VFX Videos of the Week 10-31-14

Ambition - ESA & Platige ImageFirst up in my personal choice of this week’s effects videos is Ambition, a short film presented by ESA, the European Space Agency, to publicise their groundbreaking Rosetta mission to study the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Directed by Tomek Bagiński, and featuring impressive visual effects by Warsaw-based Platige Image, it’s a bold collision between educational science fact and inspirational science fiction:

If you liked that, you’re going to love my next video, which is nothing less than the making of the movie. Director Bagiński talks about his inspirations and approach, while ESA’s Senior Scientific Advisor, Mark McCaughrean, and VFX Supervisor Jakun Knapilk of Platige discuss their own contributions to the film:

Next is another short film. This one’s called Bag Man, and it follows the journey of an enigmatic 12-year-old as he treks out of the city and into the countryside. What’s his purpose? And what’s he carrying inside that mysterious duffle bag? If you watch this haunting little gem, directed by Jonathan and Josh Baker of TWIN, you might just learn the answers … and get to enjoy some seamless practical and visual effects conjured by Legacy Effects and The Mill:

Sticking with sci-fi, my next choice is a new trailer for Ex_Machina. Written and directed by Alex Garland and due to be release next spring, this looks like a thoughtful riff on the themes I enjoyed recently in Caradog James’s The Machine (the female android stars of the two movies even share the same name – Ava). Ex_Machina stars the wonderful Domhnall Gleeson, features some gorgeous visual effects courtesy of Double Negative and Milk VFX and is my favourite trailer of the week:

More androids next, with a short proof-of-concept film by VFX artist-turned-director Hazraf Dulull. The high concept behind Sync is that, in the near future, hack-resistant robotic data couriers will be used to transfer sensitive material securely. That is, until something goes wrong. The film includes some smart effects shots, many delivered by graduates of Escape Studios:

You’ll want to set aside the best part of an hour to watch this next treat. It’s a full recording of this week’s Interstellar press conference, posted yesterday by HeyUGuys. The event was held in London and featured conversation with writer/director Christopher Nolan, together with cast member including Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway and Sir Michael Caine:

As a Brit who grew up reading Michael Bond’s Paddington books, and chortling over the charming animated series that aired on the BBC, I find myself approaching this big-screen adaptation of the classic children’s stories with considerable trepidation. The production values are high, the London settings look pretty, and Paddington himself – that sweet-natured-but-clumsy bear from Darkest Peru – is convincingly realised by Framestore. It’s just that … sheesh, he’s an awfully long way from the Paddington I know and love. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Watch the latest trailer, released just this week, and decide for yourself:

Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d end this round-up with something spooky. Prosthetic Makeup Transformation is a great little time-lapse sequence showing Spectral Motion’s Mike Elizalde transforming EdenBeauty into a horrible hag using classic makeup techniques and a neat two-piece prosthetic:

Now I’m done for another week, it’s over to you. Which is your favourite from this little roundup? Vote in our poll below. Or perhaps you spotted a video you’d like to share with the world – if so, just paste the details into the “Other” box. If I see one I like, I’ll include it in next week’s roundup.

Pumpkinheads of Halloween

Halloween is nearly upon us. That means it’s time to open the kitchen drawer, pick up your sharpest steak knife and start hacking away … at the nearest convenient pumpkin.

Some of the earliest pumpkin-carving rituals took place in Portugal, where super-sized squashes were traditionally shaped into skull-like effigies representing El Coco – a breed of Iberian bogeyman.

Depending on which folklore you follow, El Coco can take many forms. Given the demonic appearance of those carved squashes, it’s no surprise that one of those forms is a man with a perforated pumpkin for a head.

El Coco’s sinister appearance – and Hollywood’s propensity for horror – means it was only a matter of time before the image of the pumpkin-headed man made it on to the silver screen.

One of the earliest cinematic pumpkinheads appeared in 1937, in the animated short "Skeleton Frolics".

One of the earliest cinematic pumpkinheads appeared in 1937, in the animated short “Skeleton Frolics”.

Animated Pumpkinheads

As early as 1937, Ub Iwerks directed the animated short Skeleton Frolics for Columbia Pictures. The film riffs on The Skeleton Dance, a Silly Symphony which Iwerks had animated for Walt Disney some eight years previously.

In the film, a band of skeletons performs a musical number in a gruesome graveyard setting. As they start squabbling, one of the skeletons has his head replaced by the ubiquitous Halloween pumpkin.

Nearly sixty years after Skeleton Frolics, Tim Burton brought another animated pumpkinhead to life in The Nightmare Before Christmas. His name was Jack Skellington.

Animator Stephen Buckley works on the Pumpkin King sequence from "The Nightmare Before Christmas".

Animator Stephen Buckley works on the Pumpkin King sequence from “The Nightmare Before Christmas”.

Cel- animation was used to make Jack Skellington – also known as the Pumpkin King – burst into flames.

Cel- animation was used to make Jack Skellington burst into flames.

While Jack spends most of the movie in his natural skeletal form, he also appears in his traditional Halloween Town role as the Pumpkin King. An early scene shows him riding around on a straw horse while sporting – you guessed it – an enormous pumpkin head.

The making of The Nightmare Before Christmas is chronicled in Cinefex 56, in Mark Cotta Vaz’s article Animation in the Third Dimension. In this extract, mold maker supervisor John Reed describes how hundreds of replacement heads were created in order to generate the multiple expressions of the film’s many puppet characters:

“To ensure exact registration, we’d sculpt the replacement parts using a frame grabber system – a video camera setup which digitized the image in 2-D.

“In Jack’s case, Victoria Lewis, one of our moldmakers, would set up a master head on a registration pin that came out of the neck, with a couple of mirrors next to it so we could freeze-frame and get a look at all sides of the digitized image at the same time. Then we’d take another head and stick it on the same pin and compare that image with the digitized image to make sure we had a good match.

“We ended up making eight hundred copies of Jack’s head, a process which took four to five months. To help with the main expressions, the nostrils were carved as a constant feature, working as a registration key so the audience could read that the character was changing expression.”

Jack Skellington poses with some of the 800 replacement heads used to bring him to life.

Jack Skellington poses with some of the 800 replacement heads used to bring him to life.

Return of the Pumpkinheads

In "Return to Oz", full-scale puppets were used to create the character of Jack Pumpkinhead.

In “Return to Oz”, full-scale puppets were used to create the character of Jack Pumpkinhead.

When it comes to live-action, you have to dig deep into the pumpkin patch to find good examples of El Coco’s squashy visage. One of the best is gangly Jack Pumpkinhead, who accompanies Dorothy Gale in her quest to defeat the Nome King in Walter Murch’s Return to Oz.

In defiance of Halloween tradition, Jack is actually one of the good guys. He first appeared in Frank L. Baum’s 1929 book Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, but didn’t hit movie screens until Return to Oz opened in 1985.

For the film, Lyle Conway’s creature crew developed a set of full-sized puppets manipulated by Brian Henson and his team of operators. “Floppy Jack” was operated out of frame using long poles, or from beneath the stage with rods. “Trolley Jack” was a waist-up version of the character.

In this extract from Brad Munson’s article Return to Oz in Cinefex 22, mechanical character designer Chris Ostwald explains how Jack’s pumpkin head was constructed:

Chris Ostwald examines the squash and stretch mechanism by which Jack's face was articulated.

Chris Ostwald examines the squash and stretch mechanism by which Jack’s face was articulated.

“The head was completely fabricated – not fitted to a core as you would an ordinary mask – in order to get the size right.

“It was first cast up as a solid piece – with mouth, nose and eyes modeled in – and then recast in a foam rubber mold that was welded from within to reinforce the structure.

“The movement of the head was manipulated by cables attached to plastic strips hinged together inside the face.

“By pulling the cable about twice as far as the operator wished the movement to be, two pulleys came closer together, making the mouth open.”

