About Graham Edwards

I'm senior staff writer at Cinefex magazine. I also write novels. In a former life, I produced animated films for theme park rides and science centres. If you offer me a cold beer, I won't say no.

The Making of “Alien Outpost”

"Alien Outpost" - the mothership attacks

Alien Outpost follows the fortunes of two documentary cameramen embedded in a USDF army unit at Outpost 37 – one of a dwindling number of military outposts built to defend the planet against an alien invasion that occurred ten years previously. With the war now over, both funding and support for these obsolete defences are in short supply, and all that remains is to mop up those aliens left behind after the departure of their mothership. But have the invaders – armoured giants known as Heavies – really retreated, or are they just biding their time before the next phase of the invasion begins?

Made on a budget of under $5 million and shot in the style of a military documentary – complete with cutaways to interviews with all the main protagonists – Alien Outpost is the feature directing debut of VFX supervisor Jabbar Raisani. The film contains 322 visual effects shots, delivered primarily by Hybride, where the key staff were Daniel Leduc, Pierre Raymond, Thierry Delattre and Philippe Theroux. Additional visual effects support was given by Craig Crawford at Cadence Effects, and individual artists Colin McCusker and Neall Stafford. Practical creature effects were the province of Alliance Studios.

Alien-Outpost-Heavy-2

In addition, a handful of effects shots were created by the director himself, who also served the film as production visual effects supervisor. “It was offered to me to have a VFX supervisor, but I said, you know what, let’s save the money and put it towards the actual shots, and I’ll take on the extra workload,” Raisani explained. “I ended up doing about a dozen shots myself, when we’d run out of money, but I knew we still had to do them!”

The Origins of Alien Outpost

"Alien Outpost" is the feature debut of VFX supervisor turned director, Jabbar Raisani.

“Alien Outpost” is the feature debut of VFX supervisor turned director, Jabbar Raisani.

Jabbar Raisani’s film career began at the age of 17, when a high school mentorship programme in his home state of Texas introduced him to visual effects and animation. After a stint at Atomic Pictures in San Antonio, he gained his first feature credit on Spykids 3-D: Game Over, working as a technical director for Janimation in Dallas. Following a move to Los Angeles, Raisani found employment at Stan Winston Studio, where he worked as both CG supervisor and previs artist on features including Fantastic Four, Eight Below and Iron Man.

It was while at Stan Winston Studio that Raisani first felt the urge to direct. “We were doing the practical suit for Iron Man,” he recalled. “At the time, Stan Winston Studio was sort of at the forefront of the rapid prototyping game, and we decided collectively that this would be the best way to do the suit.”

Remembering the day when Robert Downey Jr. first walked on to the Iron Man set wearing the partial suit, Raisani said, “Marvel had never seen him in the suit before. The director, Jon Favreau, had never seen him in the suit before. So it was really a tense moment. I found myself just watching Favreau work – you know, he totally owned that moment. He had Robert Downey walk around, he tried out camera angles – he just had such confidence. Watching Favreau do that, I was like, ‘Oh man, now that’s what I want to do!’”

A subsequent move to Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios saw Raisani working as a visual effects supervisor on films including Machete and Predators. “I just pushed all the time to get on to set,” Raisani remarked, “and Robert Rodriguez gave me that chance.” After Predators, Raisani and another Troublemaker alumnus – Blake Clifton – returned to Los Angles to strike out on their own. “I wanted to direct films, and Blake wanted to be a cinematographer. So we started thinking about what was going to be our first feature.”

Drawing from their individual military backgrounds – and a shared love of military documentaries – Raisani and Clifton moved into an apartment and co-wrote the screenplay for Alien Outpost. “We had almost no furniture – a bed and a dresser each, and a television sitting on top of the box it came in. Oh, and two beanbags. All we did was watch movies and write.”

"Alien Outpost" was shot on location in South Africa.

“Alien Outpost” was co-written by Jabbar Raisani and Blake Clifton, and shot on a number of privately-owned farm locations in South Africa.

Building Outpost 37

Alien Outpost was shot in South Africa, on a small number of locations approximately 30 minutes’ drive from Johannesburg. Getting clearance to shoot a film full of firefights and pyrotechnics proved more difficult than the filmmakers had anticipated. “The first location we chose was a national park,” Raisani recalled. “At first they said, ‘Oh yeah – lots of people film commercials in here.’ So we met the park ranger and walked out to the place where I wanted to build the Outpost. I told him there were going to be explosions and gunfire, but said that we would not actually damage anything. He stopped me in mid-conversation and said, ‘I just want you to be aware that I’m uncomfortable even with how far we’ve walked on the grass here.”

With permission refused to film in the national park, the production team began investigating alternatives. “We found a farm that was privately owned – what in Texas I would call a ranch,” said Raisani. “It turned out that the guy who managed it was really into visual effects. So he and I kind of hit it off. I told him, ‘If you let us shoot here, I’ll put you in the film.’ And he was game.”

Other locations – including a quarry, a deserted village and the valley in which the film’s final confrontation would play out – were found nearby, each no more than 15 minutes’ drive from the farm, which would also function as the production’s base camp.

The large ensemble cast were put through a week of boot camp before shooting began, during which they were required to stay in character at all times.

The large ensemble cast were put through a week of boot camp before shooting began, during which they were required to stay in character at all times.

Before shooting began, the actors spent a week together on location, familiarising themselves with the environment and getting into character. “We did a week of boot camp,” Raisani confirmed. “All the guys were there from sunrise to sunset, and they had to stay in their ranks. We had a military advisor, and he ensured that each of them knew what their rank was, and how they worked in the hierarchy. They really fell into it.”

Raisani encouraged the actors to stay in role throughout the production by maintaining an open set. “A lot of guys spent a lot of time on set. I said, ‘Look, if any of you guys want to be there, you can be there. The more people on camera, the cooler this is going to look, and the more it’s going to feel like you guys really are together out there.’ Some of the scenes were very character-specific, but otherwise if they wanted to be there, they could absolutely be there.”

Creating the Aliens

Alien-Outpost-Design-1

Production designer Eddie Yang was responsible for the overall look of the film, from the run-down Outpost 37, around which much of the action is centred, to the alien Heavies and their associated technology. For the Heavies specifically, Yang worked hand-in-hand with Steve Wang, who led the Stan Winston Studio design team behind the iconic alien hunter in Predator.

“The idea was to have a future that’s based in reality,” Raisani remarked. “When the Heavies attacked, they decimated our ability to produce new things. So a lot of the human tech is the same as what we have now. Part of that was budgetary. If I could have built all kinds of brand new, cool, futuristic vehicles, I would have explored that more. But we knew it wasn’t feasible.”

Alien-Outpost-Design-2Yang and Wang turned to a number of reference sources for the aliens, including video games and films, as well as nature. “We looked at a lot of reptilian photographs,” commented Raisani, “particularly turtles and lizards – they were a big inspiration for the Heavy.”

While the designers explored a number of radical body shapes, the final Heavy design was a more conventional, lizard-like biped. “We tried something with multiple legs,” said Raisani. “We even had one whose bottom part was a snake. But ultimately I knew I wanted a guy in a suit. I come from a practical effects background, so I know that doing it that way is very cost-effective in the places where you can get away with it. Also, if you have the suit there in the plate, it’s perfect lighting reference.”

Initial Heavy designs took the form of sketches in both 2D and 3D, with the designers working primarily in Photoshop and ZBrush. From there, the team at Alliance Studios – a creature and make-up effects company newly set up by Yang and Wang – sculpted the creature in clay and took moulds. “They pulled foam rubber suits from the mould, and then airbrushed them,” Raisani explained. “The suit had a self-actuating jaw, which attached directly to the jaw of the suit performer, Doug Tate. When Doug opened his mouth, the mouth opened; when he closed his mouth, it closed.”

The USDF troops have their first close encounter with the Heavies when they leave Outpost 37 to investigate allegations that one of their mortar rounds has hit the nearby village of Ghrem. While exploring a quarry littered with dead goats, they are ambushed by the waiting aliens.

“We had Doug Tait there in the suit all day,” Raisani recounted. “It was really rough terrain, so I knew it would be problematic having him take the suit on and off. We scouted all the places where he would appear, and then slotted our day based on the knowledge that it would take him roughly twenty minutes to move from place to place. We would do a shot of the Heavy, and then while he was moving location, we would be filming down in the quarry. So we were leapfrogging back and forth.”

Performer Doug Tait wore the Heavy suit, created by Alliance Studios, in all the scenes featuring the alien invaders.

Performer Doug Tait wore the Heavy suit, created by Alliance Studios, for most of the scenes featuring the alien invaders.

On a separate day, Raisani set up a rolling greenscreen shoot of Tait performing in the suit, in natural light. “We did a shot every half-hour throughout the day, when we knew we didn’t need the Heavy for anything else. That gave us a kind of library of elements to use later in post, with different actions and lighting.”

While most of the scenes featuring the alien Heavies were shot using Tait in the suit, many of the shots were augmented digitally. For some shots, the Heavy was replaced entirely by its digital counterpart.

Digital enhancements to the Heavy suit included a wider range of facial expressions and an additional reversed leg joint. In some scenes, Hybride replaced the suit entirely by its digital counterpart.

