The Water Horse director Jay Russell first developed the appearance of Crusoe, the titular creature of the film, with concept artist Matt Codd. The core concept was to have a design that would channel the classic depictions of the Loch Ness Monster — like the iconic 1934 photo hoax by surgeon Robert Wilson. “We felt that since we were creating our own version of this legend we wanted to have something unique.” Russell and Codd also attempted to make the creature a realistic, animal-like character, that would have a familiar element to it.
“We decided early on that we wanted him to have elements of other animals, but no particular animal specifically,” the director said in an online interview. “We incorporated elements of different animals into Crusoe so that he would have this odd familiarity, even though you’ve never seen it before.” Reference animals for the various aspects of the character — ranging from visual design, to skin texture, to animation — included lizards, sea turtles, owls, eagles, dogs, and seals. “When we first began designing the creature,” Russell added, “creature designer Matt Codd and I sat down at the computer and began cutting and pasting different body and facial parts of many different animals together. We wanted to create something which seemed familiar, but was unique at the same time. As a result, Crusoe’s face is a combination of a horse, a dog, an eagle and a giraffe. Then we sketched out four different life stages for this animal from birth to fully grown.” Crusoe’s eyes were based on an eagle’s, a key trait to make them more expressive. Richard Frances-Moore, animation supervisor, said that “because he can’t talk, his eyes have to be expressive and the staccato blink of the eagle’s eyes were great for that.”
Russell and Codd developed Crusoe in all of its growth stages — from newborn to adult creature — which were nailed down to four. “I wanted each stage of Crusoe have its own distinct personality,” Russell said. Weta Digital was hired to bring the Monster to life through computer-generated imagery, and first fashioned three-dimensional maquettes based on Codd’s concept art. The sculpting process was supervised by Gino Acevedo and Richard Taylor. The maquettes were scanned to serve as a first base for the digital models. For each stage, Weta built and rigged a separate creature with changed anatomy traits.
As stand-ins on set, silicon model versions of the creature — ranging from rod-operated dummies to static dummy heads — were used to interact with the actors and establish eye lines. For certain scenes where Angus rides Crusoe, a bluescreen Crusoe prop, reproducing the creature’s withers and the base of its neck, was devised for Alex Etel to ride, and mounted on a rig able to perform a wide array of movements. Erik Winquist, co-visual effects supervisor and compositing supervisor, said: “it was trickier than we had anticipated. Crusoe is an organic, flexible creature with a lively performance, not like the fiberglass neck on the jet-ski rig. We had surprising cases where, because of extensive previs, the animation stayed true to what they shot, but in the nighttime race on a dark, stormy loch, the animation had to amp up. Once it deviated from the puppet neck, we had to patch and replace things.” Partial or total digital doubles of Alex Etel were used in many shots. Interaction of Crusoe with the water was achieved with both practical water elements filmed on set, water elements filmed separately at varying camera speeds and then composited together in the final shots, as well as digital particle simulations with new solvers and shaders specifically developed for the project.
Crusoe’s head was a key part of the design, with an intended evident tridimensionality to it. “The look of his face was particularly important because he had to be expressive,” Frances-Moore related. “Crusoe’s face is very three-dimensional. The sides look different from the front, like a dog’s face, so expressions that are modeled change significantly when you look at them from different angles.” In making Crusoe an expressive character, the filmmakers wanted to avoid human-like expressions, and thus based themselves on those of dogs. “We didn’t want to humanize him,” Letteri said, “but everyone can understand dog emotions.” In fact, Russell added: “everything Crusoe does in the movie is based on true animal behavior, which myself and Weta studied through nature footage of seals, whales, dogs. My theory behind this was, if we made Crusoe a ‘real animal’ and if I had Alex Etel acting and behaving as though he were dealing with an animal instead of a cartoon character, the emotions would be real—just like how we get emotional with our dogs or cats or whatever.”
Animation-wise, Crusoe’s eyes and the muscles around them were tweaked until the very end of post-production. “We made adjustments in the muscles around his eyes and the mouth so we could get those expressions that suggest a personality,” said Russell. “We were tweaking that almost right up until the day we finished the film.”
Frances-Moore commented on the multiple stage approach to the character: “we’d done large-scale creature effects, but we’d never dealt with a character that changed so much. We had to create many versions of the character and make sure they were all related to each other.” Christopher White, visual effects supervisor, added: “it’s important that you realize it’s the same character throughout the film.”
