Memory in the Movies

The memory bubble sequence from "Brainstorm"

Memories. According to the song, they light the corners of your mind. From time to time, they also light up the silver screen, in such classic memory movies as Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Memento.

Many such films deal with the concept of memory manipulation, that well-worn science fiction trope in which heroes and villains alike try to record or otherwise meddle with human remembrances … often with disastrous consequences. Let’s just be grateful you can’t manipulate memories in real life.

Or can you?

Recent scientific research has started to unpick the mysteries of the human mind. Take the Lifenaut project, which is exploring the feasibility of storing and replicating human consciousness. Its researchers already claim the ability to scan your brain and record your memories – they’re even offering to beam the recordings into space for inquisitive aliens to decode.

Sounds fanciful? Not according to the website of MTT Neurotech, the company which supplies Lifenaut with those all-important brain scans:

“It is possible to record conscious thoughts as a stream of consciousness, and to store our recorded thoughts is a private manner for reconstruction and use in the future.”

There’s a catch, of course. It’s hidden in that phrase “for reconstruction and use in the future”. While the memory-scanning technology may be coming along nicely, the ability to play those memories back is still way beyond our reach. As Lifenaut points out:

“At the moment we do not have a “memory disc player” but MMT Neurotech expects that such a device will become a reality in the near future.”

If you’re impatient for that elusive “memory disc player” to appear on the market, you might be encouraged to learn that brain replication is in fact already possible. If you’re a worm.

OpenWorm is an open source project whose mission is to create an entirely digital worm. In a recent advance, researchers uploaded a simulated worm brain into, of all things, a Lego robot. Want to know what happened when they turned the worm on? Check out this video:

Of course, here at Cinefex, what we’re concerned with is movies and visual effects. Never mind whether or not memories can be manipulated. What does a memory actually look like?

Science can help us here too. Recently, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine used fluorescent markers to tag memory-making beta-actin mRNA molecules inside the brain of a live mouse. The results are visible in this short video, which effectively shows memories actually being made:

Let’s face it, the science behind the mouse-brain video may be mind-blowing (almost literally), but as entertainment it leaves a lot to be desired. Luckily for us, the subject of memory manipulation has already been explored by some of cinema’s greatest visual thinkers.

Foremost among these is Christopher Nolan, whose thematically connected trio of memory films comprises Memento, Inception and Interstellar.

In Memento, the short-term memory loss suffered by Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is the springboard for an on-screen narrative that plays out backwards. Light on visual effects, this early film of Nolan’s explores the workings of the human mind largely through editorial sleight of hand.

Ariadne experiments with gravity in one of the dream worlds of "Inception". For this composite shot, Double Negative rotoscoped actors Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio from the Paris background, then used photogrammetry to digitally re-create the environment.

Ariadne experiments with gravity in one of the dream worlds of “Inception”. For this composite shot, Double Negative rotoscoped actors Ellen Page and Leonardo DiCaprio from the Paris background, then used photogrammetry to digitally re-create the environment.

For a more spectacular look at the workings of the human mind, we need to turn to Inception, which follows Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he plunges through nested layers of other people’s dreams … and into his own haunted past. Along the way, Nolan unleashes a dazzling series of startling visuals ranging from inverted gravity fields to folding cityscapes, all cunningly designed to demonstrate the power of his characters to manipulate the dreamscapes into which they’ve been plunged.

The Tesseract scenes in "Interstellar" were filmed on a stripped-down set with a plexiglass floor. Visual effects artists at Double Negative digitally replicated the Tesseract set up to 220,000 times to create the multi-dimensional environment seen at the climax of the film.

The Tesseract scenes in “Interstellar” were filmed on a stripped-down set with a plexiglass floor. Visual effects artists at Double Negative digitally replicated the Tesseract set up to 220,000 times to create the multi-dimensional environment seen at the climax of the film.

In Interstellar, Nolan goes a step further. When space pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) enters a black hole near the climax of the epic space adventure, he finds himself inside a hyper-dimensional construction called a “tesseract”, within which a kaleidoscopic array of memories has been laid out for him to explore.

Inside the tesseract, memories exist as captured moments of time, each one contained within the four walls of the bedroom of Cooper’s daughter, Murph. Each memory is thus a kind of bubble, so it’s no surprise that Interstellar carries visual echoes of another, earlier film in which memory bubbles play a crucial part.

That film is Brainstorm, the granddaddy of all memory movies. Released in 1983, and directed by VFX pioneer Douglas Trumbull, Brainstorm chronicles the development of a memory-recording device by scientists Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken).

Partway through the film, Reynolds suffers a fatal heart attack, during which she has the presence of mind to don one of the experimental headsets and record her own final moments. The resulting “death tape” becomes the plot device about which the rest of the film revolves.

When scientist Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) suffers a fatal heart attack, the experimental brain scanner to which she is attached records her experiences as she dies, as shown in this still from Douglas Trumbull's 1983 film "Brainstorm".

When scientist Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) suffers a fatal heart attack, the experimental brain scanner to which she is attached records her experiences as she dies, as shown in this still from Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 film “Brainstorm”.

Rather than a series of rooms, Brainstorm imagines memory as an infinite array of bubbles, each containing a different scene from a person’s life. The dizzying sequences in which Trumbull’s camera plunges through three-dimensional gridworks of memory bubbles were achieved using a specialised horizontal animation stand called a Computerised Multiplane System – “Compsy”, for short.

Capable of moving multiple layers of artwork through up to twelve different axes, Compsy worked round the clock to create Brainstorm’s memory bubble scenes. Each individual bubble was built up from three separate pieces of film – one for the fisheye motion picture footage visible inside the transparent sphere, another for the reflection bubble shape, and a third for the matte, which would be used to mask the bubble from its neighbours.

