cineSync and the Global Roundtable

Giant pachyderms prowl ancient Britain in "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Photograph copyright © 2017 by Warner Brothers Pictures.

Giant pachyderms prowl ancient Britain in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Photograph copyright © 2017 by Warner Brothers Pictures.

Like many industries in the 21st century, visual effects is a worldwide operation. Pick any populated spot on the globe and chances are you’ll find a visual effects facility somewhere in the same latitude. The biggest companies of all maintain offices right across the planet.

But while crossing timezones delivers some amazing efficiencies – and allows productions to access lucrative subsidies – the distances involved are daunting. How do directors critique shots with visual effects supervisors when they’re on opposite sides of the world? And how do the supervisors then communicate notes to multiple vendors scattered across many continents?

At its simplest, the answer is video conferencing. But the very specific demands of motion picture visual effects mean that it’s not enough just to dial up your colleagues on Skype. High on the list of preferred alternatives is Cospective cineSync, which allows remote participants to watch high resolution video in perfect sync, and includes a range of drawing tools that allow notes to be drawn directly onto individual film frames. Robust encryption ensures the whole process conforms to strict studio security rules.

Recent multi-vendor productions that used cineSync include Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and The Fate of the Furious, both of which are covered in-depth in our June issue, Cinefex 153. The same software facilitated the visual effects work on Warner Brothers Pictures’ King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Directed by Guy Ritchie, the film stars the young Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) as a streetwise monarch-on-the-rise, fighting to save Dark Ages Britain from the evil Vortigern (Jude Law) and a host of fantastical foes.

Charlie Hunnam stars as a streetwise savior in "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Photograph copyright © 2017 by Warner Brothers Pictures.

Charlie Hunnam stars as a streetwise savior in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Photograph copyright © 2017 by Warner Brothers Pictures.

“I came onto King Arthur in 2014, working with visual effects producer Alex Bicknell and visual effects supervisor Nick Davis, who I’d worked with on Edge of Tomorrow,” said visual effects production supervisor Gavin Round. “Thanks to that experience, we had an established, effective workflow in place. My duties involved managing vendors, and making sure that the shots came in on time and that the vendors had everything they need. cineSync enabled us to review the material constantly, so we were always aware of the status of any given shot. We could see it in real-time to discuss with the vendors.”

The London and Montreal teams at Framestore led the visual effects charge on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, supported by a horde of vendors that included MPC, Method Studios, Scanline VFX, Nvizible and One of Us. For sequences that required Framestore and MPC to share shots portraying a particularly menacing digital character, access to a global roundtable proved essential.

“It was a delicate process, as we had to maintain continuity between the two vendors, who were essentially building different parts of the same being,” Round noted. “We needed to constantly review and check the material back-to-back to ensure everything transitioned correctly, no matter which vendor it came from. Nick liked to do cineSync sessions because he could pull up a shot, make marks on it, draw on it and tell the artists exactly where he wanted a creature to walk.”

Watch the trailer for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword:

Adelaide-based Cospective – originally known as Rising Sun Research – was founded in 2000 as a spin-off from visual effects studio Rising Sun Pictures. Developers Tony Clark, Alan Rogers, Neil Wilson and Rory McGregor received a Technical Achievement Award for cineSync at the 2010 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences SciTech Awards.

Outpost VFX Dives 47 Meters Down

47 Meters Down - Outpost VFX

Steven Spielberg’s tense 1975 thriller Jaws has a lot to answer for. Not only did it help set the mold for the summer blockbuster, but it also secured the place of the great white shark as cinema’s greatest underwater nemesis.

Jaws featured a notoriously temperamental mechanical shark built by special effects expert Robert A. Mattey – plus a handful of real critters photographed by shark experts and filmmakers Ron and Valerie Taylor. Sharks splashed back onto the big screen in 1999 with Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea, for which Walt Conti fashioned three full-size animatronic beasts and visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun and Hammerhead Productions led the push to realize the film’s genetically-enhanced predators in digital form.

More recently, Stockholm-based Important Looking Pirates created the voracious sharks seen in Joachim Rønning’s and Espen Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki, and worked alongside a host of other visual effects vendors to bring to life the relentless Carcharodon carcharias of Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows.

The newest sharks on the block are those seen in 47 Meters Down, in which hordes of great whites attempt to wrap their teeth around sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt). Trapped in an underwater cage with only one hour of oxygen left, the siblings engage in a battle for survival as the sharks lays siege to their fragile aquatic fortress.

Watch a video of Outpost VFX’s work on 47 Meters Down:

Outpost VFX was sole visual effects vendor on 47 Meters Down. Director Johannes Roberts worked with Outpost’s on-set visual effects supervisor Sean Mathieson, and visual effects supervisor Mark Gregory oversaw 426 shots at the company’s seafront offices on the UK’s south coast. The work included simulating ocean environments in Side Effects Houdini and tracking them to live-action plates, deploying digi-doubles of the main actors, a CG cage and – of course – creating the all-important school of digital great white sharks, sculpted in Pixologic ZBrush and animated in Autodesk Maya.

47 Meters Down - Outpost VFX

Outpost VFX owner Duncan McWilliam, who was also executive producer on the film, commented:

47 Meters Down was a real breakthrough opportunity for Outpost VFX to show what we are capable of producing. Being the sole vendor on the show across such a broad range of VFX disciplines was fantastic for our team to really flex their creative and technical muscle. This show really accelerated the development of our in-house proprietary tools and pipeline and now gives us a great calling card for creature and environment work across VFX-heavy shows.”

Outpost VFX recently worked on shots for Daniel Espinosa’s Life, covered in-depth in Cinefex 153, out now.