Digital enhancements to the Heavy suit included a wider range of facial expressions and an additional reversed leg joint. In some scenes, Hybride replaced the suit entirely by its digital counterpart.

“We knew he was going to be augmented from the beginning,” Raisani commented. “Given the budget, we knew we could afford one practical Heavy with a helmet and removable armour, which would give us multiple configurations. But we knew we couldn’t make the eyes move. We actually ended up adjusting the suit a little bit more than planned. We made a decision in post to give it a leg like a dog, which meant that in any scene where you see its bottom half, we had to adjust the legs to the new shape.”

The digital Heavy was based on a 3D scan of the suit. “We scanned the entire suit in LA, but decided to use our unit photographer for the texture shoot to reduce the cost,” Raisani recalled. “The resulting OBJ files, along with the raw data, all went up to Hybride.” Shots featuring the digital Heavy were modelled and animated in Autodesk Softimage and rendered out using Solid Angle Arnold.

Watch a video breakdown reel of visual effects from Alien Outpost:

Fire and Fights

The ambush in the quarry is just one of many firefights in Alien Outpost. Every shot featuring pyrotechnics – with the exception of a fully digital shot which comes at the film’s climax – began with a practical effect. Each the time the weapons of the Heavies came into play, however, digital enhancements were used to give them a suitably alien edge.

“When the Heavies’ weapons go off, I wanted blue energy tied in with that,” Raisani explained. “We did some tests, but actually having blue explosions is really difficult, both in terms of safety and the availability of materials. So we started with a real explosion, then Hybride went in and added a digital explosion that matched the timing of the practical one.”

With the exception of one fully digital explosion, all the pyrotechnics seen in "Alien Outpost" had a practical base.

With the exception of one fully digital explosion, all the pyrotechnics seen in “Alien Outpost” had a practical base.

The more conventional tracer fire seen throughout the action was created by UK-based visual effects artist Colin McCusker – with whom Raisani had worked previously on Game of Thrones.

Despite the “make do and mend” philosophy of their war-torn world, the USDF troops do have access to one piece of futuristic technology: their guns are loaded with High Impact Phosphorus Rounds (HIPR), otherwise known as “Reds”. The bullets have an outer armour-piercing case, which contains a second round whose purpose is to inject incendiaries directly into the enemy’s body. “The Reds are very high-tech,” Raisani confirmed, “although there’s nothing really radical that happens with them visually … except for when they explode.”

During one of the gun battles, a human insurgent is blown apart by one of the high-impact Reds. “We shot a stunt guy running up the hill with practical squibs on, shooting blood out,” Raisani stated. “Then we put a dummy out there, filled it with explosives and blew it apart. Hybride combined the two shots together, and added some digital gore.”

Outpost 37 Stills 2013

For a scene in which an insurgent is hit by an incendiary round, a dummy was filled with explosives and blown apart. Hybride combined the shot digitally with footage of a stuntman running into position, and enhanced it with digital gore.

A similar approach was used for a scene in which a captured Heavy is shot in the head at point-blank range: “Doug Tait did a performance in the suit of the Heavy dying, and then we shot a rig covered in blood bags that we exploded on camera. Again, Hybride did a digital blend and added gore.”

Additional gore effects can be seen in a scene where one of the USDF soldiers slashes the neck of an insurgent. The performer playing the victim wore a prosthetic fitted with a practical blood rig, while his attacker mimed the cutting action. Cadence Effects completed the effect by adding a digital blade to the practical knife hilt.

Seeing in the Dark

At key points in the story, important action is seen playing out on computer monitors, using either thermal or night vision. The thermal footage was shot for real using a heat-sensitive camera. With the exception of the screen on the thermal camera itself, all the monitor displays were tracked in during post-production.

“I worked on Predators, and although we did some real stuff for the Predators’ vision, most of it ended up being done digitally, and for me it just never looks the same,” Raisani confessed. “So I said, ‘Look, we have to have a thermal camera there every single day.’ We had a guy shooting in tandem with us; there are also some shots where the actors playing the journalists had the real thermal camera.”

A different approach was taken with the night vision. “The helicopter night vision was done by Cadence Effects,” Raisani revealed. “We had a little drone with a camera, and we put it everything through Nuke to make it look like night vision.”

Monitor screens featuring both real thermal imagery and simulated night vision were shot separately and composited into the live action plates during post-production.

Monitor screens featuring both real thermal imagery and simulated night vision were shot separately and composited into the live action plates during post-production.

The Spire

The film’s finale sees the USDF soldiers confronting both Heavies and their mind-controlled human minions in the shadow of a mysterious alien structure known as the Spire. While the Spire was a largely digital construct, strategically-positioned set pieces aided its integration into the environment. “We realised the landscape had nowhere for the bad guys to hide,” Raisani explained. “So we built these cubes, which we integrated into the design of the Spire. We worked a dozen or so of the cubes into the landscape, then Hybride worked those practical elements into the design.”

A similar approach was used for later scenes set inside the Spire. “The bottom ten feet of the Spire interior was a practical build, using the same cubes, because I knew that I didn’t want to have to extend the set for every shot,” commented Raisani. “We moved the cubes from shot to shot, so it would feel like the whole room was filled with them. Craig Crawford at Cadence Effects did some very simple digital augmentation: a light flicker with a little movement in it, and Hybride did a wide shot. But it was 90% there in-camera.”

After the Battle

In a brief post-credits scene, the surviving members of the Outpost 37 team are seen embarking on their next operation. Andros (Reiley McClendon), who loses his hand during the film’s final battle, is seen wearing a prosthetic replacement. “Eddie Yang sculpted the hand digitally, and we rapid-prototyped the digital parts and joined all the mechanisms together,” Raisani explained. “It was kind of a puppet – like those little elasticated figurines where you push on the base and the whole thing collapses, then you let off the pressure and the whole thing pops back up. When you see Andros closing the prosthetic hand, Eddie’s just off-camera acting as puppeteer.”

Another character sports a prosthetic leg to replace the limb he lost in action. “That was done sort of old-school,” said Raisani. “The actor is just sitting on top of his own leg. For the replacement leg, Eddie just bought someone’s prosthetic leg in South Africa on the internet. It belonged to someone’s relative who had died. It cost about 50 bucks.”

A moment of rare calm in "Alien Outpost"

Reflections on Alien Outpost

Jabbar Raisani is one of a number of visual effects artist who have recently turned their hands to writing and directing. The highest profile example is perhaps Gareth Edwards, whose indie film Monsters led to his taking the helm on the 2014 big-budget reboot of Godzilla. At the same time, crowdsourcing has enabled other effects professionals to get their own feature projects into production.

“I think this is probably a trend,” Raisani opined. “There is more visual effects in film nowadays, which means guys like me are getting more control on set, and we’re naturally falling more and more into a directorial seat. I ended up doing a lot of second unit stuff before I even knew really what directing was. If you have a passion for storytelling, I think it’s a natural progression towards directing your own material.”

With his first feature under his belt, Raisani is already planning more films, including an additional three set in the same world as Alien Outpost. “The second one picks up close to where this one finishes,” he revealed. “There’s a third, which is really the end of the story, and then we’re coming back around for a prequel. So if everyone likes this one – and if all the numbers come back the way they should – then I think it’s likely there will be a follow-up.”

Other films in development include Capturing the Dead, a horror film co-written with Blake Clifton, and Pulse, adapted by Raisani from the novel by Jeremy Robinson. “When you’re setting out as a director – and maybe forever – you’ve got to have three or four projects all on the move,” Raisani reflected. “Then you just have to follow the heat. Whichever one gets steaming: go with it!”

“As for Alien Outpost, I feel really good about it. It’s one of the most difficult things that I’ve ever done, but equally one of the most rewarding. At the end of the day it’s the movie I wanted to make.”

Jabbar Raisani and Blake Clifton with the cast of "Alien Outpost"

Jabbar Raisani and Blake Clifton with the cast of “Alien Outpost”

Special thanks to Craig Bankey and Laurie Cook. Alien Outpost photographs and video copyright © 2015 O37 Films Limited.

“Interstellar” Wins VFX BAFTA

Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar picked up the 2015 BAFTA Award for Special Visual Effects, in a star-studded ceremony held last night, 8 February 2015, at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden.

Co-written by Nolan and brother Jonathan, the film is a journey of discovery, realised in part through stunning visual effects images created by Double Negative. As he had with the Dark Knight trilogy and other films, however, Nolan sought to capture as much action as possible in-camera, with on-set special effects orchestrated by Scott Fisher, and other practical effects by New Deal Studios.

Picking up the award were visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin, nominated along with Scott Fisher, Andrew Lockley and Ian Hunter. You’ll find extensive coverage of their work on the film in Cinefex issue 140. It goes without saying that we think it’s a great read, but don’t take our word for it – here’s the proof that BAFTA-winner Paul Franklin agrees:

Paul Franklin of Cinefex 140

Caesar Rules at the 13th Annual VES Awards

13th Annual VES AwardsLast night – February 4, 2015 – the Visual Effects Society held the 13th Annual VES Awards in recognition of outstanding visual effects artistry and innovation in film, animation, television, commercials, video games and special venues.