Artist Carolyn Bates prepares the basic artwork used to generate distant arrays of memory bubbles for the death tape sequence in "Brainstorm". A 4x5 still camera, mounted on a curved track, would advance on the backlit bubble transparencies, making incremental exposures on to a single piece of film.

Artist Carolyn Bates prepares the basic artwork used to generate distant arrays of memory bubbles for the death tape sequence in “Brainstorm”. A 4×5 still camera, mounted on a curved track, would advance on the backlit bubble transparencies, making incremental exposures on to a single piece of film.

One look at a still from the memory bubble sequence – which features thousands upon thousands of such multi-layered orbs – should prove that the task of putting human thoughts on the silver screen is enough to make any visual effects artist’s brain explode.

Few other films present the mechanics of memory as audaciously – and successfully – as Brainstorm. Yet, despite the difficulties of visualising consciousness, the human mind remains a potent playground for ambitious filmmakers, ensuring that this peculiarly cerebral branch of moviemaking will continue to, well, stick in the mind.

Whatever your taste, there are plenty of memory movies to choose from. There’s the mind-trafficking nightmare of Strange Days, penned by James Cameron and directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which posits not only a memory-recording device called a SQUID, but also the kind of playback apparatus those researchers at Lifenaut are working so hard to perfect.

Or maybe your tastes run to the Martian mysteries of the 1990 sci-fi hit Total Recall, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a man who buys himself an artificial memory of a holiday on the red planet … and ends up fighting for his life?

Oh, and who could forget the innovative cranial screw-top surgery of Steve Martin, in his role as Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr in The Man with Two Brains?

Which memory movie do you remember most fondly?

Arnold Schwarzenegger in a memorable performance as Douglas Quaid in "Total Recall" (1990)

Arnold Schwarzenegger in a memorable performance as Douglas Quaid in “Total Recall” (1990)

“Brainstorm” photographs copyright © 1983 by MGM/UA Entertainment Company. “Inception” photograph copyright © 2010 by Warner Bros. Pictures. “Interstellar” photograph copyright © 2014 by Paramount Pictures. “Total Recall” photograph copyright © 1990 by Columbia/TriStar Pictures and via IMDb.

Inspiring Rodeo FX

What drives people to work in the visual effects industry? The glamour? The technology? All those ravening monsters and exploding spaceships? Or is it just another job? In an ongoing series of articles, we ask a wide range of VFX professionals the simple question: “Who or what inspired you to get into visual effects?”

Here are the responses from the staff at Rodeo FX.

Close Encounters of the Cinematic Kind

"Toy Story" posterEveryone remembers favourite films from their childhood. For Benoit Rimet, character TD, one movie in particular took his imagination to infinity, and beyond: “Like pretty much everyone from my generation, I was inspired by Toy Story.”

Inspiration also came at a young age to Thomas Montminy-Brodeur, digital compositor. “My passion for visual effects started when I watched The Santa Clause. I was at that age when kids think that everything in films is real. So, when I saw Santa’s little helpers flying with jet packs, I asked my parents for a jet pack for Christmas!”

“When I was a kid,” said Samuel Jacques, CG artist, “I was always pausing and rewinding the VHS player at home to show my parents the latest visual effect flaw I’d discovered in a movie. Watching a scene in The Last Action Hero, I told them, ‘Look! You can see how the car is pushed in the air by this metal rod before the explosion!’ They always kept telling me I had an eye for ‘that kind of stuff’.”

"The Black Hole" posterWayne Brinton, VFX supervisor, was sucked into the business by the sight of a spinning singularity. “I remember my friend’s dad taking us to see The Black Hole in the theatre,” he recalled. “It scared the crap out of me. I remember being determined to figure out how they did the movie so that I wouldn’t be freaked out that an actual black hole would come and engulf our planet.”

Having experimented with filmmaking from a young age, Félix Vallières, digital compositor, got a big kick out of a classic Robert Zemeckis film from 1994. “I was watching some bonus features on a Forrest Gump DVD,” Vallières remembered. “That’s when I realised that everything was possible. The invisible effects they pulled off in that movie have always blown me away, from the beautiful feather shot, to adding Forrest Gump next to John Lennon and JFK.”

"Forrest Gump" features a number of groundbreaking invisible effects shots by ILM, including those in which the legs of actor Gary Sinise were digitally removed for scenes in which he plays double amputee Vietnam vet Lieutenant Dan.

“Forrest Gump” features a number of groundbreaking invisible effects shots by ILM, including those in which the legs of actor Gary Sinise were digitally removed for scenes in which he plays double amputee Vietnam vet Lieutenant Dan.

Martin Pelletier, VFX supervisor and studio manager, was drawn into the effects business by something a little more horrific. “Back in 1998, I got hooked on a documentary about the VFX work on Mimic,” stated Pelletier. “I was struck by the glint in these guys’ eyes as they showed the rigging and renders of a full-CG creature done in Softimage 3D on those old Silicon Graphics O2 workstations. I remember saying to myself, ‘I can’t believe that can be a job – it must be so cool!’”

As for Valérie Clément, production manager, there’s one film alone that shines brighter than any other in her childhood memory. “It all started when I was a child,” Clément reflected. “My favourite movie was the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. For me, it represented everything that was magical in movies.”

"Photoplay" magazine - September 1939

Timeless Classics

Still on the subject of favourite films, there are certain titles that crop up time and again. Ara Khanikian, VFX supervisor, recalled, “I grew up watching ‘awe’ movies like Close Encounters of Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and of course Star Wars. I was truly inspired by the storytelling and the visual quality of these timeless classics. Years later, when Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park came out, I was blown away and fell completely in love with the quality and realism of their visual effects. I kept asking myself, ‘How d’they do that?!’”

