Official Movie Production Notes
THE SPIDERWICK ESTATE AS A CHARACTER
Mallory (SARAH BOLGER, center) and her brothers Simon and Jared (both FREDDIE HIGHMORE, left and right) move into their great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick’s secluded old house in “The Spiderwick Chronicles.” Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Movies Present A Kennedy/Marshall And A Mark Canton Production A Mark Waters Film “The Spiderwick Chronicles” starring Freddie Highmore, Mary-Louise Parker, Nick Nolte with Joan Plowright and David Strathairn and the voices of Seth Rogen and Martin Short. The film is directed by Mark Waters from a screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick and David Berenbaum and John Sayles, based on the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. The film is produced by Mark Canton, Larry Franco, Ellen Goldsmith-Vein and Karey Kirkpatrick. The executive producers are Julia Pistor, Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black. This film has been rated PG for scary creature action and violence, peril and some thematic elements. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
The Spiderwick Estate is virtually a complete character itself in the movie. What at first seems to be a musty, secluded old mansion in bad need of repair, slowly opens up to reveal a fascinating and mysterious history. Odd creatures lurk in the walls; even odder ones are trying to get in to steal the Field Guide, the lifelong research of the home’s original owner, Arthur Spiderwick who lived there with his young daughter, Lucinda, and then vanished and is presumed dead. So many pivotal events in the film unfold there (both in the distant past and the present) that production designer Jim Bissell had to design it in such a way that audiences were able to appreciate the way it once looked and what remains special about it to this day.
“Arthur Spiderwick built the estate in the early decades of the 20th century,” Bissell explains. “He came from an old New England family and studied to be a naturalist. In the course of his work, he discovered an unseen world he’d read about when studying European myths but didn’t realize also existed in the United States. This led him to embark upon his studies, which culminated in his masterwork, Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You (The Field Guide). So his estate is unique in that it reflects his old-time New England values and, at the same time, has a tower built atop the house, which Arthur used as an observation post for keeping an eye on the forest around him the goblins, fairies and other creatures. He also kept a secret study where he documented his findings and observations,” Bissell explains.
Bissell referenced the work of designer William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s, known for their emphasis on organic motifs, for his design inspiration, as well as the Spiderwick books themselves. “The books are fantastic. I was familiar with them because my kids love them, and that’s what drew me to the project in the first place. Tony’s illustrations, his pencil drawings, his pen and inks, are just fabulous. So when I was designing the film, I kept them on the wall to inspire me. They always had relevant information for me,” Bissell says.
The house had to reflect Arthur Spiderwick’s interest in the enchanted world, requiring a fairly isolated location in the Montreal, Canada area, where the film was shot. “We found a beautiful glade in a park called Cap-Saint-Jacques, and there was a little shack there, probably built in the 1950s. The city and the park graciously let us tear it down and build our house there,” he describes.
The company built a shell of the house, though an elaborate one. “It was four stories with a tower - a full 360 degree structure surrounded by woods, which also worked in the film. We also built the ground floor, including the foyer, the parlor and library and the staircase to the second floor. And we constructed bits of the second and third story windows for POV shots, as well as the interior tower, so that the kids could run in and out, and so the scenes that directly related to the outside could be filmed on location.”
On soundstages, the company replicated the ground floor for all of the complicated effects shots in which Mulgarath crashes through the house and the goblins mount their final assault. “We also built a second floor where the kids’ bedrooms are and created the goblin glade, with a grotesque oak tree where we first see Mulgarath,” Bissell explains.
To Bissell, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” is fundamentally a film about discovery, he says. “It’s about city kids discovering nature, discovering their families and the heritage of their families the people who preceded them and their own immediate family, for better or worse, and the transition that kids go through between their wild imaginations and into the world that they never knew a world of logic, of reason, of danger, but of magic, too! All those elements came into play in creating the Spiderwick Estate.”
Two of the biggest challenges for Bissell were the seasons and the weather. Filming from late summer all the way through the fall into early winter created some potential continuity issues. “So we built 60 trees between 20 and 30 feet high that had varying degrees of foliage and color. When we began filming in late summer, when the trees were leafy and green, we added some trees with colorful autumn foliage, and by late autumn we added some green trees to maintain a continuous look.”