Much like the visual design, Crusoe’s movements in all of its stages were inspired by real animals to enhance the believability of the character. “Even though this is a fanciful character, we wanted it to appear that it could be a real creature that could exist,” Frances-Moore related. “We also made sure that through the different stages we were thinking about what was going on under the skin of the character, where he was coming from… especially in relation to Angus. That keeps the character consistent throughout even as it’s changing.”
Crusoe is first seen in the film as an infant, hatched from the egg Angus finds (a physical model). This first stage was inspired by newborn bird chicks (particularly for proportions and skin texture and colour) as well as baby turtles, owls, and eagles. “We first see him when he hatches from the egg and he’s a baby bird,” visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri said. “Cute, but messy and ugly at the same time. He and the boy have to quickly find each other and bond.” The newborn Crusoe, according to Frances-Moore, was “more freaky than cute.” Initial maquette designs were more reptilian, something Russell wanted to distance the character from; the face was thus enveloped with more flesh around the cheeks.
To enhance the appearance of a vulnerable newly-hatched animal, the baby stage had a soft, wrinkly and translucent skin. Weta Digital developed new systems that enabled the subsurface scattering of light to reach unprecedented realism. The new layered approach to subsurface scattering was developed by CG supervisor Martin Hill. “We wanted to see the veins through his skin and the fleshiness underneath,” Chris White, visual effects supervisor, elaborated. “Instead of having subsurface scattering just going through a skin layer, we added layers beneath.” While it was particularly important to see the layers of the baby Crusoe, this technique was applied to the skin of all the growth stages of the character.
Texture painters created maps that would define a ‘blood layer’, which was also controlled by shaders that could adjust the amount of visible skin or painted veins, based on the angle of view. White said: “if you’re looking down at him, you can see more of the blood layer. Crusoe was a perfect creature to test this on because he’s so small and had a baby-bird look. When we got good results, we used it for his puppy stage as well.”
The fragile nature of the baby is also conveyed through its quivering, uncertain motion. “Jay [Russell] was specific that we needed to believe this was a newborn creature,” Frances-Moore said, “so we focused on giving him shaky movement. Because he didn’t have full control, he’d overshoot. We’d start his movement sharply, like an electrical impulse, and then have it dissipate and smooth out at the end as his weight took over.”
Crusoe’s peculiarly fast growth rate is seen when he grows double his size overnight — becoming what the filmmakers called the ‘puppy’ stage or the ‘toddler’ stage. The design curve of the puppy went through an inverse process of the baby’s: the initial iterations were “too much like a lamb and too cutesy,” according to Russell. Later renditions were thus devised to be more angular and hydrodynamic. “We had to add more angles, so it looked like something that could live underwater,” Russell added.
Since the new subsurface scattering technique proved successful with the baby Crusoe, it was also used for the puppy stage, with an added fat layer. White elaborated: “it was a natural progression as we learned how the technique worked. By lightening his muzzle and the area around his eyes, we added a level of cuteness and tied him back to the infant stage. He progressed so quickly; we wanted to make him feel like the same creature through all four stages.”
Puppy Crusoe was initially slightly larger; his size was finally determined when the visual effects team saw in what bathtub it had to fit in. “Once we put him in the tub and saw how much room he needed to be able to flop around, we had to scale him down a little bit,” said Letteri. “At the size we thought he was going to be, he couldn’t be as playful.”
Crusoe has now developed a playful personality, which was conveyed with movements inspired by familiar mammals. “For the toddler Crusoe,” Frances-Moore said, “we looked at seals and dogs because they have a playfulness which we as humans respond to.” Footage of otters on land and in water was also used as reference. “In his puppy stage, he’s the most fun: adventurous and slightly silly,” Frances-Moore said. “At this stage, he really bonds with Angus, and the audience has to fall in love with him.”
When puppy Crusoe gets in the bathtub, he makes active use of his flippers. Frances-Moore commented: “the flippers were quite tricky to rig. They’re like a long, long hand with support on the very tip and at the ‘wrist’. If you look at a seal’s flipper, it’s effectively full of fingers underneath, like a hand hidden within. We had to build an advanced reverse-IK rig to control the contact point anywhere along the hand.”