For a handful of full-length walking shots that couldn’t be achieved using the puppets, the filmmakers turned to Stewart Larange, a street mime with a notably spindly physique. In Munson’s article, Lyle Conway says:

“The head was completely fabricated – not fitted to a core as you would an ordinary mask – in order to get the size right. It was first cast up as a solid piece – with mouth, nose and eyes modeled in – and then recast in a foam rubber mold that was welded from within to reinforce the structure.”

King of the Pumpkinheads

Pumpkinhead was realised as a full-body foam rubber suit created by the team at Stan Winston Studio.

Pumpkinhead was realised as a full-body foam rubber suit created by the team at Stan Winston Studio.

Pumpkinhead was the directorial debut of legendary special effects artist Stan Winston. The film’s titular antagonist is a grotesque revenge-monster brought to life by a witch.

Does his head look like a pumpkin? Well, not much, except maybe in his newborn form. But the humanoid demon is damn scary, and his name and pedigree are more than enough to earn it a place in this round-up.

The Pumpkinhead character was designed by a team at Winston’s studio led by Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, John Rosengrant and Shane Mahan. Its creation – and the story behind the film – is detailed in the lavish book The Winston Effect by Jody Duncan.

This brief extract is a great reminder of what it takes to perform inside a rubber monster suit:

“From the sculpture, studio artists and mechanics created a suit and head, which was worn on the set by Pumpkinhead performer Tom Woodruff. To avoid wear and tear on the suit, Woodruff was glued into it at the start of the shoot day, and remained in the foam rubber construct for up to eight hours at a time.”

Watch a video on the making of Pumpkinhead:

Read more about the creation of Pumpkinhead in this article at the Stan Winston School website.

Give Us Your Pumpkinheads

Now it’s your turn. What classic pumpkinhead gives you the heebie-jeebies?

Perhaps it’s one of the above. Perhaps it’s Sam, the grotesque, pyjama-clad demon from the 2007 Canadian anthology film Trick ‘r Treat. Or maybe it’s the pumpkin-masked slasher from the 2006 gore-fest The Pumpkin Karver?

Whatever your choice, now’s the perfect time to share your pumpkinheads. It is Halloween, after all!

Special thanks to Matt Winston. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas photographs copyright © 1993 by Touchstone Pictures. Return to Oz photographs copyright © 1985 by Walt Disney Productions. Pumpkinhead photograph courtesy of Stan Winston School of Character Arts.

VFX Videos of the Week 10-24-14

It’s Friday, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than by rounding up some of my favourite effects videos of the week.

My first choice is this great new showreel from Millennium FX, whose work we featured recently in our blog article about the BBC TV show Doctor Who:

Second is a video I’m sure you’ve seen already, given the speed at which it’s flying around the internet. But any excuse to watch it again, right? It’s the latest Air New Zealand safety video, featuring virtually the entire cast of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies … and with the obilgatory cameo by Peter Jackson, of course:

Next up is a real a blast from the past, remastered for a whole new generation. It’s a brand new trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The classic film has been digitally restored and is set for a special limited UK release on November 28, as part of the British Film Institute’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fears and Wonder season:

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Two videos popped up recently breaking down the wacky VFX in Seth McFarlane’s A Million Ways To Die In The West. The first comes from Tippett Studio, the second from Iloura:

 Iloura - A Million Ways To Die In The West

Here’s a little something that was posted by Bait Studio on their Vimeo channel a couple of months ago. It highlights the subtle eye-glow effects used to enhance the performance of Caity Lotz as the android Ava in The Machine (which we covered on the blog in this article earlier this year). The effects look deceptively simple, but there’s something about Ava’s eyes that just fascinates me:

Rising Sun Pictures have just released an amazing breakdown video showing how they created the Quicksilver kitchen sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past. Believe me, this one is REALLY worth a look:

Quicksilver from X-Men Days of Future Past by Rising Sun Pictures

Last – and definitely NOT least – if you’re one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t yet seen the first teaser for Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, now’s the time to stop everything and watch something awesome. I love the dark tone of this trailer. And that eerie Pinocchio soundtrack is just deliciously creepy:

That’s all for today. Come back next Friday for another personal selection of videos. In the meantime, have a great weekend!

“Dracula Untold” – VFX Q&A

Dracula Untold - Cinefex VFX Q&A

How do you put a new spin on the vampire myth? Surely the whole business of bats and bloodsucking has been done to death … or is that undeath? Who would dare to take on such a chilling challenge?

Enter Irish-born commercials director Gary Shore, who’s just pumped fresh blood into the genre with Dracula Untold, his feature film debut for Universal Pictures. The fantasy adventure – starring Luke Evans stars as thirteenth century Romanian prince, Vlad III – reimagines the origin of the character immortalised by Bram Stoker in his classic horror novel, Dracula.

Framestore took on the lion’s share of the film’s visual effects, with support from Milk VFX, Windmill Lane VFX, Level 256 VFX, Method Studios, Peanut FX and Clear Angle Studios, and previs by The Third Floor. Prosthetics makeup designer Mark Coulier supplied practical vampire effects, Uli Nefzer was special effects supervisor, and Weta Workshop supplied ornate armour and weaponry.

In this special Q&A session, Cinefex spoke to Framestore’s Christian Manz, who was Universal’s visual effects supervisor on Dracula Untold, about what it takes to make a vampire spread his leathery wings and take flight.

Dracula Untold - digital terrain

Framestore delivered around 700 shots for “Dracula Untold”, including a number that featured extensive digital terrain.

Christian, how did you first get involved with Dracula Untold?

I was approached by Universal because of my work on 47 Ronin, and because they thought I’d be able to interpret the visual effects film world for a newcomer. When you have a director like Gary Shore, who’s come from doing visual effects in commercials, they can find it’s a whole different world in features.

When did you first meet Gary Shore?

Around January 2013. He came to Framestore when we were pitching to do the movie. Having read the script, we’d done a “look book” of images that we thought related to the look of the movie. Gary had already decided it wasn’t going to be a gothic film – he wanted a completely new take on Dracula – and he was blown away by what we’d done.

How did you begin the pre-production process?

Early on, the Framestore art department showed Gary the design work for World War Z, 47 Ronin and some other movies. He was very keen for us to do such artwork for Dracula Untold. We started very early doing lots of trips to the production offices in the centre of Belfast. Gary trained as an illustrator, and had a definite vision of what he wanted. But he’d never made a movie, so it was all about how that vision was going to get up on screen. That’s what I was there to interpret.

"Dracula Untold" - transformation concept art

Framestore used concept art to explore the vampire transformation scenes.

Was it a challenge to come up with a new design for such an iconic character?

It was no mean feat! Our first step was to cover the art department walls with print-outs of every vampire and Dracula that had been done – from Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, to Leslie Nielsen and Twilight … everything! We came up with designs, and Gary would grab the stuff he liked from them, and then we’d go away and put together the next version. It was pretty exciting.

There are two vampire characters: Dracula, played by Luke Evans, and the Master Vampire, played by Charles Dance. Luke came to Framestore, where we took tons of snaps so we could make a model of him to start the concept work from. He was great. He said, “If you need anything else, I only live up the road, so let me know.” Two days later, we did! That was nice of him, because he was about to go off on reshoots for The Hobbit.

At that stage, we didn’t know whether Dracula was going to be CG, or prosthetics, or a marriage of both. I always felt it would be a mixture, because prosthetics makeup designer Mark Coulier does such wonderful work.

What inspired the vampire design?

We wanted to do something we hadn’t seen before, so we took the idea that vampires don’t like sunlight and made them translucent. When the vampires “vamp out”, you can see the teeth and feeding mechanism underneath the skin. They’re like cave-dwelling creatures, or deep-sea creatures: very pale. Then, when the vampires are exposed to sunlight and the skin peels off, it goes white instead of burning black. It was very anti what you might expect.

