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July 2014
Issue: June 1, 2008

VISUAL EFFECTS: 'INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL'

By: Ken McGorry
SAN FRANCISCO — For a master of fantastic tales, director Steven Spielberg has a thing for reality. Look at all the plasterers, welders, carpenters, model makers and other practical artisans who got their hands dirty on the set of the new Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

And then there’s 35mm film. Lots of it. Spielberg, as you may know, edits his movies at Amblin in LA on a KEM, with a longtime collaborator, editor Michael Kahn, cutting workprint. Stunts? Harrison Ford, despite hitting retirement age, is known for doing his own on camera. Digital doubles? Maybe, if a bad guy has to get incinerated, but even then they try to stick with the real actor as long as possible.

So how does a love of filming the hyper-real match up with the nothing-is-real production style of another longtime Spielberg collaborator, Indy 4 executive producer George Lucas? On set and ensconced at the new ILM in the Presidio, Lucas and hundreds of minions are masters of digital deception. But they still sent film-out of VFX sequences from Hollywood’s Efilm over to Amblin; it’s what the director wants. And he liked — the new Indiana Jones boasts over 560 shots spanning a whopping 45 minutes of sustained VFX screen time. That’s a lot.

But there wasn’t a lot of time. Forgetting pre-pro (and decades of writing), this film did not take much longer than Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, points out veteran ILM VFX supervisor Pablo Helman. Spielberg and ILM turned around that effects-heavy sci-fi blockbuster in under a year. In the case of Indy 4, the film’s official start date was June 18, 2007, and it debuted May 22.

Helman was on set for virtually all the shoot and also directed the second unit as it went after exotic aerial footage of locations like the Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border.

EXTENDING EPIC SETS

In the story, those real falls, spectacular enough in nature, also hide a cave that leads to the home of the lost Amazonian “kingdom” that possessed a mythically powerful “crystal skull.” The prop skull is the film’s McGuffin. 1950s-era Soviet bad guys (and gal) are after that skull. The Amazon, duly extended and enhanced with great care at ILM, is the setting for intense action sequences that culminate in the awakening of a gigantic ancient temple’s self-destruct mechanism. The implacable wheels of demolition are meant to trap and crush any interlopers unlucky enough to be caught inside at the wrong time.

Why would a VFX super go airborne for jungle footage? One of Helman’s responsibilities was to oversee set extension — in and around the Iguazu Falls, the Amazon jungle, and the film’s fictitious temple to name a few locations. Besides dazzling 35mm waterfall footage, Helman also captured aerial coverage of the surrounding jungle terrain to establish location. Later, when Spielberg formalized his camera moves for a high-speed flight over the rainforest canopy, Helman’s treetop footage served as a reference for CG artists who replicated thousands of individual trees in 3D.

“We have to be on the set — that’s how we make sure all the elements we shoot are what we need,” says Helman, an ILM veteran. Before the shoot Helman and company had 10 weeks of preproduction to work out how they’d do each sequence and who would do what. After the shoot they had six to eight months in post.

There was not much bluescreen. “Steven Spielberg is not somebody who enjoys working with green- or bluescreen,” Helman says. “He gets a lot out of being on location, on set; lots of ideas come from that. It is my job to work with the vision of the director. We try not to use bluescreen unless we have to. Because of the [compositing] tools right now — rotoscoping an actor out of the plate has to have the right lighting, right interaction in terms of the ambience, the environment and everything else — it’s a lot easier, if it’s lit right, than putting a bluescreen there that spills all over the place.” Some jungle action sequences do incorporate a little first-unit bluescreen work but, Helman stresses, “you’d never know it.”

Indiana Jones was shot on location in Brazil, Argentina, New Mexico, Hawaii and Connecticut in addition to LA sets, and Spielberg had a crew of 300 to 400 on set. Lucas had about 300 working back at ILM.

Iguazu Falls, the result of ancient volcanic activity, has a 350-foot drop and is four times the width of Niagara Falls. Its spray can climb 100 feet above the level where the waters hit — creating a world of permanent mist at the base. “It’s the biggest waterfall in the world!” says Helman. “The thing about Indiana Jones is that locations are what the movie’s about. There’s a lot of emphasis on history and getting it right. That’s why we travel so much.”

ROCK THE TEMPLE

Helman says the collapse of the gigantic temple required “a bunch of extension pieces on huge set-pieces that had to be duplicated in CG because of the behavior of the room — the way it gets destroyed” that the VFX team had to figure out. “We used a new fracture tool that would allow us to do particle work that looks realistic.” ILM used about 45 compositors under associate VFX supervisor Marshall Krasser. The team worked on Apple Shake, ILM’s own Comptime, and, in the Saber department, Autodesk Infernos.