Disney’s Big Hero 6 scooped no less than five awards not only in a range of animated features categories, but notably too in the “Outstanding Model in any Motion Media Project” category, earning plaudits for the metropolitan mash-up that is the City of San Fransokyo. Meanwhile, Game of Thrones burned up the television categories, collecting three awards, including “Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Photoreal/Live Action Broadcast Program”, for the season 4 finale, The ChildrenCaesar - "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

The big winner out of the competing feature films was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with Weta Digital’s VFX team, led by Joe Letteri, picking up the award for “Outstanding Visual Effects in a Visual Effects-Driven Photoreal/Live Action Feature Motion Picture”.

While the film’s simian star, Caesar, was not there to collect the award in person, his performance brought more plaudits in the form of the award for “Outstanding Performance of an Animated Character in a Photoreal/Live Action Feature Motion Picture”. And all those seamless shots of apes in the rain earned the film’s compositing team the award for “Outstanding Compositing in a Photoreal/Live Action Feature Motion Picture”.

Quicksilver - "X-Men: Days of Future Past"Additional feature awards went to the time-warping Quicksilver kitchen sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past, and the invisible effects of Birdman, while a host of further awards were handed out to winners in the fields of commercials, video games and special venues.

For a full list of all the winners, and a gallery of photos from the night, visit the VES website.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” photographs courtesy of Weta Digital and Rising Sun Pictures and copyright © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

The Cinefex Awards 2014

The Cinefex Awards 2014

Never mind the Oscars. In the world of visual effects, there’s only one awards ceremony that counts: the Cinefex Awards.

Yes, the time has come once more for us Cinefex staffers to set aside our famed objectivity, take off our research journalist hats, and tell the world not what’s in our heads, but in our hearts.

Votes have been cast in a number of cunningly devised VFX categories. So, without further ado, here are the results of the 2nd Annual Cinefex Awards!

Cinefex Awards - Jaw on the Floor

The “Jaw On The Floor” Award … goes to the VFX that left us totally amazed

WINNER – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Jody Duncan – “Not being an inherently ‘techie’ person, the effects that always amaze me most are those that hit me in the gut, that affect me emotionally. So my Jaw on the Floor Award has to go to the closeups on Caesar and his son, Blue Eyes, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which were so expressive and pain-filled, I totally forgot that I was looking at computer generated characters.”

Don Shay – “First Gollum. Then Kong. Now Caesar. For more than a decade, Weta has been advancing the art of character creation via the merger of motion capture technology and computer animation. Each project has been wondrous to behold, culminating with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in which brain-boosted apes give performances as moving and powerful as their human counterparts. Maybe more. Forget the debate over who’s most responsible for these performances – Andy Serkis and his mocap army or the artists at Weta Digital – this is an awesome blend of art and technology that invites one to look past the artifice of these characters and into their souls.”

Joe Fordham – “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a film that exceeded my expectations in just about every way. Despite a preview screening of some early scenes at Fox – and the amazing experience of attending a scoring session for the movie – I was not prepared for the emotional wallop that the film delivered. Damn, was it gorgeous to look at, with its bedraggled rainforest and ruined San Francisco. Most importantly, it worked as a character piece. I cared for those apes, and ceased to think of them as anything but empathic, conflicted and emotional creatures. The visual effects were an organic part of all the film, and that’s really what it’s all about.”

Gregg Shay – “My winner is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Weta Digital (with Standard Deviation) has absolutely figured out how to transform a human actor into a CG character. I totally bought into the apes being apes, and Andy Serkis and Toby Kebell gave wonderful performances. Oh, and I loved the movie too!”

Graham Edwards – “They talk about how hard it is to cross the uncanny valley. Well, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar and his simian sidekicks swung clear to the other side on rainforest vines. The apes in this movie are a true quantum leap in digital character creation – and deliver emotional performances to boot. Disbelief suspended. An out-and-out VFX win.”

Cinefex Awards - What Did I Just See?

The “What Did I Just See?” Award … goes to the invisible VFX we didn’t even spot

WINNER – Birdman

Joe Fordham – “For reasons too complicated to explain, we had a revolving door on the editorial lineup for Cinefex 140, so at one point I was excited to be covering Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman. Without telling tales out of school, I can say with some authority that the visual effects are some of the most cunningly devised I’ve seen (or not seen) in a while. However, despite one sequence where the film delves into full-bore fantasy – terrific work by Rodeo FX and Spectral Motion – the real pyrotechnics in this film are in the performances. I found the unsavory nature of these self-possessed theatre folk very funny … and astonishingly we witness these damaged people backbiting, weeping and clawing at each other for what appears to be one unbroken 85-minute take. I thought it was a masterpiece.”

Gregg Shay – “Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier featured an unbelievable 2,500 effects shots. That’s more than Avengers Assemble. I think I must have missed at least 500 of them!”

Graham Edwards – “LAIKA’s latest animated feature may not seem like an obvious candidate for this award, but for the entire time I was watching The Boxtrolls, I completely failed to spot the places where the practical stagework of the stop-motion animation ended, and the seamlessly integrated CG effects began.”

Cinefex Awards - Hmm, That's New

The “Hmm, That’s New” Award … goes to the most innovative VFX

WINNER – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Gregg Shay – “Lola VFX had to get creative for the ‘Old Peggy’ shots in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. After shooting scenes with actress Hayley Atwell without old age makeup, they shot an elderly lookalike’s face in their face-projection rig, and projected parts of it on to the original photography.”

Joe Fordham – “Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin haunted me. The moment that the alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, takes her human victims back to ‘her place’ and has her way with them ranks as some of the most disturbing imagery I’ve seen in a science fiction film. But it’s kind of beautiful at the same time. Hats off to production designer Chris Oddy, Asylum Models and Effects and visual effects supervisors Tom Debenham and Dominic Parker at One of Us. You truly freaked me out.”

Graham Edwards – “It’s hard to come up with a new design for a movie alien. Edge of Tomorrow did a pretty terrific job, so I’ve no hesitation in voting for it here. The fluid, unpredictable forms of the Mimics – the result of extensive development work by production designer Oliver Scholl and a bunch of artists including Kevin Jenkins, Steve Burg, Ed Natividad and Tani Kunitake, interpreted and realised by the VFX teams at Framestore and MPC – were startling to look at, unpredictable in their behaviour and like nothing I’d seen before.”

Cinefex Awards - Olide But Goodie

The “Oldie But Goodie” Award … goes to the best use of old-school visual effects

WINNER – Interstellar

Don Shay – “Old-school visual effects were in short supply this year, so let’s raise a toast to Christopher Nolan, whose Interstellar – sprawling in scope and theme – would almost certainly have been an orgy of digital excess in the hands of most other directors. Not to belittle the significant digital accomplishments of the film, but Nolan kept his pixels in a supporting role, enhancing his preferred use of practical effects, full-size spacecraft and robots, elegant miniatures and exotic ‘alien’ locations. On film, no less. And in doing so, he created an epic space adventure, rooted in physical and scientific reality, that speaks to both the heart and the mind.”

Gregg Shay – “The physical models built by New Deal Studios for Interstellar dovetailed seamlessly with Double Negative’s digital work. It’s wonderful to see effective – and believable – practical work on today’s big budget films.”

Jody Duncan – “When Paul Franklin and Ian Hunter told me how they did the shots of a spaceship traveling through a black hole in Interstellar, I felt as if I’d been transported back to the early days of Cinefex magazine. They planted an honest-to-goodness practical miniature spaceship on the ground, nose up, and photographed it as they dropped honest-to-goodness STUFF on it! Was this Gene Warren of Fantasy II talking circa 1981? Could it be that someone actually created such imagery without a particle system in 2014? Fantastic!”

Joe Fordham – “ My vote goes to Interstellar. Bless them for doing so much for real, and kudos to all for making such impressive use of those practical elements.”

Graham Edwards – “Tempting though it is to honour the charming models and matte paintings seen in The Grand Budapest Hotel, I’m siding with Interstellar, for two reasons. One: it’s heart-warming to see traditional spacecraft miniatures holding their own in this digital age. Two: while I was watching the movie, I didn’t give two hoots what I was looking at – all I knew was that the story was sweeping me along and the whole thing looked breathtakingly good!”

Cinefex Awards - Eye Candy

The “Eye Candy” Award … goes to the VFX that looked plain gorgeous

WINNER – Guardians of the Galaxy

Graham Edwards – “Ever since I bought my first book of paintings by artist Chris Foss, I’ve been a sucker for big, gaudy spaceships. That’s why my winner in this category is the big, gaudy Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Gregg Shay – “The visuals throughout the whole of Guardians of the Galaxy were stunning. I was impressed by the look of all of the characters and creatures, the environments and the spaceships. The film also featured some amazing makeup work.”

Don Shay – “Does the world need another ‘reimagined’ fairy tale in which the original villain is now the misunderstood hero – or heroine? Not in my view. So, though I was less than enthralled with the character motivation and logic-defying storyline of Maleficent, I was nonetheless enchanted by the imaginative visuals and look of the film. Every frame looks like the most beautifully rendered storybook you’ve ever seen. High marks to Robert Stromberg – former matte artist, visual effects supervisor, Oscar-winning production designer and now first-time director. Happily, his debut feature was a home run at the box office, surely guaranteeing him another time at bat. I want to see what he does next.”

