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Wanted: Bending VFX for a Killing Machine July 17, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in 3D, Movies, Review, VFX.
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Wanted required more than 800 visual effects shots, including a train derailment sequence from Framestore that almost half of its crew worked solely on. Courtesy of Framestore. All images © 2007 Universal Studios.

In 2006, the Russian movie Night Watch made a strong impression on American producers. Director Timur Bekmambetov’s innovative use of visual effects created a definitely unique movie experience, enough so to land him his first American directorial gig with Wanted (which opened June 27 from Universal). In this adaptation of a comic book created by Mark Millar, a young “nobody” (James McAvoy) finds out that he is the son of a legendary assassin. He enters a mysterious fraternity where he is trained to become a perfect killing machine, a human being able to bend the laws of physics and gravity to his own advantage.The movie required more than 800 visual effects shots, a massive effort initially supervised and produced by Jon Farhat. However, during post-production, Farhat fell very ill and had to be replaced by Visual Effects Supervisor Stefen Fangmeier. “I had directed Eragon, and, at that time, I was exploring new directing opportunities,” Fangmeier says. “I didn’t want to get into a vfx assignment that would tie me up for too long. This project was perfect in the sense that they only needed somebody for four months to come in and finish up.”

Stepping in a colleague’s shoes is never easy, but on Wanted, Fangmeier ended up facing many other challenges. “When I came in, most of the shots had already been assigned to a variety of vendors. The majority of the visual effects were being created by Bazelevs Studios, Timur’s own company in Moscow. They did almost 500 shots encompassing a very large range of effects. We also had Hammerhead, Hydraulx, PacTitle, Hatch FX and CIS Hollywood and Framestore in London. So, I had to delve into shots that someone else had conceived, with visual effects already well underway and with key creative people based in Moscow. Since Bazelevs were in charge of two thirds of the shots, I primarily focused on the work that was being done there.”

The Moscow-based studio had produced some spectacular shots for Day WatchNight Watch, but Wanted was their first American production. This new experience didn’t go without difficulties, as Hollywood doesn’t do things quite the same way as a Russian director employing his own company on his projects. and

“They really have a strong talent pool there, they also have the software, but they didn’t have any experience interfacing with a major studio, dealing with constant editorial changes, and meeting a schedule of deadlines, etc.” Fangmeier observes. “For instance, when I got involved, they only had 12 final composites out of 500 shots, and we were already close to the original deadline (the movie was initially due for release in March 2008). One of their issues was to get the director to buy off on concepts and shots. They had to date done many different versions for quite a few shots. At one point, somebody needed to make decisions and get the shots done. So, part of my job was to establish priorities, to select the 50 or 70 shots that could be completed each week, and to push them forward. For the remainder of the post schedule, we needed to finalize 45-50 shots per week in order to meet the deadline! It definitely put a lot of pressure on everybody… So, this project was a creative challenge on one hand, but on the other also a significant production challenge.”

After his first three days in Moscow assessing the production, Fangmeier requested that American Visual Effects Producer Steve Kullback should join him in order to wrangle the production management side of things. VFX Producer Juliette Yager had already been brought on board by production. “If there is one thing I appreciate after 15-and-a-half -years at ILM, it is the importance of very rigorous production management!”

Moscow's Bazelevs Studios created the sequence in which assassins ride a train rooftop for a clear view of their target in an office building. CG is used extensively. Courtesy of Bazelevs Studios.

Time Manipulations
Bazelevs used an NT-based pipeline that included SOFTIMAGE and Maya for 3D, RenderMan and mental ray for rendering and Nuke or Fusion for compositing. The company was responsible for a great variety of shots: CG rats, CG bullets, digital doubles, assassin POV effect, fluid simulations, etc. Some of their key effects included the many speed changes that Bekmambetov had envisioned for his movie. The shots were filmed at very high speed, and then digitally altered to modify the frame speed, some time from normal to very slow to ultra fast to normal again, all within a single shot. 2D artists worked from templates that the film editors had designed in Avid. Using time flow algorithms, they changed the speed of the shots while trying to retain the original image quality. A task not as easy as it sounds as the time warp process generates a lot of artifacts.The speed changes allowed the camera to follow a bullet up to the point where it hit its target. Bazelevs created the bullet in Maya and added reflections and shadow on the environment to better integrate it. “In one shot, a bullet flies around Angelina Jolie’s head in full close-up,” notes Fangmeier. “When the bullet passes by her, you can see its shadow on her face and then her hair slightly moving, and finally her eye blinking. We also worked hard on the depth of field to keep the bullet realistically in focus, while Angelina would go from blurred to sharp to blurred again. Since the shot was in very slow motion, we needed all those subtle details to sell it… ”

Moving VFX
One of those stylized shots forms the climax of a sequence in which the two lead assassins travel on a city train rooftop in order to get a clear view on their target in an office building. “The actors inside the building were shot in an interior office set. We then added a CG exterior, a CG window, CG glass debris, and the city background. For the exterior shots on the train, James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie were filmed on a partial train rooftop set in front of a greenscreen. We then extended the set in CG to get a complete train. In order to create the cityscape, five cameras were bolted on top of a real elevated train traveling through downtown Chicago. The plates were then tiled together to create a cyclorama, and later combined with the foreground elements. We also added CG cars in the background, and created an entire bridge that the train goes under. It was a fairly complex combination of 2D and 3D elements.” Another major speed change occurs during the opening scene where a sniper gets shot in the head — with the camera following the bullet exiting the victim’s forehead in gory slow motion. The actor’s face was extracted from the plate and re-projected on a CG head that was deformed by the CG bullet animation. Fluid dynamics made the CG blood follow the bullet’s motion. “The movie is gory, but those shots are so stylized that the audience understands this is not reality. After all, the story is based on a comic book and we had to preserve that quality.”