Once the studio and the filmmakers had approved the design of what we called “Vlad Stage 10” – the finished Dracula – we went into detailed design. We created a rule book of what a vampire does, although you only get glimpses of it in the film. We looked at fractals to create patterns in the teeth. There’s another pattern that moves up the face underneath the skin when they’re feeding.

How did you realise the vampire designs?

For the Vampire Master, Charles Dance wore prosthetics, and we augmented on top. We designed what he would look like, and worked with Mark Coulier. Mark did a fantastic job, incredibly quickly. It was the only prosthetic I’ve ever worked with on a movie where we didn’t have to do one touch-up, and you see it really close up. It was a beautiful piece of work.

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Did you use the same approach for Dracula himself?

For Dracula, Luke just wore tracking markers. We weren’t sure whether they’d stick with what we’d agreed in preproduction, so we wanted the maximum ability to alter any shot. He wore the markers whenever we knew he was going to vamp out.

Still, there were lots of shots where we hadn’t put markers on him, so we used witness cameras on everything – Canon 5Ds, shooting 1920×1080 QuickTimes. We had one 5D near the film camera, and one offset. We also tended to have a GoPro off somewhere and took plenty of reference photos. I like to be as invisible to the process as possible, especially on a movie that isn’t so VFX-driven. We had to move very quickly, just slamming in a camera and taking a video using the slate from the film camera. That was good enough to give us what we needed to track in later on.

Framestore’s visual effects supervisor in London, Glen Pratt, was with me every single day I was on set. And Framestore London’s CG supervisor, Ben Lambert, came out for a few days when we were in Belfast. Plowman Craven came out to do cyberscanning and Lidar. Luke had multiple wardrobe changes, so god knows how many times we had to scan him! And we did various Facial Action Coding System poses, which gave us a high-res Vlad head that became the basis of the vampire.

How closely did Framestore work with The Third Floor on previs?

The Third Floor London is linked to Framestore – in our offices, basically – and I’d used them a lot on 47 Ronin. There were two or three key sequences which they prevised thoroughly, the main one being the “Hand of Bats” sequence, which you can see in the trailer. They were with us right the way through, nearly to the shoot. Gary sat with the previs supervisors, Vincent Aupetit and Faraz Hameed, and walked through the shots. Obviously, when you move on to post, and you have 300 artists who are 6,000 miles away, that becomes harder to do.

Framestore concept art for the "Hand of Bats" sequence

Framestore concept art for the “Hand of Bats” sequence.

Can you describe the “Hand of Bats” sequence?

It happens in the Borgo Pass – a real pass in Romania, which was once Transylvania. Vlad has built a monastery at the head of this pass, and Memet II (Dominic Cooper) sends a 10,000-strong army down to sack the monastery. Vlad’s up in the tower, and realises he can control the bats fluttering around in the belfry. Streams and streams of bats start arriving – about three million of them – in this massive “batnado”, as we called it.

How did you shoot the sequence?

The whole sequence was heavily prevised, for two reasons. First, to help us know what we had to shoot. But also, the previs was used to help sell Gary’s vision to the studio. That’s a really important part of previs, I think – it’s a way for the director to get their vision across.

The monastery exterior was a partial set, built in a former Mackies factory in Belfast. The tower interior was a bluescreen set. We extended both sets and married them together. We shot a lot of material of Luke moving like a conductor, controlling the bat flock.

We originally planned to shoot more of the Borgo Pass in a quarry. But we had really thick fog for a solid week and a half at the location, and then it turned sunny all the time. That meant we couldn’t use it for everything, so this environment was created digitally.

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Can you tell us more about the environments? How did you go about creating the castle?

We used a lot of reference photographs from the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and spent two days photographing Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, and locations in Ireland and Wales. They became the basis for a lot of the matte painting work.

The production designer, François Audouy, designed the castle, and we had extensive Google SketchUp models of it from the production department. We took their concept artwork into post – we did the same with the monastery – and that became the basis of the structure. We had tons of textures from various castles all over the UK and Europe, and decided that we wanted to make it a fairly new castle, but one that had been constructed over a period of time.

Dracula's castle was realised as a full-CG model.

The castle was realised as a full-CG model.

The castle itself was a full CG textured asset that you could fly around in high resolution. For the surrounding landscape, we started with a low-res model to get the topography right, and then projected it and did matte paintings per shot to fix it up. The Montreal team worked on the castle and the night sequences whilst London tackled the Borgo Pass and monastery. Framestore’s visual effects supervisor in Montreal was Ivan Moran, and the CG supervisor there was J.P. Li.

The model was textured using photographic reference from castles across the UK and Europe.

The model was textured using photographic reference from castles across the UK and Europe.

There’s a spectacular shot where a cannon ball flies towards the castle, smashes in and reveals Vlad inside. Can you break the shot down?

That was one of those re-shoot moments where you say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?” The shot comes during a battle that was originally in the third act, but was moved to the second act. The Turks are pummelling Vlad’s castle with these massive cannons – they were built physically by the art department and special effects supervisor Uli Nefzer.

The first step was previs. Then François built a partial set of the castle on stage, although by then we had already started developing all of the rigid body destruction work in Montreal. The re-shoots were in June and our deadline was August, so it was very tight.

We put the camera on a Technocrane, pumped smoke in front of it and pushed through to reveal Luke walking through and under a gate set piece. We took that shot and match-moved it, adding our CG camera on to the beginning. We ended up with a digital move across a battlefield full of wooden spikes for impaling horses, Braveheart-style. As the cannon ball smashes through the castle walls, we transitioned through a lot of CG debris to reveal the plate we’d originally shot.

Final composite of the castle under attack.

Final composite showing the castle under attack.

How did you design the shot where the camera follows a sword into its victim’s stomach, then focuses on the reflection in the sword to show the surrounding battle?

We called that sequence “Vlad vs 1,000.” It’s separated into seven sections, ending with the sword shot, based on a shot which had been part the pitch reel that got Gary the movie. Everyone was very keen to keep this shot plugged into the end of the fight.

In the pitch version of the shot, you saw the sword go into somebody, and then the camera orbited the sword. The sword itself was rotating as the victim fell to the ground, reflecting Vlad killing everyone in the background. It seemed strange to me for the camera to be moving around the sword – there was no sense of geography, and it was impossible to physically photograph, making it look CG from the outset. So we shot a very low-fi test on an iPhone using a wooden sword. Gary said, “Yeah, that’s great,” and so that became the basis of the shot.

The fight was choreographed by Buster Reeves, our stunt coordinator. We shot the whole thing in front of a bluescreen with a stunt double, then Luke did the fight again so we had coverage. He was fantastic. The final sequence shot took about a week to shoot – the final shot took about half a day which was nothing compared to time it took in post to complete the full 800 frames.

If Vlad is a vampire, how come his reflection is in the sword?

Oh, don’t ask!

What camera did you use?

The movie was shot on film, but we used a Red Epic for the sword shot because it’s small and light. We had a stunt performer with the camera on a chest mount. He was on a wire, and when he fell back, we ran the camera. We shot with the camera pointing both downwards and up at his face, to give us his reflection.

Then I had 150 background people run towards us at 150fps, multiple times. We shot Luke separately for each of his kills. That was a bit of a mind bender for us, because we had to get Luke to kill everybody, but without anybody there! The key thing was they wanted him to move in real-time, and for everyone else to be in slow motion, to make him seem super-humanly fast.

It sounds like a big compositing challenge.

As the shot moved into post, it became the shot that we knew we wouldn’t deliver until the end. The beginning was constructed using a bluescreen element of Luke with his sword, with all the people behind him. For the transition to the reflection, we used a CG digi-double. Then we locked the camera on to the CG sword. The rest was a mixture of shots of extras, and lots and lots of digital Lukes hitting digital stunt doubles.

