The Daemons of The Golden Compass


You’ve seen their work in films like Superman Returns and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and now the Academy Award-winning team at character animation and visual effects house Rhythm & Hues is hard at work finishing effects for New Line Cinema’s The Golden Compass, opening in theaters on December 7. The film is based on the first volume in Carnegie Medal-winning Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. got a chance to see selected footage from the upcoming movie and talked to members of the esteemed effects house when we attended a special presentation at the Rhythm & Hues studio in Los Angeles. The main responsibility of the character animation team is to bring to life daemons in the film which represent your soul shaped in the form of an animal and always stay closely by your side. Bill Westenhofer, Visual Effects Supervisor, explained more.

“Daemons are a manifestation of people’s souls. In this world, the soul lives outside the human body, and they have an animal that follows them around for life. The animal is not a pet. They are as much a part of the person as a soul is to a person in our world. In their performance, they exhibit knowledge of what the character is thinking, and they kind of have their mannerismsÂ… In theory, every shot that has a human would have a daemon in it. We worked to keep them in the world without making it look like it was being overrun by feral creatures running everywhere. It is a good balance.”

The story is about Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) who lives in Jordan College. Her daemon takes the form of a ferret and is named Pan. Lyra soon realizes after hearing her Uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), have a strange conservation with academicians about other worlds and a particle called Dust, that her school may not be what she thinks.

Children start disappearing and when her friend goes missing, she leaves school to search for him in the north. Before she does, however, she is given a golden compass by The Master of the college which is capable of telling the truth. She is warned she must tell no one she has the instrument in her possession. He then introduces her to a striking woman named Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and she is taken by her beauty and charisma. She goes to live with her, but discovers she is involved with the group responsible for taking the missing children. She escapes the confinements of Mrs. Coulter and goes on her quest to find her best friend, but with Mrs. Coulter trailing her the whole way in hopes of gaining ownership of the golden compass.

“You certainly want to have a connection with the lead character, which is Pan. She is the lead character, Lyra’s daemon. One of the things you will see in the production is that an animal can change forms depending on its mood when the person is still in their adolescence,” Westenhofer added. “Pan can be a ferret or a cat, or a bird. We had to handle that transformation, and you will see some of that. Once they hit adolescence, that’s like a person realizing who they really are. You will see a lot of adult daemons, and they are a part of that person’s soul. They are affixed in their form and shape.”

Gary Nolan, another Visual Effects Supervisor, talked to us about how Rhythm & Hues became involved with the project.

“Bill and I went to London for all of the principal photography from August of last year until February of this year. Ray Chen [Co-Visual Effects Supervisor] was here, heading up all of our model building to work on the shots when we came back. We have been working on the show since that time, and we will be delivering the film in about a week. We are almost done. We will have worked on almost eight hundred shots when all is said and done. By far, it’s the biggest show we have ever been involved with. We have five hundred artists both here and at our facilities in India that have worked on the show.”

From the few scenes we saw, the animation looked incredible and the endearing relationship between Lyra and Pan was captured magnificently on screen as well as displayed playful moments with the child and her daemon like when Pan looks into a magnifying glass and sticks his tongue out at the audience. We couldn’t help but giggle about that.

Since no real animals were used in the film for the daemons, the effects team had quite a challenge to overcome.

“One of the key things was figuring out how a person could realistically hold a key daemon, and how we would be able to come back later and put that in a shot. How were we going to put the golden monkey in the arms of Nicole Kidman, for example? So we did a lot of tests, and we wound up with every sort of contraption you could think of from a little green football to a stuffed cat on a fishing pole,” Westenhofer said. “We could swing it into her arms, for those moments when Pan comes running up as a cat and jumps into her arms. We had that. We also had to inform the camera operators how to frame for the animals. How big a hawk would be, or where the monkey would go. All of that stuff had to be worked out. There was another effect we had to work out. It dealt with the daemon deaths. When a person dies, their daemon dies. So they revert back to this dust material. We did a lot of simulations. They were fluid simulations. And we had to move it around as a real gas would move. The daemon itself dissolves into these fine particles before bursting into the sky. You will see that a lot in the battle sequences.”

Ray Chen told us about how the development of the animals got started.

“We started off with a lot of photographs of actual animals. We also had some concept paintings. A lot of our artists did them here. Or they were provided by the production on the set. And there were a lot of photographs provided by the production. We started with these things, and sort of figured out what the animals would be like from there. We treated them very much like people. We had to figure out how to get their personalities to come across. Pan transforms into a lot of different animals, and one of the things we wanted to do was have his look be similar over many different animal forms. One of the things we did was give him this bandit mask, which came from the ferret. We tried to give a little hint of that in all of his forms. When he is a wood mouse, he has a little dark area around his eyes. When he was a moth, it was a little bit harder. We tried to keep the same color palette as well. We used a lot of golds and browns. We gave him the same proportions as far as lighting goes.”

After watching a few scenes and the trailer, it made seeing the footage that much more exciting after knowing the Rhythm & Hues team has only been working on the project for about a year. The amount of detail and high quality of work put into the film is amazing especially for the short amount of time the effects people had to meet their deadline.