By Christine Bunish
Issue: September 1, 2002

Hot Feature Film Effects

Reel FX used Maya, Inferno and Boujou on The Juggler shots for Spy Kids 2.
Thanks to the wizardry of top visual effects houses in the US and UK, moviegoers flocking to the summer's biggest features have been introduced to things they've never seen - or never want to see - in real life. From chameleon-like aliens to sword-fighting skeletons, mutant animals, bizarre amusement park rides, an ill-fated nuclear submarine and distant lunar landscapes, audiences have seen digital magic at work.


Swashbuckling skeletons, a miniature zoo, menacing mutant animals and a fantastic amusement park are among the new adventures awaiting siblings Carmen and Juni Cortez, who are back in action in Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams.

Cinesite ( in Hollywood created the CG docking bay, subs and water in two scenes for the film Spy Kids 2. They also created a 33-shot sequence in which the characters discover a cavern of gold. The kids were reduced by about 60 percent to make the space seem more imposing. In addition, greenscreen footage was combined with miniatures and matte paintings. Cinesite also provided 3D for the underground submarine hangar.
A new mission takes the kids to a mysterious island where they meet a genetic scientist and his new toy: a tabletop-sized zoo featuring waddling penguins, a hopping kangaroo, a pouncing lion and a lumbering elephant. But in sizing up the miniature animals for older kids to play with, the professor has accidentally unleashed gigantic mutant animals - bizarre combination creatures whose names reveal their dual origins: tigershark, catfish, horsefly, spidermonkey - which take control of the island.

Computer Cafe's ( Santa Maria, CA, studio devised approximately 16 photoreal 3D animals for about 35 shots, referencing wildlife footage for authenticity. "We tried to keep the animals as anatomically and physically correct as we could down to the details of fur, texturing, color and movement so they would look real and seamless," reports effects supervisor Domenic DiGiorgio.

For the mutant animals, Computer Cafe was challenged to blend the bizarre combinations and not just join two halves of very different creatures. For example, the catfish has both fur and scales with the head of a fish, the body of a normal cat and tail fins. Although the catfish moves like the biggest part of its body, its head and tail have more fishlike motion.

Computer Cafe animators modeled all the animals with NewTek's LightWave 3D using subdivision surfaces. With this technique, the animators could model at very low resolution but render at any resolution desired. Character animation was done with Project Messiah and the beasts' fur, "a traditionally tricky thing," DiGiorgio admits, with Worthy Labs' Sasquatch, a LightWave plug-in and fur shader, which Computer Cafe "pushed to the extent of its abilities."

Computer Cafe created 16 photorealistic 3D animals for Spy Kids 2.
Under digital effects supervisor David Ebner, the Santa Maria studio composited the zoo and mutant animals' sequences using Eyeon's Digital Fusion as the primary compositing package and 5D's Cyborg for keying many greenscreen elements which, like the entire movie, were shot in 24p HD.

"There is compression in the HD image, so when you pull mattes the blue channel of the video is very noisy making it difficult to get a good key," Ebner explains. "Out of all the compositing packages we have, Cyborg has the best keyer in it." Cyborg allowed the animators to build frames together and play them at HD and full 2K resolution "revealing more detail before we finished out," Ebner says.

About one month from the delivery date of the zoo and mutant animals sequences, director Robert Rodriguez presented Computer Cafe's Santa Monica studio with an additional challenge: approximately 38 shots in which the young sleuths battle swashbuckling skeletons climbing a rocky promontory.

Computer Cafe received an animatic of the sword fight done in Alias|Wavefront Maya, which articulated the skeletons and established the majority of the character animation. The studio had to polish the animation, tweaking and smoothing motion and actions in conjunction with the director's requests.

Daniel Lobe and Robert Bardy hand animated the skeletons in Maya working with Rodriguez on choreography, continuity and timings. "We hand animated 63 characters," reports animation supervisor David Lombardi. "Over 28 shots feature multiple skeletons." Jeff Dierstein handled modeling and surfacing.

Marina Del Rey, CA's Rhythm & Hues ( provided visual effects for a number of this summer's feature films. For Men In Black II (pictured) the facility created the animated talking pug, Frank. For Sum of All Fears, the studio created an array of military hardware, including jets, missile launchers and silos. The company's design division helped bring Scooby-Doo to the big screen, modeling the canine from scratch.
Radiosity rendering, which calculates bounced lighting, was done in LightWave. "It's uncommon to use radiosity rendering in production," Lombardi notes. "Traditional CG rendering is faster, but radiosity rendering is much more accurate and realistic - especially for an outdoor scene with nooks, crannies and sword reflections - because it's what happens in nature." Computer Cafe's Ben Grossmann composited the shots using Adobe After Effects.