One of the most memorable images in the movie features a character jumping through a window, with thousands of glass debris sticking to his body. In the longer shots, the actor was shot greenscreen and a tracked CG double was animated through a CG window, starting off a rigid body simulation created in Maya. A close-up of the same action was produced using an entirely CG head.

A character jumps through a window with thousands of glass debris sticking to his body. The actor was shot greenscreen and a tracked CG double was animated through a CG window. Courtesy of Bazelves Studio.

Individual VFX sequences
Meanwhile, in America, other vendors were hard at work on specific, isolated sequences. “Hydraulx was responsible for a complex effect that was meant to go completely unnoticed,” Fangmeier says. “Colin Strause and his team built a CG weaving machine for a sequence in which our hero needs to slow time down in order to find an object that is attached to one of these tens of thousands of threads. At Hammerhead, Jamie Dixon supervised the car chase and created the scene in which a CG Ford Mustang flips over a live action limo. As for Hatch FX, Deak Ferrand and his team did two extensive matte paintings for the prologue.”In London, Framestore was called in to create the climactic train crash sequence that takes place on a bridge. In-house Visual Effects Supervisor Craig Lyn oversaw the challenging assignment. “There were several obstacles that we had to overcome,” he notes. “The first being the tight production schedule that we worked under. We completed over 117 shots in a three-and-half-month period. This included our pre-production phase for the build and look development of our digital assets, which included both a CG train as well as a full digital environment of a gorge. While pre-production was going on, we had to lock animation, which took place over a three-week period. Due to the compressed schedule, lighting of the shots occurred concurrently to the digital environment build, a less than ideal situation.”The biggest challenge was a shot that ran more than 40 seconds: a train carriage falls down into the gorge, impacts a rocky outcrop, and then scrapes down the side till it comes to a rest. At the end of the shot, the CG train has to seamlessly transition into a live action plate of the carriage. The shot ran the full length of Framestore production schedule. By the end of the show, almost the half of the crew was dedicated solely to delivering this one shot. Framestore’s software pipeline was predominantly Maya-based for animation, lighting setup and digital environments. Vfx work, which involved dust, smoke, debris and rigid body dynamics, was done in both Maya and Houdini. On the rendering front, the team utilized a hybrid solution of both RenderMan and mental ray. The compositing work was done entirely in Shake.

Framestore had to work on a tight schedule to create the climactic train crash sequence that takes place on a bridge. The studio completed more than 117 shots in a three-and-a-half-month period. Courtesy of Framestore.

Full CG Environment
The team built the train from assets supplied by production, and then detailed it out, based on reference photography. The digital environments turned out to be a much tougher challenge. “We had to create a fully CG gorge that was seen from any number of angles,” Lyn observes. “The gorge was built using low resolution meshes in combination with higher resolution ones for the more detailed areas. Texture maps and matte paintings were then projected onto the surfaces from multiple camera angles, and we were able to reuse many of the common angles for multiple shots. The break off pieces for both the train and the gorge were a combination of several techniques. Hero debris was animated traditionally, while the smaller ones were done using rigid body simulations from both Maya and Houdini. The deforming shapes of the bridge being ripped apart, and the train being squashed, were sculpted by our modeling crew, and then used as blend shapes.”Framestore’s rendering pipeline was HDRI based with reflections and heavy ray–tracing done in mental ray. That data was then passed back into RenderMan for the final renders.

The team also built low resolution digital doubles for Jolie and MacAvoy. “The trickiest bit was Angelina’s hair, which was supposed to be long and flowing,” Lyn explains. “We didn’t want to go to the trouble of a CG hair build and groom, since she was only in a couple of shots. Instead, we did a simple bluescreen shoot in an alley behind one of our buildings of a wig on a broom handle, and then tracked it in 2D!”

This outrageous sequence concludes a movie filled with unique moments and imagery. Indeed, Fangmeier was repeatedly impressed and surprised by some of the concepts that Bekmambetov came up with. “Timur has a great imagination for this type of things. There are some really good moments in the film where you feel: ‘Wow! This is a neat idea. I’ve never seen it before!'”

~ farhanriaz


The Forbidden Kingdom: VFX and the Chi Energy Effect April 21, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in Movies, Review, VFX.
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The tale of the Monkey King is as much a part of Chinese culture as Mickey Mouse is to American life, and the chance both to tell this story and have martial arts superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li appear together in the same film for the first time was just too good an opportunity for director Rob Minkoff to pass up.

“The chance to interpret the character in this film, get Jet Li to play it and then kind of present this character to the West, it’s almost like the story of the movie,” says Minkoff, who directed both Stuart Little movies and co-directed The Lion King.

The Forbidden Kingdom (opening April 18 from Lionsgate) begins with American teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), a martial-arts movie geek who is beaten up by local bullies and wakes up in mythical China. Tasked with returning a mystic weapon to the Monkey King, who’s been imprisoned by the Jade War Lord (Collin Chou) for more than 500 years, Jason is aided in his quest by kung fu master Lu Yan (Chan), the Silent Monk (Li) and the beautiful Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei).

But bringing to life Forbidden Kingdom required a lot of work in a very short timetable, especially when it came to using visual effects to mix the film’s Hong Kong-style martial arts action with the storybook fantasy of the original myth.