Alien Memories

The xenomorph returns in Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant"

Back in 2014, I marked the 35th anniversary of the release of Alien by blogging about my love for the film. Three years on, I’ve just completed work on our upcoming magazine article covering Alien: Covenant, the latest film in the spine-tingling sci-fi franchise. The film hits US theaters today, and you’ll be able to read our in-depth behind-the-scenes story in Cinefex 153 — the new issue is out in June and available to preorder right now.

While writing the article, I spoke at length with the key supervisors who worked on Alien: Covenant in the visual effects, creature effects, and special effects departments. At the end of each interview, I asked everyone the same question: “What are your memories of seeing the original Alien for the first time?”

You see, I had a hunch that most people just can’t shake off the effects of early exposure to Ridley Scott’s classic horror flick. We never quite recover from what we see in the shadows as a kid, right? And facehuggers do have a tendency to cling.

Was my hunch right? I’ll let you judge for yourself …

Director Ridley Scott on the set of "Alien: Covenant"

Director Ridley Scott on the set of “Alien: Covenant”

“I remember being a small kid, watching Alien on a tiny TV in my room at night, and being totally overwhelmed by it. There was nothing else like it at that point. After watching lots of Star Trek, watching Alien I felt like this must be real. It’s so unique, and very powerful. It’s been amazing working with Ridley on another one.”
Charley Henley — production visual effects supervisor

“I did science at university, but I also always did sculpture. Until I was 25 or 26, it hadn’t dawned on me that there was this job out there which suited me. The only book about films I had from my childhood was about Alien — I had Giger’s book up on my shelf — and that was the only reason I got into this business. To actually end up doing Alien: Covenant was quite unique, quite special.”
Conor O’Sullivan – creature design supervisor

Alien was just shocking. It was so out there, so new, and frightening — a proper horror movie. I don’t think there’s anybody who can do it better than Ridley. It’s his baby. He thinks the alien is beautiful, you know.”
Neil Corbould — special effects supervisor

Alien was one of the reasons why I wanted to make creatures and makeup effects. The chestburster scene with John Hurt — when we first saw it, it was like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was brutally intense, and beautifully done. Right before we started Alien: Covenant I watched Alien again, and I remember coming into work and just going, ‘Shit, how are we ever going to compare to this?’”
Adam Johansen — creature effects supervisor

Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Daniels (Katherine Waterston) go up against the ultimate foe in "Alien: Covenant"

Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Daniels (Katherine Waterston) go up against the ultimate foe in “Alien: Covenant”

“I was quite young when I watched the first Alien. They put such care and attention into this futuristic environment that felt at the same time very lived-in. The camerawork moving through the corridors at the beginning — everything feels quite pristine, but there are touches like someone left something hanging on the door. And the chestburster scene, of course — that goes without saying!”
Ferran Domenech — visual effects supervisor, MPC Montreal

“My memories of Alien are getting my hands on it on VHS when I was too young to watch it. I was at my mate’s house. I was scared shitless!”
Ben Jones — visual effects supervisor, MPC London

“I rewatched Alien at the start of this project, just to familiarize myself again. I think what was so strong about the original Alien was the use of not seeing the alien. We wanted to make our creature work scary by not revealing too much too quickly.”
Christian Kaestner — visual effects supervisor, Framestore, Montreal

Alien scared the living daylights out of me. I remember not long afterwards going to see Aliens. It was a midnight screening — probably not the best time to go, coming out at two o’clock in the morning! It’s been an honor to work on Alien: Covenant — kind of a dream come true. Our artists were literally queueing up to come and work on it. We had to turn away so many people.”
Stuart Penn — visual effects supervisor, Framestore, London

“I was over at my friend’s house and he had Alien on videotape. We weren’t allowed to watch it — we would have been pretty young — so we sneakily put it on when his mum and dad were out. I remember being totally freaked out by it — mainly the chestbursting scene. I’d never really watched a horror movie. I’d seen some black and white Quatermass stuff, but I hadn’t seen anything as graphic as that. It scared the crap out of us!”
Paul Butterworth — visual effects supervisor, Animal Logic

(L-R) Amy Seimetz (Faris), Benjamin Rigby (Private Ledward) and Carmen Ejogo (Karine) in ALIEN: COVENANT

Faris (Amy Seimetz) and Karine (Carmen Ejogo) try to save Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) in “Alien: Covenant”

Alien is one of the reasons I got into visual effects. I loved the spaceship interior. It wasn’t clean. It had wear and tear. It felt lived-in. It felt like there were stories and experiences that you weren’t aware of, but that you could imagine. That’s definitely what inspired me, and what’s kept me in visual effects.”
Brendan Seals — visual effects supervisor, Luma Pictures

“When we were little, our babysitter took me and my brother to see Alien at the cinema. She covered our eyes for the horrible bits, but it still had a huge impact. It’s why I got into the industry — it’s one of those films that really influenced me. So to work alongside Ridley Scott has been a huge honor.”
Adam Paschke — visual effects supervisor, Rising Sun Pictures

“My dad let me watch a fair amount of movies that I wasn’t supposed to when I growing up, but Alien was not one of them. One of my close friends in college found out that I hadn’t seen any of the films. He was a huge superfan and had the whole quadrilogy, so we started watching through all of them, one movie every night. It was kind of fun to watch them sequentially like that. It was awesome.”
Jim Gibbs — visual effects supervisor, Atomic Fiction

“I was at college in 1979. I went to see Alien on my own, in the evening. It was back in the day when you had B-movies, so there was a support feature about a woman alone in a house. She eventually got out and into her car, and then this person came up behind and cut her throat — so I was already kind of pumped! Then I watched the film, which was absolutely incredible. I was so scared that I ran all the way back to college.”
Paul Round — visual effects supervisor, Peerless Camera Company


What are your memories of seeing the original Alien for the first time?

Do you remember the moment you first saw the alien derelict looming out of the mist? How about the scene where Kane loses his lunch in the worst possible way? Or Ripley singing You Are My Lucky Star while the big fella bares his fangs? The comments box is open — now it’s your chance to reminisce.