Joe Fordham – “I’m going with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for this award. I loved those soggy apes.”

Cinefex Awards - Big Cheesy Grin

The “Big Cheesy Grin” Award … goes to the VFX moment that made us feel like kids again

WINNER – Guardians of the Galaxy

Jody Duncan – “My vote goes to Rocket, the genetically engineered raccoon, in Guardians of the Galaxy. Whether it was Rocket himself or the fantastic soundtrack (which was essentially the soundtrack of my teen years) that made me feel like a kid again, I’m not sure, but that furry ball of Ones and Zeroes had more personality, heart and humor than many of the human performances I’ve seen this year!”

Graham Edwards – “From Peter Quill’s enterprising employment of an alien rodent as a microphone, to the brilliant interplay between Rocket Raccoon and Groot, to the crowd-pleasing moment when umpty-thousand Nova Corps Starblasters hook up to form a gigantic protective net over their beleagured planet … Guardians of the Galaxy delivered big-screen space opera hokum on a scale both epic and human, supported throughout by colourful and perfectly pitched visual effects.”

Joe Fordham – “The docking sequence in Interstellar was, for me, the most thrilling moment of visual effects cinema last year. I loved how Nolan staged the preceding turning point in the narrative in a very matter-of-fact manner – making it all the more shocking. The subsequent mating of the Ranger and Endurance spacecraft was, to me, electrifying. In fact, there were many moments in the film that held me in their thrall: the first journey into the wormhole, the discovery of the ice planet, the Tesseract and the moment of the hand reaching out to Brand … *sniffle*”

Don Shay – “This is an easy one. At a critical juncture in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the labyrinthine plot calls for Wolverine and the X-Men to free their old rival, Magneto, from confinement in an iron-free, impregnable vault deep beneath the Pentagon. What’s a mutant to do? Why, bring in Quicksilver to penetrate the fortress and – quite literally – run circles around Magneto’s helpless-to-stop-him security detail. Real-time slows to a virtual stop as the camera follows the hyper-fast Quicksilver, who scampers about like Road Runner on steroids, playfully art-directing and tweaking the mayhem he’s creating. Audaciously conceived and executed – and pretty darn funny.”

Janine Pourroy – “I thought Edge of Tomorrow was terrific. I actually forgot about the effects and fell into the story, which is always a blessing these days.”

Gregg Shay – “Who doesn’t love watching Godzilla destroy cities around the world? And in this year’s Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, the iconic lizard was bigger and better than ever.”

Cinefex Awards - The One That Got Away

The “One That Got Away” Award … goes to the best VFX in a film we didn’t cover

WINNER – Birdman

Joe Fordham – “For the reasons I’ve already explained, my vote goes to Birdman.”

Graham Edwards – “Controversially, I’m casting my vote for a film which, at the time of writing, I confess I haven’t seen, since they only just saw fit to release it in the UK. Birdman is a film that everyone’s talking about, and I’ve listened to enough of the chatter to know that if there’s one film I really wish I could have read about in Cinefex during 2014, it’s this one.”

Don Shay – “The film I most regret our not having covered recently is Kon Tiki, a criminally underseen gem that I caught up with only recently on video. In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl and five colleagues set out to prove that people from South America first inhabited Polynesia – 5,000 miles away and 1,500 years ago – by casting themselves onto the high seas on a raft of the sort that these primitive explorers could have built. Kon-Tiki, a gripping re-enactment of the Heyerdahl expedition, features some of the best ocean-based visual effects I’ve seen – including tumultuous storms and thrilling encounters with whales and sharks. And they were done, not by one of the big-name visual effects companies, as one might expect from the quality of the work, but by a handful of small Scandinavian companies that proved themselves fully capable – if you’ll pardon the expression – of blowing the big guys out of the water.”

Cinefex Awards - Never Mind the VFX

And finally … The “Never Mind The VFX” Award … goes to simply the best movie of the year

WINNER – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Janine Pourroy – “I fell in love with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I continue to watch again and again, almost compulsively, finding new things to admire about it each time: its delightful color palette, its wonderful Wes Anderson-y setups, its perfect use of miniatures, its marvelous script, as delivered by Ralph Fiennes. Capturing the zeitgeist of a very specific time and place is something that Wes Anderson does better than anybody else. It’s like magic to me.”

Joe Fordham – “Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel were the films that gave me the biggest charge in the cinema last year. But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Interstellar also linger in my imagination.”

Graham Edwards – “I’m tempted to vote for Under the Skin, a dark and disturbing sci-fi film with a riveting – and heavily improvised – central performance from Scarlett Johansson. It mesmerised me from start to finish, and creeped me out more than any other film I can remember in recent years. Instead, I’m going for the opposite extreme and backing the frothy delight that is The Grand Budapest Hotel. I think I grinned from start to finish, and thinking about the film now I’m grinning all over again.”

Don Shay – “Easily topping my list of the best films of the year is Birdman. The film – co-written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and with an exhilarating performance by Michael Keaton – defies description in a mere sentence or two, but richly deserves the accolades it has garnered. Technically virtuosic, it is staged and photographed, via fine-tuned choreography and artful digital stitching of long-take scenes, to seem as though all but one brief segment has been captured in a single continuous take. Brilliant on all accounts.”

Jody Duncan – “I have to confess that my REAL favorite movie of the year was Begin Again … with not an effects shot to be found.”


That concludes the Cinefex Awards 2014. Now it’s over to you. Tell us which movie moment put your jaw on the floor, which film you wish we’d covered, and which movie showed you something you’d never seen before. Oh, and while you’re at it, just how big was that cheesy grin of yours?

Write a comment below, or vote for your favourite film from the following list of the collective winners of the 2nd Annual Cinefex Awards.


Special thanks to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

The Visual Effects of “Black Sea”

Jude Law stars in Kevin MacDonald's submarine thriller "Black Sea"

The submarine movie is a staple of cinema. You might even say it’s a classic sub-genre, with films like Run Silent, Run Deep, The Hunt for Red October, The Enemy Below and Das Boot ensuring its continuing appeal over the years.

The latest director to dive into in the claustrophobic, pressure-cooker environment that is the submarine movie is Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland). His latest film, Black Sea, sees maverick Captain Robinson (Jude Law) leading a ragtag submarine crew into the ocean depths in search of a sunken German U-boat rumoured to be laden with Nazi gold.

Visual effects for Black Sea were delivered by Union VFX, whose team had worked previously with MacDonald on How I Live Now. VFX supervisor Simon Hughes oversaw the creation of 170 shots, on a project that ran for approximately a year, and kept a crew of around 30 VFX artists fully submerged in post for three months.

Watch Union VFX’s breakdown reel for Black Sea:

Preparing to Dive

“We referenced a lot of existing submarine films, including Das Boot and Below,” stated Hughes, “but we spent more time studying real footage – generally archive material from all sorts of sources. Reference material for the overall look was shared between us and the production designer, Nick Palmer, including salvage operation photos taken by divers in the Black Sea.”

As well as studying a host of maritime movies, the director drew additional inspiration from a science fiction classic. “For a sequence where a team of divers journeys from the sub to the U-boat, Kevin referenced Alien for its sense of claustrophobia,” Hughes recalled.

McDonald’s interest in the visual execution continued throughout the concept phase. “We did a lot of previs and concept design for Black Sea, and Kevin was very involved in this from day one – especially as it helped with the setup for the tank shoot,” Hughes remarked. “Kevin is very hands-on. Once we were up and running, however, he was happy to allow us to push forward and complete the shots without too much back-and-forth.”

The CG submarine created by Union VFX for Kevin MacDonald's underwater thriller "Black Sea" was based on the former Soviet vessel U-475 "Black Widow", now moored in Rochester, UK.

The CG submarine created by Union VFX for Kevin MacDonald’s underwater thriller “Black Sea” was based on the former Soviet vessel U-475 “Black Widow”, now moored in Rochester, UK.

How to Build a Submarine

The submarine featured in Black Sea was based on the former Soviet vessel U-475 Black Widow, now moored in Rochester, UK. Surveys were undertaken both inside and outside the vessel, and the interior was lidar scanned. “We sourced the technical drawings too,” added Hughes, “which we brought into Maya to build our model from. We also created a separate, damaged version of the sub, that we could reveal using a blend shape during the collisions.”

In all, the digital submarine took about two months to build. Certain parts of the vessel needed to have independent movement – such as cables, propellers and ropes. Most of these were animated in Maya; however, a few were simulated in Houdini, which was also used to add environmental effects.

“The sub needed to generate disturbances to particulate matter and seaweed, create bubbles and so on,” Hughes commented, “so we translated our Maya model to Houdini, which largely involved making sure that all the holes and seams were closed up, otherwise we would have seen FX simulations reacting strangely to the geometry.” Smoke passes were also generated at this stage, so that the compositors could control the turbidity of any given scene.

FX simulations were used to add particulate matter and bubble trails to the underwater scenes, as well as to create specific events such as explosions.