Essentially, it was all built in Nuke. We went into Maya to render the sword element, then we transitioned to the Red Epic footage at the end – when the Turkish soldier hit the dusty ground it was fantastic. After that, Luke pulls the sword out of the body and then walks away to fight all the people running towards him.

For that, we used some digital doubles, added the fire in the background, and put a moon in as Vlad tilted his head back. I joked about having E.T. going past the moon, Gary said, “What would be really cool is if Vlad was throwing the Turks up into the air, and you saw one of them fly across the moon.” This was about three weeks before the end, so I said, “Yeah that would be amazing for the sequel.” But they wanted it, so we did it. It was quite a challenge to get the dynamics not looking silly. But it’s kind of a cool shot.

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Wasn’t there a dragon in the film at one point?

Vlad was going to conjure a dragon to scare some Turks. That scene was cut, so we repurposed it to appear just briefly, when you see him in his Vlad the Impaler armour at the end. There’s tons of lightning going off as this storm approaches the Turk camp, and we thought it would be cool if you saw the shape of the dragon in the clouds. I was very keen that it wasn’t literally a moving cloud dragon, because that could look silly. I wanted the lightning to biometrically light it up – every time it flashes, you see it’s changed shape slightly.

Can you tell us about the vampire sonar vision?

That came in during the re-shoots. We wanted to give Vlad super powers, one of which would be sonar vision. Gary wanted it to be like a moving Lidar, and sent me a YouTube link to a pop promo for House of Cards by Radiohead as a reference for the look. We thought we’d try a photogrammetry technique, so we did a bit of a science experiment in our motion capture area using 5B cameras, which gave us some really dirty data. But really interesting data, because it gave us topology that was different every frame.

We converted the data into a point cloud, then warped it in Nuke. We only had a week before the shoot, so Ben Lambert came up with the look very quickly. But time was getting very tight, so we did another test with a shot of Luke that we’d already fully body-tracked. We exported that and managed to come up with something that looked the same.

Framestore created CG bats in their millions for "Dracula Untold"

Framestore created CG bats in their millions for “Dracula Untold”.

At the end of the film, Vlad unleashes sunlight on himself and his vampire brood. How did you create that effect?

Vampire deaths again have been done a lot. Blade was probably the last film where they were done in a cool way, with the vampire turning into ash. Working with the art department, we came up with the idea that they turned to gloop and tar instead.

We shot Luke and five key extras flailing around in front of a bluescreen set. We put tracking markers on them, but mainly used lots of witness cameras. In post, we did hyper-real digital doubles of them all. Using a combination of creature effects simulation and effects work, we had two different layers of skin peeling off, which then turn black. Originally they were going to disappear into nothing, but Gary wanted to keep what we called the “vampire mummy”, so we modelled a dried-up husk that would be left behind.

As Vlad collapses to the ground, his arm cracks and releases steam, as if he’s burning up inside. We modelled Luke’s armour in high-resolution for that. The important thing for me was that we really retained Luke’s performance, because it’s actually a quite subtle moment – the moment where his son sees the monster that he has become.

In the last three shots, Luke is translucent and fully-CG, except for his eyes. For the final shot we went fully CG. It’s one of those shots where you tell everyone that it’s CG and they say, “Really?”

How many visual effects shots did you deliver?

We originally planned about 500 shots, but in the end we had about 740. Roughly 700 of those were done by Framestore. The key thing about the movie was that we had lots of effects where we were doing this really difficult thing for just five shots. That made it a challenge, but also exciting for the artists.

"Dracula Untold" posterChristian Manz, thank you for your time!

Special thanks to Joe Fordham, Stephanie Bruning and Rob Goodway. Images courtesy of Universal Pictures and Framestore.

Doctor Who – Timely Effects

A giant T-Rex menaces Victorian London in the BBC TV show "Doctor Who"

First broadcast in 1963, Doctor Who is one of the UK’s longest-running television shows. Its longevity is due in part to the unique ability of its hero – a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey – to regenerate his physical form, thus enabling successive actors to inherit the iconic role as the decades roll past.

With each new storyline, the Doctor’s dimension-hopping ship – known as the TARDIS – might be propelled to the farthest reaches of the universe, or into the darkest depths of time. Upon arrival, the Doctor and his companions are apt to encounter anything from a strange alien race to a famous character from Earth’s history … not to mention the inevitable army of monsters bent on mayhem.

Little wonder, then, that the show relies heavily on its special effects.

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor in the series 8 episode "Into The Dalek"

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor in the series 8 episode “Into The Dalek”

After its long initial run, Doctor Who was dropped by the BBC in 1989, and subsequently relaunched in 2005 by producers Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner. Now under the auspices of showrunner Steven Moffat, Doctor Who has benefited from considerable continuity in terms of both visual and practical effects, with key contributors maintaining their presence throughout its current run. Practical effects are the province of Millennium FX, based just outside Chesham, Buckinghamshire, while visual effects are delivered by London-based Milk VFX, and the BBC Cymru Wales Post Production and Graphic Design visual effects team. Miniature effects are by The Model Unit in Ealing, with special effects by Real SFX.

“Before Neill Gorton and I became co-partners at Millennium FX, I had worked as a freelancer for Neill on shows including Saving Private Ryan,” recalled Millennium FX managing director Rob Mayor. “When the BBC commissioned Neill to do the work on the Doctor Who reboot, I was contacted to supervise the workshop builds and filming on alternate episodes – the first job being to create the alien Slitheen. One thing led to another, and I ended being the prosthetics supervisor, and subsequently co-designer on all the episodes since.”

“I was there when we brought Doctor Who back in 2005,” said Milk VFX CEO Will Cohen, formerly of Mill TV. “So I’ve been involved with the show since it came back nearly ten years ago. We opened Milk VFX in June 2013, beginning our continued involvement in Doctor Who with the 50th anniversary special — The Day of the Doctor — closely followed by the 2013 Christmas special, which was the last episode with Matt Smith. We pitched again about a year ago to do the new series with Peter Capaldi.”

A National Institution

With its long history and devoted fanbase, Doctor Who is more than just a TV show — it is a UK national institution which, in recent years, has become a global brand. The show’s long heritage is frequently honoured in new scripts as the latest incarnation of the Doctor confronts old enemies first seen in episodes now decades old.

“Having grown up with the show, we are extremely respectful of what has gone before,” said Mayor. “When a classic monster returns we usually get a heads up before the series goes into production so we can spend as much time as possible on design work. A lot of the original creations were amazing for their time but perhaps wouldn’t translate so well into modern television. So we are very careful to reference the feelings we got from seeing these creations as younger viewers. We incorporate them into the design, whilst also updating the look and taking advantage of modern materials.”

Neve McIntosh as the Silurian Madame Vastra

Millennium FX created the prosthetic make-up worn by Neve McIntosh as the Silurian Madame Vastra.

One group of monsters reimagined for the Doctor Who reboot was the Silurians — subterranean lizard-people who in their original 1970s incarnation sported trinocular vision. The new design — which debuted in 2010 — is more human in appearance. “The three-eyed design would have required animatronics,” Mayor explained. “As there were multiple different characters within the show, that would have been hugely cost-prohibitive. More importantly, the script was very heavy on emotive Silurian dialogue, which we felt would be better served through the use of thin facial prosthetics.”

For the 2006 episode Rise of the Cybermen, Mayor and his team reintroduced the classic cyborgs to a new generation of viewers. “The Cyberman suits were described in the script as big hulking stomping machines, so we echoed this in the design and build. In the later Cyberman episode Nightmare in Silver, they were silent, stealthy ninja-type characters, so we made them sleeker and more agile.”

