CCI XTRA: Disney/Pixar Panel

Attendees to the Disney/Pixar panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego last Saturday were treated to a behind-the scenes peek at production footage and a live-via-satellite question-and-answer session with director/screenwriter Andrew Adamson to promote next year's release of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian." Ben Barnes, the actor portraying the title character (currently seen in the film version of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess'"Stardust"), joined Adamson from the set in Prague for the satellite feed and took questions from the audience, along with in-person panelists Richard Taylor, creative supervisor of Weta Workshop; creature supervisor Howard Berger; costume designer Isis Mussenden; visual effects supervisor Dean Wright; and producer Mark Johnson.

After an initial sound glitch during which the audience watched him mouth silent comments, Adamson remarked that the second "Narnia" film is in some ways more difficult than the first. "It¹s not as linear; it's much less cinematic, there's a big stretch of time away from the main characters," Adamson said.

Pre-visualization footage is a crudely computer-generated scene-by-scene "trial run" of a film; it resembles a late '90s video game, and allows the cast and crew to see an approximation of what each scene is intended to be. Adamson presented pre-visualization footage of a scene from the movie, in which gryphons carry the Pevensie children into a siege against King Miraz's island-based castle, with a stealthy assist from a pack of rats.

Following the footage, Adamson gave a brief explanation of the plot of the film: the Pevensie children return to Narnia, only to discover that 1300 years have passed, and the land has been invaded by conquerors from a land called Telmar. The Telmarine invaders have driven all the magical creatures into hiding, and they are now fighting to restore the rightful ruler of Narnia, Prince Caspian, to the throne and depose the usurper, King Miraz. Adamson describes the film as "a big epic, action-packed, but keeping the lyricism of the first film."

The audience was then treated to exclusive footage, including some behind-the-scenes action. Some comments by cast and crew were also shown, including scenes with the rat-swordsman Reepicheep, and also the dwarf Trumpkin, played by Peter Dinklage (Simon Barsinister in "Underdog;" Miles Finch in "Elf").

Ben Barnes spoke of the difficulty in creating an emotional performance in an effects-heavy film, saying, "It's hard, acting with an orange ball on the end of a wire," with the ball indicating the position of the CGI character Reepicheep.

When asked if the future films will be as difficult to make as the first two, Adamson remarked, "The next one will be considerably easier for me, since I won't be directing it," but later confirmed that he will continue to be involved in the films.

The producers said that as long as the audience continues to embrace the films, the studio will continue to make them. In fact, they intend to release a new "Narnia" film in May of each year until all seven books in the series are filmed. Principal shooting on "Prince Caspian" will be completed in three weeks, and shooting on "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" will begin in February of 2008 for a May 2009 release date.

Adamson compared the "Narnia" films to the "Harry Potter" adaptations, saying that where the makers of the "Potter" films had to condense very long novels into two-hour films, "Lewis wrote much more efficiently, so we have the opportunity to embellish," explaining that they can take the time to show scenes that Lewis only mentioned in passing. He also reminded the audience that although the "Narnia" books are linked and have some characters in common, they are each very different stories. "Prince Caspian" is an action story with two big battle scenes (the attack on the castle and the battle against the River God at the end), while "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is a sea journey.

Berger and Wright explained some of the things that are being done differently from the first movie in this film, with the primary changes being refinements of the design of non-human creatures, in particular the dwarves and satyrs. The dwarvs are all played by little people, with Warwick Davis portraying Nikabrik, and with two dwarves as prominent characters this time, they were able to take the time to create a new look for them. The satyrs are completely redesigned with the goal of breaking away from the human form as much as possible, making them look much more animalistic.

Creature supervisor Howard Berger said that Adamson preferred to have as many practical effects on-set as possible, and brought out the animatronic head of Tyrus, a satyr, and put it through some facial expressions, saying that the CGI effects will predominantly be used to add the goat legs to the actor, with almost all of the non-human attributes being make-up and physical effects.

"We'll have 25 guys in body suits sweating in the hot Czech sun, and then Dean will add the legs and make it all look seamless," Berger said.

Much of the film's elaborate scenery is being created though a variety of long-standing techniques including miniatures and matte-paintings, as the filmmakers believe that physical effects allow more realism than using computer-generated imagery. "Visual Effects now lives in every department," Berger said, explaining that they include costumes and props as well as post-production, but "it all has to look seamless and real."