The studio was also charged with the sequence's wire removals; the kids had been rigged for safety on a dramatic real rock formation as they battled the as-yet-unseen skeletons. "Three or four shots were the gnarliest wire removals I've seen," reports Lombardi. "They were tough for even the most experienced artists." The camera moved on three axis changing the 3D perspective on the rocky promontory and making wire removals extremely difficult. For one shot that was crisscrossed with wires, animators rebuilt an entire clean rocky terrain in 3D. It was tracked into the shot with 2d3's Boujou software and composited under the kids. Grossmann did the bulk of the wire removals on Discreet's Commotion with Andy Edwards and Glenn Bennett manning Discreet's Flame.

There's never been an amusement park like the one in Spy Kids 2 - thank goodness. With names that give an inkling of what they do or the results they have on riders - The Whipper Snapper, The Vomiter, The Nerve Wracker, The Juggler - the rides in the amusement park sequence, which opens Spy Kids 2 "wouldn't meet any safety codes," admits Dale Carman, chief visioneer at Reel FX ( in Dallas which created the 130 amusement park shots.

Director Rodriguez conceived the fantastic rides and was heavily involved in their design. In the sequence, the daughter of the president of the United States is touring the amusement park and is not much impressed with the bizarre rides. She decides to tamper with The Juggler to get her father's attention, gets stuck in it and the spy kids are called in to rescue her.

Rodriguez shot HD background plates at Six Flags Over Texas. "He doesn't like limits to shooting, and he moves fast, so it was all wild, free camera movement with no tracking markers," says Carman. "We had to extract the camera movement and take out the existing rides." Reel FX used 2d3's Boujou for camera tracking.

The tracking data was exported to Maya, which was used to model and animate the new rides and to Discreet Inferno, which was employed to remove the old rides and paint clean plates.

Animating The Juggler, a mechanical juggler juggling balls in which people - and the president's daughter - are riding, was a particular challenge for Reel FX. "We tried to understand the mechanics of how it would work for real so viewers would believe it," Carman explains. But director Rodriguez was also very specific about the ride's performance, which was originally crafted by Rodriguez's Troublemaker Studios. Reel FX then devised the performance of the ride which would function in the real world but used the tools and tricks of its trade to cheat reality and fulfill the director's vision in certain shots.

Reel FX created climber grabbers, the steel rod-like fingers, which the spy kids use to clamber up The Juggler in their rescue attempt. "The kids hold out their hands and wiggle their fingers and the steel rods come out," says Carman. "We animated the device in Maya and hand tracked them."

Additional shots required Reel FX to digitally augment the piece of curved metal representing the side of The Juggler against which the actors were shot greenscreen. "We turned it into a real-fake Juggler," Carman reports. Wire removals were also done on greenscreen shots of the kids' rescue.

Reel FX used Boxx Technologies' 3DBoxx as its workstation platform and RenderBoxx for its renderfarm. "They were excellent. We're really pleased with how they performed," says Carman. Discreet Inferno and Flame, running on SGI workstations, were used for compositing.

Carman was "pleasantly surprised" with the ease of working with Rodriguez's HD footage. "Film purists would say the HD format isn't good enough, but my experience was that it worked great. And it was nice to be able to have the source footage at our fingertips; we could pull it in in realtime and work with it."

Carman served as visual effects supervisor for Reel FX and did some Maya animation and Inferno compositing. Brandon Oldenburg was creative director, art director, matte painter and texturer. Daley Miller was animation producer; John Griffith did most of the Maya animation; and Barrett Lewis, Mike Roy, Kevin Althans and Scott Balkom were the compositing artists. Gary Banks was Reel FX's executive producer and Chuck Peil served as producer.
For more on Spy Kids 2 visual effects, please turn to page 16.


Movies have featured extraterrestrials for decades, so how could there possibly be any new aliens under the sun? Any sun?

For Signs, ILM associate VFX supervisor Habib Zargarpour (right) and team were charged with camouflaging the creatures.
San Rafael, CA's Industrial Light & Magic ( endowed the tall, humanoid aliens in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs with the ability to camouflage themselves so they would be undetectable one moment and frighteningly apparent the next.

