The Wakatipu Nessie

WATERBABY: A scene from Barrie Osborne's new film, the Water Horse.
WATERBABY: A scene from Barrie Osborne's new film, the Water Horse.

Film-maker Barrie Osborne helped bring Middle-earth to life so he seemed the perfect candidate to create a dinosaur-like creature.

Tom Cardy talks to him about recreating a Scottish landmark just outside Queenstown and the human characteristics he attached to a water horse.

Movie producer Barrie Osborne knows what it's like using New Zealand's breathtaking scenery to stand in for another place. Osborne produced Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, which used many landmarks around the country to represent JRR Tolkien's imagined land of Middle-earth.

Osborne, an American who is now a Kiwi citizen, was keen from the start to have the new familyfriendly fantasy movie The Water Horse shot in New Zealand. Only there was one problem - the film is set in rural Scotland in World War II. Specifically, it's at Loch Ness, today a busy tourist spot as well as the reputed home of the famous Loch Ness monster.

While scouting locations, Osborne and director Jay Russell wondered if they could use a New Zealand lake as well as a more isolated Scottish loch as a believable stand-in for Loch Ness. In the end they chose Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown.

"It's a pretty darn good match," says Osborne.

"When we were scouting locations and we went to Scotland to look at lakes Jay had brought pictures of Lake Wakatipu. He showed it to the Scots and said ‘Do you know where this is? Can you tell what's here and what's there?' and they couldn't."

The "water horse" of the title is a baby aquatic dinosaur-like creature which, while still an egg, is found by Scottish boy Angus McMurrow, played by 13-year-old actor Alex Etel, who made his screen debut in Millions from 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle three years ago.

Angus lives with his mother Anne (played by British actress Emily Watson) and sister Kirstie (Kiwi newcomer Priyanka Xi) near Loch Ness. Soon the creature bursts out of the egg. Angus dubs him Crusoe - after Robinson Crusoe - and tries to keep him a secret. But it gets increasingly difficult after the arrival of caretaker Lewis Mowbray (Ben Chaplin) and a contingent of soldiers led by the arrogant Captain Hamilton (David Morrissey), there to stop German submarines entering the loch. For one, Crusoe has a big appetite and the more he eats, the bigger he gets.

The film is based on the children's book by Dick King-Smith, best known for Babe, the sheep-herding pig and also has several Kiwi actors including Geraldine Brophy, Joel Tobeck, Craig Hall and Marshall Napier.

Osborne says two English producers had the rights to King-Smith's book and Hollywood studio Miramax had considered making the film with Russell, but due to changes at Miramax it didn't happen. After Russell made firefighter movie Ladder 49 in 2004, he was offered other projects but didn't like them. It was then that he decided to revisit The Water Horse.

Walden Media, best known for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by Kiwi Andrew Adamson, became involved. By coincidence, at the same time, Osborne had started working with Walden on adapting the children's fantasy novel City of the Beasts by Isabelle Allende and heard about the project.

Osborne says he and Russell hit it off, though there was a period of uncertainty on whether the film would go ahead till Walden and another company, Beacon Pictures, were joined by Revolution Studios.

"We then had a great deal of discussion about where to make the movie and how to make it. Myself and Walden were pretty well convinced we should make it in New Zealand. Jay wanted very much to use [a large rural] house in Scotland that he had found, so we did. I supported that decision."

In the end they shot for two weeks in Scotland, three weeks at Lake Wakatipu and nine weeks at Jackson's Wellington studios. 

The Waterhorse was able to take advantage of the new purpose-built sound studio in Stone St, Miramar, which Jackson had used for the first time in King Kong.

Several scenes were shot in the studio on a three storey high set.

Outside a giant tank was built and filled with 4 million litres of water for some of the scenes on the lake, including those with a life-size military patrol boat.

"It had to be big enough to flip the patrol boat and deep enough that people could be swung off the boat and land safely in the water and go down to the bottom."

Weta Workshop and Weta Digital created the visual effects for the film, including the computergenerated Crusoe. Like the studios' Oscar-winning successes with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the star of King Kong, the baby Loch Ness monster is as much a believable character in the film as the human actors.

But like all films, visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri - who won Oscars for The Two Towers, The Return of the King, I, Robot and King Kong - discovered The Water Horse had its challenges.

"We went into it really looking at the story. The technical stuff - like everything we've done - is just what you have to figure out in order to tell the story and to make it look the way you want it to look," Letteri says.

"It had a really nice feel. Crusoe's character, even in the script, came out really nicely."

Letteri says Russell came to the project with some sketches and ideas of what Crusoe could look like.

These were refined by Weta Workshop - which made clay maquettes - and eventually the beastie was brought to life on the screen through computer animation by Weta Digital.

"It's kind of an ongoing process that evolves from ideas and really just a lot of conversation because you are looking at him and just thinking, ‘What is Crusoe trying to tell us?' But he had so much personality, even before we gave him any facial expressions.

It was just in the way he moved and you could see the playfulness in him. That told us a lot."

There are many "how did they do that?" moments in the film, especially when Crusoe jumps around in a bath splashing water at Angus, confronts the family dog and wreaks havoc during an army dinner.

He seems real. Leterri says different-sized puppets were used on set to represent the computer-generated Crusoe as he grew in size. "It was so there was always something for everybody to focus on and know where Crusoe would be. You want to make sure he's a presence, even on the set."

Osborne and Russell were also determined that Crusoe's character would shine through. "Jay was manic about making sure that Crusoe had a character that you could relate to," says Osborne. "Jay was constantly referring to his own dogs and how he related to his dogs and could tell when they were angry and what their mannerisms were."

* The Water Horse opens on New Year's Day. View trailer

The Dominion Post