FX simulations were used to add particulate matter and bubble trails to the underwater scenes, as well as to create specific events such as explosions.

Canyon Encounter

As every fan of submarine movies knows, sooner or later the captain is likely have a close encounter with either the sea bed or an inconveniently situated rock wall. In Black Sea, it’s a perilous passage through an underwater canyon that puts Captain Robinson’s crew to the ultimate test.

“To get a feel for the canyon sequence, matte painter Lizzie Bentley did a couple of pieces of concept art,” Hughes recalled. “At the same time, our previs and FX lead, James Roberts, put together a previs sequence to establish angles and timings. This was done in Houdini, partly because that was James’s background, but also because we liked the look of the renders we got out of Houdini/Mantra. We did all this early on, so that as the edit progressed they had the shots in the cut.”

This early stage also saw Union spending roughly two months on R&D, exploring ocean and water effects in Houdini, and making the appropriate improvements to their pipeline in preparation for the demands of the show.

In post, the canyon terrain was created by CG supervisor, Mervyn New, using survey data from the Black Canyon in Colorado. Basic geometry was built up in Terragen, after which the model was further detailed using Maya and ZBrush, with texturing in MARI.

“Instead of over-texturing and sculpting the whole canyon, we waited until we had a first pass,” said Hughes. “After that, we isolated the areas that needed further texturing and sculpting.” Black Sea was the first feature for which Union VFX had used Solid Angle’s Arnold renderer. “We noticed a big improvement in render times and quality,” Hughes observed.

At a critical moment, the submarine collides with the canyon wall. “That shot was entirely CG,” Hughes revealed. “That includes all the debris, falling rubble and smoke, as well as the relevant collisions between all these objects, were generated in Houdini. As there was such a high level of interaction in the shot, all the CG needed to be rendered in Houdini too, except for the sub itself. So we spent a fair amount of time moving between the Maya and Houdini setups, making sure we were getting the correct result.”

Maria Peralta Ramos, compositing lead, paid particular attention to developing specific underwater looks for the canyon sequence. “These were based on lens distortions and aberrations,” said Hughes. “It took a long time to get the right feeling of murkiness, but still retain enough image to tell the story. It was a challenging, but very rewarding sequence.”

Dive! Dive! Dive!

No submarine movie would be complete without the sequence where the crew has to venture out into the briny. Black Sea is no exception. For scenes in which Captain Robinson’s motley crew of gold hunters embark on a diving foray, the performers were shot interacting with three large set pieces submerged in a tank, with the scenes further enhanced by visual effects.

“The practical set pieces comprised the front lower section of the submarine – including the first torpedo hatch and the opening hatch on the top deck – and the underwater ridge, which climbed up about ten feet,” said Hughes. “Two weeks were allocated to shoot the diving sequence, with tight turnaround times for moving the set pieces. It was a complicated scene to shoot, so we prevised the entire sequence, working from storyboards done by Dan Maslen.”

The previs footage incorporated clear indications of where the practical sets would begin and end. “We took our model of the sub, and highlighted the sections that would be covered by practical set builds in blue,” Hughes explained. “So, when we rendered the sequences, everyone could see when we would see the set pieces in frame. This allowed us to assess the VFX shots early on, and it helped Kevin, Nick, cinematographer Christopher Ross and Pinewood’s Diving Services to work out a plan for the shoot.”

During the shoot, magnetic tracking markers were attached to greenscreens positioned behind the set pieces; each marker carried an underwater LED light. “We had to be careful about when to use the greenscreens,’ Hughes observed. “When submerged, they influence the overall look of the scene far more than they would in a controlled lighting environment above water. Once we brought up the levels of murkiness, and lit the foreground in a diffuse and atmospheric way, we found the green could sometimes hinder the scene; in these instances, we reverted to using roto rather than key.”

Diving scenes were shot in a tank at Pinewood Studios against underwater greenscreens. Union VFX created CG extensions to add in both the missing parts of the submarine and the surrounding marine environment.

Diving scenes were shot in a tank at Pinewood Studios against underwater greenscreens. Union VFX created CG extensions to add in both the missing parts of the submarine and the surrounding marine environment.

The marine environment also complicated the task of matching Union’s CG cameras to their production counterparts. “We did an underwater lens grid shoot using the correct lenses in the same underwater housing as the production cameras,” Hughes recalled. “This was very important, because the housing – and the fact we were shooting underwater – added an extra level of distortion to the distortion already present in the lenses. Luckily we didn’t shoot with zoom lenses as well!”

In post, Hughes’s team composited the practical sets into their CG environments: “It involved a lot of roto, and then building a set of matte paintings for ground extensions, a lot of which were done shot by shot. We spent a lot of time nailing the correct balance of murkiness and lighting, including matching beams from the divers’ torches, and relighting our CG extensions with the beams.”

For a scene showing the submarine cruising along the ocean surface, a tug boat was photographed from a helicopter, then replaced by Union VFX’s CG vessel. Actors Jude Law and Branwell Donaghey were shot against greenscreen and composited in.

For a scene showing the submarine cruising along the ocean surface, a tug boat was photographed from a helicopter, then replaced by Union VFX’s CG vessel. Actors Jude Law and Branwell Donaghey were shot against greenscreen and composited in.

Coming Up For Air

Reflecting on the challenges of underwater filming for visual effects, Hughes remarked, “It’s about knowing when and where to use the greenscreen, how to get measurements of the set and camera, and how to set up basic things like tracking markers. That’s nothing new, but the difference is that it all needs to be relayed back to the diving team via a remote system. At the same time, multiple instructions are coming through to the team, who are only allowed in the water for a strict period of time.”

"Black Sea" teaser posterFor the Union VFX team, the “Black Sea” experience proved ultimately to be all about the ocean. “I learned a lot about creating underwater environments and CG oceans, how to blow things up underwater, underwater collisions, underwater filming, and how to manage the on-set VFX requirements whilst shooting in a tank or from a helicopter,” Hughes commented. “I also learned a lot about how to tell a story with VFX, and how to help the process along using previs, storyboards, reference and concept art, and just discussing the sequences to work out the narrative.”

Special thanks to Cheryl Clarke. Black Sea photographs copyright © 2014 by Universal Pictures International.

Inspiring Framestore

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 Framestore.

Formative Features

Not surprisingly, many people working at Framestore confessed to being inspired by a favourite movie. Jason Fox, creative director, was greatly influenced by the films of the 1970s and 1980s. “I grew up on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” he observed. “A diet of high adventure, fantasy and stories.” Mike Bain, head of CG, echoed Fox’s thoughts with a straightforward proclamation: “Star Wars!”

Posters from some of Framestore's inspirational VFX movies

Kyle McCulloch, VFX supervisor, agreed with his colleagues, recalling, “As a kid, I was completely enraptured by the fantasy films of the early 1980s: The Dark Crystal, The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth – I knew I wanted to be a part of bringing these fantastic worlds to life!”

Behind the scenes on "The Dark Crystal" (Photograph copyright © The Jim Henson Company)

Behind the scenes on “The Dark Crystal” (Photograph copyright © The Jim Henson Company)

Nor was McCulloch the only person influenced by Jim Henson and his puppet-wielding peers. Chris Lawrence, also a VFX supervisor, said, “If there was one film that inspired me to get into VFX, it was probably The Dark Crystal. It was the wizardry of it all, and of course the wonderful creatures.” David Mellor, creative director, threw his hat into the same Muppet-filled ring: “I was enthralled by movies with fantastical puppet creatures as a child: The NeverEnding Story, The Dark Crystal, Star Wars and Labyrinth were constant repeat viewings.”

However, Mellor went one step on from puppets, continuing, “But the defining moment was seeing the first giant Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park – especially as I was nuts about dinosaurs as a child. To see one moving in the real world was a spine-tingling and visceral experience. It was later I learned that ILM, Jim Henson’s Workshop, Stan Winston, Brian Johnson and Phil Tippett were responsible for much of that amazing work. Hats off and thank you!”

There’s more than one dinosaur fan at Framestore. Alexis Wajsbrot, CG supervisor, identified his watershed moment as “the first time we see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.” Elaborating, Wajsbrot added, “I had the exact same reaction as Dr Alan Grant in the movie: I could not believe what I was seeing. I got out of the cinema and told my mother, ‘I want to make dinosaurs!’”

Stephanie Mills, Flame artist, was also in rapture over raptors: “Back in the ‘90s, I thought the VFX work in Jurassic Park was stunning. This inspired me to pursue a career in VFX.”

Jurassic Park T-Rex

The dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” – both practical and CG – have inspired many to pursue a career in visual effects.

How Did They Do That?

In the Framestore offices, behind-the-scenes documentaries proved to be just as inspirational as the feature films they illustrate. Luke Drummond, lead compositor, said, “I loved seeing documentaries on how they made the VFX for Star Wars, Close Encounters and Indiana Jones.”

David Hulin, creative director, was hooked on “making ofs” too: “As a kid I loved to watch the behind-the-scenes documentaries for the original Star Wars movies and early Harryhausen movies, but never dreamed it was something I could get into.”