The aliens were originally designed by Carlos Juante and redesigned by Ty Ruben Ellington, modeler Jeff Campbell and art director Randy Gaul. "We had reference footage of octopus and cuttlefish camouflaging themselves in seaweed," ILM's associate visual effects supervisor, Habib Zargarpour recalls. "You couldn't see them until the camera approached, and suddenly they'd move and startle you. That's what we wanted to do with the aliens."

To this end, ILM animation supervisors Scott Wirtz and Rob Coleman employed several techniques. The creatures were animated in Softimage with proprietary tools for skinning. One version of the aliens was made entirely with Maya Particles so animators could "update part of the skin at any time, in any frame," Zargarpour says. "Traditional painting techniques and textures wouldn't do it. With particles, each skin pigment knows what the color background is, so we can tell it in Particle Expressions when to change."

In several shots, the animators tried growing areas of influence with zones and animating them by hand so the alien's changing skin color would shrink and another new color grow in its place. "That had an organic instead of a digital feel to it," Zargarpour says. When aliens were far away traditional projection techniques and shaders were combined with colors from the background to generate changes that looked like particle effects.

Zargarpour notes that almost every shot with aliens "became its own R&D process." Viewers looking at a news clip of a kid's birthday party in Brazil think they're looking at bushes when an alien walks out of the foliage. "Its skin had to bump out in places to mimic the outline of the leaves then, as it walked out, the color had to shift and the skin smooth as it revealed itself."

But the director didn't want to reveal too much of the aliens. "It was tempting to show the creatures full on, but Night decided to keep them in silhouette or in dark places," Zargarpour points out. "He likes the Hitchcockian technique of having your imagination do the work. You just get glimpses of the aliens. There are no full, in-your-face reveals." Sometimes the director asked the animators to "enhance the menace" and make the aliens "less regal, noble and intelligent looking."

"Night pays amazing attention to detail," Zargarpour adds. "He'd see things in our own takes that we didn't see. Once he felt a creature wasn't threatening enough so when we compared shots there was less light wrap and that changed the feel for him. It showed how powerful subtle changes can be." Alien compositing was done under supervisor Eddie Pasquarello with CompTime software.Stefen Fangmeier and Eric Brevig served as ILM's visual effects supervisors on Signs.

ILM also devised the evil alien poison gas weapon with proprietary plug-ins for Maya Particles. "This time it was easier to cheat nature and use digital effects instead of practical ones," Zargarpour says.


Based on the true story of a Soviet nuclear submarine whose reactor developed a major leak in its coolant system in 1961, K-19: The Widowmaker takes audiences deep underwater, to the North Pole and up close to the faulty reactor thanks to London-based Mill Film's ( sometimes harrowing and always seamless effects.

Perhaps the most challenging were the dry-for-wet shots where a 51-foot miniature sub, crafted by Mill Film's modelmakers, was shot on Mill Film's stage at Shepperton Studios with a Milo motion-control rig. They were later digitally enhanced with bubbles, particles and light rays to give the impression of the sub traveling underwater.

"The challenge was to give an underwater look to the miniature, which was shot dry," says 2D digital supervisor Dan Pettipher. "The bubbles, particles, depth and fog passes and dappled light had to be just right."

"We created fog, depth and top-light passes to cue the depth," explains 3D digital supervisor Gary Coulter. "Because the model was shot without interactive rippling lights we had to generate the caustics in 3D."

Animators built a digital version of K-19 and matchmoved it to the miniature plate for every frame, Coulter says. "Once we had completed the matchmove for each shot, we positioned lights in the 3D world to project white caustic patterns onto a black version of the actual submarine. We subsequently took that pass into the composite where we used it to lighten or darken the model plate to give the impression of light playing over the hull as the submarine moved through the depths."

Most of the 3D work for K-19 was done with LightWave V.7.5, a new release of the popular 3D package that Mill Film was beta testing at the time. "We've worked quite closely with NewTek for the last six years using their beta software in production, which has given us a little more flexibility in the type of shots we can do," Coulter notes. Apple's Shake was used to composite the dry-for-wet shots with Richard Little heading up the compositing team for the sequence.

A sequence showing K-19 breaking through North Pole ice and firing a test rocket were miniature shots using a scaled-down version of the sub's conning tower by the Mill Film model unit at Shepperton under model unit supervisor Jose Granell. The shots were then digitally enhanced with water geysers shooting through the cracks in the ice, digital snow falling from the conning tower and snow blowing around the sub. Set extension, sky replacements and extra fire and smoke added to the missile launch. Simon Stanley-Clamp supervised the digital work on the ice breakthrough shots.