These same movies were also a source of inspiration for Cedric Tremblay, digital compositor.Growing up, my father showed me Star Wars and Jurassic Park,” Tremblay remarked. “This is when I really started wondering how those mind-blowing effects were made. Then, those great trilogies of the early 2000s – The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings – helped me discover computer animation and the digital arts. At that point, I just couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else, and so I studied as hard I could to get in this extraordinary world.”

Richard Edlund and the ILM crew prepare a motion control shot of the Millennium Falcon for "Star Wars".

Richard Edlund and the ILM crew prepare a motion control shot of the Millennium Falcon for “Star Wars”.

Yet another devotee of the classics is Frédéric Simard, CG artist, who commented, “I remember the first time I saw Star Wars as a kid. I was blown away. I believed it was all real. Then came Jurassic Park. After seeing that, I had all these questions boiling in my brain. How could they make these things look so real? What process was involved? I eventually got accepted into graphic design and bam, The Matrix came out. Then I knew for sure that’s what I wanted to do.”

It was the dinos that did it for Simon Mercier, matte painting TD, who reported, “One day, my granny took me to see Jurassic Park. At that time, people in Quebec kept talking about our “Quebecois” talent that had contributed to that amazing movie. Right then and there, I stopped studying the dictionary to become a doctor, and tried to learn everything I could about that emerging and buzzing workstream. Today, I can assure you that it was worth all the effort!”

For Guillaume Poulin, VFX editor, it was less about individual films and more about a single filmmaker. “David Fincher is the reason I got into visual effects,” Poulin asserted. “Movies like The Social Network, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and Panic Room use VFX as a tool to help the story move forward. Invisible effects are often the most impressive ones. When you can’t tell what was done in post-production, that’s when it’s interesting to me.”

For this scene in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", Matte World Digital extended the partial set with an elaborate 3D environment featuring architectural details from the 100-year-old Union Station in Washington D.C.

For this scene in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, Matte World Digital extended the partial set with an elaborate 3D environment featuring architectural details from the 100-year-old Union Station in Washington D.C.

Early Adopters

For many among the current generation of VFX artists, early inspiration came not only from the movies, but also from hobbies, toys and videogames.

Cedric Tremblay was inspired by a classic children’s construction toy. “As a kid, I played a lot with LEGO blocks,” he revealed. “I was creating worlds and inventing stories in space, on earth, in the ocean.”

Ara Khanikian noted, “For a large part of my life growing up, I had a penchant for creativity. I put it to use by building scale models and radio-controlled cars, by drawing and creating classical animations, or by experimenting with stop-motion animation.”

Commenting on his early research into the specifics of visual effects, Khanikian added, “I got a lot of my answers by watching a TV show called Movie Magic … and by reading Cinefex!”

"Myst" by Cyan GamesFrédéric Simard remarked, “I didn’t really know I wanted to do CG until I played Myst – a pre-rendered adventure puzzle game where you can interact with the environment. I started searching for the software I could use to do that stuff. I got lucky enough to use 3D Studio in DOS, and was able to start modelling objects and edit small clips.”

Computer games also inspired Samuel Jacques: “When I saw the cinematics in Final Fantasy VII, I knew for sure what I was going to do later in life. I would record them on the VHS player so I could play them back again and again. At that time, they were a huge step forward in the visual quality of videogames, and the high quality of the images mesmerised me.”

Final Fantasy VII

Getting the Picture

By definition, VFX is a visual discipline, so it’s no surprise that the driving force for Wayne Brinton was “my love for making images on a computer.” Reminiscing about his first Commodore VIC-20 computer, Brinton elaborated, “I spent a weekend programming a ball to bounce and change colour, which I had to save to tape. Then I got my first IBM. Someone loaded a copy of 3D Studio release 3, and explained some of the process of making CGI for VFX. I was hooked!”

Wayne Brinton of Rodeo FX cut his digital teeth using a Commodore VIC-20 home computer. Photograph by Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons.

Wayne Brinton of Rodeo FX cut his digital teeth using a Commodore VIC-20 home computer. Photograph by Evan-Amos via Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolas Lemay, digital compositor, recalled his own early obsession with pictures: “I had a deep passion for photography, and I always wanted to push the limits of grading and compositing. For me, the capacity to create and modify images was astounding. You could create universes out of thin air. That is really what brought me into VFX.”

For Félix Vallières, digital compositor, it was always going to be about the moving image. “Everything started when I was about ten years old, and a friend of mine got a video camera,” he commented. “We started doing some analog effects, costumes, and stuff like that, just for fun, making really stupid movies. At that time, I didn’t even realise that digital visual effects were something you could do as a job!”

Course Changes

The author Douglas Adams once wrote, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

Early career changes are not unusual for visual effects artists, including Ara Khanikian, who recalled, “When I was studying biochemistry, I came to the conclusion that I hated it, and could not fathom the idea of wearing a lab coat and working in an environment lit by neon lights. I decided to drop out of university and pursue my passion by enrolling in a school that taught 3D animation.”

Tara Conley, VFX producer, also followed a circuitous route into the business: “My VFX story started almost by accident. I graduated from British Columbia Institute Of Technology in Broadcast Journalism in 2002. Over the course of my first year in the labour market, I worked in many different facets of the broadcast industry, from promotions at local radio stations, to writing material for a realtor’s website, to writing, producing and directing my own Mystery Shopping Segment for the television show The Shopping Bags. I quickly realised that I really enjoyed the entertainment side of the industry rather than breaking news after all!”

Valérie Clément, production manager, began by running down a different kind of track altogether. “I started my career in sports, very far from the film/VFX industry,” she admitted. “Several years later, my urge to work on films became too strong, and the geeky part of me brought me to visual effects.”