Robert Stromberg Q&A — “Raising a Rukus”

Raising a Rukus by VRCIn the animated adventure Raising a Rukus, feuding twins Jonas and Amy receive an unexpected birthday surprise in the form of Rukus – a magic dog who transports them to a fantastic prehistoric realm. During their adventures, they encounter dinosaurs galore, learn some fascinating facts about bioluminescence, and emerge with a new appreciation for the value of getting along.

More than just a cartoon, Raising a Rukus is a series of virtual reality family adventures produced by The Virtual Reality Company. The first episode – which features an innovative branching narrative – will debut at the flagship IMAX VR Centre in Los Angeles on May 19, marking the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR. Raising a Rukus is available for the Samsung Gear VR on the Oculus Store and will roll out on major VR platforms, mobile and premium HMDs through 2017.

Watch the trailer for Raising a Rukus:

At IMAX VR centres, audiences are seated in a virtual reality motion chair that incorporates a premium virtual reality head-mounted display, providing an experience similar to that experienced at a theme park. IMAX Chief Business Development Officer Robert D. Lister said:

“We’re excited to partner with VRC – which brings an immense amount of creative talent and expertise – to premiere Raising a Rukus at our IMAX VR centres. This family-oriented fare is becoming increasingly important as we are seeing visitors of all ages come through our successful flagship centre in Los Angeles.”

Directed by Josh Wassung, co-founder of previsualisation studio The Third Floor, Raising a Rukus features an original score by composer James Newton Howard and an immersive soundtrack mixed at Skywalker Sound. Guy Primus, co-founder/chief executive officer of VRC commented:

“VRC has brought together the best artists, storytellers, filmmakers and technicians who are working to create impactful and immersive VR experiences that will bring people face-to-face with imagination. Raising a Rukus is one of many milestone VR experiences we will announce and release in 2017. This is the premium VR experience that people have been waiting for, and we know they will be thrilled.”

Twins Amy and Jonas just found a dog - or did he find them? Either way, Rukus has a magical secret – he’s about to take them to a whole new world. “Raising a Rukus” is a first of its kind animated VR experience from the Academy Award winner Robert Stromberg and The Virtual Reality Company. (PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company)

Twins Amy and Jonas just found a dog … or did he find them? Either way, Rukus has a magical secret – he’s about to take them to a whole new world.

Cinefex spoke with Raising a Rukus producer Robert Stromberg, Academy Award-winning director and co-founder/chief creative officer of VRC.

Cinefex: Where did the idea for Raising a Rukus come from?

Stromberg: When we started VRC, we wanted to focus not just on interesting ways to tell stories, but on targeting the family audience. We wanted to make something that anyone from 10-80 years old would enjoy. We started compiling ideas for what that could be, and Raising a Rukus came out of that.

Cinefex: Steven Spielberg is on VRC’s board of advisors. What did he bring to the party?

Stromberg: There’s a magic that happens when creative people like Steven and our team talk, so having his words of wisdom was extremely valuable. Just having that pedigree of creativity to bounce off gives it a unique signature.

Cinefex: Did you go through the same creative development process that you would for an animated film – concept art, storyboards and so on – or did VR introduce any new steps?

Stromberg: Well, what we’re doing is cross-pollinating specialists from the gaming world, and specialists from film. So yes, the approach was to create artwork and storyboards, to define the look as we would in preproduction on any film. Then, we built assets and all of the elements that we needed to run at 90 frames per second in a game engine. The challenge really has been to make both of those worlds work together – cinema and gaming. I think we’ve accomplished that.

Cinefex: What about the director’s role?

Stromberg: The special challenge with VR is: how do you keep the focus where it should be? That’s more of a directing thing. You have to create not just visual cues but also audio cues that direct the viewer to where they should be looking. If the story and what’s happening in front of them is engaging enough, hopefully people won’t be compelled to look behind them for no reason.

Cinefex: I guess the design of the world is integral to that.

Stromberg: Yes, it’s like doing a matte painting, knowing how to direct the viewer’s eye into the composition. I think a lot of those techniques that I used to use for matte painting and visual effects in general apply here. The psychological tools that we use in traditional cinema are still valid.

Cinefex: Only this matte painting surrounds you completely.

Stromberg: Right. In that regard there were elements and techniques we learned from Avatar. When we were creating those 360-degree worlds, I would go into that environment with a virtual camera – almost like a virtual location scout – and compositionally place the assets and elements. I moved through the world before we actually added the animation and the characters, to make sure that it stayed visually appealing as you went down the path.

Cinefex: Did you use similar techniques to previsualise the world of Raising a Rukus?

Stromberg: We did previs with rudimentary assets, as you would on any film. Then we took that into the headsets, retextured everything and bumped it up to a higher resolution. Previs techniques work well in VR.

Cinefex: So all that movie experience comes in handy when you’re doing VR?

Stromberg: There are so many elements from traditional cinema – including visual effects – that apply themselves well to creating something in VR. I think the only unique difference is that we have to cover ourselves more, because it’s 360 degrees. Other than that, all of the old techniques work really well.

"Raising a Rukus" debuts at the Los Angelese IMAX VR Centre on May 19 - the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR.

“Raising a Rukus” debuts at the Los Angelese IMAX VR Centre on May 19 – the first original VR production to premiere through IMAX VR.

Cinefex: Tell me about the branching narrative in Raising a Rukus.

Stromberg: At one point in the story, Jonas and Amy get split up. If you’re looking at Jonas, you will go down his path. If you’re looking at Amy, you will go down her path. So if you rewatch it, you can watch the other path and see the different problems that they face along the way, other dinosaurs that they run into and stuff like that. The branching narrative angle is very powerful, and this is the first of its kind. In future episodes or other projects that we do you’ll see many more branching narratives. The repeatability of experiencing the same story from a different angle is very important to us.