DI AT EFILM


Efilm handled Indy 4’s DI, and DP Janusz Kaminski worked with Efilm color timer Yvan Lucas. “This is the first time that Steven Spielberg has agreed to do a DI,” says Helman. “He is really flexible and he adapts to new things really quickly. He was very comfortable with that technology; he enjoys it.” Helman checked in at Efilm a few times to gauge how ILM’s VFX sequences matched up with Kaminski’s straight shots. Using Efilm, an Autodesk Lustre house, was an idea that came later in the process — ILM had been sending the film prints and the neg to Amblin Editorial, where Spielberg would review them.

ILM transferred color-timed VFX shots from its EXR format to Cineon files for Efilm’s use. Color timing is consistent with the esthetic decisions established by the director, the DP and ILM effects people. It was the job of each of the ILM compositing supers, relying on proprietary color software, to ensure that the shots remained “on look” and consistent throughout. Some shots’ color was tweaked at Efilm once they were viewed in context. Sometimes a background needed to be brighter or certain skin tones needed to be changed, and Spielberg immediately understood the power and flexibility that comes with DI. Efilm will also scan film into Cineon files and work in 4K, Helman says, ultimately recording back to film.

VFX AT ILM


ILM-based VFX editor Michael Gleason is a veteran of many a Spielberg movie and he uses Avid for cutting VFX sequences.

How many layers? “Lost count!” says Helman. “It used to be we’d done 10 layers or 20 layers; it kind of doesn’t matter anymore, it’s as many as you want to put in there. Which complicates the work even more doing pre-comps, viewing the work, even files that take 35 minutes to open when you have that heavy of a scene.” Thirty-five minutes? In terms of particle work, ILM was recreating huge sets and “all that data takes a long time to open.”

PARTICLE WORK


To create digital destruction, water, flames “and the effect of somebody being wasted away by fire,” ILM worked on Autodesk Maya and a proprietary particle-simulation system engine called the Brain. “In a particle-sim system you create a world and create rules and dictate mass of the object, gravity, the kind of force that acts on this object, and break it apart in a specific way,” says Helman. “That’s a very simplified way to say ‘months and months of work.’”

Spielberg used a lot of practical effects to help actors react — an explosion of water behind them, for instance — but that can be dangerous. Often, Helman would talk with Spielberg’s special effects coordinator, Dan Sudick, and “they’d do a water explosion that wasn’t necessarily as big as we needed. But it was enough for the actors to react to — get a little wet — and we’d take it from there.”

As ILM VFX art director on Indy 4, Christian Alzmann worked on extending the location sets shot in-camera — making the epic more epic. Sometimes he got to do even more. “It always has to match in with the esthetic the production designer created for the film. But a lot of times, if it’s a digital environment, or a digital creature, we end up doing the design work for that.”

A big tool in Alzmann’s CG pipeline is Photoshop but, he says, “We still draw with paper and pencil.” The art department also likes the ease of SketchUp, an architectural rendering program (http://sketchup. google.com) good for designing, well, ancient temples that cave in dramatically. Practical sets, he says, “can only be so big, and we have to extend those and design the extension as well.” The more massive sets in Indy 4 sometimes give the audience a 360-degree view, especially when the camera’s moving around and the POV goes over the shoulders of different actors.

TREES FOR THE FOREST

Even if they appear for only a few seconds, trees are not easy to fake. To extend a jungle setting, Alzmann says, “We try getting the best photo reference we can.” The action — and the Spielberg esthetic — required placing many three-dimensional trees to add more depth and drama to the action. In some instances they could get away with some two-dimensional trees. Either way, “we did a lot of trees and leaves in simulation.”

When Spielberg would call for a bluescreen shot, “it was kind of shocking to see the players in front of a bluescreen,” Alzmann says. “Whenever possible you want to get the [actors] in the real deal, but there were plenty of places where we could put trees in front of them and behind them and sort of bury them in the environment better. A lot of times, if you just use flat footage behind [the actors] it ends up feeling like a composite — like two cards sitting on top of one another. With the Indy movies the lighting scenario is everything is backlit and very dramatic, and when you backlight leaves, they have to glow.”

At the same time, CG trees should not draw one’s attention away from the action. Alzmann and company work hard to match the lighting they use on their trees with the lighting used on the actors but, he chuckles, “it used to be a lot harder!” ILM uses its own CG lighting package found within its proprietary CG platform called Zeno. Zeno handles all the ILM CG tools — layout, animation, digital environments, motion capture and more — as plug-ins. With the collaborative Zeno workflow, “there’s never an issue with having a file or an animation that is not ready to go to the next person because they are all using the same system.” Lighting a simulated organic object and using subsurface scattering on non-heroic objects like leaves is becoming more commonplace.  “There was a lot of asset-creation going on!” Alzmann adds, including creatures.

DUST IS OUR FRIEND


“The majority of the dust we use is elements that we shoot, whether over black- or over bluescreen and they’re composited,” Alzmann says. “The nice thing about those is, whenever you’re doing a composite, the dust sort of ends up unifying those images. Steven really likes a shot that looks kind of dirty. It has a more authentic look — it’s an adventure movie outdoors with lots of action. Dust is our friend.”