For some, it was a more recent film that sparked their interest in visual effects. Mike Ralla, senior Nuke compositor, recalled, “A photorealistic VFX plane crash created by Scanline for Munich stunned me and re-ignited a childhood fascination: blowing things up. I was an intern at their Munich facility a few months later.”

Then there were those who harked back to the very earliest days of cinema. “My brother and I had a book about the making of the original King Kong,” recalled executive creative director Murray Butler. “I think that stayed with me a long time!”

The Tube of Youth

But it isn’t all about the big screen. Christian Manz, creative director, revealed, “My interest in VFX was confirmed by my love of the BBC series Doctor Who – from its Douglas Trumbull-inspired slit-scan title sequence to the early and experimental use of chroma key and Quantel Paintbox. Imagine my delight at getting to design and create the show’s title sequence myself in 2010 … in just ten days!”

Peter Capaldi in "Doctor Who"

The long-running TV series “Doctor Who” is one of many shows to inspire today’s VFX professionals.

Stephane Naze, VFX supervisor, was also glued to the tube. “At the age of 18, I became hugely inspired by Twin Peaks, and particularly by the universe of David Lynch,” he recalled. “From then on it seemed evident that I was destined to work in cinema.”

Framestore has another TV addict in the form of Mary Doyle, senior modeller, who said, “My inspiration was my early love of stop-frame animation. I especially loved the Creature Comforts series by Aardman Animation – Peter Lord and Nick Park were a huge inspiration to me.”

Hands On

If something inspires you, the logical next step is to try it out for yourself. Chris Lawrence described how a fascination with VFX “kicked me off down the path of doing my own (very bad) Plasticine stop-motion animation on Super 8 film, rendering wine glasses on my Atari ST, working on control hardware for a time-slice film camera, and ultimately begging the Computer Film Company for a job as a runner.”

Ben Cronin, VFX supervisor and head of Flame, was a creative dabbler too. “In my teens, I got fascinated with designing the decals for racing cars in a PC game,” he remembered. “That got me into messing around at school on an early version of Photoshop. I did some work experience with a film editor and finally, when I saw what all the artists were doing at Framestore, it inspired me to make a career of it.”

Rocket Raccon - animation and visual effects by Framestore

Rocket Raccoon is one of many talking animals brought to life by Framestore over the year.

However, few can rival the early creative expressions of Euna Kho, compositor, who explained, “I was around six years old when I started Photoshopping my pets with unicorns and castles. Fast-forward a few years and I was at university watching a compilation of talking animals on YouTube, and ‘DING!’ – I realised I could be doing this life-time hobby as a career! I went straight to my advisor the next day and switched my major. I graduated with a computer art degree and headed straight to Framestore – the magical land of talking animals!”

Top Teachers

Educational establishments are where many meet their mentors. Tim Osborne, Senior Flame artist and VFX supervisor, confirmed this when he explained, “I joined the industry many years ago from Ravensbourne College, when CGI was about to explode onto our screens. I was inspired by lecturer Colin Cheeseman, who showed us that the technology was just a tool to create whatever we could imagine – a philosophy more appropriate today than ever before. I owe my career to that man.”

Mary Doyle acknowledged a similar debt when she remarked, “I always loved to draw and make things, but it was a tutor during my graphic design degree at Nottingham Trent University – Rob Newton – who encouraged me to try Maya. Now, 13 years later, I’m very happy to have a successful career that I love.”

David Hulin’s path through education was more tortuous, but no less formative: “I studied for architecture but got derailed by an American illustration tutor who said that if she could do it all again she would do animation, due to its unlimited possibilities. That was good enough for me!”

Hulin further recalled a host of figures who’d helped him along the way. “After graduating in traditional animation I was very lucky to meet Arnon Manor,” he said. “Arnon very kindly put me forward for Framestore’s post-graduate scholarship programme and, after a brief transition from light-boxes to SoftImage, I was offered a position in the then-tiny CG department. I got to work with legendary figures like Andy Daffy, Andy Lomas, Max Tyrie, Virgil Manning, Michael Eames, and the Godfather of British CG: Dr Mike Milne. They taught me about CG, animation and filmmaking, but most importantly they taught me about bringing magic to life.”

Murray Butler placed the same kind of importance on his early years in the business. “Working as a Henry artist under Tim Webber in the ‘90s made me aware of how much I had yet to learn,” he reflected, “as well as how important VFX can be to telling a story.”

The industry hero of Vanessa DuQuesnay, Nuke compositor, was a little closer to home. “I got into visual effects by accident and haven’t looked back,” she remarked. “I had graduated university having done an English degree and I was feeling a little lost. My brother-in-law is also a compositor and he felt a little sorry for me and got me an unpaid job at his company to do roto on a film, just to keep me busy. I was amazed by what they were creating, and fell in love with the magic of visual effects.”

Wild Things

Many people work in the visual effects industry because it’s a passion they simply cannot suppress. Jason Fox stated, “Coming to the VFX industry is like going behind the curtain to help the wizard make wild new ideas come to life. Everything we do is designed to leave people breathless and stunned. How can that not be an exciting place to work?”

Paul O’Brien, VFX supervisor, was more contemplative, remarking, “Despite wanting to be a Jedi knight from the age of eight, blockbuster visual effects didn’t draw me into the industry. Coming from a graphic design background, the art and artistry of visual effects is what really caught my attention. Every visual effects artist likes to blow stuff up, but for me, helping filmmakers create more dynamic, beautiful and dramatic shots is great work. Some of the biggest visual effects shots are hardly ever noticed and shouldn’t be. Storytelling should come first.”

Ben West, creative director, was big on story too. “Steven Spielberg was an inspiration for me,” he recalled. “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial captured a sense of wonder and a fascination that remains with me today – it’s about believing in something out of this world and bringing it into reality. We are on the cusp of a huge shift in the way we experience films. The convergence of reality and the make-believe has never been closer. The one constant is our passion for stories that move us.”

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

“The one constant is our passion for stories that move us.” – Ben West, Creative Director, Framestore.

Alan Clappison, runner, agreed, commenting, “Every story told in film has been my inspiration. The skills of visual effects artists, and the tools available to them, get more powerful every day, allowing them to create worlds for these stories to exist in. To create these worlds is one of the greatest opportunities I could think of, because we all love to tell stories.”

Listing her inspirational films as Pirates of the Caribbean, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Deeps Hargunani, VFX production coordinator, expressed her enthusiasm for the craft by looking to the future. “Speaking from inside the industry now, my initial curiosity has turned into fascination,” she asserted. “We are evolving at a fast rate, with new technology and more imagination than ever before. If we can convincingly show the world a movie like Gravity, I can’t wait to find out what we’ll do next.”

Alternative Arts

Alex Thomas, creative director, acknowledged that there are other passions than visual effects alone. “I enjoyed editing my first few film projects, so was headed in that direction when I realised how big a role technology was increasingly playing,” he revealed. “I could see that VFX would be integral to the future of storytelling. I have never been a VFX or sci-fi junkie, and it still really is all about the story for me.”

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" - original book coverSome people working in visual effects draw their inspiration not from film at all, but from some related art form. For example, Catherine Jackson, producer, was inspired by a certain boy wizard. “I grew up reading the Harry Potter books, imagining how characters like Dobby could possibly be brought to life,” she commented. “At the age of around 14, I found out that a family member had a job at a place called Framestore, where she was working on the second Harry Potter film. I immediately asked if I could do work experience there. Five years later I was working at Framestore as a runner during my university summer holidays, and now I’m entering my second year as a producer.”

For Andy Walker, CG supervisor, an enthusiasm for 1980s science fiction films was supplemented by a fascination with computer games. “When cut scenes began creating CG imagery, it really inspired a world of possibilities,” he observed. “Games as early as Worms – followed by cinematics such as the intro to Wipeout 2097 – showed that CG could create amazing worlds which had never been seen before. It just needed the complexity to catch up to see it on the big screen.”

Then there’s music. Matt McHugo, head of MCR, remarked, “I have always had a keen interest in music promos. Chris Cunningham’s work for Bjork and Aphex Twin inspired me to continue my studies in Media Production at UWE in Bristol. I then charmed my way into MPC through summer work experience.”

Watch Bjork’s music video All is Full of Love, directed by Chris Cunningham, post-production by Glassworks:

Michael Ralla, senior Nuke compositor, dreamed of taking his love of music one stage further. “As a teenager, all I wanted was to become a professional Metal drummer with wild hair and a lot of groupies,” he confessed. “After some parental intervention, that idea evolved into studying sound engineering. An accident forced me to readjust, and I figured that working with video is essentially the same – both processes are about altering waves; it’s just that the wavelengths are different.”

What’s Visual Effects?

Much as the industry is full of VFX junkies, there are still those who ended up working in the business purely by chance. “When I was a child I wanted to be a film producer, but by the time I finished university I had no idea what I wanted to do,” remarked Oliver Bersey, VFX supervisor. “I applied absolutely everywhere, and someone was stupid enough to give me a job here. That’s when the fascination started. Oh, and I’ve never seen a Star Wars film.”

But the final word must go to Amandla Crichlow, management PA, who confessed that she applied to Framestore simply because “I was broke and I needed a job.” Expressing solidarity with Bersey, she added, “And I’ve never seen Star Wars either.”