Bissell also wanted the Spiderwick estate to look like it had been there for years and years, he says. “But we knew we’d have a crew of 80 people or more on it every day, tromping around, moving equipment and setting up camera shots. If it rained, the place would turn into a mud hole. As it turns out, we did have lots of rain, and even though we laid down a lot of decomposed granite to make sure we had good drainage, and whenever possible also put flagstone on the ground and covered it with leaves so that we’d have a solid surface, it still got to be quite a mire. But we added a series of grass and moss tufts that were easy to replace on a daily basis and covered them with leaves so that audiences won’t notice what a quagmire it actually was.”
THE FIELD GUIDE & THE “SEEING STONE”
If the house is a character and the film’s key set, then The Field Guide has to be its main prop. Property Master Claire Alary points out that “The Field Guide is the most important prop in the film, because it constantly informs the story and is the reason why all of the chaos in the story begins. Jared finds this book in a chest in the study and he starts looking through it and realizes that it is all about the fantastical world around him, and concurrently begins to realize that it’s the source of all the family’s problems in the house.” Once Jared opens the book despite warnings from Thimbletack the problems only multiply.
Following production designer James Bissell’s overall design plan, the art department created The Field Guide, using diaries and journals from the early part of the 20th century as models. They also looked at handwriting samples, and even evolved a font that they used for Arthur Spiderwick’s own handwriting.
“The Field Guide is more of a product of Arthur Spiderwick, a man who is a naturalist, who studied the unseen world over the span of about 15 to 20 years and documented the enchanted world around him. He transcribed all of his notes into a book that he had hoped would illuminate this world he knew existed to the world at large. When audiences get a glimpse of The Field Guide, hopefully they will sense the presence of Arthur Spiderwick and the almost two decades he spent working on it,” Alary says.
The enchanted realm Arthur Spiderwick uncovers is an unseen world whose creatures are only discernible to the human eye with the help of magical aids. So, the other unique prop in the film is the “seeing stone,” a magical hollow rock that, with the use of various lenses, allows the viewer to see the otherwise invisible, enchanted world.
“We’ve all come across stones on the ground that have little holes in them. And when you look through them, you tend to see things somewhat differently. It’s almost magical, and sometimes what you see through them gives you a somewhat different perception of reality,” muses Bissell. “Arthur Spiderwick, who was very mechanically inclined, built a holder for the “seeing stone” and he designed several different lenses that allowed the viewer to see various types of enchanted creatures like sprites and ogres. These special lenses were extraordinary, particularly given the period in which Arthur Spiderwick lived. Meinert Hansen, one of our art department illustrators, helped design them and local craftsmen beautifully executed his concepts.”
THE UNSEEN WORLD
The unique characters goblins, hobgoblins, brownies, boggarts and ogres fascinated the filmmakers. Some were sweet and charming, while others gave them the chills. “When the movie starts it’s a little bit like a ghost story,” says Kirkpatrick. “There is something or someone in the house with the Grace family and it’s telling them in an ‘Amityville Horror’ sense to get out.”
Jared finally meets this somebody Thimbletack, the house brownie. According to existing faerie lore, house brownies live in the walls of the house and collect shiny things. “He appears, disappears and lives in the walls. He appears when he wants to be seen and disappears when he doesn’t,” Kirkpatrick explains. Brownies are somewhat mischievous as well. “They play tricks on people. It’s like that sock you can’t find all those things where you say, ‘I swear I put that down . . .‘ The idea is that brownies take those and hide them in the walls.”
Brownies are also known to be very loyal to their masters, in Thimbletack’s case Arthur Spiderwick. “Spiderwick gave him one mission before he left, which is, ‘Protect the book.’ And that’s his whole life.”
They also have one nasty trait: when they get angry they turn into boggarts - which is their ugly side - and it doesn’t take much. Thimbletack is like a pot that’s about to boil at any moment. “He’s constantly trying to contain his rage,” explains ILM visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander. “We did things like put a big green boil popping out of his head, which he’ll try to push back in because he doesn’t want to turn into a boggart.”
“What’s nice about this is that it’s sort of representative of Jared when he gets angry,” Kirkpatrick notes. “He has similar anger issues; in essence he becomes a boggart in his own right, which is how he is behaving when we first meet him.”