Animating Crusoe’s now more expressive facial movements was another challenge; Weta devised a Maya-based system that provided the animators with blending shapes that recorded the creature’s facial structure. Instead of blending from a shape to another, the system reacts taking the underlying flesh and bone layers of the digital rig into consideration.
A specifically-developed system called Pogo — developed by CG supervisor Simon Clutterbuck — allowed the animators to convincingly portray fat and muscle layers. White said: “the fat jiggle is defined by the tension of the surface. Animators could identify points on the surface and specify how much weight to apply in certain areas. They might give the loose skin under his neck a certain tension, for example. Or, the creature department might set up his belly to have a particular kind of movement.” While the muscle layer was mainly moved by moving the digital rig, Pogo managed secondary, detailed movements that enhanced the realism of the animation.
The ‘teenage’ Crusoe is the stage seen the least in the film, but nonetheless a challenge. The main goal with this phase of the character was transferring the playful personality and appearance of its previous iteration on “a cow-sized creature.” Frances-Moore elaborated: “just like a kid, the teenager is not comfortable around the house. He quickly moves into the loch, [and that change] is a driving force for the story, but he’s still very much the same character. So, one of the things we did when he jumped to the larger size was to keep his puppy aspects alive, like a big dog that still has a puppy inside.” Pinnipeds were again used as reference for the movements of the ‘teen’ Crusoe. “We looked at bull seals and sealions because they’re unwieldy and a bit like teenagers,” Frances-Moore said.
Consistency with the earlier stage was also guaranteed by texture maps and shaders. The snout is still lighter in colour than the body, and the same patterns are present. “Even as an adult, his texturing still holds true,” said White. “So does the expression in his eyes.”
The adult Crusoe was the most complex version of the creature. In this stage, he is seen exclusively in water; designers and animators took reference from cetaceans — dolphins and whales — for both his anatomy and texture as well as his movements. The silhouette of the adult Crusoe’s face was inspired by a horse. “His face is bonier and more structural,” Frances-Moore said. “He doesn’t have the flexibility of the puppy, but he has the same flow of expression.” The actual structure of the skull, whose outlines can be vaguely distinguished below the skin, was based on Theropod dinosaurs — or rather the popular ‘skin-wrapping’ dinosaur restorations. “If you look at a close-up of the adult Crusoe’s face, you’ll see horse in it, and there’s a bit of dinosaur, but if you look closely there are all kinds of other things going on,” Russell said. “There’s a bit of a dog’s face in there, around the eye there’s a bit of eagle. The little antler things we took from a picture of a giraffe.”
To properly convey the mass of the adult Crusoe, the animators based their work on cetacean motion. Horses were also used as reference for facial movements. “We studied whales and horses,” Frances-Moore said. “There is one chase scene in the film where the adult Crusoe is travelling at speed and is scared, so we had his eyes bulging and nostrils flaring, like a horse.”
Convincing the audience that the adult creature was the same Crusoe was still a primary issue. The animal’s driving force — hunger — proved essential: the animators used it as a running gag to connect all stages character-wise. “He’s hungry all the time. It’s a great gag because it’s always getting him in trouble, and it allows us to push his growth,” Letteri said. “Angus feeds him from his infant stage to puppy. When he was hungry, he rubbed his nose against Angus, which was cute when he was a puppy. Then, when he’s a big, looming, majestic creature as an adult, and we don’t know if he’ll eat Angus at first, he puts his nose down and starts to nudge Angus in the same way. So, we get a moment of reconnection.”
The creature’s anatomical complexity demanded a convincing swimming animation. “It’s difficult to animate him in a pose-to-pose way,” Frances-Moore related. “He’s so large and flowing, and all his parts work somewhat independently.” The animators solved the issue by creating a static swimming cycle for the digital model; they could then set a specific path and let the animated model flow through it. “Rather than moving the creature in world space,” Frances-Moore continues, “you could animate with reference to the spline that you push him along and make changes based on that.”
“All the shows have really hard things to work out, and this was no exception,” Letteri concluded. “Although it was fun developing the character, we had to try a lot of things to make sure it held up the whole way. And, water is always technically challenging. There were no short hours on this one.” White added: “This was my first kid show,” says White. “It was fun working on something my little nephews are excited about.” The director himself was satisfied with the effort, claiming that “even now when I watch the film, I sometimes forget that the Water Horse was not with us on the set.”
For more images of the Water Horse, visit the Monster Gallery.