Cinefex: This first episode of Raising a Rukus runs for 12 minutes. What made you choose that length?

Stromberg: We wanted something that would be friendly to younger audiences, and we didn’t want to overburden people with an enormous amount of time in the headset. We did elaborate testing with families and kids, and this amount of time seemed to be the sweet spot. Everybody who watches it says the same thing: “Wow, that didn’t feel like 12 minutes – it felt like five minutes.” The subject matter is always moving and energetic, so you get swept up in the story and lose track of time.

Cinefex: The VR industry is evolving at a breakneck speed. Where do you see Raising a Rukus sitting in the context of everything else that’s going on?

Stromberg: In terms of what we’re trying to do at VRC, honestly, I kind of look at this as our Steamboat Willie – although I’m not for a minute trying to say that we’re Walt Disney. What’s interesting is that Disney showed that this art of animation could be a vehicle to tell stories, and a powerful one. Then it just grew from there, and the ability to tell stories in animation just went through the roof.

Cinefex: So it’s achieved what you wanted it to achieve?

Stromberg: I think Raising a Rukus is a milestone for VRC. It’s the first project where I feel like we’ve succeeded in doing all that we set out to do, which was to tell a story in a unique way, in a brand new medium. I grew up watching cartoons and animated films, and now for the first time I feel like I’ve actually been immersed in one. Hopefully we’ll start to see many things evolve out of this: longer VR experiences, cinematic events in VR … I think the door’s wide open.

Cinefex: Robert Stromberg – thank you.


IMAX will also roll out VRC’s Raising a Rukus to its IMAX VR centres set to open in New York City, the UK, and other locations worldwide in the coming months.

Images courtesy of PRNewsfoto/The Virtual Reality Company. Special thanks to Jeff Fishburn. Article updated 05/26/17.

The Future of VR — A Roundtable Discussion

Cinefex VR RoundtableEarlier this year, Cinefex published The Dreamsmiths Unleashed, an in-depth look at the current state of play in the virtual reality industry. In the course of writing the article, we spoke to over 20 VR professionals and amassed around 80,000 words of interview transcript.

Looking back through the wealth of material that didn’t make the article, we thought how great it would have been to get all those people physically round a table together. An impossible task, of course. But maybe there was a virtual solution …

And here it is. The following conversation is made up of choice extracts from all those interviews, woven together to create something unique: a virtual roundtable discussion attended by our own special assembly of VR dreamsmiths.


CINEFEX: So what is virtual reality?

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Virtual reality is an immersive experience that you can’t get in any other form of media. I view it as sort of an amalgamation of cinema and theater.

PATRICK MEEGAN: I agree it’s like theater in that everyone on stage has to be active in the scene, there is no framing out someone and then cutting back. That is pretty critical to virtual reality capture, because you’re doing much less editorial and everything can be seen.

CINEFEX: Cinema … theater … what about games?

LOGAN BROWN: Video games provide huge insight into how to guide users to interact with the virtual world. However, the gap between gamers and non-gamers can pose problems for developers. How do we make an experience challenging enough for a gamer who is familiar with interactive input, and yet easy enough for a non-gamer to enjoy without frustration?

TOM VANCE: Of course we are going to bring things to the table from theater and film and television, and of course we are going to bring gaming into the picture. The exciting thing is how we turn those things into a new way to tell stories.

CINEFEX: So it’s all of these things combined?

ARUNA INVERSIN: Well, I actually think virtual reality is a new medium. It’s not cinema, it’s not television, it’s not the internet — and those are the three main consumption modes that people have right now. And within those modes there are so many avenues other than entertainment — there’s action, interactive, passive, live-stream, educational, medical … these are avenues that haven’t even been tested yet in virtual reality.

ROBERT STROMBERG: I agree that it’s a brand new medium, with an unwritten rulebook on how to tell stories. I’m fixated on that particular aspect of it — how to get real actors in real situations, with real emotional scenes.

CINEFEX: You talk about a rulebook. Do the rules of cinema apply to virtual reality?

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Yes, because you are still telling a story. Gamers who put on a headset are going to be very active, obviously, but for most people who watch content, yes, there’s that initial moment where they say, “Oh wow, this is really cool,” but you’ve got this diminishing curve where people then say, “I just want to be entertained.”

ALEX HESSLER: We do have a lot of techniques in cinema that we know how to use to steer the viewer, but unfortunately those techniques don’t generally work in virtual reality. But, there’s a whole batch of other techniques that people are only just discovering, and I do think working in film gives you that mindfulness and that curiosity about observation that is really important for designing virtual reality.

CINEFEX: Is there still a place for traditional job roles — do you still need a director of photography, for example?

BEN GROSSMANN: There is absolutely a role for a director of photography, but it is a completely different thing. It’s funny when we see a director of photography operate in virtual reality for the first time. They are focused on staging the scene in one direction, and they get frustrated when they put somebody else in the headset and the first thing that person does is start looking in every other direction! It’s like going onto a movie set and giving the camera to a 12 year-old child! The hard part is wrangling the audience into looking where you want them to look, in order to catch the part of the story that you want them to catch. You do that by lighting, by sound, by emotional interest — and that language has yet to be codified.

CINEFEX: How do you go about doing that?

SEBASTIAN MARINO: There’s all these rules of virtual reality that everyone seems to want to make, but as far as I can tell, they’re all things you’re not allowed to do. I personally reject that — it’s just horrible. It’s way too early to make a list of things you can’t do. You just have to build a world that is self-consistent. If you do that, I think you can use all sorts of techniques and make something that looks really interesting.

CINEFEX: So can it actually be a hindrance, holding onto the old ways?

ANDREW MCGOVERN: It’s always a learning curve when you move into a new format, especially with virtual reality. At the same time, people love the freedom that it gives.