The Grace kids’ nemesis in the film is the evil ogre, Mulgarath, who, like Thimbletack, has one goal in this case, “Get the book.” “He and Thimbletack are complete opposites,” explains ILM visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman. “They share the same mixture of human nature, but Mulgarath is far more complex. He is not the typical bad guy; in faerie tales, it’s not black and white it’s more about grays.”
“We started with a Lucifer/fallen angel kind of myth,” says Kirkpatrick. “Mulgarath is actually a cursed being,” skillfully portrayed by actor Nick Nolte. “He’s a guy who wants to be more powerful than he is, and he’s reduced to living surrounded by goblins, who are kind of idiots. If he could get the secrets in the book, he could be the most powerful creature of the Unseen World, and he would use it for evil.”
Mulgarath is crafty and manipulative, employing, as needed, a shape-shifting ability at will to prey on the weaknesses of humans, appearing in various clever guises. Surrounding him is an army of goblins, which Kirkpatrick describes as “really the bottom of the food chain of the faerie world. Sort of like dim-witted dogs that follow the ogre and do whatever he tells them to do.”
The goblins are led by Redcap, a Bull Goblin. “He’s the majordomo to Mulgarath,” says Tippett. “Like the sergeant-at-arms goblin. The only problem is, he’s a coward in the presence of his boss, Mulgarath.”
Another creature that lives in the woods, who befriends the Grace children, is Hogsqueal. “He’s a hobgoblin, not a goblin,” reminds Tippett. “He doesn’t like to be called a goblin they’re beneath him.”
Hogsqueal is on a quest for vengeance Mulgarath has killed his entire family, and he’s willing to work with the children because he wants to do something about it. The only problem is he’s a coward. “He’s totally fueled by vengeance, but he’s a little guy whose ideas about his own abilities are inflated,” explains Kirkpatrick. “His approach is always, ‘I have these big ideas, but I’ll get you to do all the dirty work. I’ll just be over here.’”
He’s not the tidiest creature. “With him, there’s earwax, there’s butt scratches, and, uh...snot,” says Tippett. It is Hogsqueal’s “spit in the eye” that gives the recipients the ability to see the inhabitants of the Unseen World, a facility they’d most certainly wish they’d been able to acquire some other way. “Once a hobgoblin spits in your eye, you have ‘the sight,’” explains Kirkpatrick. “It allows you to see the Unseen World without the use of a “seeing stone.” The creatures can no longer make themselves invisible to you.”
Hogsqueal also has an unusual craving for birds. “He is so easily distracted in the presence of birds that his stomach can totally override his quest for vengeance at any moment,” Kirkpatrick continues. Fortunately, Hogsqueal’s character defect becomes an asset by the movie’s end.
Two other creatures that the Grace children happen upon are the most characteristic of the Unseen World the benevolent and beautiful sprites and sylphs. The sprites exist in the faerie world in a variety of forms water sprites, who can cloak themselves on the surface of the water, hummingbird-like sprites and, most prevalent in “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” flower sprites.
Flower sprites hide themselves in flowers, in this case, in order to guard the aged Aunt Lucinda. “They bring her food, which are little berries,” Kirkpatrick explains. “And once you eat the food that the sprites bring you, you’ll never crave human food again. They’ve been keeping her alive, and quietly whispering her secrets about her father. She’s surrounded by them, and they protect her.”
Likewise, the sylph, who live in a beautiful faerie glade, have been protecting Arthur Spiderwick himself. The sylph appear as the fluff of dandelion seeds, long ago swarming in the millions to carry Spiderwick away to the safety of the glade, continuing to surround him to this day. “They’re the protectors of the faerie world,” says co-producer Tom Peitzman. The sylphs cause those they protect to lose all awareness of time. “They make you forget where you are and all your pressing business,” notes Helman. “Arthur’s been in the glade for years, just studying everything around him, and he’s forgotten life.”
