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LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS THE OWLS OF GA HOOLE

Creating Flight
There is perhaps nothing more wondrous about owls than their gift for silent flight—swooping in undetected and then disappearing again into the night sky. Therefore, the filmmakers knew that a major key to bringing their winged characters to life was "capturing the majesty of an owl in flight,” says Zack Snyder. "The animators did an extraordinary job of taking our owls to new heights, literally and figuratively.”

For the animators, allowing the owls to take flight began with replicating the arc of their wings, which was an intricate process that began with models and evolved in the computers with the riggings. "When you see an owl soaring through the air, or opening and folding its wings, you might take for granted how effortless and natural those movements appear. But when you start to break it down, you see there's actually an incredible amount going on,” marvels characters supervisor Damien Gray.

Whether flapping to gain altitude or speed or just riding the air currents with the subtlest of shifts, "It was crucial to make the motion of the wings fluid and in no way rigid,” Gray continues. "The wings are perpetually changing posture as they propel the owls through the air, and, obviously, are quite different when the owls are ‘grounded.' We knew we had to provide the control that would allow the animators to move the characters organically between these states.”

Nevertheless, the finer point of animating the owls was also the greatest challenge: the owls' innumerable feathers, with their wide range of colors, shapes, sizes and textures. The rendering of the feathers demanded a true union of design and function.

"As most production does, we started in modeling and rigging to achieve the underlying character movement; then each character had to have thousands of feathers placed on it. Those had to be hand-groomed so they would appear separate, yet connected,” Gray says. "Many feathers were quite literally hand-placed to a certain design, specific to the character. Nyra, for example, is white and quite sleek, whereas Eglantine is covered with down, and appears very soft and fuzzy.”

Whiteley adds, "We also learnt that owls have developed special comb-like fringed edges to their primary feathers and soft down on the upper surfaces of their wings, both helping to break up the air and make them silent fliers.”

The team worked hard to achieve realism in the feathering of each owl, so that the movements were precise, species by species. "From the very beginning, we realized we needed to bring that level of detail to the animation, so we developed tools and techniques in order to get that very fine level of control down to each feather,” Gray says.

The feathers also had to be constantly affected by the characters' movements and the atmospheric effects of the scene. The filmmakers found that the iterative process was invaluable when dealing with all of the details of the various featherings, both on the ground and in the air. "Patterning— keeping all the feathers in order—was quite difficult, given some of the extremes that come both from the environment and the performance,” Gray notes.

Another important factor was determining how much to use the owls' wings, beyond flight. Inspired by the actors' movements when voicing their characters, Gray says, "We knew we needed to open up their wings and perform with them.” But the filmmakers decided that the owls would not use their wings as "fingers” or "hands,” instead having them grab things with their talons, as would a real owl.

Additionally, though the owls in the film would be talking and using tools and weaponry, Snyder and the Animal Logic team wanted to avoid hyper-anthropomorphizing the characters and making them overly-humanistic. Rather, the filmmakers incorporated as much real owl physicality in the performances as possible, exploring a variety of subtle attributes they could use.

Gray describes, "An owl's face feathers are very flat and act like a radar dish, their ears are positioned so they can pick up sounds in front of them and they use muscles in the face to alter the shape of this facial disk. They also have this ability to pant: they can't sweat, so their neck swells and they puff out air rapidly to cool down. They have three toes at the front of their foot, and one at the back; but one of these front toes actually bends all the way around to the back, so they can position two front and two back toes when they need to grasp things. Getting those little things right as part of the owls' realistic repertoire was critical.”

The art department developed what they called "owl ergonomics” for the film, ensuring the talons could actually grip and grasp and that the owls and the items in their environment fit together in the correct way.

"The work these guys at Animal Logic did was pretty groundbreaking,” Snyder states. "Everything they accomplished not only met but exceeded my expectations. They made it possible for us to really push the boundaries at every stage.”

In addition to the visual choices made by the director and the artists, supervising sound editor and designer Wayne Pashley had to determine what the owl world should sound like. In keeping with the naturalistic sensibility of the film, Pashely was able to utilize the wide array of sounds owls make. "Most people think that owls just hoot, but, depending on the species, they can purr, growl, whisper, click…their communication is just so varied. In the film, we've got barn owls, desert owls, great greys, and so on, so we used the real calls and cries, morphing them with the dialogue from the cast to cross over into character signatures.”

The actors were of great help to Pashley, providing him with their own imitations of the various sounds of their species, which the sound team then layered in with the real owl sounds, achieving a seamless transition from dialogue into the actual bird noises, and vice versa.

"By combining both the real owl sounds and the great actors' voices, Wayne brought in an extra layer of texture that takes you even more into the characters, and gives you that extra bit of perspective about the world of owls,” Nalbandian observes.

Snyder was also a great help in that capacity because he was able to "model” many of the sounds he was looking for—and not just owls. "Zack is very sound-literate,” Pashley attests. "For example, when he wanted a funny-sounding frog, we recorded him imitating the style of frog sound he was after, and then I approximated that recording into the scenes. So now we have unique atmospheres based on how we felt it might sound from an owl's point of view.” Pashley hopes their combined efforts will help the audience "be immersed in the world of Ga'Hoole.”

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