For Thomas Hullin, CG supervisor, even the lure of the courtroom wasn’t enough to divert him from certain pyromaniac tendencies. “I was about to start law studies, but then I watched The Lord of the Rings. I thought, ‘OK, forget about everything, because there is actually a job where you can bring fantastic universes to life, create armies and blow stuff up!’ Now, a few years later, I am extremely fortunate because I get to work on amazing feature films … and blow stuff up!”

Stuff blows up in this scene from "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers", for which physical effects supervisor Stephen Ingram and his NZFX team staged the blast on a large-scale miniature set of Helm's Deep. Weta Digital added multiple layers of animated Uruk-hai warriors, siege ladders and pikesmen.

Stuff blows up in this scene from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”, for which physical effects supervisor Stephen Ingram and his NZFX team staged the blast on a large-scale miniature set of Helm’s Deep. Weta Digital added multiple layers of animated Uruk-hai warriors, siege ladders and pikesmen.

Pure Inspiration

Like Mary Poppins, inspiration will sometimes just blow in on its own irresistible wind, setting its own rules and just whisking you away.

Julien Klein, digital compositor, described his own unique view of VFX inspiration: “I remember a documentary about Jean-Paul Gaultier’s workshop. and all the little hands that were contributing to his collections, and also the fine embroidery that only a few seamstresses could make. I wanted to be part of such an army of little elves.”

For Alexis Bélanger, digital compositor, the act of doing the work is inspiration enough: “There is a point while working on a shot when you think it’s never going to happen. But then, everything comes together, and the final result magically appears before your eyes. Whether it’s removing an ugly scar from a face, or making a planet explode, the feeling when you finish creating something that is completely different, and improved from what it was originally, is such a rush.”

Watch the Rodeo FX 2014 feature reel:

Established in 2006, Rodeo FX has offices in Montreal, Los Angeles and Quebec City. Recent credits include The Walk, Fantastic Four, Tomorrowland, Cinderella, Unbroken and Birdman, as well as extensive work on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.

Special thanks to Anouk Deveault. “Forrest Gump” photographs copyright © 1994 by Paramount Pictures Corporation. “Star Wars” photograph copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm, Ltd. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” photographs copyright © 2008 by Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” photograph copyright © 2002 by New Line Cinema.

Visual Effects in China

"Monster Hunt"

Whichever way you look at it, China is huge. Not only is it home around 20% of the entire world’s population, but it’s third only to Russia and Antarctica in terms of land area.

China is big in the movies, too. With a box office of nearly $5 billion in 2014, and its number of cinema screens growing exponentially (over 23,000 in 2014 compared to around 4,000 in 2008), it’s set to get even bigger.

All this growth means that Hollywood productions are desperate to make films that appeal to Chinese audiences – not to mention investors. Conversely, Chinese doors are gradually inching open to admit more Western films into the country’s cinemas, with the Chinese administration now permitting the distribution of 34 foreign films each year, compared to 20 just three years ago. This summer’s biggest hit, Jurassic World, relied for nearly 20% of its $524.4 million debut on tickets bought in China.

Meanwhile, following the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, homegrown Chinese films have begun to capture the imaginations of Western audiences. Recent hits include the VFX-heavy fantasy film Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, John Woo’s The Crossing and the phenomenally successful Monster Hunt, which shortly after release became the biggest-grossing Chinese film of all time. The success of these and other movies proves the appeal of effects-driven movies in all corners of the globe.

Watch the trailer for Monster Hunt:

So, what’s it like working as a VFX artist in one of the world’s fastest-growing motion picture markets? How does the nature and quality of Chinese visual effects work compare to what’s produced in the West? How do budgets and deadlines differ?

Eager to learn more about the state of the art in Chinese visual effects, Cinefex put these questions and more to Wil Manning, VFX supervisor at the Beijing branch of international visual effects company Pixomondo.

How long have you been working in China?

I’ve been working for Pixomondo in China for five years. I spent the first half of that time doing commercial VFX supervision and art direction. The second half has been focused on feature film work. My experience is purely within the local market, although there’s the occasional co-production. I started supervising and producing on my first feature for Pixomondo in 2013, and by the end of this year I’ll have eight feature supervision credits under my belt, plus a couple of other miscellaneous credits.

What drew you to China?

I came here because I thought China was at the start of something pretty amazing. China was growing, changing. If you want to make an impact – to be a part of something and help forge it – then China is the kind of place you go. Besides, I guess I felt like doing something really different, having an adventure. And China has been, if nothing else, a very interesting adventure!

How does Pixomondo’s Beijing branch integrate with the Chinese film industry as a whole?

Our Beijing branch has always been interested primarily in the local industry – we work on a lot of Chinese features – but we’ve also done plenty of work in commercials and international features. What we don’t tend to do is typical outsourcing work. In fact, on most features we’re sending out wire removals and extractions to other vendors, and instead trying to focus on building up our creative chops. We’re super-busy, and it’s amazingly exciting to be here working on these shows.

Do you need to be based in China in order to work on Chinese films?

The broader Chinese VFX industry is very much in a constant state of flux, as a result of government mandates and market forces, both of which continue to change rapidly. If you’re not on the ground here, then I’d argue that you’re not able to keep up with those changes. That makes it very hard to engage with the local market.

One of our focuses has been on building and keeping a strong and stable team. We need people who understand directors and have experience here. The majority of our team are mainland Chinese in nationality and they’re amazing artists. They engage with Chinese as well as Western cinema, and we try to run a facility that they want to belong to.

How do VFX for Chinese films differ from what’s produced in the West? How do the budgets differ, for example?

Budgets have a huge impact on what’s possible in VFX. Currently, the budgets in China are not high.

Consider the Harry Potter, Transformers, or Marvel features – any of your average tentpoles. These can break $800m worldwide, which means they can afford very large budgets. Bigger budgets make bigger VFX possible, as well as more carefully and preciously crafted VFX.

