‘The Water Horse’
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SCENE STEALER: ‘The Water Horse’

By Ron Magid, Special to The Times

Can a computer-generated character appear to evolve throughout its lifetime? That was the challenge facing Peter Jackson’s FX powerhouse, Weta Digital, and master creature visual-effects supervisor Joe Letteri (whose credits include Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films and “King Kong”) on “The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep,” the story of a boy, Angus, and Crusoe, his Loch Ness monster, who grows from hatchling to prehistoric monster in a matter of weeks.

“We’d never done a character that grows through its life cycle,” Letteri says. Typically, CG superstars like Gollum or Kong appear only in their adult form. Not so in director Jay Russell’s film, which begins with Crusoe’s birth and follows him through four successive growth stages, each using a different CG model.

The key to audiences’ acceptance of each model was using character animation to create a through-line from adolescence to adulthood. “The animators had to establish the bits of personality that carry through each stage,” Letteri says. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)
“Usually we just create a character and give it a sense of history so you can tell what his past life might have been,” Letteri says. “This is the first chance we’ve had to really grow a character and see him through his whole life.” Since Crusoe emerges from an egg, his first stage was somewhat bird-like, “a freshly hatched chick, kind of cute, wet and messy,” Letteri says. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)
Crusoe doesn’t stay small for long because of his voracious appetite -- soon he’s pug-sized. Letteri’s animators channeled seals and puppies to endow their CG character with playful personality. “He has flippers, so he walks like a seal, and he’s really expressive like a dog, with a face that you can relate to,” Letteri says. “You know when a dog is happy or sad.” Or hungry. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)
To imagine Crusoe’s life cycle, Weta’s artists worked backward. Referencing the famous “Nessie” photo, they built a digital model of a plesiosaur, a flippered dinosaur with a serpentine neck. This became the adult Crusoe, who reaches his full size -- about 22 feet long -- in mere weeks. But connecting Crusoe’s infant to adult forms forced the animators to “plot his evolving personality from stage to stage,” Letteri says. (Courtesy of Sony Pictures)