But do you need to light the dust? “It’s either going to be bright dust or dark dust, if it’s over something bright, we’re going to have to make it dark so it shows up,” he explains. “But you can get away with dust being lit ambiently.” Dust is also helpful in creating depth: you can layer a lot more dust over objects you want to push back and create an atmospheric perspective. 

WRITING NOTES

“We render with EXR here and Photoshop works in EXR so I can sort of paint a light in and say, ‘Here’s how much fill you might want to put in,’ and paint that in Photoshop.” The ILM-developed high-dynamic-range EXR format has become an industry standard and works at 16 and 32 bits (www.openexr.com). “It’s great because you can change the exposure on the shot and you won’t lose any detail,” says Alzmann. “With 32-bit you can crank up the exposure and there’s a whole bunch of [image detail] in there. A 32-bit shot is like having four exposures of the shot in there.”

What we see of Iguazo Falls in Indy 4 is, of course, another amalgam. “A pretty cool shot with an interesting look” that Alzmann himself got to design. “That was created using different footage of waterfalls that Pablo shot. We’d much rather shoot something real than try to simulate it.”

Of all the film’s 560-plus shots, ILM’s Digi-Matte department worked on over 320 — the most shots the matte artists had done since Star Wars: Episode III. Digital matte supervisor Richard Bluff had to hire 18 more artists from outside as well as add three more internally and call upon ILM’s Singapore facility for help from an additional five matte painters. “We use a CineSync phone,” Bluff says. “It’s like calling someone in the building — only four digits.” Singapore also allows for a 24-hour work cycle — you can send overflow work to Singapore at the end of the day and get it back the next morning.

NOT FULLY BAKED

ILM would do rough composites of shots when near completion, but Helman could continue to make changes late since the composites were not “baked” to completion too soon. This allowed Helman and the compositors maximum flexibility toward the end of the show — they do the final finish at the end, including heavy matte-painting shots. This is a fairly new procedure that we’ll see more of in the future.

The Digi-Matte department conceives of 2.5D as more “environment work” than digital matte work — a collection of different techniques employing digital mattes. “In a pan-and-tilt move, where the camera is moving linearly down in Z-space, you could have images on “cards” — planes out in 3D space — match move into place to match the plate,” says Bluff. “Then the camera move reveals information behind those cards, so you build up the layers. So in Photoshop you may have a building in the background that’s obscured by a building in the mid-ground that’s obscured by a building in the foreground.” Using Photoshop the camera then moves up, revealing what’s behind each card.
Today, in the jungle sequence, “we’re using full 3D plants, trees and vines, ivy on the floor and dirt that you can look at from any angle,” Bluff says, “creating a full 3D jungle.”

With the “cliff sequence” we have the heroes racing along the rim of a precipitous cliff as a Soviet armed vehicle tries to run them over the edge. Off to our left, the jungle seemingly spreads out to infinity. Techniques to achieve this look involved a matte painting in the distance; fully modeling the CG cliff in the foreground; texturing it; lighting it to fit the environment; and blending it into the matte painting in the background.

DP Kaminski visited with ILM VFX people, a rarity, Bluff says, and explained the look he intended to achieve on the shoot; what he hoped to see in the final movie; and what he would do in DI sessions “to change tones, change contrast, and give the look he and Steven really wanted.” Bluff and the matte painters worked knowing in advance the direction Kaminski was going to take. Spielberg also checked in with the ILM supervisors each week via ILM’s satellite hookup to discuss the project’s direction and progress.

ACQUISITION


ILM veteran matte-man Paul Huston traveled to Machu Picchu and photographed a lot of the jungle and mountains and a lot of those shots were blended into the Indy 4” plates of thick Amazon rainforest environments. Other shots required an artist to paint, in Photoshop, the mountains and trees to get the needed look.

Helman’s aerials were used in waterfall sequences, but Spielberg’s camera movements represented new information and to get a flight sequence — arriving at the Soviet camp by air — to move Spielberg’s way, the rainforest had to be rendered in CG. “You have the reference of what it needs to look like,” says Bluff but, because of the camera move, the new shot needed to be a blend of CG jungle and real plates as well as Spielberg’s own shoot on set.

“Part of the reason I work for ILM is the resources are immense,” says Pablo Helman. “There’s nothing that we can’t do — I don’t mean in the show-off sense, I mean in the attitude. We can sit down and figure everything out. Also, that’s the fun of it. We enjoy the process of sitting down with a bunch of people and figuring out the impossible.”

Despite the level of difficulty Indy 4 presented, “we all wanted to work on this movie,” Helman says. “Not only to work with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but also to take a look at [Indy’s world] 19 years later. I was actually very sad it ended!”