An armoured polar bear, roaring

The Golden Compass

Winning Framestore its first Oscar (2008 Achievement in Visual Effects), The Golden Compass posed a delightful challenge to the team who were tasked by Director Chris Weitz to provide the film with one of its heroes; the massive armoured polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, voiced by Ian McKellen. Based on Northern Lights, Phillip Pullman's best-selling first novel of the trilogy, Framestore was delighted to once again take a tumble into a new world of magical creatures and perilous quests.

Concept Design
Effects Simulation
Creature Design/Art Department
Animation Supervisor
Visual Effects Supervisor
The visuals...provide a constant feast for the eyes. The bears [especially] are strongly rendered.
Todd McCarthy
lyra belacqua sitting on iorek byrnisson walking through snow

The Kingdom of Bears

The Golden Compass takes place in a parallel universe, one in which magic is a fact of life and people wear their souls on their sleeves in the form of daemons – animal companions that travel inseparably as part of every person. The story opens on our young heroine, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a girl on the cusp of adolescence, curious and determined, who embarks on an extraordinary journey from the academic cloisters of Oxford to the magical heart of the frozen roof of the world. She must deal with many strange and ambiguous characters en route, including her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), the sinister Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), and assorted travellers, adventurers and witches.

Iorek Byrnison is her companion and helpmate through the latter part of her journey. Lyra first encounters him in the port of Trollesund, where he has become a drunken has-been, deprived of honour and his precious armour. With Lyra's encouragement, Iorek pulls himself together and joins her on her quest. Later, when they reach the kingdom of the bears from which he's been exiled, Iorek has a dramatic and deadly showdown with the wicked usurper, Ragnar (voiced by Ian McShane and also created by Framestore), an epic battle which elicited audience cheers and applause at the film's London premiere.

actress dakota blue richards as lyra belacqua standing next to panserbjorn polar bear iorek byrnison who is speaking to her

Bear Bones

'Chris Weitz (Director) and Mike Fink (VFX Supervisor) made it clear to us early on that they regarded Iorek as a true co-star and expected an accordingly strong performance from him', saird Ben Morris, Framestore's VFX Supervisor on the project. The team began their work with models based on real anatomy and physical structure, informed by a huge library of accumulated reference material – photos, videos, specially shot live-footage, even a talk by an experienced wildlife cameraman. Once the 'real' polar bear model, rig and fur groom were established, the anatomical fictions required by the action (such as opposable thumbs) were interpolated into the work in progress. In addition, models were created which helped define the different physical traits of Iorek and Ragnar. It was decided early on that Iorek's eye height when he was on all fours would match that of Lyra, making conversation between the two easier and more companionable. Proportionately, this meant that when rearing up, Iorek was about 11 feet tall.

polar bear iorek byrnison looking at lyra belacqua

Suiting Up

Iorek's beautiful armour is as much a part of him as the humans' daemon companions. It presented the Framestore team with several unique challenges, as it meant fitting one CG element on top of another in such a way that it would still move naturally and interact with the bear's shaggy coat convincingly. There is, as they discovered, a big difference between armour that looks good in a still picture or model, and armour that will function well in motion or in a fight.  The armour is described as being made of 'sky iron', an evocative name that carries connotations of meteorite metal, perhaps, as well as more mystical components. The look of it evolved into simple, organic plate shapes and complex surface colour and qualities. The basic armour material looked similar to freshly smelted pig iron, with an uneven, pitted surface, weathered and battle-worn. Its magical look derived from a complex and unexpected blend of colours, as well as specularities, reflection and iridescence in the highlights and worn areas where plates rubbed against each other.

panserbjorn polar bear iorek byrnison roaring as dogs and soldiers with guns circle him

The Enemy

By contrast, Ragnar's armour, like his character, was the complete opposite of Iorek's – a gaudy, over-the-top, decadent plate steel armour and chain mail ensemble. The 'guard bears' featured in the scenes at Ragnar's Palace also sport real, procedural chain mail – a direction chosen by the Framestore team that Morris, with the benefit of hindsight, laughingly characterised as 'pure folly'. 'We thought that it might be a good option to get away from some of the movement challenges', he recalled, 'But 36,000 rings of hand-woven procedural steel per suit entailed its own little set of challenges. But when you see the result, it was worth it'.

face close up of pansenbjorn polar bear iofur raknison in full headpiece and armour roaring

In Motion

The team used pre-vis material to show Dakota where to expect Iorek to be looking and standing during dialogue scenes, but they needed ot think outside of the box for the scenes in which she rode Iorek through the snow and ice. For these sequences the team used a motion rig (the mRig) that Framestore had developed in house some years ago – initially for work on the Dinotopia project, and used then again in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The rig functioned like a programmable mechanical bull, allowing the team to animate the characters in pre-production (to Weitz's approval) and then programme the motion control camera and mechanical rig the actor actually rides on with that same 3D camera and body animation. The end result is a more convincing ride for the audience.

Recruitment was not difficult on this project. When people heard that we were doing the bears, they came. That gave the team a very special energy.
Ben Morris
VFX Supervisor

Bear With Us

In addition to the massive challenge of making Iorek walk the walk – creating both a 'person' the audience cared for and were intrigued by, as well as a ferocious bear to be feared – it was Dadi Einarsson's job as animator to get Iorek to talk the talk. A long muzzle and rigid mouth area made it a particularly tough creature to lend speech. But Iorek's character played into the team's hands to an extent. He's a very stoic, understated personality – not a chatterbox or a gabbler – and this made his mouth easier to work with.

Another layer of animation realism was brought to the table by CG Supervisors Laurent Hugueniot and Andy Kind, who made sure – along with a crew of TDs – that all of the bears' fur, and the skin under that fur, and the fat under that skin, all moved convincingly, with just the right amount of jiggle.

Audiences and reviewers alike singled out Iorek and the bears as a favourite element in The Golden Compass. Morris himself said simply, 'I knew as soon as I'd read the book that it was a film I had to do, and others clearly felt the same. Recruitment was not difficult on this project. When people heard that we were doing the bears, they came. That gave the team a very special energy'.

actress dakota blue richards as lyra belacqua riding polar bear iorek byrnison across snowy terrain



"The blend of live action, CG and visual effects is superb, making what must have been a technological nightmare look easy as pie." - Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter

"As a visual experience, it is superb." - Roger Ebert

"The Golden Compass works up enough self-important gravitas to power the entire Lord of the Rings cycle." - Jan Stuart, Newsday

"Represents the year's biggest gamble ... and it delivers the year's biggest and most ambitious fantasy." - Jack Mathews, New York Daily News


Chris Weitz
VFX Supervisor
Ben Morris
Production Company Producer
Deborah Forte
Animation Supervisor
Dadi Einarsson
Production Company Producer
Bill Carraro