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December 2014
Issue: September 1, 2003

Feature Film Effects

By: By Ann Fisher

Today's effects artists are always being asked to push the limits. In order to achieve their director's lofty goals, they have found that combining off-the-shelf tools with proprietary code and plenty of ingenuity works best.

For many of this summer's visual effects-heavy releases, the visual effects supervisors we spoke to kept enthusiastically talking about techniques, in many cases, ones they had created specifically for their particular shot loads. The only thing typical about these film effects jobs is that they are always more complicated than originally conceived - and the timetable always remains the same.

Movie: The Rundown (September release, horror, Universal)

VFX House: Rhythm & Hues (www.rhythm.com)

Project Scope: One hundred shots - 1/2 wire removals, 1/4 CG whips and axes, 1/4 stick room. Post took six months with 60 staff.

Wrestler-turned-actor The Rock stars as Beck, a bounty hunter who tries to settle a debt by going to the Amazon jungle to capture someone. Beck discovers that his quarry isn't a bad guy, and the two team up to search for riches in an Amazon mine near the town of Helldorado.

Arriving at Helldorado, to convey Beck's sense of chaos but also his grasp of it, director Peter Berg wanted to give the character a unique point-of-view, dubbed Beckvision. The idea was to disorient the audience by throwing a lot of visuals at them. The original effect was described as dissolves between different close-ups of items.

Challenge #1: "Beckvision was one of those things that from the beginning was ill-defined, and anything that's ambiguous - when you get to shooting time and you want to shoot elements for it - it's the first thing to fall off the table," recalls Bill Westenhofer, visual effects supervisor. "When we were on set and ready to shoot, they kept getting pushed in the schedule." The assistant director didin't think there was enough time to shoot it, so they weren't going to do Beckvision. They only had a minimal amount of stuff shot. "Sure enough, after Pete made his first cut, the first thing he wanted to put back was the Beckvision. So we had to figure out what we were going to do with the paucity of elements that remained.

"It was a challenge too, Peter's style," Westenhofer adds. "He's very energetic, but this was his first effects film and [he didn't yet] know the terminology of what he was looking for. It was a process of guiding both him and ourselves to where he really wanted this effect to go."

Technique/Solution: "We took a couple early tests and realized to really get what he wanted - to really get in close to objects and study them - we'd have to invent stuff in CG," says Westenhofer.

For example, when Beck enters Helldorado, he focuses in on all the guards and a gunshack on the side. Rhythm & Hues made a CG bullet, put it super close in-camera with depth of field, spun it around, then pumped it up from that where Beck notices a security camera watching the scene. Since only a wide view of the security camera had been shot, R&H built a CG camera and went super close into the lens to catch Beck's reflection.

Director Berg liked the effect so much that he added an entirely new Beckvision section at the end… a gunfight. This time, R&H was given the time to shoot the necessary elements, though they still needed to enhance it with CG bullets.

Challenge #2: The most complicated shot - the stick room - was expanded since the director didn't think it looked intimate enough because of how the set was built. In the scene, the two main characters must cross this stick room, which consists of a bunch of sticks supporting boulders, to find the treasure. Originally, this was going to be one shot, it would collapse in CG, and the actors would run through a bluescreen.

Technique/Solution: R&H replaced the whole background and did an entire physical simulation in Alias Maya. To make the room more claustrophic, R&H put in a lot of foreground sticks and gave the room a soft focus. Digital supervisor Nick Tidmarsh was in charge of the stick room, using Maya for rigid body simulation, Side Effects Houdini for particle effects and dust filtering, R&H's proprietary Ren rendering software for raytracing and global illumination type lighting. It was composited in Apple Shake. All software runs on Linux (R&H has only one SGI unit left, to make QuickTime conversions). Art Jeppe was the lighting director.

