A new group of cute cinematic creatures is joining the ranks of the Ewoks, the Mogwai and Baby Groot—it's the baby Nifflers. The adult version of these magical magpies made their debut in 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, opening November 16, we encounter them as offspring, when Newt Scamander's (Eddie Redmayne) pet Niffler starts a family.
To get the scoop on these coin-sized critters, Ndelible spoke to the visual-effects wizard who brought them to life.
"What we've learned during years of doing this is that the character of these creatures is more important than the design," says Tim Burke, visual effects supervisor on Fantastic Beasts and other Potter movies. "They need to have a realism to them—and that can only come through in what is essentially a real character and set of behavioral traits that allow the audience to believe these things actually exist."
To capture that authenticity, Burke says his team always tries to use real-world animals as reference points. "It's going to be far more believable than if you try to do that from scratch."
In the first Fantastic Beasts film, they studied the movements and behaviors of the honey badger. When it came to the pint-sized Nifflers, he says, "The obvious place to start were goslings and ducklings."
"[Geese and ducks] have sort of smooth, pruned feathers, but the baby is often fluffy, it has very soft down," he adds. "So this initially gave us something to start sketching in the pre-production process. They were like big fluff balls, basically."
After the initial illustrations got green-lighted, Burke began to work on how the baby Nifflers would move.
"Again, referencing real animals, we studied a lot of behavior of hamsters, the way they move when they're free to move around outside the cage, and they're very fast. We saw how quickly their paws actually move, the way they scurry around across the ground." Using "free-range" hamsters was a canny choice, because in Crimes of Grindelwald, "the Nifflers have escaped from where they're being kept."
So, how did Eddie Redmayne interact with the little bandits, given that they're completely computer-generated?
"With the adult Niffler, we used a small puppet on set to say, 'Look, this is essentially what this creature is going to do, this is what it looks like,'" explains Burke. (The puppet also provides actors with a line of sight to focus on during rehearsals.) "For the babies, we gave Eddie small sacks he could interact with. You have to give them something physical to work with, otherwise the actors mime and don't get the weight right."
But when you're dealing with CGI, the end of shooting is just the beginning of your work. "It's very difficult to cut a film when 50% of the characters are missing from a scene. Or all the characters in some cases." Burke credits Method Studios animator Stephen Clee with bringing a lot of the life to these magical creatures. "We discussed, like, how the eyelids moved and how the claws moved, how the feathers would be laid into their backs. All the tiny individual movements."
The four multi-colored babies only appear briefly in the film, and are as small as Redmayne's palm, but Burke estimates it took more than a year and a half to get them right. "It's hard to stuff 18 months into 18 minutes!" he jokes. All that effort paid off, though, with one crucial thumbs up.
"We showed the creatures to J.K. Rowling, because this is her world and she needs to make sure that they live up to her imagination," says Burke. "Honestly, she loved them—they are really, really cute. Just like with puppies or ducklings, you expect this sort of 'aww' reaction. And we definitely got that from her."