Framestore Logo

Framestore was formed in 1986, and has offices in London, Montreal, New York and Los Angeles. In recent years, its film division has created visual effects for features including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Parts 1 & 2), War Horse, Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy. Recent advertising work includes campaigns for brands including Sony, Honda, Pillsbury and M&Ms. Thanks to all the staff from both its Film and Integrated Advertising divisions who contributed to this article.

Special thanks to Rob Goodway and Stephanie Bruning.

Cosmic Zooms and The Theory of Everything

Visual effects for "The Theory of Everything" were created by Soho-based Union VFX.

Visual effects for “The Theory of Everything” were created by Soho-based Union VFX.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”

So said the renowned theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Mine – a presentation he delivered via video at the University of Cambridge in 2012 during a symposium held to celebrate his 70th birthday.

Hawking’s remarkable story is dramatised in the Working Title production of The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh. Visual effects for the BAFTA-nominated biopic were provided by Union VFX, including a two-minute end title sequence that imagines a trip not only through deep space and a black hole, but also into the depths of the human nervous system.

This juxtaposition of elements both cosmically large and biologically small is the perfect analogy for Hawking’s life. For most of the time his mind has been exploring the farthest reaches of the universe, his wheelchair-bound body has been constrained by a form of Motor Neurone Disease called ALS.

Union’s lead visual effects supervisor on The Theory of Everything was Adam Gascoyne, but before he shares the film’s VFX secrets, let’s take a look at some other movies that have taken us to infinity and beyond.

A Brief History of the Cosmic Zoom

Many filmmakers have tried to communicate the incomprehensibly vast size of the universe to a wide-eyed audience. One of the most famous examples is Eva Szasz’s Cosmic Zoom. Made in 1968, this 8-minute short uses animation to transport viewers from the very edge of the universe to a single atom inside a human cell.

Watch Cosmic Zoom:

Nine years after Cosmic Zoom, modernist designers Charles and Ray Eames served up Powers of Ten, which presents a vision of the cosmos that continually expands by a factor of ten, every ten seconds. The result? A space-going safari that whisks you far beyond the most distant galaxy before returning you to somewhere much closer to home, yet equally alien – the microscopic interior of your own body.

Watch Powers of Ten:

While not nearly as old as the universe itself, the concept of the “power of ten” shot goes back a long way in cinematic terms. You’ll find a dazzling example in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, in which a celestial court case is convened to decide the fate of an English airman overlooked by heavenly bureaucrats. In a show-stopping pull-back incorporating paintings by Percy Day, the huge judicial amphitheatre recedes into the distance until it is finally revealed to be no more than a tiny mote afloat in the glowing heart of a vast spiral galaxy.

A-Matter-Of-Life-And-Death-Cosmic-Zoom

Galaxy pull-back from “A Matter of Life and Death”

So effective is the shot that visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin (The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar) named it his favourite VFX shot in the Empire magazine article Cinema’s Greatest Effects Shots Picked By Hollywood’s Top VFX Specialists.

Take the Ultimate Trip

Cosmic explosion from "2001: A Space Odyssey"

The cosmic explosions from “2001: A Space Odyssey” were created by mixing oil- and water-based compounds in a black tank.

Many films have made the connection between great and small through the very mechanics of visual effects. The Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – in which astronaut Dave Bowman experiences a hallucinatory trip across space and time courtesy of a monolithic alien portal – features a number of shots created by photographing the reactions of such everyday ingredients as black ink, banana oil and white paint in extreme close-up.

Similarly, Kal-El’s journey from Krypton to Earth in Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie was visualised by photographing microscopic marine life, in an underwater shoot undertaken by Oxford Scientific Films off the coast of Bermuda.

More recently, Douglas Trumbull – the visual effects innovator behind the 2001 Stargate – blew the dust off his microscope when he was called in by visual effects supervisor Dan Glass to help create an 22-minute “creation” sequence for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

"The Tree of Life" - Douglas Trumbull and the Skunkworks Lab team.

For “The Theory of Life”, a team led by Douglas Trumbull built a custom table with a pump that produced a radial flow of water emanating from the centre. With a high-speed camera recording the results, pigments and other materials were injected into the flow.

The result is a cosmological smörgåsbord chronicling the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang through the appearance and development of life on Earth. An eclectic mix of visual effects vendors contributed to the sequence, with Trumbull’s team building on his earlier experiments using such diverse materials as toothbrushes, milk, dry ice and fluorescent dyes.

Thanks to these and other cinematic excursions, the cosmic trip has become a trope familiar enough to be relegated from the main body of a film to its opening titles or end credits. Recent examples include Thor and Star Trek Into Darkness, both notable for their spectacular tours of exotic planetary systems and galaxy-spanning gas clouds.

Thanks to digital techniques, however, creating such monumental voyages no longer requires a wetsuit and a ticket to Bermuda. Here’s a video by Andrew Kramer of Video Copilot, explaining how his team created the title sequence for Star Trek Into Darkness using Adobe AfterEffects and Element 3D:

The Theory of Everything

Union VFX completed a total of 160 visual effects shots for The Theory of Everything, from design and previs through to final execution. “This is our first project with James Marsh and we worked very closely with him to develop a visual interpretation of Hawking’s theories,” remarked Adam Gascoyne. “We tried to come up with a look and feel for the period and wanted the visions to be very subtle in keeping with the context of the film.”

"The Theory of Everything" - cosmic zoom

Visual effects supervisor Adam Gascoyne described the “cosmic zoom” sequence for “The Theory of Everything” as “a waltz through the universe.”

For the end title sequence, Union created nebulae and starfields in Houdini, with composites and grading carried out in Nuke. “It was a waltz through an imaginary universe,” Gascoyne explained. “We used Hubble telescope images as a base for look development, but really made shapes and formations that worked for the title sequence. The main motivation for the move through the universe was the orchestration and the placement of Matt Curtis’s title cards. For reference, we watched a number of movies – including 2001 and The Tree of Life – but only for look and feel; from there we completely made it up!”

Union’s contributions to The Theory of Everything also include a post-production redesign of the monitor used by Hawking to communicate, and various crowd replication shots, digital matte paintings and greenscreen car interiors.

As well as these invisible effects, Union also added a few more creative visual touches. “We did simple things like reversing the motion of cream being added to coffee – using Houdini fluid simulations,” Gascoyne commented. “Then there was the animation of embers flying out of a fire, and the explosion of the pupil in a human eye, representing Hawking’s heat radiation theory. These effects have considerable visual impact on an already compelling story.”

To Springfield and Beyond

In a “couch gag” from season 15 of the classic animated series, The Simpsons, the show opens with the camera expanding its field of view from the small town of Springfield, zooming out to the edge of the universe until galaxies shrink to the size of atoms … which turn out to be the very particles making up the bright yellow skin on Homer’s head.

As a three-time guest star on The Simpsons (there’s even an action figure based on his cartoon persona), Professor Stephen Hawking might well agree that if you’re looking for a single visual effect that’s truly embedded itself into popular culture, there’s nothing bigger – or smaller – than the cosmic zoom.

Special thanks to Cheryl Clarke. The Theory of Everything photographs copyright © 2014 by Universal Pictures International. 2001: A Space Odyssey photograph copyright © 1968, 2001 by Turner Entertainment Company. The Tree of Life photographs copyright © 2011 by Fox Searchlight.

“Big Eyes” – VFX Q&A

"Big Eyes" - Cinefex VFX Q&Q with Mark Stetson of Zoic Studios

Most Americans who lived through the 1950s and 1960s will be familiar with the paintings of Margaret Keane, an artist who specialised in pictures of teary waifs with extraordinarily large eyes. Yet for an entire decade the paintings were passed off as the work of Margaret’s husband, Walter Keane. Only after Margaret went to the press in 1970 was it proved in a federal court that she was the originator of the artwork – and thus was a pop-culture legend born.

In Tim Burton’s film Big Eyes, Amy Adams delivers a Golden Globe-winning performance as Margaret Keane, with Christoph Waltz as her manipulative husband. While Burton’s cinematic canvas is considerably smaller than on many of his other films, a number of visual effects shots were required to not only create Big Eyes’ period settings, but also to give audiences a glimpse into the imagination of the artist herself.

Visual effects for Big Eyes were handled by Zoic Studios, with Mark Stetson and Ralph Maiers acting as co-VFX supervisors, delivering a total of 155 shots. In this Q&A session, Mark Stetson reveals how his team transformed present-day Vancouver into the San Francisco of yesteryear, and what it took to give Amy Adams a set of giant-sized baby blues.

Watch VFX breakdowns by Zoic Studios for Tim Burton’s Big Eyes:

How did you get involved with the project, Mark?

Well, the short answer is that the show’s executive producer/first assistant director, Katterli Frauenfelder, called me up. The longer answer is that I’d worked with Tim Burton and the production designer, Rick Heinrichs, on two previous films. My former company, Stetson Visual Services, made the miniatures for Edward Scissorhands, and we built (and blew up!) the old abandoned zoo park for Batman Returns.

Also, here at Zoic Studios our matte department is headed up by legendary matte artist Syd Dutton, who served as VFX art director on the film. Syd grew up in San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s, and he vividly remembers the life and culture of the city during the time of the story. I myself remember enough of Margaret Keane’s work and American culture of the period to make the story a very personal experience.

