something that I really respect and trust.

Once you get that with someone, it’s  hard to replace it or substitute it, and that’s the main reason why I feel strongly about the work they’ve done and why I try my best to work with them whenever I can.”

Working with a director based in North America proved to be a logistical effort, but AL’s experience running a Sydney and an LA operation facilitated the process. High definition video conferencing was set up at both sides, providing Snyder with a real time ability to  interact with the material on screen, between his editorial room and the one in Sydney. “I could physically draw right on the frame, and say ‘move this, do that’. We would work two or three hours every day, going through shots, lay outs, etc,” explained Snyder.
After finding box office success with 300 and Watchmen, Guardians is his debut in animation, and therefore, he had to learn the language of the medium.
“I knew early on that I’m not an animator, but I’d like to think I have a point of view and I know how to make some cool action shots. What the team at AL said was ‘we’re going to try and learn your language, and we’ll try to teach you the tools of our language so we can meet in the middle’, and that’s what happened. “The movie ended up looking so organic because I approached everything like we were shooting live action.

It’s difficult because animation is a very slow process and at first you just don’t know what you’re getting. You start to really to feel confident as work is being delivered; you start to see a pattern emerge and understand the way a performance is being rendered by an animator. At first it felt like a mystery, and you have to trust in your amazing artists and technicians,” said Snyder.
The cast – which includes Emily Barclay, Abbie Cornish, Ryan Kwanten, Anthony LaPaglia, Miriam Margolyes, Helen Mirren, Sam Neill, Richard Roxburgh, Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving and David Wenham – recorded their lines separately, and the voice work made Snyder more meticulous about the performances: “You think ‘what if he said that one word in a slightly sadder way?’ So you call them up and they go to the studio and re-record that single piece of performance and you can put it in and manipulate each word,” he said.

A total crew of more than 450 was required to bring the owls to life, with a peak of 380 people working on it at once – about a third joining AL just for this project.
AL had to update most of its networking, disc solutions, workstations, displays and editorial solutions, and established a permanent infrastructure for stereoscopic production, DI and review. The company grew to more than 400TV of storage, mirrored and with  built-in redundancy – while Happy Feet leveraged approximately 4,000 processor cores to render the film, Guardians required 11,264.

“The infrastructure was a huge challenge,” admitted Nalbandian. “We set up a really substantial rendering and storage capability to be able to achieve it. Some of it was brought in specifically for this project, and some of it we will retain. We’re planning a number of  projects following on, so we’ll be able to utilise it.

“Our ambition as a studio is to produce animated and VFX-rich films; we want to get our brand to the
market at least once a year with a release, which means working on more than one project at any time because of the long lead times,” explained Nalbandian.


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