PHIL TIPPETT: I think it links in somewhat with the creative process. Throughout the course of a career, you build up your skills as a craftsman, and you have a certain way of going about doing things. But then, once you have created something, you kind of need to forget it, so that there’s room for another idea. It’s like intentionally trying to figure out a way of not falling into the franchise trap. The next thing that you do has got to be something worth doing because it’s different.

ARTHUR VAN HOFF: If you get a Hollywood director to do virtual reality, they’re going to use all the same language, and it’s just movies in virtual reality. Then you have some people that go completely crazy — they put actors all around you, and you have to swing your head around like a madman to follow a conversation. Then there’s where I think most of the action is, which is the young, upcoming directors who have something to prove. There are tons of people still at film school, experimenting with GoPros, who are going to be the Steven Spielbergs of virtual reality.

SASCHKA UNSELD: I actually think the longer people have worked in film, the harder it is for them to switch away from the ways of thinking that they have. The younger people are, the more easy it is for them just to embrace the newness of this medium. The wave of experiences that we’ll see from people who have virtual reality as their first way of expressing themselves, and not as their second or third … I think that wave will be enormous.

CINEFEX: What about visual effects artists — are they generally well adapted to working in virtual reality?

AMY SMALL: A lot of our people at Framestore have adapted super-well, but they all tend to resonate in different areas, depending on what their backgrounds might be. So we look at a project when it comes in, and then try to match the creative who makes the most sense with the project.

ARUNA INVERSIN: I think some visual effects artists don’t want to go into the 360-degree world. But then, every artist that I bring on is new to virtual reality in some form. Everybody’s learning it for the first time.

CHRIS HEALER: As our own toolset has matured, our artists have all pretty much consistently warmed up to virtual reality. They’ve gotten past the tech and math, and they are now into creative thought. But it took time, and the ones who were cold to the idea needed to warm up by seeing other people’s excitement and other people’s success. It’s cool to see that transition.

LOGAN BROWN: The person who adapts well to working in virtual reality is likely someone who embraces the unknown and is persistent enough to work through setbacks. Everything is so new, and there are so many major areas still unexplored. A strong creative willing to wade into the deep end of bleeding-edge technology can make a huge contribution to the medium.

SEBASTIAN MARINO: I really don’t know how you do virtual reality coming purely from a Silicon Valley background. If you’re not used to dealing with artistic criticism, you’re in for it.

CINEFEX: Is the technology anywhere near mature yet, or is there a lot more innovation to come?

SIMON ROBINSON: We’re trying to improve the number of products that we have that make previewing virtual reality very easy. That’s really just an engineering challenge to make sure that output into a headset is as simple as output to a flat screen. But, we are interested in how toolsets in the future might be completely immersed. I think that’s a fascinating challenge for us — if artists wore the headsets full-time, would that fundamentally change the way they did their work, and would you then have to engineer products for media in a completely different way to the way you do them now?

ROBERT STROMBERG: The equipment will get refined, smaller, sexier. Then there’s the social aspect — the option to experience something where you can look over and see your friend, like you do in a movie theater. I think that’s all going to become very standard.

OLLIE RANKIN: But it’s wrong to assume that the virtual reality headset is the final viewing platform. I think the headset is kind of like the laser disk — something that was, at the time, the best way of storing and playing back video but was superseded quite quickly. Just don’t ask me to look into the crystal ball and tell you what is going to replace it!

ARUNA INVERSIN: I think the next big revolution is the software experience. In the next year or two, we’re going to see some really great software that leverages touch controllers, hand controllers and motion controllers. We’re going to see people develop software that allows collaboration in the virtual reality space.

MICHAEL BREYMANN: There are all kinds of analytics and data that can be gathered and processed based on your eye movements, so there is both a scary and wonderful world coming for virtual reality. It’s almost like when you put on sunglasses — you feel a little bit protected because nobody can see where your eyes are, but you have the privilege of gazing wherever you want. In virtual reality you also have that feeling because you’re in your private little box, and you feel safe. But, with sensors and tracking technology you are very much not safe. The things that enables are kind of like science fiction.

MATTHEW GRATZNER: Everybody on Wall Street is going to make money trading paper on the newest virtual reality tech, but that is all meaningless if we are not creating content that the general public is going to download and buy. We need to start investing much more heavily into content, otherwise virtual reality will be just a fad, destroyed because it was overly hyped.

CINEFEX: Is that a real risk — that virtual reality is going to crash and burn?

RAY TINTORI: You know, I think virtual reality is the future, but I actually don’t think it’s an entertainment medium. People think it’s going to have a trajectory like 3D movies, but I feel like virtual and augmented reality is more like the internet — there are so many practical applications that it’s just going to become a part of a lot of stuff that we do, in an invisible way.

CLINT KISKER: Yes, in the future, I think virtual reality will be invisible. It will just be a part of the way that we work, consume stories, learn, travel, buy homes. How all of that will work from a consumer interaction standpoint, I couldn’t say. But I do believe that my son and daughter will not see anything unusual about a persistent virtual world that exists attached to their Vive or their PSVR, that they can check in on at the end of the day.

PATRICK MEEGAN: Right. We will eventually be looking at the virtual reality and augmented reality spaces as a single continuum, creating experiences that can accommodate elements of the real world, but then completely obfuscate the real world and transport you into a virtual one.

CHRIS MORLEY: I think that’s a philosophical question for anybody who wants to put on those goggles! It’s a multi-faceted technology. I see use in medical training, in theme parks — you could have a ride but then have different content for different people, so that they can choose what they want to experience. I think it’s going to be everywhere in the end. It runs the gamut.

CINEFEX: So we’ll all soon be fully immersed in a totally fabricated world?