What further makes the sprites and sylph magical is their ability to be seen or not seen, something which sometimes depends on who’s doing the looking. “If you look really closely at the seeds of a dandelion, you might see a little face, whose eyes are shrouded a little bit, but with a little face and a mouth,” describes Peitzman. “The same thing goes for the sprites.” The creatures can choose to be seen or not seen, with their tiny faces visible on the stem of a flower at will. Adds ILM’s Tim Alexander: “The audience is left with the feeling, ‘Maybe after the movie’s over, I could go outside and go over to a flower bed, and maybe I’d find one of these. Maybe I just haven’t noticed them yet.’”
“SPIDERWICK’S” YOUNG STARS AND SOME ADULT ONES
Freddie Highmore and Sarah Bolger are actually quite close in age to the teenagers they play in the film. But they are different from the Grace siblings in one significant way. While the story takes place in New England, neither Highmore nor Bolger is American. Highmore is British and Bolger hails from Ireland.
Yet, observes director Waters, “listening to them on film, you’d never pick up on anything but a fine New England accent...a tribute to their gifts, the extensive research they did and consistent dialect coaching. These are really demanding parts for young actors, so we needed to cast artists who possessed real depth, soul and smarts. Freddie and Sarah have those qualities and so many more.”
He adds that “Highmore’s choice to agree to play both parts was very exciting, and particularly so in playing Jared Grace, because we’ve previously seen him in such movies as ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ ‘Finding Neverland,’ ‘A Good Year’ and ‘Arthur and the Invisibles,’ playing quieter, more introverted characters. It was very exciting to see him play the role of a kid with some real anger issues and tackling an American accent which he did seamlessly. He’s a great presence on film.”
As for Bolger, Waters says she “is really amazing, an actress to keep an eye on. ‘In America’ was an amazing film, and both she and her sister Emma were awesome in it. She’s really got the chops and pulls off the equally challenging role of Mallory with great aplomb.”
Freddie Highmore and the filmmaking team deftly delineated the differences between the two brothers. “We wanted audiences to immediately know whether they were watching Jared or Simon without making them at all cartoon-like or defined just by their appearance,” says Highmore. “We gave the twins distinctive hair and dress styles. Color played an important part in distinguishing them. Jared is dressed in jeans and in blacks or reds, while Simon is more subdued in conservative clothes and lots of greens or browns. I’m British, not American, so we had a dialect coach who helped me with the accent and also to make the ‘identical’ twins sound individual. Jared acts tough while Simon is quieter, more bookish, and they haven’t reacted in the same way to their parents’ splitting up.”
Highmore proved to be more than a match for the challenges of dual lead roles. He and the production team quickly established a routine in terms of how to shoot the scenes with Simon and Jared. Because of the demands of filming a big scale movie, character switches and new set-ups had to be as fast as possible. If you couldn’t handle pressure this wasn’t the assignment for you.
“In rehearsal we worked out the interactions and other stuff the twins were going to be doing. When Jared was talking to Simon or vice-versa, we used one of a team of photo-doubles, stunt-doubles, stand-ins or often just an orange eye-line cross on a blue screen. A lot of the thrill of this film involves state-of-the-art computer generated images, but this adds a whole extra level of technical complexity. It was amazing how well Mark Waters and his crew stayed on top of things. I worked hard to get the technical requirements mastered so that I was free to concentrate on playing whichever twin I was at any given moment. With a full education program to fit in, every second of my day was time-tabled. It was non-stop but such great fun, and what an amazing opportunity to be given.”
Highmore notes that “there are some pretty scary scenes, but actually shooting those sequences were the most exciting. Clinging to the top of a tower can make your heart race whether you’re attached to a hidden harness or not. But it’s a bit like watching the finished film even though you know you’re safe, you get scared. Then, when the danger is over, you get such a buzz and you can’t wait for the next bit of the adventure. We wanted the world of ‘Spiderwick’ to be feel completely real; that there was real danger and excitement, and that the kids really had to pull together to survive.”
Highmore has great expectations for the finished product. “I think kids will enjoy the journey into a fantastical new world, which is both magical and puts you on the edge of your seat. But parents will enjoy the more adult themes and the emotional highs and lows a family goes through. It’s a good film for everyone.”
Sarah Bolger, who plays Jared and Simon’s sister, Mallory, believes that her character has a protective relationship toward her brothers even though Jared constantly drives her to distraction. Her protectiveness takes on new meaning when the enchanted world encroaches on their ordinarily life.