Compare this to local Chinese mainland films, which have yet to bust $250m – in fact, many films that are considered big releases don’t break $100m. But the Chinese market is growing – at an astounding rate of around 35% a year. It’s already the second largest in the world, and expectations are that it will surpass the flat North American market (US and Canada) within three years.

"The Monkey King" posterHow heavily do these lower budgets impact on the quality of the visual effects?

If you watch a lot of Chinese films, you’ll see a heap of bad VFX. Bad edges. Poor extractions. Mistimed plates. Missing grain. Painful animation. Mediocre lighting. It makes trained eyes bleed and gives me nightmares. Part of what we’re doing here is trying to put a stop to this, to make quality control part of the process.

For example, I recently watched The Monkey King with a supervisor friend in L.A., and they were amazed at the lack of finish on the show. Then I mentioned that, as far as I know, the 1,800 or so VFX shots were all completed within three months. My friend was still amazed, not about how these shots passed quality control, but about how the hell anyone could do that much work in such a short time. And why they would agree to it to begin with!

Give us an idea of what that kind of workload means in real-world terms.

If you sat with the director to start reviewing those shots in the last month of production – after two months of work, in other words – you’d need to get through 100 shots a day just for one round of directorial review. Where do revisions even fit into that kind of schedule?

Watch the international trailer for The Monkey King:

Is the situation likely to improve as the Chinese market grows?

Yes. I think that as budgets increase – and they most certainly will – these films will become more and more competitive aesthetically with their Western counterparts. And, while there might be a shortage of time and money on these films in the meantime, studios are not letting that stop them. There is no shortage of ambition in China.

How are you preparing for the changes to come?

One of the things we’re doing is to actively seek out those directors and producers who are concerned about quality in visual effects, and engage them in discussion. We want not only to provide a reliable service in a market which is constantly changing, but also to influence the direction of the industry by being involved at a local level.

We’re already seeing a lot more smaller features coming to us because they have invisible effects, or they need amazing design, and they want to be able to trust that it’s going to be done right. They want someone they can depend on because, in the Chinese industry, that’s a very difficult thing to find.

The bigger fantasy films will come in time, but there’s a lot more money at risk with high budgets at the moment because of the cap in earnings. Also, when it comes to realism, fantasy is a lot more forgiving.

"Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal" posterHow do you go about bidding for work?

Fixed bids are very common in China. I personally don’t mind them, and have had a lot of success on smaller shows working with directors to manage the money. Directors have almost full control on sets here – producers are rarely around, and usually don’t interfere.

There are a lot of facilities here that will bid a show at a flat fee off a script. They get awarded the show, and then just work until there’s no money and no time left. The result is the director is trapped into a compromise situation – they literally run out of time for revisions, and the film is not ready, but they have to take it to market. It’s underbidding in a way that beggars belief, and it hurts the industry here, as it surely does elsewhere too.

What sort of working relationships do you typically have with Chinese directors?

We spend a lot of time personally in contact with directors. We use WeChat to communicate, we’re emailing each other directly, we go out to dinner together. It’s rare for a facility supervisor to not be directly involved with the director, and it’s equally rare to be dealing with producers and the production studio, except where money is concerned.

Do you generally work through a production VFX supervisor?

No – there is rarely a production or studio-side VFX supervisor. This is changing, but for many films this role is one we naturally step into. In a way, we represent the directors, and we ensure they get what they need. This includes making sure quality standards are adhered to.

This is a difficult thing to understand from a Western point of view, but when you have production companies that don’t need to ensure VFX quality to sell their films, paired with directors who obviously do care, it’s important to be there and to be a responsible player.

How about deadlines? Are they always as tight as you’ve described?

The Chinese industry is highly driven by getting to market. This means we work to some of the most amazingly short deadlines you’ve ever seen. Right now, with all the growth, the situation is not really improving. Investors are often private, or groups of studios, and they want their returns within the timeframes specified. Release windows are highly contested, and will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about working fast.

Do you work a lot with South Korean companies?

Yes. If you’re doing VFX in mainland China, then you’re working with South Korean VFX companies a lot of the time. Their industry is highly evolved and full of skilled, talented, hard-working artists. They have their own issues too, but the Chinese and South Korean film industries share a lot of ground.

Most of the visual effects for "Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal" were created by Korean VFX company Macrograph, with the exception of this underwater action sequence, delivered by Pixomondo.

Most of the visual effects for “Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal” were created by South Korean VFX company Macrograph, with the exception of this underwater action sequence, delivered by Pixomondo.

What’s the one quality you need to survive in the Chinese VFX industry?

An ability to think outside the box.

What we at Pixomondo do exceptionally well is to solve people’s problems. If our clients don’t have enough budget for their A-plan, we try to work out a B-plan, or propose an alternative methodology. When our clients come to us with problems in post-production supervision, we go around to visit the vendors and help them get systems working. We sit with our clients and point out what is not good enough and why it should be better.

It’s all a little strange at the beginning, but if you have a passion for making films and just want to get shit done, then it all comes naturally. You just do it.

The VFX-heavy fantasy "Monster Hunt" is now the highest grossing Chinese film of all time.

The VFX-heavy fantasy “Monster Hunt” is now the highest grossing Chinese film of all time.

So, what does the future hold for visual effects in China?

Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is audience expectation in China. My hope is that, over the next few years, the audiences here will become more discerning and more demanding of filmmakers. I feel like this is starting. You hear comparisons of Game of Thrones to Chinese features, and audiences are starting to ask questions.

Frank conversations with producers and investors here will tell you that the quality of a film’s VFX isn’t something they rate highly. That’s because, from a business point of view, it just doesn’t matter much yet. I believe that will change. As it does, Chinese cinema will come into a renaissance.

As the market expands and these changes take hold, will Chinese films become more Westernised?

Not really. That’s not how China works.