The Silence - Doctor Who

“Neill Gorton designed the heads for the Silence. Dressed in the costume department’s beautiful suits, they still freak me out when I see them on set” – Rob Mayor

The Cyberman suits were sculpted using a combination of old and new techniques. “From the approved concept, the suit was roughed out in clay over a form taken from one of our performers,” Mayor revealed. “This meant we could accurately see where areas of the sculpt might interfere with the movement of the person underneath. From here, we cleaned up the form on one side of the sculpt, scanned it and flipped it in the computer. We could then output the suit in sections, each of which we could detail, mould and finish.”

The Rise of the Cybermen suits were fabricated using a cold casting process. “We mixed aluminium powder with the fibreglass and cast it into the hard elements of the suits,” Mayor elaborated. “The result when buffed was a suit more lightweight than metal, but with exactly the same surface finish. They looked amazing on camera, but the downside was that the suits were quite heavy. We knew this wouldn’t work for Nightmare in Silver, so we went back to the drawing board to make suits that were lighter and more resistant to scrapes and bumps. The outer suit elements were cast and painted in urethane, while the undersuit was cast in a more flexible foam latex and painted with the same flexible chrome paint that the outer shells were finished in.”

Anthony Parker of Millennium FX works on the alien organism concealed inside the Dalek's metal shell.

Anthony Parker of Millennium FX works on the alien organism concealed inside the Dalek’s iconic metal shell.

Even more notorious than the Cybermen are the Daleks. “The episode called Dalek is one of my favourite episodes of the new era,” commented Cohen, “because it made the Daleks threatening and scary, and we got to see inside them for the first time. That’s the interesting thing about Doctor Who. Is it essential to have continuity from what came before? Yes, but also let’s not to be afraid to try new things or tweak old ones.”


Milk VFX created a full-CG running space battle for the opening scenes of “Into The Dalek”

The latest episode to feature the Doctor’s ultimate nemesis is Into The Dalek, which begins with an expansive running space battle before it segues to the claustrophobic interior of one of the metal-clad aliens. “The battle was a chance for us at Milk to doff our caps to Battlestar Galactica, which we love,” Cohen enthused. “This episode gave us a chance to do a full-CG space battle that sets the scene for the internal drama that follows.”

For scenes set inside the Dalek, Milk created a number of CG environments. “We were kind of given carte blanche with the Dalek interior, because nobody knows what it looks like,” said Milk visual effects supervisor Murray Barber. “We did a lot of set extensions looking down corridors to see Dalek roundels on the walls. There was a very early production meeting where it was said — by Steven Moffat, I think — “If it looks like we shot it in a factory in Wales, we’re lost.”


The miniaturised Doctor and his tiny companions explore the Dalek’s interior. This wide shot is a digital matte painting created by Milk VFX.

Taking a Deep Breath

In Deep Breath – the first episode of the current series – the Doctor and his companion Clara are whisked back to Victorian London, where they encounter the Half-Face Man: a sinister cyborg with a hollowed-out clockwork visage. Because historical London environments have featured on the show previously, Milk VFX were able to repurpose existing CG assets as a starting point for the spectacular opening sequence, which sees the capital menaced by a 200-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus Rex.

“We reused a lot of assets,” Barber confirmed. “Because we got so close to the Houses of Parliament, we rebuilt Big Ben, but most of it is stuff we’ve used before. Each time we use it we update the model, changing some of the textures and adding more buildings. It’s a progression, but we do have quite an extensive library of elements now.”

Milk VFX repurposed their existing CG London model for the series 8 episode "Deep Breath".

Milk VFX repurposed their existing CG London model for the series 8 episode “Deep Breath”.

The London model was also adjusted for historical accuracy. “It all depends when in Victorian London you are,” Cohen commented. “You have to get the year right. For example, right up to the end of the 19th century, certain bridges didn’t exist over the Thames, or were being constructed. We had some nice photos from 1883, when the buildings on the south bank of the Thames looking west were all very uniform and mansion-like. Once we’d built one, we had the dozen or so we knew we needed to see.”

“When you’re doing a flyover shot, it’s never going to be street-perfect,” Barber noted. “You try and make it as accurate as possible. Our main matte painter, Simon Wicker, is a great advocate of Cinema4D — our huge library is mainly built in it.”

Cohen added: “For The Day of the Doctor, which was stereoscopic 3D with big camera moves, and which had a cinema release, we took a lot of the environments into Maya. So we have the two pieces of software working in tandem – they’re getting more and more conjoined in the pipeline.”

Milk's CG dinosaur threatens London's iconic Houses of Parliament

A particular challenge was selling the scale of the gigantic dinosaur that roams the capital’s fog-shrouded streets. “Maybe Steven Moffat had seen Godzilla over the summer, I’m not sure,” Cohen mused. “We designed a new T-Rex and made it big, and it was approved pretty quickly. But it wasn’t just a case of scaling it up. We had to get the textures right, and the rig, skeleton and muscle system are all new. They’re an evolution of what we’ve done on shows like Primeval.”

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The Half-Face Man was realised through a combination of prosthetics and visual effects. “We all quickly realised that he was going to be a mix of CG and practical prosthetics,” said Mayor. “Obviously, to see right inside the head, we couldn’t just utilise prosthetics on the actor — who was the brilliant Peter Ferdinando — so we created a textured foam latex version of the metal framework. Over the top and around the edge of this we applied a silicone appliance to give the appearance of ripped skin. Milk then used the framework as a rough starting point for the internal elements. These elements were sculpted by Reza Karim.”

Concept sculpt for the Half-Face Man

Concept sculpt for the Half-Face Man

“We looked at movies to find an example of a similar effect,” Cohen affirmed, “and came up with the face replacement work on Two-Face/Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight. They spent hours tracking Aaron Eckhart as he moved within 3D space to get everything to lock on properly. That amount of work is often impossible on a TV show.” The knowledge that Deep Breath would have a theatrical release added to the pressure. “One pixel out on a television might not be noticeable,” Cohen observed, “but one pixel out in the cinema, and the whole effect falls apart.”

To mitigate the risk, minor modifications were made to the design. “Originally the jaw and the hole in his head were a bit lower, exposing more muscle and sinew on his jawbone,” Cohen recalled. “Murray suggested raising the skinline tear a little to make it more doable, without spoiling the overall chilling effect.”

Peter Ferdinando wears the placeholder prosthetic make-up for the Half-Face Man

Actor Peter Ferdinando wears the placeholder prosthetic make-up for the Half-Face Man. In most shots, the make-up was replaced with a digital model.

The full-size Half-Face Man puppet featured a complex internal "clockwork" mechanism.

The full-size Half-Face Man puppet featured a complex internal “clockwork” mechanism.

As well as the prosthetic elements, Millennium also built a puppet version of the Half-Face Man’s head and shoulders, for scenes set in the villain’s lair beneath a London restaurant. “We started with a fibreglass core taken from Peter Ferdinando’s head cast,” explained Mayor. “Animatronics artists Tim Rose, Nico Zarcone and Gerard Moore turned the entire rig and the internal clockwork mechanics around in a few days. Over the fibreglass core was a silicone skin of Peter complete with hand punched eyebrows. We also built a prop arm gun, designed by Brian Coldrick and realised by Pete Fielding, that was worn by the actor on set. Additional fire elements to the arm were added in post. So some elements were practical, some VFX and some a mix of both. Milk, who are as brilliant as ever, seamlessly blended both practical and CG to create a truly believable effect.”

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“We photoscanned the Millennium puppet as the basis for making our 3D model,” said Cohen. “The original plan was to use CG only in shots where he was travelling across the room, or moving his head around in a way where you needed to get that parallax. But if he was going to sit in the chair and not do very much, we thought we would get away with compositing and split-screening the puppet. In the end, I think we used the puppet in about four shots, and we did 87 digitally.”

Tracking markers on Ferdinando’s face and hat allowed Milk artists to line up their CG model with the prosthetic-enhanced face of the actor. The mechanically-operated eye was animated by hand to match Ferdinando’s real eye. “It’s just a very lovely visual concept, to be able to see through to the other side of him,” Cohen observed.