“Mallory had to deal with her parents’ divorce after her father left. She knows why her parents broke up, and also has to deal with her two brothers, who don’t know the truth about the breakup. She’s had to be kind of a mom looking after them because of what her mother is going through personally.”
Bolger learned a new skill to play Mallory fencing, which is Mallory’s hobby and comes in very handy when they are trying to fend off the marauding goblins. “I would certainly say Mallory is feisty, and it’s been great fun playing her, especially the fencing and the sword fighting,” she says. “But at the end of the day, what I really like about her is that she’s a good sister and, I think, a good daughter.”
For the sword fighting sequences, Bolger embarked on a crash course in fencing prior to the film, and it paid off. “There were many stunts in the film, and a huge amount of fencing. In every scene, I have my sword, which I loved, but I definitely had to train for it. I did three weeks of training in Montreal both for the fencing and some of the stunts. I also trained for three to four weeks in Dublin.” [Bolger lives in Ireland]
Bolger enjoyed the action scenes and dialogue scenes equally. “I’m a big fan of both. I really enjoyed the action scenes. Even though I got a few bruises, it was always worth it so much amazing fun. But I loved the dialogue scenes, because they are so rich and true to life.”
There were moments, though, that Bolger remembers less fondly most of them having to do with tomato juice and oatmeal, which, when combined, are lethal to goblins and, after a day on the set, not too pleasing to humans, either. “There is a scene where the goblins are running after us and we have to (retreat) to the kitchen to protect ourselves,” she recalls. “So, we load up the oven with tomato juice and oatmeal and set fire to it so it explodes and kills them. It was a big scene to do, and it worked brilliantly. However, it really stinks, and the kitchen was covered in about three inches of tomato juice. It was gross!”
The young actors also had to endure being the recipients of hobgoblin spit in the eye more than once and still look surprised. “There were multiple takes of them having goop thrown at their faces,” says Phil Tippett. “And they were able to look as if they weren’t expecting it each and every time. I could never do that in a million years.”
Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award winner Mary-Louise Parker plays Helen Grace, Jared, Simon and Mallory’s recently divorced mother, who is trying to start a new life with her children an emotionally wrenching ordeal, made no easier by Jared’s often difficult behavior. Parker points out that in spite of the difficulties, her character puts on a brave face, motivated by unconditional love for all three kids. “Jared is kind of shut down, understandably, and the more complicated of the two boys. Helen has a different relationship with all of her children, and she has a lot going on in her own life which makes everything more complicated.”
Helen, she says, relies a great deal on Mallory, one of the things she likes most about this story. “Mallory is such a different kind of young girl than we usually see in movies. Not only is she a tomboy, but she’s also outspoken, intelligent and articulate. She also fences, which is really random, but also poetic, a wonderful metaphor,” Parker says.
Parker says it was easy to perform opposite her young co-stars because they were consummate professionals and real actors. “It was extraordinary that Freddie played both parts so beautifully and managed to make them so different and, at the same time, not cartoonish. He’s a sophisticated little boy without being precocious. It was no hardship doing scenes twice with him, once as Jared and again as Simon, because he is so professional and interesting. He is subtle, sensitive and thoughtful and works as hard as any actor I’ve ever worked with. I think it would be a very different movie and a very different experience if these parts were played by a different little boy.”
Sarah Bolger, Parker notes, “… is really extraordinary. She has this humility and, like Freddie, this sophistication. You forget how young she is but there is nothing about her that is precious or cloying. She has incredible technique for someone her age, impeccable manners. She was really, really lovely. I was quite besotted, actually,” she laughs.
While the film features many astonishing effects and action sequences, Parker was attracted to it for its strong, compelling characters and for director Mark Waters’ encouraging and optimistic attitude. “I feel like this movie is very character-driven. All the children are very different and specific; they have to be for the movie to resonate. Mark had a great way with Freddie and Mallory, and I think a lot of that is because he just loves the story. His enthusiasm was so infectious, and he was so excited by it that he made me feel the same way. He’s such a positive guy, such a pleasure to be around. I always looked forward to coming to work,” Parker says.