The Telmarines are "a whole new race from the sea," and as such, have a different look than the Narnians. Since they are the descendants of pirates, their costumes and armor have a "barbaric but sophisticated" look, heavily influenced by Mediterranean cultures, with some Latin and Turkish elements, according to costume designer Mussenden.

Richard Taylor showed some of the swords made for the film, explaining that over 2,500 such weapons were created, most milled from aluminum by computer-controlled machines, but that all of the "hero" swords were handmade by their weapons-master.

The "Narnia" presentation concluded with Berger throwing several t-shirts to the crowd. The first showed a stick-figure drawing labeled "Prince Caspian," which he said was the first character design sketch for the film. The second shirt, in brown showed a faun with an afro hairstyle and the Narnia name lettered in a '70s-style font; Berger called it a "disco-faun" design.

Before the Pixar presentation began, Disney screened a trailer for "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," a sequel to the Nicolas Cage action-romp from 2004. This time out, Cage's character, Benjamin Gates, finds that one of his ancestors is named as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in the recently-discovered diary of John Wilkes Booth. This leads Gates to find out about the "Book of Secrets," a book passed to each president that contains every secret ever kept from the American people including the JFK assassination conspiracy, the contents of Nixon's 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes, and of course, Area 51. Needing access to this book, Gates decides to kidnap the president, assisted by the cast of the first film.

Andrew Stanton, Writer/Director of "Finding Nemo," then took the stage to discuss his new animated film, "WALL*E," which he described as Pixar's entry into the realm of space and robots. Stanton said that he grew up in the '70s, which he called the "golden age of the space movie," beginning with "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968, and continuing through "Planet of the Apes" and on to "Alien" and others. These films had a "majesty and grandeur to their vision of space," and that's what Stanton hoped to capture in this film.

The other primary inspiration for "WALL*E" was his childhood belief that inanimate objects had feelings, such as wondering how his bike felt when he left it out overnight. This fascination with bringing inanimate objects to life is seen in the hopping lamp, Luxo, that appears in Pixar's opening credit clip, and was also one of the inspirations for "WALL*E."

"WALL*E" is a trash-compactor, and this film answers the question "what if mankind had to evacuate Earth, and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot?"

Stanton then showed a trailer for the film which took the form of a commercial for Buy N Large, a future corporation that dominates the world through consumerism (see the BNL website at http://www.buynlarge.com), in which WALL*E units are described and demonstrated, thereby establishing the premise of the film. Waste Allocation Load Lifter * Earth units are small robot trash-compactors on rolling tank-treads. They spend their days collecting waste and crushing it into cubes, which are stacked neatly into tall towers. It seems that due to rampant consumerism, the world is buried under so much trash that the human race is forced to leave the planet on massive luxury cruise-ship rockets for five years while WALL*E units clean up the Earth.

The plot was then explained by Stanton: 700 years later, the ships have never returned, and only one WALL*E unit is still operating. "Like the Energizer bunny," Stanton said. WALL*E has begun to question its purpose and try to understand "what this thing called 'life' is." When a probe ship lands, WALL*E goes aboard and ventures into space, seeking the humans who built him. When he finds one of the cruise-ships, he discovers that 700 years of living in indolent luxury and having all their needs met by robot servants have left the descendants of the human race as useless lumps, literal couch potatoes who spend their days lounging in hover-chairs and doing nothing.

Meanwhile, WALL*E is falling in love with a probe robot named EVE, who cannot return his feelings because she has none of her own, being "just a machine."

Stanton calls the film "R2-D2: the Movie," by way of introducing the sound designer and voice of WALL*E, Ben Burtt, the Academy Award-winning creator of the sounds for R2-D2, Chewbacca, and the rest of the Star Wars creatures. Burtt brought out a digital keyboard and gave a demonstration of the sounds he's created for the film's various mechanical characters. Indeed, most of the film has no intelligible dialogue.

A clip from the film was shown, depicting "a typical day in the life of WALL*E," from early in the film, concluding with the arrival of the space probe ship.

Stanton hinted that "there is a live-action element" to the film, but declined to elaborate. He also said that Tom Newman ("Finding Nemo") has composed the score for the film.

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