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Designing An Owl Kingdom
"Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole” takes us into a fantastical land belonging solely to its winged heroes and villains. Though there are people mentioned in relation to the environments in Kathryn Lasky's books, for the film Snyder wanted to imagine a world untouched by humans, populated instead solely by ancient owl and animal cultures. Whiteley expands, "If there were any built or carved structures, they would have to be created by owls using owl tools, and didn't have to be built from the ground up, as in the case of Metal Beak's palace, which was carved out from the ceiling of a massive cave.”

This dictate affected the designers' search for reference locations. "The nice thing about Australia is that there is a lot of wild, untouched landscape. Tasmania, an island at the southeastern end of the continent, is open to the Indian and Pacific oceans and is blasted by wild weather and amazing light, perfect for our owls. It also has large areas of terrain that are untouched, ancient forests and rivers, alpine mountains and cradle lakes—the raw elements that we needed. Tyto Forest, Soren's home, is based on the cradle lakes of the Western Arthur Range in the southwest of Tasmania,” he details further.

The team flew by helicopter around the lakes, out to the ocean and back up the estuaries. "On the other side of the island, you have Cape Raoul, a coastline full of columns of rock, which are represented in the film when the band of travelers meets the Echidna, overlooking the Sea of Hoolemere.”

"We took some creative liberties, mixing up some of the vegetation,” environment supervisor Gregory Jowle allows, "but for the most part, everything we have is indigenous to the areas we studied, and the overall rock structures are reminiscent of the specific places we scouted throughout Australia and Tasmania. We wanted our environment to look like a world that could actually exist, so why not base it on one that really does?”

Despite basing their designs on reality, Snyder and the animators endeavored to do more than present a photo-realistic look to the film, they wanted to take even that up a notch to what they called hyper-realism. Freckelton explains, "In the film, you're looking at something that, hopefully, could be a convincing reality. But, for instance, since owls are nocturnal and much of the story takes place at night, we didn't always have the luxury of bright sunlight. We often relied on moonlight, but we amped it up by making it appear as if the moon were perpetually full, with light striking both sides of a character's face, and maybe coming from behind him as well. At the same time, we might have played the background much darker, making for some moody atmospheres that allow the owl to pop in the scene.”

The centerpiece of the film is the Great Tree, a magnificent, 1,000-year-old tree growing out of a volcanic rock in the middle of the Sea of Hoolemere. Home to the Guardians, inside is an idyllic, self-contained ancient world with the intricacies of a modern-day city, including a wide array of hollows, rooms and common areas. The scale of the tree is about five times that of the largest redwood trees, and other, smaller trees sprout from its many branches. In coming up with the design, Whiteley was influenced by Japanese bonsai trees, the way they are sculpted into beautifully interesting shapes.

Freckelton elaborates, "The idea was to have a central core in this kind of twisting shape. The tree itself is modeled on an oak tree, but from that we put gums and ferns and bracken bushes growing over the surface. The Guardians celebrate life and knowledge and preservation, and the tree is a symbol of that spirit.”

In stark contrast to the Great Tree—and the Guardians themselves—the world of the Pure Ones at St. Aggie's is gloomy and oppressive, as if to represent the smothering of diversity and growth.

"They're the bad guys,” Freckelton relates, "so everything is being decimated. Instead of encouraging new life, they just take what they find and repurpose it for their own use.”

Wigram states, "With Zack's clarity of vision leading our amazing team at Animal Logic, a world has been created that is filled with fantasy, but also feels real—and beyond. The textures and colors of landscape and sky create an ancient place that feels like it truly exists apart from our own. My hope is that this will allow the audience to fully immerse themselves in the world of Ga'Hoole and share in the grand adventure of our heroes.”

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