JOHN GAETA: We can talk all day long about super-complex futuristic scenarios, but we’re a long way away from being Neo running through the back streets in The Matrix. But, it’s not impossible to see a dot between now and then. The next step is to figure out what is the right first thing for us to try to do, so that virtual reality is a joyful, positive, enlightening experience. Being in a cinema is a very powerful form of immersion. People remember things that happen in film so strongly that they carry them throughout their whole lives. It’s natural for us to think that way now about virtual reality. We want people to be able to say, “I stood inside this moment, and I saw these characters up close, and it gave me an emotional reaction.” Hopefully, that will happen not too long from now.

CINEFEX: People say that working in virtual reality right now is like being in the Wild West. And here you all are, riding your wagons along the trail. How does it feel?

RAY TINTORI: You know, virtual reality is so funky right now. It’s like using leeches or medieval technology — everything is jaw-droppingly advanced and embarrassingly clunky at the same time. In five years, everything that we’re doing now is going to feel silly, because there’s all this stuff that just hasn’t been invented yet.

ROBERT STROMBERG: Sometimes it feels like we’re in the early days of Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. I know that’s dramatic, but it really is a very inventive time.

BEN GROSSMANN: Well, I have always enjoyed being an explorer, and the landscape of virtual reality is certainly unexplored. There are no rules written, no language that has yet been defined, and no leaders. There are no legendary filmmakers in whose shadow we all stand. So we’re getting back some of that passion that we had in the early days of visual effects, when we were figuring things out for the first time.


Thank you to all the dreamsmiths on our virtual reality roundtable:

  • Michael Breymann — co-founder, Kaleidoscope VR
  • Logan Brown — virtual reality producer, MPC
  • John Gaeta — executive creative director, ILMxLAB
  • Matthew Gratzner — creative director, New Deal Studios
  • Ben Grossmann — chief executive officer, Magnopus
  • Chris Healer — chief executive officer, The Molecule
  • Alex Hessler — virtual reality supervisor, Tippett Studio
  • Aruna Inversin — creative director, Digital Domain
  • Clint Kisker — co-founder, Reality One
  • Sebastian Marino — co-founder and chief technical officer, Evercoast
  • Andrew McGovern — vice president of augmented and virtual reality, Digital Domain
  • Patrick Meegan — creative director, Jaunt
  • Chris Morley — visual effects supervisor, Tippett Studio
  • Ollie Rankin — head of production, Uncorporeal Systems
  • Simon Robinson — chief scientist, The Foundry
  • Amy Small — global head of virtual reality, Framestore
  • Robert Stromberg — co-founder and chief creative officer, VRC
  • Ray Tintori — director and visual effects supervisor
  • Phil Tippett — founder, Tippett Studio
  • Saschka Unseld — creative director, Oculus Story Studio
  • Arthur Van Hoff — co-founder and chief technical officer, Jaunt
  • Tom Vance — head of content, Jaunt

Photograph courtesy of Magnopus.

Now Showing – Cinefex 152

Cinefex 152 - From the Editor's Desk

Filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack had a motto about the kind of story they liked to tell: “Make it distant, difficult and dangerous.”

Those three adjectives certainly describe the movie they co-directed in 1933 – the original King Kong. They also apply to Kong: Skull Island, the action-packed reboot that’s been thumping its chest at the box office this Spring. That’s why we’re proud to feature the big ape himself on the front cover of our latest issue, with a stunning exclusive picture of Kong chowing down on the giant squid he’s just earmarked for lunch.

Not only will Cinefex 152 transport you to a lost Pacific island filled with mythical monsters, but our new edition also contains an eerie insider look at A Cure for Wellness, blood-splattered coverage of Logan, and a towering article on The Great Wall.

Here’s Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan with more details about our April 2017 edition:

Jody Duncan – From the Editor’s Desk

I don’t think it is stretching too far to say that if there hadn’t been a 1933 King Kong, there wouldn’t have been a Cinefex.

If there hadn’t been a King Kong, it wouldn’t have been broadcast on television every day for a week one summer in 1955. And if it hadn’t been broadcast, a certain ten-year-old boy in upstate New York wouldn’t have watched it every day that week, instilling in him a passion for movie special effects. Twenty-four years later, that boy founded this magazine.

Many movie Kongs have come and gone since then, and some have been more satisfying than others – but, no matter its commercial or artistic success, there is always a warmth in our editorial loins when we get to cover a King Kong movie. He is our spiritual father, our Grand Poobah, our main man.

Graham Edwards dug deep for his definitive story on the latest Kong: Skull Island, brought to us by director Jordan Vogt-Roberts and the visual effects crews at Industrial Light & Magic, Hybride Technologies and Rodeo FX.

Joe Fordham tells the behind-the-scenes story of A Cure for Wellness, a Victorian-era creep-fest that makes encounters with a 100-foot-tall ape look like child’s play. Logan – the last Wolverine picture that will feature Hugh Jackman in the role – and The Great Wall fill out our issue #152.

Happy Spring, everyone!

Cinefex 152 is on newsstands now, and available to order at our online store. If you’re a subscriber, your copy will be roaring its way into your mailbox very soon. And don’t forget our enhanced iPad edition, featuring tons more photographs – many of them exclusive to Cinefex – and stunning video content.

Meet Cinefex at VRLA Expo 2017

The Dreamsmiths Unleashed - Cinefex at VRLA 2017If you’re in Los Angeles this weekend, here’s your chance to meet us in person. Cinefex has a booth at the world’s largest immersive technology expo, VRLA Expo 2017. If you’re in the main hall, drop in and say hello – we’d love to meet you!

We’re also hosting a panel at VRLA at 4:30pm on Saturday, April 15. The moderator is Cinefex’s very own Bernice Howes, and the speakers are Emily Cooper, producer and director at Holor Media, Ben Grossmann, co-founder and CEO of Magnopus, Aruna Inversin, creative director and VFX supervisor at Digital Domain, and Sam Macaroni, director at Thundership.