There’s a tendency in the West to think that China is trying to expand beyond itself. If my time here has taught me one thing it’s that this country is very internally orientated. That’s not to say it isn’t aware of the outside world, but Chinese people will always want to have Chinese stories as well – and they have a market to support it. So they’ll keep making the films they like.

Will Chinese cinema be influenced by the West? Sure! Absolutely! But it will still become its own thing, similar to how Japanese film is its own thing. The outside influences are still present, but the net result will be something unique and wonderful in its own right.

Introducing Cinefex China

Cinefex China signing board

Cinefex China launches! From left, Dexter China CEO Jooick Lee, Cinefex U.S. attendees Don and Estelle Shay, director/producer Jacob Cheung, visual effects Oscar-winner John Bruno, Yong Ma, executive editor of Cinefex China, Younghwa Kim, director and CEO of Dexter Studios.

To much of the world, I suppose, the big news out of China last week was the announcement that Beijing has been awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics, a first in that no other city has ever hosted both winter and summer games. A significant milestone, to be sure. But the really big news out of China last week – okay, from my admittedly narrower perspective – was the official launching of Cinefex China.

A little over a year ago, I was approached by Jooick Lee, a film producer and senior executive at Dexter Studios, the largest, and arguably foremost, visual effects studio in Asia, with facilities in both Korea and China. Over lunch at a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles, he explained that Dexter Studios wished to secure a licensing agreement to publish Korean and Chinese editions of Cinefex. Interest in visual effects was on the rise among Asian filmgoers – especially in China, the fastest-growing film market in the world – and, perhaps more importantly, Dexter felt that artists in Asia’s burgeoning effects community would be well-served by a publication designed to help them keep abreast of techniques and technologies used elsewhere in the world.

This was not the first time we had been approached with such a proposal. A Japanese edition of Cinefex has been published by a succession of companies for nearly 30 of our 35 years. And for shorter stretches of time, with less success, we had licensed editions in France, Italy and Russia.

Cinefex China front cover

Front cover of the first issue of Cinefex China

With a deal in place to produce both Korean and Chinese editions, the Dexter publishing team decided to focus first on China. We provided them with articles and imagery for Cinefex 142, which would form the basis of the first Cinefex China edition. They translated the articles to exacting standards and designed the publication, using a vertical page format they felt was better suited to the Chinese market than the horizontal format we employ in the U.S. edition.

The end result is a strikingly beautiful premiere issue – 186 pages of text and photos that does us all proud.

Staff members and guests gather outside Dexter Studios in Beijing to celebrate the launching of Cinefex China.

Staff members and guests gather outside Dexter Studios in Beijing to celebrate the launching of Cinefex China.

Last Wednesday, Cinefex China was introduced to the public at a launch ceremony conducted at the Dexter Studios facility in Beijing. I was honored to be in attendance. Posters lined the walkway and a billboard-size screen bearing the Cinefex logo and an array of cover images became a signing board for the principals involved. It was like a Hollywood premiere – without the stars.

Inside the facility, we were treated to a show reel produced by Dexter Studios which featured, among other things, some remarkable footage of an all-CG gorilla baseball player and a rampaging Bengal tiger that, to my eye, compared most favorably with similar creations produced in the West.

Cinefex China panel discussion

Jooick Lee (left) moderates a bilingual panel discussion with participants Jacob Cheung, John Bruno and Don Shay.

An audience of about 200 – many of them artists in the Chinese visual effects community – bore witness to the launch ceremony, which was highlighted by a panel discussion on visual effects, in and out of China. Panelists included Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Bruno, distinguished director and producer Jacob Cheung, and me. Jooick Lee moderated the panel, which was translated in real-time, deftly switching back and forth between American and Chinese speakers. It was a gala event, warmly received.

Welcome aboard, Cinefex China. We wish you every success.

“Zhong Kui” – VFX Q&A

"Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal" - Cinefex VFX Q&A with Wil Manning of Pixomondo

One of the biggest Chinese films in recent years is Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, an epic fantasy that reimagines China’s legendary folk hero, Zhong Kui, as a shapeshifting superhero with a Hulk-like inner self.

Co-directed by Peter Pau, Academy Award-winning cinematographer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Zhao Tianyu, the film chronicles Zhong Kui’s (Chen Kun) journey of self-discovery as he battles to prevent the demons of hell from invading the world of mortals, while attempting to romance the porcelain-skinned Snow Girl (Li Bingbing).

Most of the 1,200-plus visual effects shots in Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal were created by Macrograph, a Korean VFX company, with director Pau fulfilling the role of overall production VFX supervisor. However, for a key action sequence near the movie’s climax, the filmmakers turned to Pixomondo’s Beijing facility.

In this exclusive Q&A session, Cinefex spoke to Pixomondo’s VFX supervisor, Wil Manning, who described the challenges involved with delivering a full-throttle, full-CG sequence to a tight budget and in record-breaking time.

Watch this detailed breakdown video of Pixomondo’s visual effects work for Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal:

How did you get involved with Zhong Kui?

One day, in August 2014, I was pulled into the Beijing Pixomondo conference room by our management team. They asked if I would drop what I was doing and jump on to this sequence for a Chinese fantasy film called Zhong Kui. I had no idea what they were talking about.

John Dietz, our former head of production, told me, “Zhong Kui is this gigantic possessed demon hunter, and he fights the even more gigantic Demon King, who has a flaming head and snakes sticking out of his back. They fight through a village, destroying it as they go, then Zhong Kui lures the Demon King into a lake, where they fight through ancient sunken ruins until the Demon King causes a volcanic eruption that levels the underwater environment. Zhong Kui tricks the Demon King, cuts off his hands with a sword he pulls from his spine, and throws him back into the village. The sequence is three minutes long, stereo, full CG. You’ve got four months to deliver – and that time started two weeks ago!”