David Strathairn plays Arthur Spiderwick, a man dedicated to chronicling the Unseen World that so fascinates him, who unwittingly provides the Grace children with entry to the darker forces that inhabit this enchanted place. Once he realizes how dangerous his Field Guide is, he takes great pains to hide and secure it ultimately, to no avail. “Arthur entrusts the book to Thimbletack, this dear, cherished little house brownie. It remains safe until the kids move into his house, and they discover it. It is bound up, and a sign on it warns ‘Do Not Open,’ but of course Jared does. It’s kind of like opening Pandora’s Box,” Strathairn explains.
The actor says he shares Spiderwick’s appreciation of the enchanted world, though Strathairn’s interest is more metaphorical than Spiderwick’s. He references Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, in which Bettelheim notes “…the imagery of fairy tales helps children better than anything else in their most difficult and yet most important and satisfying task: achieving a more mature consciousness…” He could have been talking about what happens to the Grace children in the story.
“What the Bettelheim book addresses is that in the fairy kingdom of spirits and goblins and weirdness and magic and fear, the simplistic world of good/bad, this is the place where we work out our stuff. The big bad wolf, the dark forest, potions and magic we use all those things to find our way through our own jungles. And that’s what happens in this film, because Jared, Simon and Mallory are trying to figure out what is happening to them and their family, and Arthur’s book is, in many ways, not just a guide to a magic world but to their own reality. So that interested me,” Strathairn says as did working on a film populated by creatures created primarily through visual effects.
“I did a lot of work opposite characters who would be animated later, and I’d never done that, so it was a real discovery for me. It’s a fascinating process I guess it’s sort of a Hollywood rite of passage,” Strathairn comments.
VISUAL EFFECTS EXPERTS
With so many unusual and complicated non-human characters in “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” the film’s producers knew the job of creating them might be best split between two visual effects wizards. And what better wizards than Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Tippett Studio?
“We wanted to engage them both, but we wanted to figure out who was best suited at doing what,” explains co-producer Tom Peitzman. Tippett Studio, best known for its work on films such as “Jurassic Park” and “Robocop,” handled creation of the army of creepy goblins, led by Redcap, the slovenly hobgoblin Hogsqueal, and the menacing mole troll. ILM produced the characters of Thimbletack (both as a brownie and a boggart), Mulgarath (in his many forms), the sprites and sylphs. Between them, the two studios created some 600 visual effects shots.
Academy Award® winner Phil Tippett served as the film’s creature supervisor. “My job was to wrangle all of the characters across both facilities, to make sure that all of the characters would maintain some kind of continuity within this world,” he explains.
The designs for the characters began with Tony DiTerlizzi’s drawings, as featured in his original Field Guide in the Spiderwick Chronicles books. “It was a really nice canvass for (Tippett Studio founder) Phil Tippett, (ILM visual effects supervisor) Pablo Helman and our production designer, Jim Bissell, to start with,” notes Peitzman.
The team’s main goal was to bring DiTerlizzi’s two-dimensional characters into three-dimensional reality. “It’s a matter of taking the drawings, which are the product of Arthur Spiderwick’s observations in the field, and creating what he actually physically saw, to biologize the sketches and turn them into actual creatures,” says Tippett.
“The intent of the original book was a marriage of nature and art part plant and part human,” explains Helman, giving the characters, particularly those who disguise themselves in the Unseen World, an organic base from which to come to life. “For others,” says Tippett, “studies of animals, such as rodents and birds, were made, anthropomorphisms of which gave some of the creatures their base” (such as the rodent-like Thimbletack).
Characters were developed in 3D using both traditional clay “maquettes,” small detailed models commonly used in the visual effects industry, and computer programs. ILM employed its Rapid Prototyping system to not only build low resolution computer-generated (CG) models of its characters for study, but to apply some basic movement, sometimes putting a staffer in a “motion capture” suit to begin assigning some early moves. “The director can actually see the character moving and can begin making decisions about physical proportions and movement early on,” explains ILM visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander.
During the actual animation, it was imperative for the animators to make use of reference video shot during the recording sessions by the actors, to try to include as much of their characterizations in the creatures’ personalities as possible. “If you don’t,” says Helman, “something doesn’t quite look right, because the soul of the character is missing.”
“That kind of thing is extremely helpful,” explains Alexander. “We can add in twitches and other body language that we saw when he was making the recording, and we can put all that expression into the character. The Martin Short reference was extremely helpful for Thimbletack's lip sync, for example.”