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Men In Suits

Time Heist, one of the later episodes in the current series, features an alien character called “The Teller”, which Rob Mayor describes as “a good ol’ fashioned foam latex full monster suit”.

Initial concept design for The Teller

Concept design for the Teller

Concept sculpt for The Teller

Concept sculpt for the Teller

The Teller has telepathic powers, the use of which is signalled by the bringing together of its highly mobile eye stalks. “In the very first production meeting, Neill Gorton came up with the idea of the alien being able to draw its eyes together, like when you put your hands together to meditate,” Mayor explained. “From there, two small-scale maquettes were sculpted by artist Gary Pollard, one with its eye stalks down, and one with them in ‘telepathic’ mode. After approval, the full-size version of the head, hands and feet were realised by one of the series supervisors Dave Bonneywell.”

Dave Bonneywell works on the clay sculpt of the Teller at Millennium FX.

Dave Bonneywell works on the clay sculpt of the animatronic Teller at Millennium FX. The Teller appears in the “Doctor Who” series 8 episode “Time Heist”.

Animatronic designer Adrian Parish works on the complex mechanism he created (assisted by Matt MacMurray) to bring the Teller to life.

Animatronic designer Adrian Parish works on the complex mechanism he created (assisted by Matt MacMurray) to bring the Teller to life.

The movement of the eye stalks demanded a complex animatronic solution. “The beautiful mechanics for the Teller were turned around in a few weeks by animatronic designer Adrian Parish, assisted by Matt MacMurray,” said Mayor. “Because most of the movement was coming from the mouth and eyes, Adrian and Dave came up with the nice twist of having the eyes not only open and close, but also retract — just because it would be a cool extra bit of detail.

The head of the Teller was run in foam latex with a soft silicone membrane cast over the top of the brain.

The head of the Teller was run in foam latex with a soft silicone membrane cast atop the brain.

“All the builds for Doctor Who are turned around within a few weeks, but it’s this extra effort that’s indicative of the crew’s love for the work. The head was run in foam latex with a soft silicone membrane cast over the brain, on the top of the head. The paint scheme was designed by Dave and our full-time designer Chris Goodman. Performer Ross Mullan along with Dave and Adrian then bought the Teller to life on the shoot in Cardiff.”

The “full monster suit” has been a staple of Doctor Who since the show’s inception in 1963. “Doctor Who was always a man in a suit, and to be honest there is no reason to drift away from that,” Mayor contended. “I’m a huge fan of CG and wholly respectful of the skills utilised within it — and yes there are instances where practical effects are just not a viable option — but I still feel a lot of audiences make more of an emotional attachment to a creature knowing they are actually standing right next it. As a bonus, a lot of the Doctor Who fanbase centres around conventions, exhibitions and live shows. To see the looks on people’s faces as the Judoon, Cybermen, Silurians and Weeping Angels appear on stage and interact with them is priceless.”


Milk added CG ‘telepathic waves’ to shots in which the Teller sucks its victims’ brains dry. “At one stage we were going to do some digital stuff with the eye stalks, but that went away, for all the right reasons,” Cohen recalled. “Millennium did brilliant work on the Teller, a really successful creature.” Digital techniques were used to illustrate the aftermath of the Teller’s disturbing interventions: lobotomised victims with caved-in skulls. “The crushed heads were based on actual photographs of people who have part of their skull missing,” said Barber. “What happens is the skull is gone and part of the skin just sags in.”

Milk also created environments for the Bank of Karabraxos, including a master shot of the main banking hall. “That was a massive matte painting,” Barber explained. “The set was about a quarter of the size of the finished thing. We took the live-action plate and doubled it over twice; when the camera tilted up or panned down, that was all CG.”

Television Timescales

The Doctor might have a time machine at his disposal, but all the artists working on Doctor Who are locked into the tight deadlines characteristic of television production. “We normally start prep on a two-episode block six weeks before the shoot,” Cohen revealed. “We have a meeting with both scripts — or early versions of them — then quickly do the designs for any CG assets that are new, and get those approved. That might go through a couple of iterations. We then make the assets, and rig and prep them to be production-ready. We might have to produce some previs for the shoot, or postvis for the edit. And then we set about making it. Occasionally, people get the odd surprise if something isn’t how they visualised it. But there’s no real time to go back. We try to spring as few surprises as possible for the production team by approving greyscale animation as we go along.”

The team at Millennium follow a similar approval procedure — against the same relentless ticking clock. “With the new creatures, we start by using any descriptions within the script,” commented Mayor. “We then look at what action it needs to perform and if there are any specific requirements within the story. Once we are happy with our initial sketches — 99% of the design work is done internally — we send them off to the producers and director for their input and approval. If there’s feedback, we make adjustments until everyone is happy. We’ve been fortunate enough to work on the show for so long now, and are so tuned to its ethos, that more often than not we hit the nail on the head. We know how to create a balance between design, functionality, timescales and — I hate to say — budgets. Which when working on a fast-paced, high-production-value television show is an essential skill.”

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The clock hands continue to spin throughout the production process. “On set, we do HDRI, silver ball and grey ball references, and photoscan all the sets,” said Barber. “The only problem is that the sets get struck so quickly. You take a break and go back and the set’s gone! You’ve got to be quick. Other than that, we use exactly the same techniques as on a feature film.”

The quality of the effects in shows like Doctor Who proves that the line between television and cinematic visual effects is becoming increasingly blurred. “The convergence of technology means that film and TV people are now all mixed up as artists,” Cohen observed. “One week they’re working on a massive feature, the next week they’re working on Doctor Who, using the same kit, the same technology, the same techniques. And now with television — with the proper planning, timing, budget and experience — you are able to get close to a cinematic standard. It’s a rich time for television.”

Who’s Your Doctor?

Who's your doctor?Every fan of Doctor Who has an actor they consider to be “their Doctor” — the particular version of the character they grew up watching.

“For me as a child, it was Tom Baker who made the biggest impression,” Mayor remembered. “He was my first introduction to the world of Doctor Who. I used to sneak downstairs in the evening and peek at the TV through the crack in the front room door.”

The Milk VFX team also remembers the Tom Baker era with fondness. “I caught the tail end of Jon Pertwee,” said Barber, “but I suppose Tom Baker was really my Doctor. Although I have to say I liked Matt Smith.” Cohen added. “I remember hiding behind a brown sofa in our 1970s living room watching Jon Pertwee. The show freaked me out.”

Are you a Doctor Who fan? What’s your favourite monster or special effect from the show, and why? And which of the many actors who have played the legendary Time Lord is YOUR Doctor?

Special thanks to Edward Russell, Jenny Burbage and Dave Bonneywell. Photographs copyright © 2014 Doctor Who / BBC One and courtesy of Millennium FX and Milk VFX. This article has been edited to include BBC Cymru Wales, The Model Unit and Real SFX.

Cinefex at the San Diego Comic Fest

San Diego Comic Fest

Are you going to this year’s San Diego Comic Fest? If so, you might want to keep your eyes peeled for the Cinefex staffers, who’ll be stepping out from behind their desks to hang out at this friendly comic convention with a casual atmosphere and an intimate scale.

While you’re there, be sure to grab a seat at Saturday’s Ghostbusters panel. Cinefex publisher, Don Shay, will be moderating, and his special guests are the classic film’s associate producer (and logo designer) Michael Gross and visual effects art director John Bruno, who will be appearing on stage together with legendary modelmaker and visual effects supervisor Bill George.

The official convention website has this to say about all the other things you can expect to enjoy at the event:

At the San Diego Comic Fest you’ll find an extensive and eclectic program with things for every fan to enjoy. As you would expect of a comic con, there will be panel discussions; guest programs; an artist alley; tabletop gaming; cosplay; steampunk; an exhibitor hall full of your favorite comics, books, toys, and collectibles; and much, much, more. All of this takes place in a relaxed setting that enables fans and professionals to hang out and enjoy good times talking about comics, science fiction, films, animation, and all the other things that fans love.