Minkoff says he wanted the visual effects to evoke the feel of classic Hong Kong films. It also needed to balance the story’s sense of storybook fantasy and realism. “The audience is a little more sophisticated, so some of the fog-machine effects with the dry ice obviously weren’t going to cut it with us,” he adds. “We obviously wanted something that was slightly more contemporary.”

Minkoff says the effects work ended up staying largely in Asia, thanks to Exec Producer Rafaella DeLaurentiis, who was impressed by the high quality and low cost of some work done by a Korean house. “She thought that would be an interesting option for us,” continues Minkoff. “It’s a Chinese story, Asian-themed, and would require a sensitivity that might be a natural fit with Korea.”

Work ended up being spread around a number of vfx studios, with a trio of South Korean houses leading the charge: Macrograph, DTI and Footage.

But first, the film had to go through a short prep of eight weeks and then into a tight, 101-day shooting schedule in China. Ron Simonson came onto the project about a month into shooting as the senior visual effect supervisor, and says the biggest challenge was getting up to speed on what was being shot on a set full of green safety pads and wire rigs, and making sure it would work for the visual effects artists later on.

Bringing the vfx to life in Forbidden Kingdom required a lot of work in a very short timetable. Hong Kong-style martial arts is mixed with the original Monkey King myth. All images © Lionsgate Ent.

“It was ‘how to rig the wires and the pads so it works best for us’ and make sure we get all the pieces shot to replace all those things,” says Simonson. “Basically, it’s just kind of like, ‘OK, this is what you want to do. Can we maybe move this a little bit that way and move the camera a little bit that way cause that’ll work better?'”Simonson worked closely with stunt coordinator Woo-Ping Yuen and Minkoff on shots, using an on-set previs team to quickly test ideas for changes in or additions to scenes in the edit.

Shooting in China had the benefit of being authentic and costing much less than other locations, though there were some differences and issues with technical requirements. Minkoff says they had some concerns about the ability to hang high-quality greenscreens that were solved with DP Peter Pau’s suggestion of covering all four walls of the stage with plywood and green paint

The effects work ended up staying largely in Asia because of the high quality and low cost of some work done by a Korean house. Work was spread around a number of houses.

Of course, having a good greenscreen stage also upped the ante. “The number of sequences that we ended up setting and shooting on the greenscreen stage just made the numbers shoot up,” confirms Minkoff.

Minkoff’s background in animation also helped meet the tight deadlines. “Rob being able to articulate what kind of effect we were talking about and then having it worked up there and dropped into the edit, into the Avid, and see how it worked, really expedited the process,” Simonson says.

Simonson was on set with a crew of about 10-12 visual effects artists, including previs and postvis artists who were essential in planning and executing shots. “Some of the bigger shots were created quite late in the game,” Simonson says. “We’d be looking at the edit and Rob would say, ‘We need some way to get from here to there,’ and we would draw it up and it would save a lot of time getting it to the animators.”

The film also called for a lot of diverse visual effects that made it difficult to, as Simonson suggests, achieve some economy of scale. “There’s big environment stuff, there’s water, we have fire, we have CG weapons, we have the chi energy effect,” he reveals. “All that separate stuff all took a lot of R&D.”Most of the work was split up between the three lead houses in South Korea, with Asia Legend in Hong Kong doing a lot of wire and object removal, Simonson says. Other contributing houses were Xing Xing in Beijing, Frantic Films of Vancouver, and Illusion Arts Digital, Stingray VFX, Svengali and Digiscope of Los Angeles.

Coordinating all this was difficult, Simonson says, as the locations of the houses crossed the International Date Line as well as language and cultural boundaries.

Working on a Hollywood film also had benefits to the Korean houses, who emphasized in bidding on the project their ability to work hard and produce quality work even it meant the crew went without sleep for months on end, says Minkoff. While he says they definitely didn’t want anyone to work that hard, “it seemed like there was a sympathetic kind of attitude about their ambition, which was to break out of the Korean market into the larger Hollywood market,” he says.

While much of the vfx work was along the lines of wire and object removal, Simonson cites as a favorite the movie’s opening scene in which the camera swoops through the sky until the figure of the Monkey King appears to be standing atop a cloud. The Monkey King, played by Li, then proceeds to fight his opponents as they stand on the very tops of mountains protruding through the clouds.

“It took a lot of look development to get a level of realism, but also stay in the kind of storybook land vision that that scene is,” he says. “I opted to shoot real clouds for the fly in and all the mid-ground mountains, background mountains, mist and everything else was CG.”

A battle sequence set in a field of cherry blossom trees featured no real trees — just a stick in the ground with every blossom glued to the trees, Simonson offers.

The film boasts a lot of diverse visual effects that strained the budget.There's big environment stuff, water, fire,CG weapons and the chi energy effect.

The film doesn’t entirely take place in ancient China, and replicating modern Boston — where Jason begins his journey — required a combination of real plates and stitching together still photography in Nuke to create the cityscape.While Chan and Li are formidable weapons in their own right, the script also featured a powerful staff and the witch-like Ni Chang, played by Li Bing Bing, who uses a whip and even her own hair as a prehensile weapon in battle.

“That was again a lot of coordinating with the fight guys on set and coming up with ways to mimic the hair and the whip so (the actors) could react to it,” Simonson says. “We used ropes and lines attached to Bing Bing so that when Jackie’s grabbing it they could later replace the rope with the hair.”

The hair in particular was a difficult effect to work out. “Everyone was worried over whether the hair was going to work,” says Simonson. “We were trying to figure out alternative things to shoot in case the hair didn’t work while we were doing the R&D. But, fortunately, we got the test done early enough that the director was comfortable with how the hair was going to work and they went from five or six shots of the hair to 35 shots with the hair once they were comfortable with it.”