How did you react?

I blinked a few times, then asked politely if this was some kind of strange hazing ritual to the rookie VFX supervisor. As it turned out, the brief pretty much described exactly what I ended up working on for the next 14 weeks.

"Zhong Kui" visual effects by Pixomondo

How did you set about tackling the enormous workload?

Our Beijing facility was very busy delivering Jiang Wen’s Gone with the Bullets at the time, so we had to reach out to what we affectionately term the “Pixoverse” for help.

My colleagues around the world were very patient in listening to my pleas for assistance, and only a few of them questioned the state of my sanity, given my requests. To be fair, this was expected – I think it’s really hard for people with a predominantly Hollywood background to understand this kind of Chinese brief. Fortunately, we’re a company full of brave and intrepid individuals, so help was forthcoming in the form of three teams spread around the globe.

How did you divide up the work?

We had a team in L.A. that handled previs, animation, look-dev for the characters, and the finishing of the village shots. Our team in Stuttgart, Germany, did all the heavy lifting for the underwater shots. And we had a small home team in Beijing that handled storyboards, design tasks and much of the TD setup work.

In total, we were 35 people spread over three time-zones. Key awesome people involved were Thilo Ewers (division VFX supervisor) and Sebastian Meszmann (VFX producer) in Stuttgart, Tim Jones (division VFX supervisor) and Julia Neighly (VFX producer) in Los Angeles, and Charlie Winter (CG supervisor) and Cinzia Wang in Beijing. I wore two hats as overall VFX supervisor and producer, which may or may not be responsible for the permanent facial twitch I carry to this day.

I think Thilo Ewers and Sebastian Meszmann are as responsible for the success of the underwater sequence as anyone, and I’m very grateful to them for their leadership and professionalism. I tried very hard to give them as much creative control over their own sequences as possible, and it was great that this was rewarded with strong results.

How closely did you liaise with the rest of the production?

On my second day on the show, I went to meet Peter Pau, who was director, producer, production VFX supervisor and cinematographer on the film. Peter is an accomplished and amazing veteran – a man who can wear as many hats as he likes without missing a beat.

Peter explained to us that the rest of the movie’s visual effects – over 1,200 shots – were being handled by Macrograph, and that our little sequence would slip in somewhere near the end of the film. Macrograph would supply us with the creature models, while Peter would supply us with lots of reference footage of the village. There were some storyboards, he told me, but we were free to throw them out.

The original character designs came from Weta. Macrograph created the character assets as Maya rigs with V-Ray for Maya shading and Yeti grooms. Everything else we developed for ourselves.

What was it like working with Peter Pau?

One of my favourite things about working in China is the direct access we tend to have to directors and key decision-makers. This show was no exception. Peter was always available to give feedback, and had an amazing ability to respond to emails with a comprehensive answer within twenty minutes of them being sent. He would do this day or night, from anywhere around the globe. I tried to keep up, but was shamed by my need for regular sleep. This kind of access to Peter, along with his rapid feedback, was one of the reasons we were able to complete the show in such a short time.

"Zhong Kui" visual effects by Pixomondo

How did you plan the sequence?

The previs took five weeks. The animators built the sets as they went, and these were then exported and refined as they worked, eventually being updated with pieces of our kit-bashed environments. We sort of threw it all together at once – there wasn’t much time for anything else.

Did you go to L.A. to brief the animators?

Yes. I tied everyone to their chairs, and then forced them to watch my favourite kung fu action sequences. I talked about camera moves, quick takes and punch-ins, exposition of fighting and environment – a sort of crash course in Chinese “wuxia” cinema.

Which films did you show them, specifically?

One of the films we watched a few times was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Peter won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for that. There’s an action sequence early in the film where the two female leads battle it out over rooftops during the night. That was great, because it was similar to what we were going to do … just with fewer giant demons bursting through the walls and no volcanic eruptions. Still, I think any excuse to watch Ziyi Zhang fight Michelle Yeoh is entirely valid, and frankly action doesn’t get much better.

What lessons did you draw from that?

The shot count in that rooftop scene is really low. Instead of quick cuts, you’ve got long, following shots with a lot of great expository camera movement. One of my missions was to reduce our shot count, and watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave me a lot of ideas of how to do that. Eventually we got down to 34 shots.

"Zhong Kui" visual effects by Pixomondo

Apart from choreography, what else did the previs help you with?

We made a conscious effort during previs to simplify the FX problems. When you have an average shot length of six seconds, and only five weeks for a massive amount of FX tasks, there’s a certain amount of danger involved: longer sims, added complexity, more difficulty with art direction and so on. I suffer from sentimentality and find the tears of FX artists unsettling, so I wanted to reduce the pain.

Can you give us an example?

We have shots where the camera is pulling back ahead of Zhong Kui while the Demon King, in hot pursuit, trips and crashes through a house, destroying it. But you never really see that house being completely destroyed, or see into the interior, because we had the camera whip around to follow Zhong Kui. But the impact is still there and the story is still told. When you don’t have a lot of time, you have to get creative about how you serve the story. In a nutshell, that was the whole challenge of this show.

"Zhong Kui" visual effects by Pixomondo

The characters have a distinctive look, with inner fire glowing through cracks in their skins. How was that developed?

The fiery glow was pretty much all done in comp, using ID and UV passes to augment CG passes of procedurally generated lava textures. I think it was Falk Hofmann, our comp lead in Stuttgart, who worked the look-dev of the characters underwater. We had a lot of problems with the textures we received from Macrograph when we tried to use them in our scenes, but Falk did a fantastic job of turning a rough output into a wonderful polished look.

Tim Jones, our division VFX supervisor in L.A., was responsible for Zhong Kui’s shaders and he also did a great job – so much so that Peter Pau asked us to pass our adjusted shaders back to Macrograph to be incorporated into other shots.

