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October 2014
Issue: January 1, 2008

VFX: 'THE TATTOOIST'

Gone are the days when visual effects artists, supervisors and producers say they work in "post production." As The Tattooist proved, the VFX contribution to a film can start as early as when the project is still in development.

Back in 2005 producer Robin Scholes (Once Were Warriors) approached Peter McCully, VFX supervisor and owner of Auckland VFX company Albedo, with a question: Can you create a tattoo that grows on someone's skin and can you make it seem that the tattoo is spreading from the inside, out? The answer was not untypical: "We're sure we can, we just need to figure out how" 

What McCully helped to develop became an integral part of the pitch pack, assisting the film's producers in their quest to acquire production and financing partners. Being involved at the development stage is useful for a number of reasons. For a horror concept film, such as Tattooist, is helps external parties visualise the film and can provide a point of unity amongst the partners about the type of film they are all working towards. In relatively advanced script development, involving VFX creatives can offer useful feedback about what is possible within the likely budget, which may curb some dramatic notions, but may also open up other avenues the writer never thought to consider because they didn't imagine that idea was possible to achieve. And once the director is on board, working closely with them to develop the look and strategy helps to move things along. In the case of The Tattooist, first-time director Peter Burger had a clear idea of what he wanted.

The visual effects fell into three camps: the growing tattoos with their splitting skin and blood and ink pouring out, the manipulation of ink in water in a variety of situations, and the more stock standard clean-ups - day-for-night transformations, greenscreen, etc. Albedo created two teams of artists to work with tattoos and ink in water, and set about the R&D. 

Ink and blood in water was a big part of the script and wherever possible Albedo's approach was to use filmed elements. We filmed these in HD in a variety of mid-sized refillable tanks. Useful elements were keyed out and individual tendrils isolated so that they could be manipulated in a compositing program. In the case of the evil ink, which slides along the bathroom floor to get lead character Jake (Jason Behr), these filmed tank elements were added to digital layers, creating the illusion that the ink was moving through a puddle of water on the floor. 

To achieve this Albedo used reference created by the film's very talented tattoo designers to generate a series of six or seven designs that would creep along an ink tendril through the floor puddle. A simple, but labor intensive 2D matte painting technique was used to paint these into the shot plate and then reveal them through a series of animated masks. The rest of the ink was real footage of tendrils layered up in a compositing program with countless deformers on them to control their speed and shape. To top it off, extra liquid effects and specular highlights were added, and some layers were graded red to match the blood in the scene.  

Of the more straight VFX shots, one interesting shot is from the Singaporean opening sequence. For this open, an exterior pull out shot of the hotel that Jason is staying in was shot from another building on a dolly. Through the editorial process it became necessary for this day shot to be changed to dusk or night, but as this scene had been shot in Singapore, it was impossible to simply pick it up.

Albedo was called upon to grade it to night and add extra city lights. The original shot needed to be stabilized, but quickly it became apparent that simply stabilizing and tracking the shot was not going to give a realistic result. It was decided to deconstruct the original plate entirely and map the plate's footage onto 3D geometry to create a new aerial camera move. The shot could then be used as a story device, as it rapidly transitioned from dusk to night. Little touches helped to sell the shot, including an airplane flying through the night sky. As for the live tattoos growing on people, well, that would be telling. The film is scheduled for North American release in the fall of 2008.

Albedo's contribution to The Tattooist began pre-financing, moved through on-set supervision and organically grew in post as the needs of the film were clarified during the edit. Delivery to the DI at Park Road Post in Wellington was via the usual precious cargo of a harddrive and after supervising the VFX delivery and seeing it reintroduced into the body of the film.  

You can see the trailer at:http://www.thetattooistmovie.com/home.htm