It took a lot of development to balance the realism and the storybook land vision. Real clouds were shot but all the mid-ground mountains, background mountains and mist were CG.

Simonson says that the various houses worked on about 900 shots overall, though with some sequences getting cut from the film the final on-screen tally is around 750. “About 25% of that is wire removal, rig removal. There’s a lot of background cleanup. In all these beautiful Chinese exteriors, there’s power lines and stuff in every single one of them, so all that stuff had to be removed.”

While shooting in China was different in many respects, Minkoff also says there were fewer hoops to jump through than when making a movie in North America or Europe. It also lent authenticity to the story of the Monkey King.

“That was the attraction of doing it,” he says. “If you have to go shoot China in Palmdale, what fun would that have been?”


Turning good video games into great films April 14, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in Games, Movies, Review.
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Group of game-industry veterans think plotlines should be the priority

At the end of a long day working in Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y.P.D. detective Max Payne returns to find his home being ransacked by armed junkies. High on a new designer drug called Valkyr, they open fire on the cop, who stumbles over the dead bodies of his wife and newborn daughter. Killing the murderers doesn’t quench Payne’s thirst for revenge, and he sets out to find the sources of Valkyr and make them pay.

It sounds like the setup for a movie—and it is, now. “Max Payne” will be released in 2009, courtesy of 20th Century Fox, with Mark Wahlberg in the starring role. But the story didn’t start as a screenplay; it debuted seven years ago as the plot of a videogame and spawned two interactive sequels before making it to movie theaters.

Since its earliest days, the videogame industry has been enamored of Hollywood, and with turning big-screen stories into interactive worlds—with a range of success. Atari’s E.T. game is said to have ushered in the videogame industry crash of 1983, but blockbuster franchises have come out of Harry Potter, Shrek, and Lord of the Rings. More recently, Hollywood has been mining videogames (and their huge male fan base) for box office gold. The results have been just as mixed.

“Few games have translated well to film,” says Michael Pachter, videogame analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities, in New York. “’Doom’ was a flop, as were the second ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Super Mario Bros.’ movies. ‘Resident Evil’ has done well, as have the Lara Croft films, so I’d say it’s hit and miss.”

Now, some of the people behind “Max Payne” are trying to change that. In June 2007, Hollywood producer Scott Faye, owner of Depth Entertainment; Scott Miller, also head of game developer 3D Realms; and Jim Perkins, former CEO of game developer-publisher Arush Entertainment, formed Radar Group. Rather than creating a game, then licensing it as a film, or vice versa, Radar will cultivate story lines—“storyverses” in company parlance—that transcend any one medium, whether linear or interactive. From there, they can spin out movies, videogames, comic books, and anything else that might emerge.

“I think that because we’re starting at the outset, both cultures will have an incredibly solid foundation for an ongoing evergreen franchise,” says Faye.

In addition to Max Payne, Perkins and Miller have helped develop highly successful game franchises including Duke Nukem, Prey, Doom, Blood, and Shadow Warrior. Together, their games have sold more than 35 million units globally. The pair have also founded, expanded, and sold three successful publishing companies — Arush Entertainment, to a foreign-distribution company in 2004; Gathering of Developers, to Take-Two Interactive in 2000; and FormGen, to GT Interactive in 1996—generating a combined $1.5 billion.

They’ve invested some of those proceeds into Radar, which has three games in development: “Earth No More,” an environmental-disaster action story; “Prey 2,” an alien-invasion game with a Native American protagonist; and Incarnate, a horror story in which evil must be hunted down and imprisoned (and whose concept came from Hollywood screenwriter Frank Hannah, who wrote “The Cooler”).

Usually, a movie based on a game gets green-lit only after the game has been released and built an audience. But Depth Entertainment is already shopping Radar’s stories around to studios—even though the games are still a few years away from hitting shelves. Merchandising and expanding an intellectual property from the get-go has been a long-standing Hollywood strategy, but the concept is still new in the game business, where all the focus generally remains on creating the game.

The typical game developer turns to a publisher to cover the costs of producing a game and subsequently surrenders ownership of that property. Once the game recoups the publisher’s loan, the developer begins to earn royalties. Radar is instead taking original ideas, partnering each with a game developer—it will work only with independent shops like Human Head Studios and Recoil Games—and then cutting distribution deals with publishers. The startup is working with retained adviser Gallipo Group, a new videogame venture-capital company, and expects to have $90 million in funding by this May.

By 2011, Radar plans on releasing three or four games per year, with eight to 12 projects in development at any one time. The franchises are expected to launch on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 platforms and gradually expand to Wii, Nintendo DS, and PSP.

One thing the company principals won’t ever do is license a Hollywood property. They’ll leave that task to companies like Brash Entertainment, which is sinking all of its funding into movie properties like Saw, Speed Racer, and Space Chimps. Miller believes that’s a doomed enterprise. But without a Hollywood association to fall back on, Radar’s games will have to be stellar to win over fans.

Coming soon to a theater near you? If the story’s good enough, yes.


Cloverfield: Reinventing the Monster Movie January 23, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in 3D, Movies, Review, VFX.
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From the moment a mysterious little teaser attached to Transformers hit theaters last July, an Internet obsession was born. Name-less and featuring no recognizable stars, the minute-and-a-half tease started out by slowly fleshing out the basic concept of a movie shot hand-held featuring some attractive twenty-somethings throwing a goodbye party for a friend. It was all rather Felicity-like until the tease kicked into overdrive with a Manhattan explosion and the head of the Statue of Liberty rocketing onto the streets of Brooklyn. That money shot alone was powerful enough to send fanboys flocking to the web for answers.