Movie: Jeepers Creepers 2 (August release, horror, United Artists)

VFX House: The Orphanage (www.theorphanage.com)

Project Scope: Eighty shots. They were the lead and only effects house. There was a team of 30 to 40. It was a two-month shoot with four months of post.


The Orphanage created visual effects for Jeepers Creepers 2, using off-the-shelf software enhanced with their own code.
The bad guy is a winged demon called The Creeper who preys on a group of athletes, cheerleaders and coaches whose bus is stranded returning from a championship game. The post house mainly worked on two parts - the fully CG Creeper and adding CG wings to the live action Creeper. (The Orphanage did not work on the first Jeepers Creepers.)

"The most challenging part of this job was it was one of our early forays into character animation, which was great. We developed a lot of tools in processes and pipelines to make it work. The director Victor Salva was extremely happy," says Jonathan Rothbart, president of post production/visual effects supervisor. "Since then we've gone on to do a number of digital stunt doubles for Charlie's Angels II - we did all the angels and Demi Moore as well. Now we're working on Hellboy and doing a number of digital characters on that. We use a lot of known tools but the pipeline we've developed has a lot of handwritten code and different things to help everything merge together."

Challenge #1: One shot where an actor gets wrapped up in the Creeper's leathery, translucent wing. The actor is holding up the wing because it thinks the Creeper is dead, but he comes alive and pulls him out of the bus.

Technique/Solution: The Orphanage used Matchamation on Maya V.4.5. "We had to create a 3D character that matched the character that was going to be wrapped," says Rothbart. "First we had to model the character and then we would go and match-animate him to do the exact same moves. After that, the wing can wrap that digital character and take on the same deformations as the face is poking through the wing. It's a pretty cool technique for getting a lot of realistic animation because you're working from what a character is actually doing. We used Matchamation wherever we thought it was necessary. We also used it any time the wings had to be mounted to the Creeper's back. We would always have to match-animate the Creeper standing there or flying because we would have to make sure the wings weren't slipping or sliding around at all." All compositing was done in Adobe After Effects running on a Boxx workstation running Windows.

Challenge #2: A chase sequence. "We shot on a road in the desert and we didn't have enough road - or we could never get the trucks to go quite fast enough - and it was going to be a lot of work for us to speed it up. We didn't think it was going to look exactly right," says Rothbart.

Technique/Solution: "We ended up creating a totally digital environment of that location," says Rothbart. "And then, for all our shots, stole pieces from the actual live action footage if we needed the trucks driving along. Then we would go ahead and add in a much longer road and have it move much faster. We could then make the shots much more dynamic."

They modeled the environment in Maya and then used the Splutterfish Brazil renderer to help generate the maps. The finished matte paintings were applied on the geometry in Maya, and the projection maps were used for a photoreal environment. "It's a pretty lengthy process that we've developed over the years and it yields the best looking photoreal environments," he says.

Movie: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (July release, adventure, 20th Century Fox)

VFX House: Riot Santa Monica (www.rioting.com)

Project Scope: One of a number of houses on the film. They worked on 24 shots. The team consisted of a dozen people who worked for six weeks.


Riot created background plates for The League of Extraordinary Gentleman's opening pan shot.
Beginning in Victorian England, this adventure film follows several extraordinary gentlemen, including Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Gray and Captain Nemo, on their adventures as they try to outwit a villain intent on seizing control of the world.

Riot was charged with creating the opening pan-over shot of Victorian London. It also created a critical environment inside Captain Nemo's submarine, done with eight matte paintings that linked virtual and physical sets. Riot visual effects supervisor Kenneth Nakada painted all eight.

"This was a niche job," reports Nakada. "You keep on pushing it. We made it work on other shots because they were smaller camera moves on past films and the software [Pixar RenderMan] could handle it. I really wanted to try it on these bigger moves and the software broke. So we had to find somebody [a China-based code writer] to make it work again. We made massive paintings - eight scoped paintings. A typical painting is 2K. The length of these paintings covered 6x the size of an average painting," says Nakada. "Making sure that all the blends go together, especially during camera motion where perspective is changing. In my eight paintings, the perspective is changing a little bit in each one, so there's got to be some type of consolidation as we go from one painting to another because each painting is flat. We have to go slowly between them. That's the trick - how fast the camera is moving, how fast the perspective is changing, how much you can get away with."

