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January 16
2019

ISSUE

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FANTASTIC BEASTS 2: When Your CG Creature is a ‘Multi-Colored, Elephant-Sized Cat’

By IAN FAILES

All images © 2018 Warner Bros. Pictures.

It’s a fair bet that visual effects studios tasked with working on a Fantastic Beasts film are going to have to deliver some unusual creatures and characters. Easily one of the most unusual elaborate so far is the Zouwu, appearing in the recent Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

The Zouwu is a giant furred beast with a lion-like mane and a magical tail, and happens to be as playful as it is ferocious. Framestore took on the challenge of crafting the Zouwu, with Animation Supervisor Nathan McConnel running down for VFX Voice how they brought it to life.

 

Designing early

Framestore came on board right from the concept stage for The Crimes of Grindelwald. “We had a small animation team based in Leavesden that played a key role in shaping the Zouwu’s personality and performances,” says McConnel. “One of our animators, Mike Brunet, created a series of animated vignettes illustrating how the Zouwu could burst into life in the ministry of magic after being surrounded by Matagots, the cat-like defenders of the ministry.”

A stand-in performer holds a bust of the Zouwu while acting against Newt (Eddie Redmayne).

The final shot by Framestore.

“Underneath this tough exterior of a hugely powerful predator, there’s this playful, tender quality.”

—Nathan McConnel, Animation Supervisor, Framestore

Fantastic Beasts creator J.K. Rowling had referred to the Zouwu as a ‘gigantic elephant-sized cat that is multi-colored,’ which spurred Framestore on to find the right kind of reference. “As a starting point,” recalls McConnel, “we looked at references like the Chinese New Year Lion Dance and ribbon dances for the head and tail motion. However, for the body mechanics we also looked at lizards, since the anatomy more closely resembled a reptile than a cat.”

One signature attribute of the creature is that it could at once be menacing and then equally reduced to a kitten in its behavior. To communicate that kind of emotion, Framestore’s artists found reference of a lion whisperer who had formed a close bond with a lion cub and then reunited with it many years later.

“There was this amazing sense of gentle affection – licking and nuzzling – mixed in with an abrupt demonstration of raw speed and terrifying power as the lion ran off,” says McConnel. “That contrast was something we tried to imbue into the Zouwu’s performance. Underneath this tough exterior of a hugely powerful predator, there’s this playful, tender quality.”

The action was filmed on a partial bluescreen set.

The final frame includes the creature and digital environment.

“Occasionally, director David Yates wanted to make the Zouwu even bigger than was physically possible. Luckily, we were able to make it work in CG by using the tail as a device to fill frame and give depth.”

—Nathan McConnel, Animation Supervisor, Framestore

The Zouwu has, of course, many magical elements, including a mane that allows it to apparate. In particular, the mane pulses with light from the base through to the tips of the mane tendrils. Framestore considered bioluminescent creatures as inspiration and then animated a timing guide that was handed off to the creature effects and effects teams at the studio to complete. Similarly, the fin-like tail was keyframed, while simulations added in extra motion.

 

Staging scenes

The Zouwu is a large creature, too large to be played by one single stand-in performer for the action shots during filming. Depending on the scene, there was a variety of props that puppeteers used to represent the Zouwu’s head and tail, to help give an eye line and sense of scale. “For example,” describes McConnel, “they would run through the streets holding these props. Occasionally, director David Yates wanted to make the Zouwu even bigger than was physically possible. Luckily, we were able to make it work in CG by using the tail as a device to fill frame and give depth.”

Newt engages the Zouwu on the streets of Paris.

“Working on set directly with the filmmakers had given us a good understanding of the performances we needed to achieve. It was then up to our talented animation team to add believability and nuance to these performances.”

—Nathan McConnel, Animation Supervisor, Framestore

A soft sponge version of the creature’s head held by one puppeteer occasionally stood in for the Zouwu so that it could directly interact with the actors. At one point, Newt (played by Eddie Redmayne) rides the Zouwu like a jockey. This required a bespoke rotatable green seesaw that was pushed up and down to approximate the movement that had been animated by Framestore in previs form.

For one of the film’s most complex action sequences – where the Zouwu takes on the Matagots in the ministry – the scenes were often realized with fully CG cameras and environments, along with digital creature performances. It also included Newt digi-doubles and conforms (“a proprietary tool process where we connect part of the plate to a CG asset; for example, Newt’s face with a CG body,” explains McConnel).

The Zouwu during its battle with the Matagots.

“With so many elements in each shot, taking a shot all the way to final proved tricky. The team had to be methodical, diligent, and also respond to the occasional edit change. Luckily for me, the animators rose to the challenge and delivered with aplomb.”

—Nathan McConnel, Animation Supervisor, Framestore

To stage this action scene, Framestore began by ingesting postvis that had been animated on set in order to continue blocking and do temp renders. “Unfortunately,” states McConnel, “because we’d essentially jumped the usual pipeline workflow, we then had to sanitize and retrofit each shot once the tracking was available. Working on set directly with the filmmakers had given us a good understanding of the performances we needed to achieve. It was then up to our talented animation team to add believability and nuance to these performances.

“With so many elements in each shot, taking a shot all the way to final proved tricky. The team had to be methodical, diligent, and also respond to the occasional edit change. Luckily for me, the animators rose to the challenge and delivered with aplomb.”


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