The San Diego Comic Fest will take place the weekend of October 17-19 at the Town and Country Resort and Convention Center, 500 Hotel Circle North, San Diego, CA 92108. Click here to book your tickets now!

Cinefex YouTube Channel

If you like the visual effects breakdown reels we’ve been featuring on this blog, you’re going to love the Cinefex YouTube channel. There you’ll find a whole heap of videos like this amazing reel from Method Studios, showcasing their recent work on Into The Storm:

As well as VFX breakdowns, you’ll also find exclusive Cinefex content, such as this special recording of the live Celebrating Cinefex 35th anniversary event that took place in Los Angeles earlier this year:

The Cinefex YouTube channel will continue to grow steadily as we add more videos to the collection. To keep up with all the latest additions, just log in and click the subscribe button.

The Hybrid World of “The Boxtrolls”

Eggs and the Boxtrolls

The Boxtrolls is the third feature to come out of Oregon-based animation studio LAIKA, both of whose previous productions Coraline and Paranorman were Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature Film. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, and adapted from the book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, it tells the story of Eggs, a human boy raised by Boxtrolls — strange cavern-dwelling creatures who live in hiding beneath the cobbled streets of Cheesebridge. When Eggs meets Winnie, feisty daughter of Cheesebridge dignitary Lord Portley-Rind, the upper and lower worlds collide and the sinister truth behind the dastardly Archibald Snatcher’s mission to exterminate the Boxtrolls is revealed.

Like its predecessors, The Boxtrolls is at heart a stop-motion feature. However, thanks to developments in both methodology and filmmaking technique, it is described by LAIKA as a “hybrid” film integrating the traditions of stop-motion with the latest advances in visual effects.

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Coraline was almost entirely shot in camera,” explained LAIKA visual effects co-supervisor Steve Emerson. “There is some CG in that film, but for the most part the director, Henry Selick, was after something entirely practical and in-camera. The big shift for us came with Paranorman. That’s when our producer and lead animator, Travis Knight, started talking about this vision of creating hybrid films.”

In the LAIKA lexicon, hybrid filmmaking means taking a stop-motion film and expanding it visually beyond the confines of the animation stage. “As a genre, stop-motion is typically confined to smaller environments and a limited number of characters,” said Emerson. “With hybrid, the idea is to use technology to open up these worlds, and do things that you wouldn’t typically do in stop-motion, like have large crowds, or big effects, or wide vistas.”

"The Boxtrolls" crowd scene

CG “extras” were used to swell the ranks of stop-motion characters in crowd scenes.

Detailed planning was key to the successful combination of stop-motion and CG, with decisions being made early in the preproduction process. “The department heads huddled up in a conference room and went through the film shot by shot,” Emerson recalled. “We figured out who would build what: what was going to be practical and what was going to be CG. Typically in those meetings, I would let them try and figure it out practically first. When they hit walls, that’s when the room would turn to me.”

While CG was frequently employed to realise shots that were not technically possible using practical techniques, it was also essential in covering resource gaps. “At the full height of production we have about 50 active stop-motion animation stages,” commented Emerson. “The weekly quota for each animator ranges from two to four seconds. But there are only so many puppets and so many sets to go around … and a lot of work that needs to get done. That’s where we step in.”

Watch a video breakdown of a composite shot from The Boxtrolls:

The in-house visual effects department benefited from close integration with the rest of the production. “I came out of live-action visual effects,” Emerson reflected, “and I was used to angry effects artists who got a whole bunch of footage that was shot months ago, with greenscreens that you couldn’t do anything with. The great thing about LAIKA is I get to sit in a theatre with the other department heads and be critical of things before they can even start launching. I can ask them to adjust lighting on greenscreens, or do multiple exposure passes. In can ask them to use invisible UV paint in order to get mattes off characters. It’s a big, big advantage, and it allows us to move through a lot of inventory with a relatively small team.”

“Because we have controlled sets and the sets are up for so long, we can go in there and get pretty much perfect stereo HDR data,” added CG look-dev lead Eric Wachtman. “We basically survey every set, so we can get all the information we need. That makes lighting on the CG set pretty painless.”

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For the most part, the LAIKA visual effects team uses off-the-shelf software. “For shading and lighting, it’s all RenderMan,” said Wachtman. “We use Katana for our lighting pipeline, and Maya is our main modelling software. We use Nuke for compositing. We have some other special stuff, too, and we write a lot of our own tools and shaders.”

Despite the close parallels with live-action visual effects, the stop-motion aesthetic poses its own unique challenges. “On a traditional VFX film you’re matching reality,” Wachtman remarked. “On ours, we’re matching something that’s miniature, but not really supposed to look miniature. Cloth isn’t really cloth. Hair isn’t really hair.”

“If they’re creating hair from hemp, it’s not just about us creating photoreal hemp,” Emerson elaborated. “It’s also about figuring out exactly how that hair is being layered. Also, everything is intensely art-directed. For the skies in The Boxtrolls, they built practical sky rigs out on the set using cheesecloth, and so on our side it’s not just about painting and creating clouds, it’s about creating cheesecloth clouds. We’re doing photoreal visual effects, but they’re heavily stylised. They’re never just out of the box.”

Eggs and Winnie, the animated stars of "The Boxtrolls"

As well as looking identical to their practical counterparts, the CG characters of The Boxtrolls also had to perform in the same way. “We report to the animation director,” Emerson asserted, “the same as the animators on the stages. So we’re all showing it to the same guy to make sure that everything is uniform. When we do facial animation, we work with the head of the facial animation team.”

In order to give its stop-motion characters the widest possible range of emotions, LAIKA employed face replacement. Using a rapid prototyping system, thousands of face parts were printed for each character — more than 53,000 in total for The Boxtrolls, 15,000 of which belonged to Eggs. In combination, these gave the film’s hero over 1.4 million possible facial expressions.

Stop-motion face replacement brings a discernible granular texture to close-up shots. Matching this in CG proved challenging. “The texture of the face changes, but not every frame,” commented Wachtman. “Sometimes the animators will hold it for two or three frames before they switch to a new face, and you definitely feel that when you watch the film. We wanted to incorporate that granular feel into our CG puppets, so we wrote scripts to deal with it.”

"The Boxtrolls" composite shot

It was critical that the CG characters in “The Boxtrolls” be indistinguishable from their stop-motion counterparts.

The majority of the faces were made in two parts, so that every frame in which they appear required digitally fixing to conceal the joins — a task requiring considerable manpower. “We have a team of about 20 artists, and we’ll expand to a team of 60-70 when we’re fully ramped,” said Emerson. “About half those artists are doing purely cosmetic work on the plates. That includes seam removal on the puppets’ faces and also rig removal, because obviously the animators can’t defy gravity out there.”

Additional cosmetic fixes were needed to repair the environments. “The animators have to physically tie down those puppets, which means drilling into the sets and screwing down their feet. By the time they’re done animating a shot, you end up with a set that looks like somebody’s gone in with a Tommy gun and shot the place up!”

The time-consuming nature of stop-motion brought further need for digital repair work. “The shots take weeks and weeks to animate,” commented Emerson. “Over the course of those weeks, the temperature of the set is changing, so even though we’re doing motion control, the plates don’t always line up. The guys in our paint department are really the unsung heroes — if they’re doing their job well, nobody knows they’ve done anything.”

"The Boxtrolls" - ballroom sequence

The hybrid approach taken by LAIKA for The Boxtrolls is exemplified by the ballroom scene, in which Eggs accompanies Winnie to a grand society ball hosted by her father, Lord Portley-Rind. During the sequence, the camera sweeps past stop-motion puppets dancing in the same frame as their CG counterparts, all within the opulent ballroom surroundings.