Challenge: This particular shot follows Captain Nemo as he walks from his missile room, shot greenscreen, to the control room, an actual set. Those sets had to be linked.


Santa Maria, CA's ComputerCafe (www.computercafe.com) provided Invisible Man effects for the feature film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, including sequences where character Rodney Skinner smears digital grease paint on his face to define its shape. Animators tracked the actor's head against the CG head. The CG head was rendered as a mask, and then the Cyborg compositing system was used to wrap the mask to the moving face of the actor. Maya was the hub software with 3DS Max being used for tracking and Maya and LightWave being used for clean up. Texturing, lighting and most rendering was done in LightWave.
Technique/Solution: "Rather than try to do everything in 3D, build it, texture and light it, that would have taken a massive effort because of the amount of movement that the camera covers. The solution was eight paintings," says Nakada. "We did a similar thing of building the geometry and projecting the painting on to the geometry [as it did in the opening pan shot]. The beauty of this is that the lighting is built into the painting and projected, there's lighting on the geometry from the get go. What makes renders take a very long time is the more lights you add. So as opposed to having 20 lights in there with 200 textures, which would make any renderfarm choke, there are eight paintings with no light, so now the renders are going very fast. But off-the-shelf hardware is not built to do this for these types of camera moves. We had rendering issues with RenderMan to properly solve our matte painting projection techniques. An outside code writer assisted us in minimizing the artifacts that were generated in the final renders. By the end, the technique was beautiful. There were only three people [on this] - I painted that shot, the 3D guy projected it and there was a comp artist. Normally there would be like 40 people."

It's a quicker, faster technique. "This is our niche, this is our edge over our competition. Since you're not dependent on texture maps and lighting, you're highly dependent on the painter. You have to be able to paint them to look 3D with the lighting. This is a tremendously fast, economical [answer]." Makada painted with Adobe Photoshop. The missile room shot was done with Maya. The London pan-over was accomplished with Softimage|XSI. All software runs on Windows, though Riot is currently converting to Linux. Hardware is a combination of Boxx, Hewlett-Packard and Racksaver.

Movie: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (July release, adventure, 20th Century Fox)

VFX House: Giant Killer Robots (www.killerobot.com)

Project Scope: They worked on15 to 20 shots: simple rig removals and painting out wires, wound effects on characters that are immortal (vampire and Dorian Gray), and another sequence where Dorian Gray sees his portrait, ages and dies. The team was made up of about 15 to 20 people.

Challenge: The Dorian Gray head shot. "It started as live action and had to transition into a full CG head," explains CG supervisor Greg Gladstone. "It had to fall apart, age and decay. The original concept for the shot was to shoot five live-action props with a motion control camera and try to match the performance in each one. We were bid to do the job for hooking up those five shots in post in 2D, doing some morphing or whatever to get them to line up."


Giant Killer Robots made Dorian Gray's face crumble, via Maya, for this scene from The League Of Extraordinary Gentleman.
Technique/Solution: "After the day of shooting, it was clear that there was no way you could repeat five performances - three of them being puppets and two being live actors," explains Gladstone. "We were going to have to take just the first performance when the character was in its normal human state and really quickly transition it into a CG version that matches the original head, then continues to go on and age. Once we established the CG head, probably some of the biggest challenges were things like hair. We did a semi-custom solution for that where we used a lot of things available in Maya, our main 3D tool. We used paint effects and came up with a custom solution for drawing our own hairs on his head. The tricky part was that we had to match that full head of hair in CG, and once we matched it we had to age it and make it thin and fall out. We used a lot of Maya particle effects because as he ages and crumbles, a lot of him has to turn into dust and sand." Maya ran on custom-built Mid Atlantic Data System workstations running Windows 2000 or XP. It was rendered on RenderBoxx.

