It took a bird lover to render the designs for the lifelike owls in Warner’s CG-animated “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole.”
Production designer Simon Whiteley, a onetime BBC graphic designer whose credits range from Boy George videos to the signature “raining code” for “The Matrix,” was tasked with creating the look of the picture: trees, mountains, armor, but most of all the characters — who are largely owls.
“I’ve always been fascinated with flying birds,” says Whiteley, “and owls are probably the most stunning.”
Whiteley works at Animal Logic, the Oz-based vfx/animation studio that animated “Happy Feet” for Warner. Even before helmer Zack Snyder came on the project, studio brass asked Animal Logic to create concept art for a potential movie version of Kathryn Lasky’s “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” books.
Whiteley and a team of designers delivered the art, then Grant Freckelton, who had worked with Whiteley on “300,” created color “look frames.” Those frames caught the eye of “300” helmer Snyder, who asked in on the movie.
“It was those frames of owls in armor and sparks flying that he thought were the coolest thing,” says Whiteley. Animal Logic, Whiteley and Freckelton — who became art director — all stayed onboard the film.
While Whiteley had to design all the meticulous detail of the world of “Guardians,” he says the realistic owls were by far the biggest challenge. He did extensive research, traveling to bird refuges in England and Australia and studying hours of footage.
Animation supervisor Alex Weight counted on that kind of detail when it came to creating the birds onscreen.
“Simon spent months on fantastic drawings of where the bones should go and how far they can rotate and how far they can move,” says Weight. “Once we put those limitations on the animators, it forced them to think creatively about how to get the owls to emote and get the performances required by Zack.”
Whiteley’s footage also supplied the animators with what Weight calls “an entire library of owl idiosyncrasies” that looked to human eyes like emotions.
“At the beginning of the movie I never expected to create what we had at the end of the movie,” Whiteley says. “It’s way beyond what I imagined.” — David S. Cohen