To realise the sequence, the hero puppets were animated by hand in the miniature ballroom environment, in front of a motion-controlled camera. For each frame, a beauty pass was shot, after which a greenscreen was lowered into the set behind the puppets, the lighting was adjusted to create a strong silhouette and a second frame was shot as a matte pass. For some shots, additional frames were photographed at the same time to capture interactive lighting effects. The greenscreen was then removed and the lighting restored to its beauty configuration, allowing the animators to move the puppets ready for the next frame.

“The plates ended up being hero characters in hero lighting, with greenscreen frames chasing them through the environments,” said Emerson. “Then we went in and populated the rest of the frame with additional CG dancers.”

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Eggs, Fish and Shoes leap across the Cheesebridge rooftops.A similar approach was used for broad action scenes, such as the chase sequence in which Archibald Snatcher drives frantically through the streets of Cheesebridge, while Eggs and his Boxtroll friends slide perilously across the town’s rooftops. “Where the characters are landing on roofs and kicking up tiles, all that is hand-animated and in-camera,” revealed Emerson. “The rest of those environments — the hundreds of other buildings, the landscapes, the skies and the fog — all of that is computer generated.”

Eggs slides down the Cheesebridge rooftopsAtmospheric effects contribute significantly to the film’s Victorian ambience, and were largely provided by the visual effects department. “Fog is a tough thing to get in camera, so it makes the most sense for us to deal with it,” Emerson commented. “We had a long look-dev cycle working hand in hand with the art department and the rigging and camera teams, looking at how they would approach it in camera. It’s about creating a fog that represents this very distinct artistic language. We use a CG fog system, but there’s a lot of animated cheesecloth blended in there too!”

Watch a video breakdown of the rooftop chase from The Boxtrolls:

One way or another, the LAIKA visual effects department touched every frame of The Boxtrolls — some 1,200 shots — ranging from simple dead pixel clean-up through to elaborate character and environment work. Reflecting on his department’s contribution, Emerson said, “I feel that most people look at LAIKA’s films as animation; and when they think animation, they don’t always think live-action visual effects. That’s one thing I want to put out there for the visual effects community: that the people working on these shots are all people with live action visual effects backgrounds who are working in a live-action photoreal effect environment. And it’s very, very difficult stuff to do!”

Read our in-depth article on the making of Coraline in Cinefex 117, available as a back-issue from our online store. Also available for the iPad as part of the Cinefex Classic Collection.

Photographs and video copyright © LAIKA, Inc. and Focus Features, LLC. Special thanks to Fumi Kitahara.

VFX and the Rise of Animated Features

Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Animated features are on the up. What’s more, the bonds between animation and visual effects are growing ever stronger.

Today, the British Film Institute announced a new partnership with Aardman Animations, the UK studio that created Wallace and Gromit and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Under the scheme, three filmmakers or filmmaking teams will be funded for up to two years to encourage development of new animated projects, with dedicated support from the The BFI Aardman Animation Development Lab.

Ben Roberts, BFI Film Fund director, said:

“The beauty of animated features lies in their ability to combine great artistry with commercial ambition. This all comes at a cost, and so the development opportunities are limited. Tapping into that Aardman brain to work in depth on a small number of carefully chosen projects from promising filmmakers, is a great opportunity for us to move some exciting and commercially appealing work closer to a reality.”

According to Peter Lord, co-founder of Aardman Animations:

“Feature animation is the ideal medium for filmmakers. It allows us to reach the widest possible cinema audience, in terms of age and demographic, without compromising our standards or patronising our viewers. It offers magnificent scope for the fundamental film skills of cinematography, design, editing and performance. And as filmmakers we can win over audiences not only through humour, but also through deep emotion and visceral excitement.”

The news comes hot on the heels of Cinesite’s recent announcement of its move into animated features. Comic Animations is the new animation arm of the visual effects facility, which has branches in London and Montreal. Cinesite’s first animated short Beans picked up a gold award at the AEAF animation awards, and was awarded the opening slot in the 2014 SIGGRAPH Electronic Theatre.

The first feature to come out of the Cinesite/Comic Animations stable will be the comedy fairy tale Charming, directed by Ross Venokur and produced in association with 3QU Media, a new CG-animated feature film production company headed by John H. Williams (producer of Shrek and CEO of Vanguard Films and Animation) and Henry F. Skelsey (Managing Partner of Fulton Capital Management LLC).

"Charming" one-sheetCinesite Managing Director Antony Hunt commented:

“The deal with 3QU Media is the perfect fit for our overall animation strategy. They are wonderful partners and their slate of films are ideal projects for us.  Feature animation is a natural extension of our talent and infrastructure.  This deal is an important step in Cinesite’s overall strategy to create world class animated feature films and to develop our own creative intellectual property via Comic Animations, which we established to develop a slate of original animated films.”

John Williams added:

“We are thrilled to be part of Cinesite’s major commitment to getting into the animation feature space. We believe Charming can be a big commercial success and we hope this will be the beginning of a long time feature animation association between 3QU and Cinesite’s super talented artists, technicians, and production team.”

Nor is Cinesite the only visual effects company to flex its animation muscles. In April this year, Double Negative and Elizabeth Murdoch launched Locksmith Animation, the UK’s first dedicated high-end CG feature animation studio. At the same time, Dneg’s Feature Animation Division was opened, led by ex-Dreamworks Associate Producer, Tom Jacomb.

Matt Holben, Double Negative co-founder and CEO, said:

“Animated feature films are an exciting next step in the development of Double Negative. We recognise that whilst there are synergies with VFX it requires a different approach. We are thrilled that Tom Jacomb has joined us to develop our new division. We are excited by the long-term potential of feature animation and are determined to build a sustainable pipeline of work.”

The Boxtrolls

As far back as 2011, Industrial Light & Magic  were applying their VFX skills to animated features, with the critically acclaimed Rango. Last year, Disney proved itself on top form with the popular Frozen. And LAIKA’s current release The Boxtrolls – a hybrid animated film driven by stop motion and heavily augmented by CG and visual effects – is riding high at the box office.

Has there ever been a better time for animated features?

Watch out for the new Cinefex blog article on The Boxtrolls – out next Tuesday.

Mysteries of Cinefex 140

Just wanted to say ‘thanks’ to our loyal reader, Douglas Hryniuk, for his kind note in our Facebook comments about our upcoming editorial selections for December 2014. We do have an interesting lineup for Cinefex 140, and attentive readers might have noticed a bit of a revolving door in our ‘next issue’ page at Cinefex.com.

As Douglas observed, we had originally planned to cover The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in December, closer to the movie’s theatrical release date. However, Peter Jackson requested that we wait, for similar reasons that I described in a Cinefex Blog, regarding The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, last year:


One of the other movies that I researched was Fox-Searchlight’s upcoming Birdman, which Douglas also spotted at our next issue page. Alejandro Iñárritu’s film is extraordinary, with spectacular performances and highly imaginative filmmaking from all departments. Unfortunately, for reasons too complex to explain here, that one, too, has flown the coop. We’re leaving some birdseed to see if he’ll return.

We do have another story that I’m working on right now, which I believe our readers will find intriguing. Plus, the other stories as advertised are all in various stages of completion — namely, Christopher Nolan’s outer space adventure Interstellar, Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings and Terry Gilliam’s mad The Zero Theorem. Those, with our other little cracker, should make an entertaining Christmas stocking stuffer.

We’ve not decided yet what movies will follow those in Cinefex 141, in March, so you’ll have to watch this space.

— Joe Fordham

Nolan Interstellar

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan ponders the mysteries of “Interstellar” — scheduled for theatrical release November 5, and in-depth analysis in Jody Duncan’s upcoming story in Cinefex 140. Image © Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures / Legendary Pictures / Syncopy.