In the seven months that followed, some mysterious and cryptic websites were found (Slusho.jp and http://www.tagruato.jp), but nothing more of note was revealed other than the fact that it was produced by J.J. Abrams (Mission: Impossible III) and his creative team at Bad Robot, it was a disaster movie in the style of The Blair Witch Project and its title of Cloverfield. Pretty much aside from the creative names involved, Paramount and team Abrams were maddeningly able to squelch just about every other detail up until release, leaving everyone asking up until opening day (Jan. 18): “Just what is attacking New York City? Is it a monster?!”

Damn right, it’s a monster, and, as Abrams has stated in press interviews, Cloverfield finally gives America its very own Godzilla. Freakishly huge, impervious to standard munitions and rather pissed off for some inexplicable reason, this brand-new monster lays one hell of an 85-minute smack down on the Big Apple.

While this sounds like the makings of a summer blockbuster, Cloverfield is not. It’s a winter experiment, if you will, with a fraction of the budget of a summer movie, no stars and a visual gimmick that is literally sending some audience members running for their barf bags. Yet it broke records with the biggest box office ever for a January opening (an estimated $46 million for the four-day MLK holiday weekend) and a lot of that has to do with the monster. Created by artist Neville Page and Tippett Studio, Visual Effects Supervisor Kevin Blank had the fun job helping to facilitate the making of a monster, both literally and figuratively.

A long-time member of Abrams’ Bad Robot family, Blank was brought in while working on Lost. “Cloverfield was J.J.’s idea and then he hired [Lost scribe] Drew Goddard to write the script… J.J. was doing creature design and sketches four or five months before I was involved…Then they brought in Neville, who was doing design work for Avatar [and later Star Trek]…He knows such a breadth of zoology and every type of creature in existence and bringing together a hybrid of lots of different types of reality-based life. So the process of getting to what the creature [looked like] was very, very developed when I showed up. What transpired after I showed up was more skin coloration and style of eyes. There were a few design details that never really manifested, but I think they will come out in the toy,” Blank teases.

Considering the style and budget limitations on the film, Blank says from the beginning the visual effects were always about getting the most bang for the small bucks. “The trick was how do you provide this amazing experience and show enough of a really big event, but then get away from that event and don’t hang on that event? There is an ode to Jaws and an ode to Aliens where what you see less of is scarier and that’s very, very much played to. Also, a big inspiration piece for this is 9/11. We think of the monster as an event rather than a tangible thing like 9/11, which was this horrific day. When you look at lots of YouTube footage [from 9/11], this is where director Matt Reeves started. He kept saying, ‘keep it real, keep it real, keep it real.’ When you look at that [9/11] footage, there might be a camera pointed at a building coming down and then the camera hangs there for a second, like the person is in shock, but then they run and get behind a car. Then the camera is looking at a foot or a door jam or maybe underneath a car looking across the street to smoke, but the noise and the description is so compelling and drama driven that it’s seeing that piece of drama that really gave the project its soul. The visual effects were just about giving large scale payoffs.”

One of the key factors in launching the buzz for Cloverfield came from the teaser trailer that ran in the summer of 2007. The striking shot of the Lady Liberty’s head landing, scratched and decapitated on the streets of New York really promised something exciting to come. Blank reveals that trailer was literally the start of shooting for the entire project. “One of the biggest challenges of the whole project is that we started [without a script]. There was an outline so we knew the basic beats, but there was an element of the process of discovering locations and that was what [the scene] had to be because it all happened so quickly. The really stressful part for myself was while the movie was being prepped, and being prepped kind of on the fly because it’s hard to prep without a formal script, was to do this trailer. We basically had about two-and-a-half weeks to do it from the moment we filmed it to the moment it had to be attached to Transformers.

“In terms of sheer momentum it created, that was amazing. But it’s one thing to be prepping a movie that quickly and it’s another thing to be prepping a movie and delivering something as high scale as that trailer… Taking things from previs to shot execution and development of the model was really fast and a tough juggling act. It came out great and created a lot of buzz. We went back and tweaked the shots after, so the shots in the movie have evolved from what was seen in the trailer. Mostly, there is a better model of the Statue of Liberty head. The full trailer actually shows the new Liberty head to compare.”

While the gimmick of a first person POV witnessing a monster attack is compelling, Cloverfield’s success lies in the execution and visuals of the monster. Blank says they were gratefully given enough money to get the right vendors to do the job. “Even though the movie was low budget, the visual effects budget we had was a good size. We were dealing with big movie vendors and we hired Double Negative in London [under the supervision of Mike Ellis] and Tippett Studio [under the supervision of Eric Leven]. Tippett has a terrific reputation as a creature house and they made the monster. They brought it to life. But the thing I was trying to do, though, is that I’ve always had a philosophy of matching the talent with the task. Tippett is a full-service visual effects company capable of doing lots of things and, obviously, we went to them for their creature work but they ended up doing a lot more. With Double Negative, I was really impressed with their work on Batman Begins and Children of Men.”

But the tight budget also meant that more vfx had to be utilized to fill the production gaps. “We were trying to shoot on a small set with a bunch of greenscreen and make everyone believe it,” Blank continues. “I give a lot of credit to Production Designer Martin Whist because he had the least amount of resources to produce something believable. We kept saying to him, give us the front 10 or 20% in front of camera for real and we’ll do the rest. A lot times you would expect on a movie like this for the set to comprise 50 to 60% of what is going on and visual effects is completing the lower half. But visual effects were doing a lot more than that. For example, we had a very large sequence on the Brooklyn Bridge. What was created was basically a 150-foot stretch for the board planks, a few benches and then lighting fixtures were in place where they would be on the bridge, but the railing, the lamps and everything is CG. In New York, we shot helicopter plates on the side of the Brooklyn Bridge to make the environment, but the actual structure of the bridge was 99% visual effects. The only thing that was not was the ground these people were walking on.”