Beyond that, we didn’t have a lot of control over the characters. We were trying to both match and enhance Macrograph’s look, without making it so different the audience would notice. We only had a few stills of theirs to work with – I don’t think I ever saw a complete shot of theirs until I watched the final film. So we were working a little blind.

"Zhong Kui" visual effects by Pixomondo

How did you approach the character animation?

Animation was extremely challenging. We were racing to get things finished so that all the character interaction FX could be done. I actually feel that in the end we didn’t quite get to where I wanted. Some shots are beautiful, but in others the weight of these giant warriors just doesn’t come across. The previs went well, but it probably took too long, and the refining of the animation just needed more time. But the circumstances were such that we didn’t have a lot of options.

For example, it would have been great to have done animation dev on things like the snakes, but we only got rigged snakes seven weeks out from delivery, and four weeks out they were re-supplied at half the length. Peter was great about this, and understanding of what we were trying to do in the time frame – for which I’m grateful – but it does make it hard to do work when you have no time to explore.

Did the deep-sea setting make it difficult to pace the action?

I would have loved to play more with the whole underwater feel, and to have integrated it better into the animation and storytelling. Sometimes we nailed the floaty feeling, other times the size and strength of the characters against the buoyancy of the water just doesn’t communicate well. If we’d had another month, I think we would have been able to make it more special.

Tell us more about the underwater environment. Did you build it all in 3D?

Yes, the underwater environment was fully 3D. One of the real challenges the Stuttgart team faced was staying flexible while being in such a rush. 3D made it easier – we could lower a few bricks here for better contact with animation, or add bits and pieces there for better shot composition, all on the fly as cameras changed.

"Zhong Kui" visual effects by Pixomondo

How about the lighting? Did the underwater setting complicate things?

Above water, our lighting was heavily simplified. Underwater, the lighting interacts a lot more with the environments. While the dust passes are faked, the non-volumetric passes are lit from the characters in reasonably complete scene files.

Compositing was pretty traditional from a technical point of view, but I think the art direction and look development from Thilo Ewers, our division VFX supervisor in Stuttgart, makes the underwater sequence very visually striking. The colour and tone are immersive, and they draw your eye to the key action, even when the scenes get murky. We went through several iterations, adjusting the amount of depth, and shots were individually tuned from templated look-dev.

You talked about simplifying the demands on the FX department. But there’s still a lot going on in those shots – fire, underwater debris and so on.

I’m really proud of what the Stuttgart FX team accomplished within the time. From final animation to the time the shots were delivered, they had about 4-5 weeks – and the last animation publishes came to them with less than two weeks to spare. Patrick Schuler, our division FX lead in Stuttgart, and his team did an amazing job.

What specific effects did they add to the shots?

For every shot in the two-minute-long underwater sequence, there’s a pass of bubbles for each character’s lava skin, bubbles from nose and mouth, interactive plankton in the water, a dust/suspension FX pass and, if there’s contact with any surface, another dust pass driven via contact.

On top of that, there’s fracturing destruction with added dust trails, fine particle passes, and large particle passes. Debris that hits the ground sinks into the ground mesh and emits further dust. There’s also brick rigid bodies, brick fracturing and ground fracturing effects. Oh, and there’s blood and a complex series of water entry passes for the first water shot.

"Zhong Kui" visual effects by Pixomondo

Was it hard to get all those different simulations looking as if they were happening within the same body of water?

Well, one interesting problem was trying to consolidate the fields and underwater turbulence across multiple solvers. We accomplished this by being careful about the order with which we used the solvers, and by having emissions driven by the previous solve. For example, fracturing came first, then dust, then plankton. When one sim drives another, you get a stronger feeling that they are suspended in the same water body.

Apart from this, the FX approach was reasonably traditional: low res collision meshes were cached out, along with the higher resolution ones, from Maya. We then used Houdini to handle things like plankton, a lot of the fracturing and general destruction. 3DSMax, with Fume and thinkingParticles, was used extensively for the dust, blood, and other destruction effects. Where possible, Houdini meshes were bought back into Max for lighting, but some things – like the plankton – were rendered directly in Mantra. Cloth was done with nCloth, while Hair was handled by Ornatrix attached to a proxy head in Max. We were happy that Zhong Kui has a very manly stiff beard – it made the sims a lot easier!

Bingbing Li stars as Snow Girl in "Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal"

Bingbing Li stars as Snow Girl in “Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal”

How do you feel about the project, looking back?

Ah, my feelings are very complicated. It’s a Chinese fantasy film, and probably none of my family will ever see it. Even if they did, they would compare it with other VFX-heavy superhero tentpoles, and from that point of view it’s hard to see the strengths of the film. And it would be incorrect to say what we achieved is as good as the work we did on Star Trek: Into Darkness, or what we’ll end up doing on the Fantastic Four reboot.

But, for 14 weeks of work, designing and building a full CG sequence that on paper was incredibly challenging – and for a Chinese market budget to boot – well, it’s pretty cool seeing it come together, having happy clients, paid artists and some genuinely cool shots for the reel.

On that note, I’m not sure how anyone ever really copes with projects that require justification in order for people to appreciate them fully. No supervisor wants to say “it was good considering the restrictions”, despite that often being the case.

But that’s a challenge that you continually face, working in China right now. We don’t have the budgets. We don’t have the same amount of time. But the ambition is certainly there and, given time, we’ll catch up.

Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is released in the US on Blu-ray and DVD today, 4 August 2015.

Don’t miss next week’s accompanying article, where we’ll be talking to Wil Manning about the state of the art in Chinese visual effects, and discussing the challenges and benefits of working in one of the fastest-growing motion picture markets in the world.

Special thanks to Joni Jacobson, Christian Hermann and Sirena Ung.