The title of Saturday’s panel is From VFX to VR: How to Transition. If you’ve picked up a copy of our February 2017 issue, Cinefex 151, you’ll already have a head-start on this hot topic. In our article The Dreamsmiths Unleashed, we spoke with a wide range of VR industry professionals – including Ben and Aruna from our panel – about the business of virtual reality, the state of the art, and the close ties VR has with visual effects.

In the article, Ben Grossmann – a former visual effects supervisor – had this to say about his experience of transitioning from VFX to VR:

“Over the past decade or so, the problems we’ve challenged in visual effects have gotten harder, but we’ve overcome them all … So, our enthusiasm to take storytelling into new areas was starting to run a little bit dry … If we really want to explore ways to make an audience feel more immersed, then we need to move beyond the rectangle.”

Hear our speakers dig deeper into this fascinating subject at our panel on Saturday. You’ll find VRLA Expo 2017 happening at the Los Angeles Convention Center, April 14-15, 2017. For more information, and to buy your pass, visit the VRLA website.

Photograph courtesy of Magnopus.

The VFX of T2 Trainspotting

T2 Trainspotting Quad Poster

In 1996, director Danny Boyle tapped into the fashionable ‘Cool Britannia’ movement with Trainspotting, adapted from the novel by Irvine Welsh. With its colorful characters, frank depiction of heroin use, and Ewan McGregor’s unforgettable dive into a public washroom toilet, the black comedy enjoyed both critical acclaim and box office success, and captured the zeitgeist of an era.

When Boyle set out to make a sequel – loosely based on Welsh’s follow-up novel Porno – he turned to long-time collaborators Union VFX to realize some of the new film’s more memorable images. For T2 Trainspotting, a team led by visual effects supervisor Adam Gascoyne handled over 400 shots, running the gamut from broad fantasy flourishes to the invisible doctoring of the film’s bleak Scottish locations.

“As with the original film,” commented Danny Boyle, “we were faced with the challenge of visually depicting Irvine’s particular style of written fantasy on screen in a way that remains true to the characters and situations depicted in the book, but is consumable by audiences. Having worked with Adam numerous times before, I knew that together we could come up with creative ways to tackle these challenges and tell this story. We’re both really proud of how it’s turned out.”

Watch a breakdown reel of Union VFX’s work on T2 Trainspotting:

In T2 Trainspotting, Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) is running a pub in a run-down part of Leith, near Edinburgh. Production shot a suitable building in Glasgow, leaving Union VFX to remove the surrounding architecture and blend in background plates shot separately at Leith docks.

Union VFX altered the environment surrounding Sick Boy's pub. The image on the left shows the original Glasgow plate. To create the image on the right, artists replaced architecture and added photography shot at Leith docks.

Union VFX altered the environment surrounding Sick Boy’s pub. The image on the left shows the original Glasgow plate. To create the image on the right, artists replaced architecture and added photography shot at Leith docks.

“We created environments that enhanced the narrative,” said Adam Gascoyne, “ensuring Sick Boy’s pub was in a virtually derelict setting where almost everything else had been destroyed. The actual pub was near a train line – we moved it closer and created a CG train to travel through frame. The idea was to reflect the status of the characters’ lives visually in their habitats, and Sick Boy’s pub is situated very much at the end of the line.”

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Visual effects also enhanced the apartment block home of Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner). Production photographed exteriors in Greendykes, Edinburgh, and interiors on a stage backed by bluescreen. Scheduled for demolition, the building goes through three distinct levels of decay as the story unfolds. “The change is very subtle over the duration of the film,” Gascoyne commented.  “We end the film watching the tower block collapsing, symbolizing Spud moving away from his self-destructive past as a junkie and onto pastures new.”

Youthful characters from the original "Trainspotting" appear projected on the walls of Spud's flat, in this composite shot by Union VFX.

Youthful characters from the original “Trainspotting” appear projected on the walls of Spud’s flat, in this composite shot by Union VFX.

During a flashback sequence, images from the youthful lives of Spud, Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie (Robert Carlyle) appear in a railroad warehouse. Union VFX used head replacement techniques to combine footage of the younger actors from the original Trainspotting with live-action shot on location. “We placed the actors in an approximate position in the warehouse,” explained Gascoyne. “Then it was a fairly meticulous comping task, done in Nuke. We aligned the actor performances with the archive footage mostly by eye – we didn’t want to over-complicate the process. The images then appear projected on a wall in Spud’s flat, which allowed us to introduce optical effects and smoke to bed in the footage, with pretty seamless results.”

Renton and Spud flee the scene of the crime in this replay of the opening sequence from "Trainspotting," which visual effects artists enhanced with cartoon faces.

Renton and Spud flee the scene of the crime in this replay of the opening sequence from “Trainspotting,” which visual effects artists enhanced with cartoon faces.

Director Danny Boyle referenced the original film on another occasion, with a replay of its opening sequence in which Renton and Spud flee the scene of their latest shoplifting spree. Visual effects artists tracked the original footage and superimposed cartoon faces inspired by a 2015 advertising campaign for the department store Harvey Nichols.

Union VFX helped Renton and Sick Boy play out their sporting fantasies by transplanting a soccer pitch into a pub interior.

Union VFX helped Renton and Sick Boy play out their sporting fantasies by transplanting a soccer pitch into a pub interior.

“Other effects provide subtle accents to moments in the story,” said Gascoyne. “Like when Spud demonstrates his forgery prowess by scribing signatures in the air with light, and deer gambol across the walls and ceiling. It was really rewarding to see the outcome of that on the screen.”

Spud shows off his forgery skills in this composite shot for which Union VFX animated an airborne light trail.

Spud shows off his forgery skills in this composite shot for which Union VFX animated an airborne light trail.