It was so much work that Blank confirms it’s not really even quantifiable. “The one thing about this movie is that it’s basically a big monster movie done in The Blair Witch style, so there is no traditional camera coverage. You can have shots that go on and on for a minute and within one shot you can have three-dozen visual effects going on. Roughly there were 150 plates in play, but in terms of actual quantifying how many effects, I’m the wrong person to ask,” he chuckles, and then pleads that it’s the breadth that really counts here.

Blank adds that, unlike traditionally filmed movies, Cloverfield found the bulk of its vfx work in adding elements rather than subtracting them. “We had about 32 days of shooting and a few days of additional shooting and about 10 of those were on a greenscreen stage. What Martin Whist created was very minimal, it was great, but visual effects were adding a crazy amount of additional stuff. Everything we saw looked great, but it was not as much as you would expect to see. So the amount of resources that was given to production was spent really wisely.”

Of course the pièce de résistance of the film is the actual monster itself and Blank says he is thrilled with the end results and the process of getting him there. “I am really proud of the creature from a design perspective, so a lot of props to Neville Page and for Tippett Studio for realizing something really amazing looking. But the other big thing was there was some shared material between Double Negative and Tippett because they are houses that use similar pipelines — as they basically use Maya and Shake for everything. That was factored into the decision [to hire them] because it happened so quickly, so sometimes you couldn’t think, ‘Well, I’ll give this here and that there.’ I knew there was going to be some shifting. It created a situation where the people were all using the same [systems], so it might be a case of Tippett generating a little piece of a creature but then giving it to Double Negative to put into a broader-based environment piece. Tippett did all the creature work [overseen by Animation Supervisor Tom Gibbons], but they did some environment work too. Double Negative did more shots on the show than Tippett, and I know [it will all be about] ‘the monster, the monster, the monster,’ but a lot of people will be unaware of the extent of the environment creations going on in the film. Big credit goes to both houses.”

With all the hype said and done, Blanks says he knows the movie delivers. “I think everyone will have a wild ride…[and] rather than the monster having a personality [like Godzilla or King Kong], it’s more of an entity or an event. This movie is more like a fantastical 9/11 re-imagining. It is a monster movie but an experiential one. I think it is going to be viewed in a unique way and in some ways it may be difficult to compare. Ultimately, there are 60 some creature shots and that’s not a ridiculous, crazy amount and many of them are cheating. But trust me: you’ll get a good look at him,” he laughs.

And after you do, you’ll certainly be able to appreciate Page’s invaluable contributions, as well as Tippett’s. Funny enough, Page says that Abrams initially approached him anonymously by e-mail while he was working on Avatar, mentioning how he adored his Gnomon Workshop training DVDs. Page assumed he was a young student. “Felt a touch clueless, to say the least. I blame J.J., however, for the misinterpretation. His e-mail was so personable and matter of fact that it did not feel like a major director wanting to collaborate on a movie. The moral to this story is pretty obvious.”

And naturally what was initially pitched to Page by the filmmakers was short on creature details. “They wanted it big. They wanted it to be something ‘new.’ It had to adhere to some story points, but it was wide open. I listened; I took notes. I couldn’t pass this up. I accepted.”

But coming up with something new, especially on the heels of The Host, was an extra challenge. “Whenever I’m asked to design something that is ‘completely new,’ ‘fresh’ and ‘that has never been seen before,’ I get nervous. I have a long philosophy on this, but I will say that ‘new’ things need to be familiar as well. If not, then they are maybe too difficult to understand and comprehend. The hardest thing, in a way, was to not repeat any of the stuff that I did on previous films. The good news was that Cloverfield’s parameters lent itself to developing something ‘new’. In other words, the original creators (J.J., producer Bryan Burk and screenwriter Drew Goddard) set the tone and we all developed it together. Furthermore, I was afforded the opportunity to hire a great talent, Tully Summers, to help me out. He is such a treat to work with. And he was an invaluable resource of ideas and execution on both the Big Guy and his parasitic friends. I had heard about The Host during the development of Clover, but did not see anything until I was done with the design. I dug The Host. I thought that it was such a success in so many ways. Some people are drawing conclusions that Clover and The Host are similar in design. They are in that they ravage and seem to originate from the water, but the end results are quite different. However, when I finally saw some of the concept art, there were some very obvious similarities. But then again, I think that we were both channeling similar biological possibilities.”

Page suggests that understanding the monster’s motivations is key and to do that requires researching as many aspects of the life you are creating. And he starts the design process more as an actor than as a visual artist.

“My preference for doing most design is to start with pencil and paper. Rough sketches. Again, none of us really knew what it was going to be, so I went for the shotgun approach. Generate as many design variations as possible and see which ones get closest to the target. I did floating gasbag tentacular things, sea serpenty things, arthropods, whatever. But, what guided us were the narrative needs. Which is great, because nothing was to be superfluous. I prefer when things are purposeful. Utilitarian, if you will. As for how many sketches it took to get to the center of this tootsie pop? Never enough. I love the process, the drawing, the sculpting, but I had so little time to do ‘cool’ art. So, I really had to be very efficient with time and process: Maybe 80 sketches to establish a direction, six clay sculptures to assist and then many, many hours of digital sculpting to finalize the design. In terms of efficiency, I try to make every moment count in my days, especially when on multiple projects. The sketchbook is always with me.”

