Marvel’s X-Men returned to the big screen this summer with the release of X-Men: Apocalypse from Fox.
Post’s Christine Bunish spoke with lead VFX house MPC Film (www.moving-picture.com) and CG supervisor James Rustad in our July issue about the studio’s nearly 1,000 VFX shots, as part of our “Summer Blockbuster” coverage. But in addition to the work MPC completed for the film, VFX supervisor John Dykstra also managed numerous VFX vendors, including Digital Domain.
Here, Post speaks with DD’s lead lighter Carlos Cidrais (pictured), based out of the Vancouver studio.
Which scenes of the film did you work on?
“Digital Domain worked on the opening sequence set in Ancient Egypt as well as the Auschwitz environment and some one-off shots for the World Destruction.”
What type of work did you do — environmental, CG, matte paintings?
“There was quite a large variety of work — we did some large-scale environments that are heavily destroyed for the Egypt sequence, including slave crowds, and some extensive matte painting and environment work.
“For the Auschwitz sequence, we not only undertook a faithful recreation of the concentration camp itself — we proceeded to tear it apart in a spectacular fashion.
“In the end of the world one-offs, there were a lot of military themed shots — from missiles shooting off from silos, to those same missiles flying off into space, a long underwater shot where the USS Indianapolis rises from the bottom of the sea and a great above the water shot, with a fishing boat rocking on the ocean waves where magnetic arcs are forming.”
Can you walk us through a few key sequences from a technical perspective?
“For the Egypt sequence we had to devise a way of loading in a large city environment into our lighting package of choice: Maya — this required the writing of some custom tools to handle the heavy amounts of geometry, something Maya doesn’t necessarily handle that well out of the box.
“The crowds were also a technical challenge, as we had to come up with a solution that allowed us to instance a number of character variations with custom animation cycles, across a large environment. I believe we ended up rendering close to 300,000 agents, which we had to deliver in stereo.
“During the Auschwitz sequence, we had to deal with large datasets that were being generated by the FX department. We efficiently handled these using V-Ray proxies.
“And the underwater shot again required large sand simulations and magnetic effects.
“As for pulling them off, there is no substitute to hard graft — you have to put in the hours and rely on the ingenuity of your very smart colleagues to solve all the technical and artistic challenges that inevitably arise during the course of such an effects-heavy, iconic show as X-Men: Apocalypse.”
Who did you work most closely with on this film, the VFX super and/or the director? How did that relationship work?
“On a day to day basis, I collaborated intensively with our CG supervisor, Tim Nassauer, who was responsible for the running of the show from a technical CG perspective and Lou Pecora, who was our facility VFX supervisor and dealt most directly with the client, while also overseeing the work of all the departments to ensure we were not only matching but surpassing the client’s vision.
“We had the pleasure of collaborating with the legendary John Dykstra who was the client side VFX supervisor, overseeing the work, not only of Digital Domain but also of all other facilities collaborating on the show.
“The result you see on screen is truly a design and technical collaboration that relies on the outstanding contributions of all the top level people involved.”
How many visual effects shots were you responsible for?
“I was responsible for overseeing the work of the lighting team on all the shots that contained CG, and doing shot work myself. All in, DD delivered about 200 shots on the show.”
Technically speaking, how is this X-Men film different from the others?
“Technology inevitably advances. On this show we were able to handle an increasing amount of complexity — crowds, heavy destruction, large-scale environments and CG water. This necessitated that a lot of tools were written on a custom basis to handle the specific shot work we had on X Men: Apocalypse.
“I would say the agent placement system that allowed us to render crowds was certainly a fine achievement — as was the particle layout tools that allowed us to populate and render elements like trees and buildings within Maya. Another area that also merited our attention was the flow of data between departments and making that as seamless as possible. That is a constant work in progress and we learn a little more as a facility, each show we do.”
Any particular challenges?
“The ever increasing complexity of our work demands that we are able to be flexible and adapt our resources to the task at hand. We need to increase render power, disk space and pipeline support continually. The fact it was a stereo show was also a challenge — particularly presenting different options to the client for sign off on shots where there was interaction between FX and lighting elements required that we switch our pipeline to use Deep Compositing, a move that will bring DD many dividends in the future as it greatly simplifies our workflow.”
What were some of the tools you used for CG, effects, compositing, rendering, etc.?
“We have a standard pipeline of Maya for modeling, rigging, look development and lighting, whilst using V-ray as our primary renderer, Mari for texturing, Zbrush for Sculpting, Houdini for FX — using Mantra to render out FX elements and Nuke for compositing all elements together. We also used Terragen to model environments and Speedtree to generate trees and vegetation.”
In your opinion, what is the most cutting-edge work in the film and why?
“I believe it’s the Egypt sequence, since it was a confluence of everything DD is known for doing well — in particular, the FX destruction was quite successful on that sequence. But there really was a large variety of work: A large Egyptian city environment that had to be historically accurate, a Pyramid collapse, crowds, some characters who met their untimely deaths in a fiery fashion, being incinerated and folded into a pretzel shape, design elements like the soul glow transfer and, of course, the Auschwitz destruction which is a pivotal moment in the film.
“We were also able to scale up our pipeline to handle the amount of complexity that modern day visual effects requires — that in itself is an achievement that often goes unnoticed and we should give props to the technical and management staff who endeavor to make sure artists have what they need to deliver under challenging conditions and deadlines.”
Final thoughts about the work you did and how the scenes came out?
“Seeing all our work on the silver screen always allows us to reflect on the work we accomplished — what could have been improved, how it compares to the work of other facilities in a time of fierce competition in the VFX landscape and also, to reflect on how much fun we had making it. This was my first show at DD, after spending most of my career working in London and here I’ve found a very special environment of highly creative people with an incredible problem-solving attitude and great team spirit. At the end of the day, more than the technical advances, it’s the people who do the work that dictate the results, and our experiences are what we take with us to the next show. I am proud to have worked on such an iconic movie and feel privileged for doing so with this particular set of people. I believe the results on screen speak for themselves.”