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'Water Horse' maker goes deep

Bringing the boy-and-his-pet story and its digital star to life was a long process.

December 24, 2007|Sheri Linden | Special to The Times

Having made the beloved memory piece "My Dog Skip," Jay Russell knew a thing or two about boy-and-his-pet stories when he set out to direct "The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep." But as a variation on a timeless theme in which the pet is a wild, mythical creature, the project took him to new territory -- New Zealand, for starters -- and presented creative challenges he'd never before tackled.

Based on the 1990 children's novel by "Babe: The Gallant Pig" author Dick King-Smith, "The Water Horse," which opens Christmas Day, had a fitful journey to the screen. Russell, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs -- who first adapted the book in 1999 -- and producer Charlie Lyons agree that technology had some catching up to do with the film's requirements.

"One of the delightful surprises for me when I saw the finished film was how vivid the Water Horse is," Jacobs said. "There's something sort of puppyish and touching and charming about this digitally rendered character."

A period piece set in Scotland, the story involves a lonely boy who discovers a strange egg that hatches into a legendary marine beast, a blending of the ancient myth of the Water Horse, or kelpie, and the more modern Loch Ness monster.

The film calls for intricate interaction between live-action actors and the CG title character, dubbed Crusoe by the boy who finds him. Providing those crucial visual effects were the artists of Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, the FX masters behind the "Lord of the Rings" and "Chronicles of Narnia" franchises. (The film is on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' shortlist for the visual effects Oscar.)

Looking to animals

Russell, who stayed in New Zealand (where the film was shot) for a year of postproduction, was determined to avoid any cartoonish cutesiness and instead to create a creature firmly based in the animal world. Among the models used was Russell's nearly 18-year-old cocker spaniel.

"We videotaped our dogs and our cats and looked for behavioral things," Russell said. Tapes of seal pups were critical, and filmgoers might also note elements of eagle, horse, dinosaur and giraffe in Crusoe.

The technical challenges of the watery tale led Weta Digital to develop a new skin technology for Crusoe, but perhaps the greatest achievement of visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri and his team is that the film never feels effects-heavy.

Moving King-Smith's story from 1930 to 1942, Jacobs introduced different conflicts. The main character, Angus, played by Alex Etel ("Millions"), is grappling with issues of loss relating to the war. "We had to give Angus an emotional journey," the screenwriter said. "The book is lovely, but it's small."

The film's embrace of Celtic gloom is one of its charms; for all its magic, there's no sugarcoating. Acknowledging that studios tend to get nervous about subjects like war in family fare, Russell said that he feels "exactly the opposite. The films that affected me when I was a kid were the films that had the deeper themes, and that dealt with loss and had darker elements to them. I just don't believe in talking down to kids."

There's no condescension in the story of Angus, who's withdrawn from life and, through his love for the Water Horse, overcomes his isolation and loneliness. Etel, who was 11 at the time of the shoot, holds his own against accomplished actors Emily Watson, David Morrissey and Ben Chaplin. He also learned to swim for the film's underwater sequences -- shot in a specially built million-gallon tank -- and became a certified scuba diver in the process.

"He would have an air tube in his mouth, and on action he would pull it out of his mouth and would have to act underwater," Russell said. "We had it timed out, and he knew exactly how long he could go. He had four or five scuba divers around him at all times, and if he ever got in trouble, they were right there."

Relating to kids

Of the many elements he had to orchestrate, Russell said the biggest challenge was "very simply, water."

Lyons, who worked with Russell on "Ladder 49," concurred. "There's nothing like taking movie stars and dunking them in water with the force of a washing machine and trying to get them to perform. On the one hand, you're trying to get performance, on the other hand, you're trying to make sure that no one gets injured."

A self-professed "cynical person," Russell sees the preponderance of pop references and snarky asides in kids' films as a losing proposition -- for storytellers and kids alike. "My 9-year-old son will watch some of these films, and they just wash over him . . . With kids, if that's all they get and it's just piled on top of them constantly, I think they lose a sense of magic and imagination, and they just become these very cynical videogame-playing robots, in a way."

Russell is counting on the word-of-mouth response that made "My Dog Skip" a hit to drive audiences to "The Water Horse." And though Crusoe may be a mythic beast rather than a terrier, the essence of the stories' central relationships is the same.

"People get kind of odd with each other," Russell said. "They'll sometimes put a distance between each other and never really say what they mean -- whereas with an animal, you can pour your heart out. There's this emotional connection that I've always had with [animals]. It's a good starting place for a story."

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