Exclusive: Behind the Scenes of Terabithia


Bridge to Terabithia revolves around a young boy named Jess who comes from a poor background. The story is also about Leslie, a new girl in the neighborhood. The two become friends when they don’t fit in with the other kids at school. Jess and Leslie discover a new world together that takes them on a fantastical journey complete with exotic creatures and a castle. It’s a special place where their imaginations can run free and they can put aside the problems they face in the real world.

Mythological creatures in the film possess various similarities to certain people, including the bullies that Jess and Leslie come in contact with in their daily lives. Magnificent creatures called squogres that resemble squirrels and fairy-like dragonflies come to life as the children enter their magical kingdom. Hairy vultures and an odd looking leafy giant add more mystic to this whimsical land the children go to when they need an escape from reality.

In Bridge to Terabithia, the special effects were an important and integral part of the film. Matt Aitken was the visual effects supervisor on the set. He worked with a talented team of experts to create just the right look for each creature that was designed specifically for the movie.

It was important that Aitken know the story portrayed in the film so he could maximize the effectiveness of the creatures on screen. “Yeah.” he said. “As the visual effects supervisor, the first thing I do is read the script. I read the novel as well so that I had that background information, and then, I’m listening very carefully to the direction that Gabor is giving us in terms of the way he wants the emotional story to play out. It is very important that we, as a component of the overall filmmaking process, understand the whole picture. It’s not enough for us to just come in and do a little bit; we are contributing to the overall arc of the story. It’s important to have that picture, yeah.”

Computers are a vital component in the creation process. Aitken said, “For the insect creatures, we spent the largest part of the time on those guys making their wings look great, like little hummingbirds. You want them to have that real intensity to the speed to which their wings move. That doesn’t just happen automatically when you create those guys on the computer. Of course, with the squogres and the hairy vultures the fur is a huge part of their character, and for us it is the most complex thing about them. Their fur has to be styled and created in a way that looks natural and believable. It looks complex, but it also has to move in a natural way. If you’ve got a squogres who is bouncing off a tree, then his fur needs to demonstrate the shock of that impact. If it looks too stiff it looks like he’s used too much hairspray. It’s a very unnatural look. When you are talking about a creature with millions and millions of little hairs, calculating this dynamic movement on each of those hairs is a very complex process.

The computer does most of the work for us, but it’s just the world that we live in, you know. We have to offer this very fine level. We will look at one shot over and over again for half an hour and discuss various different ways we can change it. We get to know these shots very well.”

Seldom does Aitken and his team have to change the creatures’ appearance. Ever so often in a particular shot it comes to their attention that the performance aspect of the creature will have to be adapted, rather than the technicalities of its look. Sometimes a creature may have the appearance of being too scary or humorous in certain scenes. Aitken said that one of the scenes called for a dramatic impact. It needed to be scary to a certain degree, but if it came across as too scary, the fear was that the audience would start to wonder why the kids would be imagining this if it was so unpleasing to them. It needed to be fun for the kids to want to continue to go into the imaginary world. Finding that balance between the humor and the scariness was a fine tight rope they had to tread. There were a couple of times adjustments had to be made on the creatures. One example was where the squogres actually got a little bit too humorous in a scene. It became necessary to modify the creature to make him a little scarier.

All of the creatures were carefully produced with great detail. Aitken said, “The three main creatures, the Squogres, the Hairy Vulture and the Giant—the tree giant, all had their own demands. There is one particular shot of the giant, when we first see her clearly, when she first catches Jess when he is falling from the tree. We see her clearly framed in the door of the tree house. It is quite a long shot; it’s about thirteen seconds long. That is a pretty demanding setup for us when the camera lingers on one of our particular creatures for a long time. We had to make sure that she held up to a very high level of scrutiny. She was challenging for sure, but the squogres and the hairy vultures, they were a lot of fun as well. I wouldn’t rule them out. We had great concept art to start with, which we found really thrilling to work from.”

It took talented and professional people working together to create the finished product. Their hard work shows on the screen.

Aitken said, “I think we worked on Terabithia in total for about nine months. There is really three phases to that. We were involved in the filming so that when the production is on location or on the set filming scenes that are going to have visual effects. We are very proud of that process and helping to make sure the place where it is filmed is going to work in the context with the digital work we need to do on the creature later.

“We are also in the background while that is going on, we are doing what we call digital preproduction, which is the process of building these creatures and getting everything ready for use in the shots. We’ve already got the concept artwork from the production. We have got a target that we are moving towards there. That can take more time than anything else. We spend at least as much time building the creatures as we do actually staging them in shots. It can take several months to build one of these creatures. We have a small team of people working for several months getting these creatures built and developing their styles and movements, their animation styles, working out run cycles, that sort of thing.

“Then the work that we get in with the shots is where we finish our task and producing what we call a visual effects shot, a clip in the film, which has some creature, or some other visual effects aspect to it is ultimately what we are delivering to the production.”

It would be hard for Aitken to pick one creature he likes better over the others. “I think I am like a proud parent. I couldn’t really think of one of the children above the others. I love the birdcage lady. You see her just briefly at the end, but she is very elegant, very graceful and her whole torso is that wire birdcage with birds hopping around inside her. That was a wonderful piece of design and we had a lot of fun building her…

The giant was another creation that meant a lot to Aitken. Her character went through a great transition in the film. She starts off being horrible, but then you get to know her and see her in a different light.

Aitken is currently in pre-digital production for director James Cameron’s Avatar, opening in theaters summer 2009. Bridge to Terabithia is in theaters on Friday, February 16.