Discreet's 3DS Max 4 and Cebas's Pro Optic Suite were used to create the missile smoke and glows for top-down CG shots mixed with film elements for extra fire and smoke. These observe the missile as it rises into the air, followed by a wide-angle CG shot where the camera rapidly pulls back during the countdown to reveal a vista of the barren polar landscape.

After the missile launch, the sub surfaces and crew members play a soccer game on the ice. The scene was lensed on Canada's Lake Winnipeg, so Shake was employed to paint out the trees around the lake so the location would have the "clean horizon of the middle of nowhere," Pettipher says.

For some scenes the filmmakers used a real sub dressed like the ill-fated sub, which was towed by tug boats and trawlers later removed with Shake. 5D's Cyborg, a new tool for Mill Film, was also used, especially on some of the more complex tracking shots.

Most interior shots involved the sub's nuclear reactor. One long shot, which starts on an exterior of the K-19 (done by ILM) shows the camera flying along and then into the hull. Mill Film picked up the move in the doorway to the reactor room as the camera drops down and through the bulkhead of the reactor, slowly weaving around pipes and fuel rods before finally reaching the point where the first leak has sprung.

"We had originally built a miniature of the reactor for this sequence, but subsequent changes to the camera move by [director] Kathryn Bigelow made it almost impossible to get the required shot with the miniature as the actual physical size of the camera housing and the confined space of the miniature restricted the positioning of the camera," Coulter explains. "The solution we chose was to replace the reactor with a virtual 3D environment."

In this new shot, the 3D camera spirals down a very thin gap between the fuel rods and the reactor's outer casing, coming out in the void at the bottom, before gliding across to focus on bubbles emitting from the damaged pipe. The CG reactor and bubbles for the shot were modeled, textured and rendered entirely in LightWave 7.5. Senior compositor Mark Bakowski used Cyborg to composite the various 3D passes for the reactor while adding extra real bubbles and camera shake for the final pipe burst. Antony Hunt was Mill Film's executive producer on K-19.

Sidebar: The Adventures of Pluto Nash
Very few people have ever been there, but we all know what it looks like - or we think we do. Therein was the challenge for Hollywood's Flash Film Works (, which was charged with creating moon terrain for Eddie Murphy's lunar gangster comedy, Pluto Nash.

"At the beginning we were dealing with the actual colors and textures of the moon," reports technical supervisor Dan Novy. "But we discovered the moon is kind of gray and boring in large sections. So we went for a slightly more stylized look - with highs and lows in blacks and whites, and a little sharper craters - but the moon still had to come off as real. We also had to match the practical moon rock pieces on the set which had a different, very blue look."

Novy and John Cotes developed several techniques for terrain creation. Some terrain began in Adobe Photoshop, was exported as raw data files into Dayton's Leveller height-field editor, then sent to the shareware version of Terragen, a height-field generator, editor and renderer to line up camera moves and render out the large volumes of frames for compositing. The terrain mesh could also be exported out of Terragen in the LightWave format "so if there was an extreme camera move we could do it in LightWave with matchmove data from the plates and the RealViz MatchMover plug-in," Novy explains.

Novy's alternative method for creating the lunar landscape involved generating height fields as before, then exporting them in the High Dynamic Range (HDR) format, a 96-bit full-floating point format, so there was no loss in definition. Then the HDR format was imported into LightWave as a displacement object on a subdivision mesh for production of more detailed lunar mountains than those exported straight from Terragen to LightWave.

Flash Film Works also created a 3D version of the Moon Beach casino colony where much of Pluto Nash takes place. "Normally, this would have been a full [practical] miniature, but it existed only as a digital miniature," says Novy. "We had a sweeping panorama shot of it involving millions and millions of polygons."

Compositing was largely done using Eyeon Digital Fusion. Rayz (now owned by Apple), which has Ultimatte built in, was also employed; its internal retimer for slowing or speeding action operates natively inside the program.

Ken Stranahan served as compositing supervisor with Dave Lockwood handling much of the matchmoving and Rayz compositing. Novy notes that "most depth cues come from atmosphere but the moon lacks atmosphere and things would stay pretty crisp all the way back. So we had to cheat a bit and give people normal depth cues."

Flash Film Works also affected repairs on bluescreen shots, which turned into effects shots because stage lights reflected into the face plates of the actors' helmets. Novy developed a "zipper technique" to automate the fixes: He devised a series of steps in Digital Fusion to sample colors adjacent to the trouble areas and push them into the reflection. "That got me close - I did maybe 300 of the 500 frames that way," he recalls. "Another approximately 100 frames needed hand painting, while others had to be patched from portions of the shot."