Digital Vision’s Nucoda Film Master soars with Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of GaHoole

By: Bruno Munger, Senior Product Manager, Digital Vision

Warner Bros released its animated 3D blockbuster Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole in cinemas across the US and the UK earlier this autumn. Developed and produced over three years at Animal Logic’s studios in Sydney, Australia, Producer and CEO of Animal Logic Zareh Nalbandian amassed a team of more than 500 artists and technicians and support staff to design, develop and execute one of the most ambitious and visually rich animated 3D films in cinemas today. Every detail from the diverse range of owl species with detailed feathers and expressive eyes to epic landscapes, complex environments and groundbreaking visual effects and lighting were carefully crafted to ensure the audience would be transported to the world of Ga’Hoole. The film features a number of famous voices including Geoffrey Rush, Helen Mirren, Hugo Weaving, Sam Neill, Abbie Cornish and David Wenham. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is the first animated feature that US filmmaker Zack Snyder (Watchmen, Dawn of the Dead, 300) has directed.


Based on Kathryn Lasky’s Guardians of Ga’Hoole book series the plot centres on a young barn owl (Soren) who is fascinated by his father’s epic stories of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole, a mythic band of winged warriors who fought a great battle to save all of owlkind from the evil Pure Ones. Eric Whipp, Animal Logic’s award-winning Head Colourist (Happy Feet) graded and finished the film using Digital Vision’s Nucoda Film Master. He explains, “In February we began putting the workflow in place and locked down the conforming process. At the beginning there were obvious shots and scenes that needed more attention than others and there are always daily edit changes right up to the last minute, which means a lot of re-conforming. Grading began with a rough pass in 2D over everything to set the basic looks.”

Edited on Final Cut, Animal Logic customised its own workflow writing tools to convert the XML files into EDLs; similar to the workflow used by the facility during the post production for the Academy Award winning Happy Feet. Whipp explains, “The major release for Happy Feet was 35mm. Because it was an anamorphic 2:35 film it was better to keep the animation in 1828 x 778 because when you burn that to an Arri Laser it’s exactly the width you need. For pipeline reasons, it made sense for us to use this workflow again for Guardians.”

Whipp worked very closely with Art Director Grant Freckleton, who previously teamed up with Snyder in the bloody Greek battle film 300. Whipp says, “When Zack was back in LA, Grant became his eyes. As the Art Director he knows exactly what he wants and on a day-to-day basis we would work together scene by scene. Zack was here for much of the process and when he was away there was a lot of videoconferencing.”

Nucoda Film Master’s stereoscopic toolset enables time-saving grading and synchronous workflow for left eye/right eye footage. Whipp says, “When grading a 3D feature the first process is to get it looking exactly right in 2D. Working in 3D all day can cause significant eye strain so once we were happy with the 2D grade we would copy grades over to the right eye on a second Nucoda Film Master system. Because it’s an animated film, we split up all the layers using the mattes for specific elements like the body, the eyeballs, the mouth and the tongue. We literally split every character into different layers. With each shot there are a number of layers; it’s not as simple as copying those grades over to the right eye, you have to go through layer by layer and switch the mattes to the right eye mattes. In some instances we would isolate specific areas and track shapes to get a shine on half of an eyeball, for instance, in those cases we would have to track that shape on the right eye as well. We did as much of this as we could before we switched to projecting 3D mode to save time and reduce eye fatigue. Once that was done we’d grab our glasses and fine tune all of the windows, layers and mattes on a two projector set-up and make sure it all looked correct in 3D.  We then did a brightness adjustment pass to compensate for the lower light levels of 3D.”

2010 has been awash with 3D content. Audiences now have high expectations when it comes to 3D in both live action and animated films on the big screen. Both genres bring about their own issues in post so how do these translate to the colourist? Whipp says, “It’s probably slightly easier grading an animated vs live action film in 3D from a colourist’s point of view. You don’t have issues if the cameras aren’t quite aligned; if it’s not right you can send it back to animation. Also because we have all the mattes from the compositing side we can control things much better. Having said that our grading stacks become much more complicated so in another way it becomes more complex.”

There are a number of intricate scenes throughout the film climaxing in a huge battle scene, which particularly challenged Whipp and his team. He explains, “In these scenes there are a lot of owls on screen fighting each other and it becomes very difficult for the audience to work out which owl is on which side. We came up with an idea to make the metal - the helmets and armour - a little bit shinier on the good guys. We used Nucoda Film Master’s Sapphire plug-ins to create little blue lens flares that shine across the metal at certain moments. Once we did that we started to realise what we’d got ourselves into because when you’ve got a fight scene with hundreds of owls fighting, tracking little lens flares off the metal at certain moments throughout that entire scene, duplicating it all, doing it in stereo and making sure they all line up becomes quite a complex process. I think on one spool of the movie alone we used something like 180 lens flares!

“The Sapphire tools were really useful. The film has a very particular visual style and we used lens flares a lot to help that look. The main evil character Metal Beak is generally backlit and we would enhance this with a lens flare behind him. The idea was to hide his face a bit to add drama and make him more mysterious. We also used the Diffusion and De-focus plug-ins for this process.”

Whipp was impressed by the Nucoda Film Master’s OpenEXR functionality, which enables higher dynamic range and colour precision. He concludes, “The ability to use OpenEXR files is similar to working with a film negative. For example, if there was a moon clipping out in the background I was able to bring back detail to some of the clipped out areas the same way you would on a negative. It was a very useful tool.”

The film, which covers the first three books in a 15-book series, has been a big success on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing Lasky’s narrative to life in spectacular style. The Owls have left their mark on young audiences in this film and it will be interesting to see what challenges the team face in the next instalment.