The ‘trainspotting’ theme continues in a lengthy traveling shot created by Union VFX, in which turned Renton’s railroad-themed bedroom into a seemingly endless tunnel. “We created a set extension so we could pull back at great speed,” said Gascoyne, “like a train departing the station, for about a minute whilst the credits roll at the end of the film.”

Renton's bedroom becomes an endless tunnel, courtesy of a CG set extension.

Renton’s bedroom becomes an endless tunnel, courtesy of a CG set extension.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be part of Danny’s creative team for nearly 17 years,” Gascoyne reflected. “Our work is always collaborative and knowing the creatives involved really helps. This project was particularly creatively liberating given Danny’s history of illustrating Irvine’s stories and characters through fantasy, flashbacks and hallucinations.”

T2 Trainspotting is currently on limited release in US theaters, and on wider release from March 31, 2017.

“T2 Trainspotting” photographs copyright © 2016 by Sony Pictures Releasing. Special thanks to Lucy Cooper.

Cinefex 152 Preview

Cinefex 152 - coming soon

March is here! Which means the April issue of Cinefex is just around the corner. To whet your appetite, here’s a sneak preview of each of the four films we’re covering in Cinefex 152.

Kong: Skull Island

It’s an incredible 84 years since Hollywood’s favorite big ape first hit the screens in Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1933 film King Kong. In the action-packed Kong: Skull Island, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts transports the giant primate to the 1970s, with visual effects supervisor Jeff White and Industrial Light & Magic serving up a supersized portion of visual effects, supported by Hybride Technologies and Rodeo FX. Production designer Stefan Dechant visualizes the perilous realm of Skull Island, with practical illusions handled by special effects supervisor Mike Meinardus and makeup head Bill Corso.

A Cure for Wellness

In this dark tale about a sinister sanitarium in the Swiss Alps, director Gore Verbinski works with visual effects supervisor Thomas Proctor, special effects supervisor Gerd Nefzer and makeup effects supervisor Barrie Gower. Visual effects come courtest of Double Negative, RISE Visual Effects Studios, Lola Visual Effects, One of Us and Prime Focus World.

The Great Wall

Yimou Zhang directs this epic story about a monstrous mystery surrounding the building of the Great Wall of China, with visual effects overseen by Phil Brennan and delivered by Industrial Light & Magic, Base FX, Hybride Technologies, and Animal Logic. Weta Workshop. Quantum Creation FX provided practical and makeup effects, while Halon Entertainment prevised the film’s complex action sequences.

Logan

Currently riding high with a score of 93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the latest outing for the X-Men’s Wolverine is directed by James Mangold, with Chas Jarrett supervising visual effects by Soho VFX, Image Engine, Rising Sun Pictures and Lola VFX. Special effects supervisor Garry Elmendorf and makeup head Joel Harlow bring the gritty near-future world to blood-soaked life.

So there you have it. Four big movies, four big articles coming soon. The tough part is choosing which one to read first. So which will it be?

VFX Oscar Win for “The Jungle Book”

Adam Valdez, Robert Legato, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon accept the Oscar® for Achievement in visual effects, for work on “The Jungle Book” during the live ABC Telecast of The 89th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 26, 2017. Photo: Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Adam Valdez, Robert Legato, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon accept the Oscar® for Achievement in visual effects, for work on “The Jungle Book” during the live ABC Telecast of The 89th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, CA on Sunday, February 26, 2017. Photo: Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Walt Disney Pictures’ The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, has won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects at the 89th Academy Awards, held at the Dolby Theatre, Hollywood & Highland Center on Sunday, February 26, 2017.

Collecting the award were visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, MPC visual effects supervisor Adam Valdez, animation supervisor Andrew R. Jones and Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Dan Lemmon.

Working with Disney senior vice president of visual effects production Dave Teritero, Legato developed the concept of shooting a live performer (Neel Sethi) as Mowgli and immersing him alongside animated creatures into a digital jungle environment.

In an interview for Cinefex 147, Legato remarked:

“We have tools now to do pretty much anything a filmmaker can imagine. But those tools aren’t always user-friendly … Jon [Favreau] had a tremendous interest in technique, but I knew from his background as a performer that he was used to making decisions more as a live, chemical reaction. I wanted to provide him with tools that felt analog, and that were as intuitive as they could be.”

During a preshoot, Digital Domain explored the interaction between the real and virtual realms. On set, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created animal puppets for use on a bluescreen set and special effects supervisor J.D. Schwalm rigged a range of practical gags. A team including Animatrik and Magnopus configured the motion capture system and streamlined the complex virtual production process.

 As lead VFX studio, MPC artists blended Mowgli (Neel Sethi) into a photoreal digital jungle populated by 54 species of animals including lead characters Bagheera, Baloo and Shere Khan. Photo: MPC.


As lead VFX studio, MPC artists blended Mowgli (Neel Sethi) into a photoreal digital jungle populated by 54 species of animals including lead characters Bagheera, Baloo and Shere Khan. Photo: MPC.

Leading the visual effects drive, MPC undertook three jungle expeditions before constructing a digital environment covering around 30 square kilometers, populated with intricately detailed flora and fauna including such classic characters as Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), Baloo (Bill Murray) and the dreaded Shere Khan (Idris Elba). Weta Digital entered the fray for a sequence set in the temple stronghold of the treacherous Gigantopithecus, King Louie (Christopher Walken).

Commenting on the Oscar win, MPC visual effects supervisor Adam Valdez said:

“This is a very proud day for me and my crew at MPC. I speak for everyone who was lucky enough to work with Jon Favreau and the great team at Disney when I say how grateful we are for this honor from the Academy. Taking part in making a great film is a rare gift. Being recognized for our craft is deeply gratifying.”

Cinefex 147 Cover - The Jungle BookRead our in-depth story on the visual effects and virtual production of The Jungle Book in Cinefex 147.