Movie: Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (July release, family adventure, Miramax)

VFX House: Hybride Technologies (www.hybride.com)

Project Scope: As the primary effects house, Hybride worked on 410 shots (60 percent of the 750 total shots for the film), 10 percent were normal 2D CG shots, the rest were 3D. Hybride generated 45 minutes of movie in 3D stereo. Team was made up of 90 people. Hybride was the lead effects house on the first two Spy Kids movies as well.

This movie begins in a normal world but quickly moves into the game world, seen by viewers in 3D. "Normally you're doing a CG object on a real background and, in this case, it's the other way around," explains visual effects supervisor Daniel Leduc.

The environment and all elements in characters' hands were CG, but the characters were live action. In this case, "the objects" were actually the live action characters.

"And the director [Robert Rodriguez] made a decision to not use any motion control, he preferred to shoot everything by hand, to not lose the production time in preparation, but we had to do it in the post production," laughs Leduc.

Challenge #1: "This was our first movie in stereo, so we had to learn how it worked - the double cameras shooting - and we had to develop a way to see an anaglyph version," says Leduc. (Miramax requested the film be "normal theater compatible" since only about 100 theaters nationwide can screen 3D and 2,000 theaters can use anaglyph.) "It was a huge learning curve and a little bit stressful because we wanted to do it right. Nobody else is using the anaglyph anymore, everybody's using the polarized version because it's a lot nicer, easier and you don't have limitation of color."


Freddy vs. Jason Productions used Eyetronics' ShapeCam portable scanner to scan actors Robert Englund (Freddy) and Ken Dirzinger (Jason Voorhees) for effects sequences features in the New Line Cinema release, Freddy vs. Jason. The hand-held scanning system captured dimensional and texture information, which was then turned into 3D models using Eyetronics' ShapeSnatcher software. Post houses Pixel Magic and Cinesite imported the models into NewTek LightWave and Alias Maya, and then integrated them into the final scenes.
[Editor's Note: There are two conditions for a 3D movie: First, the creation of the picture for both eyes. Second, a specific process to watch a 3D movie. For the latter, 3D theaters use two projectors - one playing a vertical polarized version, another playing a horizontal polarized version. Audience viewers marry those two versions together by wearing their 3D polarized glasses. However, in a normal theater with a single projector, the movie's two versions have been combined into a single picture using the anaglyph process. This is a compromise that loses some color information from both versions.]

Technique/Solution: "So we had to find ways to enhance this anaglyph process," explains Leduc, "what are the limitations, what can we do, what can't we do. So we did a lot of reverts, color wise. That was challenging. We did both together. Actually we did three versions - full color left channel, full color right channel and those two would be used as a polarized version of 3D. From those two we did generate the anaglyph process of it. Some shots did work as it is but others needed to be redone because of the color. You can't use any red in anaglyph because the red channel is the left channel of information," he explains.

Challenge #2: The 11-minute mega race where the kids race on different kinds of vehicles. "Everything was shot on greenscreen and we had to track many characters on one scene with many bikes. It's a game look for the background so it's easier for the rendering but it's not easier for the tracking. You still need to clean up everything. You need to have the right kind of information. It's the same workload for all the preparation, it's a little bit faster with the rendering and the final compositing. But it's not the biggest step in the CG world. On top of it, it's two cameras, left and right, so if you prepare a key for the left, you need to do redo it for the right. It's really huge. It was fun to do because it was our fifth movie with these guys [Rodriguez and his production company] so we begin to know each other," laughs Leduc.

Technique/Solution: Used 3D Equalizer for tracking; Softimage|XSI for modeling and animation; Mental Ray for final rendering. NewTek LightWave for particles and smoke; and Inferno was used for compositing and preparation, plus final keying.