Page’s design process begins with slowing down and trying to think clearly. But no drawing until the mental images start to flow. “Sometimes I start with big gestural silhouettes, other times with loose, gestural lines. Either way, I am looking for interesting forms. While in this mode, I am tapping into all of the research I have done and keeping in mind all of the pertinent story points and, of course, all of the clients desires and comments. I may do some of these drawing digitally using Photoshop on either a Wacom tablet or a Cintiq. Sometimes I will bust out a lump of clay and explore some ideas there and, other times, I may sculpt digitally using ZBrush. In the end, ZBrush was used for all final development and the final sculptures for use by Tippet Studio.”

Not surprisingly, Page insists that he did everything to avoid comparisons to Godzilla: no dragons or lizards in this creature’s DNA. “Granted, it is huge, comes out of the water, has a tail and ravages Manhattan, so there were some major elements that kinda screamed Godzilla. But the design and biology and history are very different. For me, one of the most key moments in our collective brainstorming was the choice to make the creature be something that we would empathize with. It is not out there, just killing. It is confused, lost, scared. It’s a newborn. Having this be a story point (one that the audience does not know), it allowed for some purposeful choices about its anatomy, movement and, yes, motivations. The hardest thing to accept, in terms of making a truly plausible creature like this, is its scale. Nothing would look like this at that scale [the size of a skyscraper], and that is to assume that anything could ever really be that scale as a living organism on land. Other movies that had gigantic monsters have helped pave the way to the ‘suspension of disbelief.'”

Tara DiLullo Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1-6.

~by Tara DiLullo Bennett

2008 VFX Sneaks: The Top 20 Movies January 17, 2008

Posted by farhanriaz in Movies, Review, VFX.
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What VFX-filled movies will dominate 2008? How’s this for starters? The introduction of Iron Man and Speed Racer along with the return of The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones, The Incredible Hulk, The Mummy, Hellboy, Harry Potter, Narnia, James Bond and Star Trek. Plus a couple sci-fi remakes, an animated leap into sci-fi and a few curiosities. VFXPakistan offers a glimpse of the most anticipated movies we’ll be covering this year, so mark your calendars.

1. Cloverfield (Paramount Pictures, Jan. 18)
The mysterious J.J. Abrams-produced horror film finally surfaces (Godzilla meets Blair Witch?). Five young New Yorkers run for their lives as they elude and document on video a monster the size of a skyscraper. Directed by Matt Reeves (Felicity) with overall vfx supervision by Kevin Blank (Lost, Alias, M:i:III). Double Negative and Tippett Studio are the lead vendors. The biggest vfx revelation, of course, is the much-anticipated “monster” that was designed by Neville Page and modeled/created by Tippett.

2. The Spiderwick Chronicles (Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies, Feb. 14)
The world of Spiderwick, adapted from the books by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, is filled with CG goblins, boggarts, fairies and sprites from Industrial Light & Magic and Tippett Studio. Director Mark Waters says, “These creatures are combinations of creatures that could’ve lived here. We raise the jeopardy and excitement because of CGI.” Legendary animation and VFX pioneer Phil Tippett served as Creature Supervisor, overseeing the design and development of Hogsqual, the Troll, Red Cap and the army of goblins and bull goblins. ILM, under the vfx supervision of Tim Alexander, worked on Mulgarath, Thimbletack and his alter ego, the ill-tempered Boggart, the majestic Griffin, a rapacious Raven, the Snake, Sylph and a host of magical and elaborately detailed sprites.

3. 10,000 BC (Warner Bros. Pictures, March 7)
Will lightning strike twice after the success of 300? That’s the big question with this prehistoric epic by Roland Emmerich about a young mammoth hunter’s quest through uncharted territory to secure the future of his tribe. Karen Goulekas (The Day After Tomorrow) reunites with Emmerich as overall vfx supervisor, with seamless work shared by Double Negative, MPC, The Senate VFX and Machine VFX.

4. Doomsday (Universal Pictures, March 14)
The “Reaper Virus” has broken out in the UK, killing hundreds of thousands, with the British government building a wall in desperation, and then having to deal with another sudden outbreak 30 years later. Neil Marshall (The Descent) tackles this post-apocalyptic actioner as a gritty, throwback to oldstyle filmmaking. However, there’s still plenty of vfx from Framestore CFC, Double Negative, The Senate VFX and Machine FX.

5. Iron Man (Paramount Pictures, May 2)
Director Jon Favreau brings the legendary Marvel superhero to the screen, with the idiosyncratic Robert Downey Jr. starring as the billionaire industrialist/genius inventor who dons the high-tech suit of armor to save the world. John Nelson is the overall vfx supervisor, with ILM as the lead studio under the vfx supervision of Ben Snow and animation supervision of Hal Hickel. Word has it there’s more Imocap and hard surface innovation in store. Stan Winston Studio, The Orphanage, Embassy VFX and Gray Matter FX also lend support.

6. Speed Racer (Warner Bros. Pictures, May 9)
Go Speed Racer! The Wachowskis return to directing after The Matrix trilogy, and tackle a next-gen version of the famed anime series, with Emile Hirsch as Speed, Christina Ricci as Trixie, Matthew Fox as Racer X and Scott Porter as Rex Racer. Digital Domain gets top vfx honors, as John Gaeta supervises along with Dan Glass. Judging by the teaser trailer, we expect the anime universe to get a whole new stylized look, and anticipate a genuine creative exploration using cutting edge HD production process techniques and everything else learned from The Matrix experience. Also contributing are Cafe FX, ILM, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Evil Eye and Buf.

7. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Walt Disney Pictures, May 16)
Dean Wright (who shares vfx supervision with Wendy Rogers) admits the bar has been raised in this second installment of the Narnia franchise. There is not only more action, but also more complex models from Creature Supervisor Howard Berger. “There are huge battles in this film, so we’ve got a lot more character integration,” Wright says. Since this time they shot primarily in the Czech republic, it made financial sense to use London-based MPC and Framestore CFC along with Weta Digital. Framestore is doing Aslan, Trufflehunter, the badger, the River-god sequence, kids entering and leaving Narnia; MPC is mainly doing the battles; and Weta is focusing on: a werewolf, a wild bear and all of the environments for the castle.

8. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount Pictures, May 22)
Harrison Ford dons the fedora and whip one last time in the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones franchise under the direction of Steven Spielberg. It’s the 1950s and the Red Scare and this time out Indy goes after the mysterious Crystal Skull with Shia LaBeouf tagging along (presumably as his son) and Karen Allen returning as old flame Marion Ravenwood. ILM handles vfx chores, of course, with Pablo Helman (War of the Worlds) supervising.

9. The Incredible Hulk (Universal Pictures, June 13)
The Hulk returns more in line in the Marvel mold, with Edward Norton stepping in as Bruce Banner and fighting his nemesis Abomination, and Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2) directing. Rhythm & Hues (in collaboration with R&H India) is the lead studio, under the supervision of Betsy Paterson.

10. WALL•E (Disney/Pixar, June 27)
After traveling underwater in Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton takes Pixar into outer space for the first time with this poignant tale of a lonely robot. Stanton says his inspiration is the great live-action sci-fi films of the ’60s and ’70s, and confirmed at Comic-Con that there will be a first-time live-action sequence of some kind. Oscar winner Ben Burtt of Skywalker Sound provides innovative sound design, which is integral to the movie. Should offer lots of eye-popping animated vfx, too, with advancements in virtual lenses and set design at Pixar.

11. Wanted (Universal Pictures, June 27)
Opening opposite WALL•E is this actioner starring Angelina Jolie as Wesley Gibson, “the most disaffected, cube-dwelling drone the planet had ever known.” Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch and Day Watch) makes his Hollywood debut, with overall vfx supervised by Jon Farhat (Doom).

12. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Universal Pictures, July 11)
Ron Perlman returns as Hellboy to save the Earth once again with his band of misfits in Guillermo del Toro’s sequel to his cult hit from Dark Horse and creator Mike Mignola. Double Negative is the lead house and Mike Wassel is the overall supervisor.

13. The Dark Knight (Warner Bros. Pictures, July 18)
Director Christopher Nolan delves deeper into the Caped Crusader: Batman (Christian Bale) and detective James Gordon (Gary Oldman) team up with Gotham’s new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to battle The Joker (Heath Ledger). Not surprisingly, this is no Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson. Nick Davis is the overall vfx supervisor with Framestore CFC and Double Negative sharing lead duties, with support from Buf and New Deal Studios. We anticipate more virtual set design wonders.14. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (Universal Pictures, Aug. 1)
In this third outing, directed by Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious), Brendan Fraser is joined by his son (Luke Ford) as they unearth a shape-shifting mummy (Jet Li) who was cursed long ago by a wizard (Michelle Yeoh). Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues share vfx duties this time out.

15. Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (New Line, Aug. 8)
Brendan Fraser is back again this summer in a stereoscopic remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth, directed by Eric Brevig, former ILM vfx supervisor (Pearl Harbor, The Day After Tomorrow). Vfx duties are divided between Hybride, Meteor Studios, Frantic Films and MOKKO Studio.16. James Bond 22 (Sony, Nov. 7)
Daniel Craig returns as 007 in the first direct sequel in the Bond franchise, as he goes after the leaders of the terrorist organization introduced in Casino Royale. Marc Forster (The Kite Runner) directs with the aim of delving deeper into Bond’s psyche. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly) plays the lead villain and Ukranian actress Olga Kurylenko (Paris, Je T’aime) comes aboard as 007’s leading lady. Kevin Tod Haug, who has collaborated previously with Forster on The Kite Runner, Stranger Than Fiction and Finding Neverland, serves as visual effects designer.

7. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros Pictures., Nov. 21)
Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) begins his sixth year at Hogwarts and discovers a mysterious old book that helps him learn more about Lord Voldemort’s dark past. Director David Yates returns from The Order of the Phoenix. Double Negative and MPC share vfx duties this time out with lots of support as well, including ILM.18. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount Pictures, Nov. 26)
Director David Fincher (Zodiac) ventures into new emotional territory with this adaptation of a fanciful story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Brad Pitt stars as an unusual man born in his 80s and ages backward, spanning the end of World War I in New Orleans of 1918 and following into the 21st century. Digital Domain handles lead duties here and we anticipate some cutting edge virtual human technology.

19. The Day the Earth Stood Still (Fox, Dec. 12)
Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) directs the remake of this legendary sci-fi classic about an alien visitor and his giant robot that visit Earth with a stern warning about universal peace. Keanu Reeves steps out of the Matrix and into the iconic role of Klaatu made famous by Michael Rennie. We expect some noteworthy vfx.20. Star Trek (Paramount Pictures, Dec. 25)
What better way to spend Christmas Day than with the crew of the Starship Enterprise in this origin story from J.J. Abrams? Chris Pine is Kirk, Zachary Quinto is Spock and Karl Urban is Bones. ILM is handling vfx duties under the supervision of Roger Guyett.

~ by farhanriaz