Seeing Nick Nolte’s performance of Mulgarath was crucial for the animators to be able to inject the “cursed being” facet of his character. “ILM animation supervisor Tim Harrington and I were both at his recording sessions, and what Nick did was just an amazing tour de force,” Tippett recalls. “He was up there for 2 ? hours doing Mulgarath, and I can tell you he was dripping sweat; he just put everything into it. I would have paid money to have seen this in a theater.”
The voiceless characters of the Unseen World the sprites and the sylph had their own challenges to give them their “Fantasia”-like magic. For the beautiful flower sprites, notes Alexander, “we just played straight off their environments. Since they come up out of a flower bed, we just matched the flowers around them, so that they would completely blend in and suddenly appear.” The ethereal flow to their movement was based on that of a jellyfish, he says, even using cloth simulations to create the gentle drift of the petals.
While the millions of dandelion-like sylph required the application of “particle generation” software by ILM (onto which the tiny sylph were applied to each particle), Tippett Studio animation supervisor Todd Labonte and his crew went to great lengths to give each member of the goblin mob a distinct character, whenever possible. “It’s a real trick to get a crowd to feel like a crowd of individuals,” says Tippet. “Todd and his team excelled at making each individual in the crowd a specific entity, but while still maintaining the feeling for a crowd.”
On set during the six month shoot both at the outdoor location and on the stages of Mel’s Cite du Cinema studio in Montreal Tippett, Helman and special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri made sure the magic continued in front of the lens, in preparation for the later addition of the computer-generated visual effects. “This is where you really sell visual effects shots to the audience, by providing as much physical interaction as you can on set, to enhance the CG work that comes later,” explains Tom Peitzman.
While actors are quite used to looking each other in the eye while performing scenes, it is a whole other matter to interact with characters that don’t yet exist (and won’t for many months to come). “People do a lot of subtle things with their face as they’re talking to another person,” Tippett explains. “There’s a great deal of searching that’s going on the person’s eyes will move around the face, they might lean in or pull back as they’re trying to assess the validity of the spirit of the other person.”
To assist the actors, the visual effects crews had a variety of visual aids constructed and placed and sometimes moved in the location where, say, Thimbletack or Hogsqueal might be sitting having a discussion with a human character. “We built maquettes, complete with wardrobe, or even just a piece of paper with an ‘X’ on it. It’s what really glues the scene together when you assemble the two shots. If someone’s just staring off at a fixed eyeline, the scenes can go very flat,” says Tippett.
The maquettes are also filmed for reference by the animators. The artists can see how the light on the set interacts with the maquettes, enabling them to recreate the same lighting in the computer of their computer-generated character, allowing them to seamlessly place the character into the shot with the live actors.
Much of the mayhem that befalls the Spiderwick Estate happened under the supervision of special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri. “I did all the mechanical effects on set which entailed any interaction between the actors and the CGI characters. All of it was driven by the specifics of the characters and their performances, even the digital characters,” Lantieri explains.
That mandated constant communication among Tippett, Helman and himself. “The philosophy was to go as far as we could with live action in a practical way because it ultimately sells the CGI. We figure out the mass, weight and movement of the characters and have anything that results because of it happen in the realm of actual physics.”
Each day, Tippett, Helman and Lantieri would view simplified “previsualization” (or “previz,” at it is known) animation depicting how the day’s scene would unfold, showing where the creatures would be in space and how they would interact and react. “How big would their footsteps be, how deep would they sink in the grass, would they grab with the right hand or the left? For instance, a goblin would never do the same sort of thing as an ogre. Mulgarath is quite large and would interact with things that are much higher and would move much heavier objects. So the trick was to figure out the characters first, then decide what they would come in contact with in this case, a huge assault on the house. Then we’d figure out how to execute the large scale movement and how that would interact with the character and computer graphics later on,” Lantieri explains.
As much as possible, Lantieri tried to wreak as much of the goblins’ and Mulgarath’s havoc on the house on-camera. “We did as much damage to the house practically as we could - so when a wall explodes, we did that for real and put the characters in later. Everything they touch, push, shove or break was actually done on set.”