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November 2014
Issue: October 1, 2009

THE EMBASSY'S VFX WORK FOR 'DISTRICT 9'

VANCOUVER - District 9, written and directed by newcomer Neill Blomkamp, offers a unique and gritty portrayal of aliens integrated into human society – or, at least, cordoned off into their own neighborhood, a government camp referred to as District 9. One man, infected with alien DNA that enables him to operate the coveted alien weaponry, battles human mercenaries in an effort to preserve his own life and send some wayward aliens safely on their way home to a planet far away.

The Embassy team worked on 109 shots for the film, including the scorpion-like alien creature scenes and the sequences in which lead character Wikus is forced to use alien weaponry to blow up various objects experimentally. But the bulk of The Embassy’s work — approximately 90 shots — was concentrated on the “Exo-suit” sequence at the end. (The Exo-suit is a coveted piece of alien weaponry – a suit of armor controlled by its wearer.)

The Exo-suit sequences were shot on location in July 2008 in a shantytown in Soweto, South Africa. “We did all the standard shots, recorded HDR lighting probe and such to light the CG, and then we tracked all camera information,” notes Winston Helgason, on-set visual effects supervisor and executive producer at The Embassy. (Later, the sequences were rewritten and the number of VFX shots were doubled, so in-house supervisor Robert Habros visited Johannesburg again in December 2008 to re-shoot.) The film was shot on four Red cameras, two Sony EX-1s and a few other video cameras that provided the mock-documentary style seen in some parts.

“[Director Blomkamp] likes to add different formats to his films,” explained Stephen Pepper, The Embassy’s compositing supervisor for District 9. “We jumped between documentary footage to security cam footage throughout the first half of the movie. The different cameras certainly contributed to the overall realistic feel of the movie.”

While all of the sequences required varied cameras and visual effects to drive home the authentic feel, the Exo-suit sequences stand out as a distinguishing use of visual effects software to further the perceived reality of the film. To start, CG leads Matt Rouleau, Simon Van de Lagemaat and their team built and animated the Exo-suit in Autodesk XSI and then rendered it in Mental Ray. The surfacing and texture painting was done in Zbrush and Modo. Then, it was composited in Shake. Finally, GenArts Sapphire plug-ins were added.

Pepper said the details created with GenArts Sapphire were integral to achieving the film’s convincing visual effects. For example, they used Sapphire EdgeFlash to integrate the CG robots into the background plates by creating a light spill of these two separate elements to blend them together. A very subtle use of Sapphire JpegDamage was applied to certain CG elements to match the digital compression on the background plates created by the Sony EX-1 cameras. Sapphire Glints and Glows were used to mimic South Africa’s harsh sunlight flashing off the Exo-suit, and Van de Lagemaat came up with a special occlusion shader to add an offending layer of grime to the shiny armor.

“The shantytown was just so dusty. There was a layer of filth over everything,” says Pepper. A clean and shiny metal Exo-suit in the middle of the shantytown would certainly detract from the authenticity of the sequences. Real elements were placed into the shots to create dust clouds where Wikus’ feet in the Exo-suit hit the ground while walking.

The Exo-suit picked up additional details throughout the last sequence, when Wikus wielded it against the mercenaries. Hundreds of bullet hits were systematically created by Pepper and his team, and Sapphire LensFlare was used to enhance the authenticity of the muzzle flashes from the alien weaponry. Aside from Sapphire, Pepper also used Furnace plug-ins to de-noise and remove rigs and wires from some plates.

While die-hard sci-fi fans will always support District 9-type movies, the added elements of reality may make these films appealing to an even wider audience. Pepper, for one, knows District 9 would not have been as believable without state-of-the-art visual effects software. “We simply couldn’t have done it without the [Sapphire] plug-ins… Well, we could,” he concedes, “but it wouldn’t have worked as well.”