Legend of the Guardians: Production designer Simon Whiteley

In the second part of our Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole special, production designer Simon Whiteley discusses how Australia’s remote windswept areas inspired the world of the film.

What were the main environments created as sets for the film?

We drew most of our inspiration for the landscapes that were created for the movie from the more remote windswept areas of Australia. Primarily the wild uninhabited coasts and mountains of Tasmania, which could only be accessed by helicopter by boat or by foot. Filming the region from helicopter allowed us to capture the landscape and flora as well as the light, atmosphere and weather from an owl’s perspective. It was this footage, our initial designs and lighting frames as well as a short screen test with our first CG owl that got the movie green lit.

The Forest Kingdom of Tyto and the family hollow, where Soren and his family lived was based on the alpine landscape and cradle lakes of South West Tasmania. The old red wood pencil pines becoming the basis for the family tree and the other unusual plant life filling the landscape.

The Desert of Kuneer and St Aegolius’ Canyons – with its landing platform, moon-blinking chamber, peletorium, Nyras’ chamber and Grimble’s library – were sourced from the red Simpson Desert in the centre of Australia – most of the time a dry and arid region with plant life ravaged and cut into by intermittent torrential rain.

The Coast overlooking the Sea of Hoolemere and the Echidna’s perch where the band encounters the crows was based on the tall columned rocks off Tasmania’s south east coast. Designed for a chase sequence and first reveal of the Sea of Hoolemere, we needed to create a gateway and character in the Echidna that would bring the band together and send them on their way into a raging storm.

The Island of the Great Ga’Hoole Tree, where the Guardians and all free species of the Owl world live, was based on the craggy rock formations of Tasmania’s wild south west coast. The tree itself was designed around a collapsed flooded volcanic plug, here the nutrient rich soil would be able to support such a massive tree that has been struck by lightning countless times and regrow’s within the ancient carcass of itself. A metropolis of oak trees that our owls could explore with a Great Hall, Dining Hollow, Parliament, forge and armoury, as well as hollows for all of the other Clans..

The Beaks and Metal Beaks’ Stone Palace, where his army of Pure Ones build the Fleck field to trap and down the Guardians, was also based on the unusual rock formations of Australia’s red centre and limestone caves that can be found dotted all across Australia. Our owls are able to build up into the ceiling of caves without the need for scaffolding using trees as their inspiration, working statues and columns out of stalactites and stalagmites.

How did you find a balance between our reality, and that of a world populated by owls, in terms of what things they have/make and what objects surround them?

To give our owl world a believable reality and allow it to stand apart from other animated feature films, we decided to make it closely resemble the landscapes, flora and fauna we as humans are familiar with.

We designed the owls so that they would move act and fly like real owls, the wind would blow through and ruffle their feathers, and they would move and react to their environment with real world physics.

We then gave them tools and props that could have been forged and worked by owls using their claws and beaks and constructed their habitats as if they were built by creatures that could fly and defy gravity.

How was your area impacted by the 3D component?

The movie was designed from the start to be presented in stereo; therefore the characters and environments had to be built to with stand that type of scrutiny. We expected to get very close to our owls, flying with them through locations that had to be both dramatic and dynamic with the kind of action audiences expect from a Zack Snyder film. This meant slow motion interaction with sets and effects such as fire, rain and a magnetic fleck field as well as owl to owl combat.

Tightly story boarding, prevising and layout meant that we could focus on the elements that would be close to us and in focus and spend less valuable time on things that might be motion blurred or out of focus in the background.

What were the challenges of working long-distance with Zack Snyder?

We began work on the project back in 2007, with John Orloff on the initial script. So by the time we met Zack in early 2008, we had already decided roughly what species of owls might be in the movie and the environments they might inhabit. These along with some lighting key frames were presented to Zack in Vancouver.

Zack had worked with Grant Freckelton the Art Director before on 300 and liked the direction we were hoping to take the movie even at this early stage. From there we worked closely with him creating the characters, refining the environments and honing the story.

Once under production we spent several hours a week via conference call with him in Vancouver and then in Los Angeles so we never felt we were out of touch. Having a very tight crew from design and story all the way through R&D, modelling, rigging, surfacing, layout, animation, visual effects, character effects and lighting to production has meant that we could turn the movie around in an unusually short amount of time even with a director halfway round the world.


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