Today I thought I’d talk a little more about the flight design in Legend of the Guardians as I feel this was one of my main areas of influence on the film. Let's start by looking at the flight cycle I created for the character of Soren.
The style of the film was quite realistic so I attempted to create movement that was true to nature. However, I've not sought to copy a barn owl's flight. Barn owls wings are very stiff so I looked at the flight of other birds of prey, like eagles to make Soren's flight a little more dynamic and powerful. I've also tried to make sure it works from all angles so that it can be used as a starting point in any type of shot. The amount of vertical motion is less than you find in nature, this is because many of the flying shots were close-ups or mid shots where the characters were talking so, for this reason the vertical motion has been toned down. In a wide shot the ups and downs needed to be exaggerated. As the hero, Soren's flight cycle is fairly standard, you'd probably call it the 'vanilla' of flight cycles, a quirkier character would have a more distinctive flight.
However, this monotonous and rigid cycle is obviously not how you'd want any real bird to fly but once this cycle has been created, it's fairly straight forward to get something more organic -
This is an early test I did for the character of Nyra taking a similar cycle to the Soren one above. In this animation I've broken up the cycle by adding glides, I've also found opportunities to bank the body. I've done it quite severely here to give the impression she is honing in on some fast moving and erratic prey. As you can see we can start to get something quite naturalistic by just doing this. The head, however remains locked, maybe a little too much, this test was left quite rough, if I were to work into it further I'd probably loosen up the head a little, add further asymmetry to the wings as well as break the tail away from the body and add some flutter to the ends of the feathers.
As I mention in my bird flight notes, smaller birds fly differently to bigger birds in a number of ways but importantly below a certain size, birds will abandon a conventional flap/glide pattern and instead flap in short bursts, then pull their wings in completely for a time. This is called a bounding flight pattern and I was keen to use this to accentuate the small size of Gylfie, a tiny Elf owl character in the film.
The following movie shows the original opening to the film which was completed after production on the film. It is available as an extra on the recently released Blue Ray Disc of the film. It shows the ancient and mythical 'Battle of the Ice Claws' - a hostile encounter between the evil Pure Ones and the Guardians. In case your interested, I animated the shot when the two leaders of the armies - Lyse of Keil and Metalbeak first come together.
As well as making different cycles for the different characters of the film we also wanted to show a difference in the overall flight of the good Guardian owls and the evil Pure Ones. The Pure Ones are the villains, hell bent on enslaving the owl kingdom and see themselves as a master race, there were clear parallels between them and human fascist dictatorships and we wanted to reinforce this where ever possible.
The owls in army of Pure Ones are controlled and heavily suppressed and so fly in rigid formations. The shape of their wings is different to, we kept them higher and more angular, almost suggesting the Eagle motifs of the Nazis.
I also referenced frigate birds who have a reputation for robbing other birds and have a menacing wing shape, and hold their bodies low under their bent wings.
To contrast this we wanted the Guardians to have a more natural owl wing shape that was softer and rounder. The guardians also fly in a more broken formation which subtly symbolises their freedom from suppression.
In case anyone hasn't seen it, most of the details of how I approach flight can be found on my bird tutorial page here.