Finally, Zoic Studios has offices in Vancouver, with a features VFX team including VFX supervisor Ralph Maiers and VFX producer Lauren Weidel. That whole team had recently worked with Katterli on another project. Happy with that experience, Katterli was the first to suggest Zoic Studios for the visual effects for Big Eyes. The fact that I also had a happy history with Tim made it a great fit.

How long were you working on the film?

Katterli’s first call came in May 2013. Tim kept polishing the movie through the summer of 2014, which resulted in a few added shots as cuts and takes changed. We got the final approval for our last shot in November 2014.

Washington Square Art Show - original plate

Scenes of an art show in San Francisco’s Washington Square were shot in several park locations in Vancouver – original plate.

Washington Square Art Show - final composite

Washington Square Art Show – final composite with digital environment extension by Zoic Studios.

How closely did you work with Tim Burton?

I worked as a department head on the film, so I had a lot of interaction with Tim, Rick Heinrichs, Bruno Delbonnel, J.C. Bond and the rest of the filmmakers. On this film, the whole crew was small and Tim was pretty approachable.

When I first interviewed with Tim for Big Eyes, we talked briefly about the miniature effects my company had created for Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns, and visual effects in general from the electro-mechanical, photochemical era. He asked me, “Do you miss those days?” I said I really missed the tools and processes of making tactile things by hand, with a team. But we do make better shots now, and standards of production quality are much higher.

I think those shared experiences helped make Tim comfortable with us, knowing that we had those skills to draw from and knowing that he would be looking for economies in the VFX work for Big Eyes. Tim was very conscious that the production would be much more constrained, and he was responsible to those constraints.

Was there much discussion about how “Burtonesque” to make the film, visually speaking?

Discovering how Tim was planning to give Big Eyes his unique perspective was really the fun part of this project. It was easy to see why Tim has an affinity for the themes in Margaret Keane’s life and work. It was also essential to appreciate the work of Bruno Delbonnel, the cinematographer, and to understand how Bruno and Tim’s styles and themes intersect.

Most of the time, Tim was restrained and subtle in applying those themes to the real places where this true story unfolds, but within the apparent reality of the world of Big Eyes, Tim’s story is still told through very carefully composed shots. The shooting style which Tim and Bruno used – mostly a single camera mounted on a tripod – may have been a creative choice but it also made low-budget VFX work much more achievable.

There are some shots that stand out as having Tim’s stamp. For example, Tim kept to a really stark vision of the numbing suburbia that Margaret escapes at the beginning of the film. And then, Tim’s choice to freely place the Golden Gate Bridge in a convenient place to establish Margaret’s arrival in San Francisco was a surprise to all of us. The Furniture Factory interior scene with all the painters trapped in their crib cages, the New York Times exterior establishing shot, and the swinging San Francisco nightlife scene are all quite surreal.

Margaret Keane leaves suburbia to drive to San Francisco - bluescreen plate.

Margaret Keane leaves suburbia to drive to San Francisco – bluescreen plate.

Margaret Keane leaves suburbia to drive to San Francisco - final composite.

Margaret Keane leaves suburbia to drive to San Francisco – final composite.

The enlarged eyes of Margaret Keane’s paintings are similar to Johnny Depp’s “Mad Hatter” eyes in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Did you draw any lessons from that film?

Ha-ha! Close! Actually we looked at how Tim had transformed Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts. But Tim never mentioned either of them. Margaret Keane is a living artist and there’s a lot of material out there about her and her work. Tim owns a few Keane originals, a couple of which he shared with us. Then, when we scouted San Francisco locations, we visited the Keane Eyes Gallery there. It was pretty amazing to be surrounded by so many of Margaret’s pieces.

How did you tackle the “hallucination” scenes, in which Margaret Keane imagines that the people around her – and ultimately she herself – have enlarged eyes?

This was a very low-budget film, so we kept all our visual effects solutions as simple and straightforward as possible. As we were prepping the film, Tim said he was planning to do a couple of shots where the audience experience how Margaret “sees” her world. Using our VFX producer Lauren Weidel as a test subject, VFX supervisor Ralph Maiers and compositing supervisor Kenton Rannie developed a series of looks to explore how far they could distort a human face to the proportions of a big-eyed waif, without breaking the mood by making it too grotesque.

Watch Zoic Studios’ original test shot for the “big eyes” effect:

Drawing on our experiences with digital cosmetic work, we made a series of still frame grabs as target looks, which Tim reviewed. When we got close to what he was after, we used facial tracking, warping, scaling, and painting and patching techniques to make the gag work in motion. Tim was most restrained with Amy Adams’ face. His dictum conforms with one of the primary rules I tell new VFX artists: “Protect Your Actors!”

A large part of your work involved turning present-day Vancouver into 1950s and 1960s San Francisco. Where did you start?

Syd Dutton dove right into the research, pulling much of what he needed right from his own library. Syd has some great books of the San Francisco scene from that period, many of which Tim also used as reference. The production designer, Rick Heinrichs, also kept us pointed in the right direction with his research. Funnily enough, the best reference we found for the images of suburban hell, from which Margaret escapes at the beginning of the film, were from Edward Scissorhands.

North Beach Nightlife - concept art by Syd Dutton.

North Beach Nightlife – concept art by Syd Dutton.

Syd then created a series of concept sketches, based on location photos around Vancouver and enhanced with backgrounds that he’d found: photography from 1950s and 1960s San Francisco. Key scenes that he illustrated included the view of the Bay Bridge and Coit Tower from Walter’s apartment, the art show scene in Washington Square (based on two or three alternate park locations around Vancouver), the view of Alcatraz in the bay beyond a Vancouver police station, and the neighbourhood around the Keane Art Gallery, shot in the Gastown area, and developed to look like San Francisco’s North Beach. These illustrations were a huge confidence builder for Tim and the producers.

Soon Rick Heinrichs was feeding us photos of locations from other scenes, using Syd and the rest of the Zoic team as a resource to develop the location requirements for sequences including the suburban hell from which Margaret escapes as the film opens, the furniture factory where she finds her first job, the Hungry I nightclub where the Keane paintings find their first success, and others.

Once the concept art was approved, where did you go from there?

Syd and I developed a rhythm of sharing VFX concepts between Rick, Bruno and Tim. For Syd, the real fun was in blending details from different historical locations to convey the romance of the period to a modern audience. He was decidedly not literally accurate, and he had an intuitive feel for what was important to Tim. Often simply inserting a steep side alley was enough.

As Tim started approving the location-based concepts, producer Lynette Howell asked for a set of Syd’s illustrations to forward to The Weinstein Company, as part of Rick Heinrich’s plan presentation, which led to the green-light for the film. We very proud to be so closely involved in the process, and I was very happy with the location choices that this development work led to. It gave us some influence over how the locations were chosen and shot, and also gave us a preview of how the shots would be finished.

Additionally, I think the costume design by Colleen Atwood, and the cars found by Picture Car Coordinator Rick Rasmussen and the rest of the transportation team, went a long way to setting the scene in the period, so we had a great canvas to start our matte shots.

At one point we get a view of the 1964 NYC World’s Fair. What was involved with recreating this historical panorama?

I grew up on the East Coast in the 1960s, and actually visited the New York World’s Fair in 1964. I dug out my Kodak Brownie snapshots of my trip there and shared them with our team. One or two of which may have been useful, but at that time I was fixated on the Chrysler Turbine Car.

Rick Heinrichs gave us some concept sketches for the interior of the Hall of Education, which CG supervisor Richard Patterson and his team executed. Only the floor, the actors and the painting were real. Syd sketched up the exterior view from the Hall of Education scene. This evolved over many weeks as a digital matte painting, as we worked to integrate as many fair icons as we could into the scene.

The footage of Lowell Thomas’s introduction to the fair was edited stock footage, which required heavy restoration. Our lead compositor John Fukushima spent a long time with this sequence, using Nuke comp and retiming tools.

It started as an HD transfer of 16mm film. We were unable to find any of the original negative, so we were left with the HD QuickTimes. Extensive stabilization was required, and faded color, low contrast, muddy resolution and physical damage all needed to be repaired. A lot of the backgrounds were replaced with painted interpretations of the scene.

Neither we, Tim nor the editor, J.C. Bond, could say how the restored footage would sit within the film, in terms of look and finish. We knew that it would be some kind of cutaway, as if we were viewing a news serial, but all Tim could ask us to do was to make it look as good as the Alexa footage that Bruno shot around it. That was too tall an order, but I must say that looking at the original footage and the restored footage back-to-back is astonishing.

You mentioned that Burton added new shots as he polished the film. How much extra workload did that generate for Zoic?

Shortly after Tim had screened the film for Harvey Weinstein, I was in London on another assignment, and I visited Tim Burton at his editing suite there to see how the VFX work was looking in the cut. Tim told me that he was thinking about adding several establishing shots to the film, all of which would require visual effects.

Hawaiian vista - concept art

Hawaiian vista establishing shot – concept art by Syd Dutton.

He gave me some reference photos he’d found to show how he wanted San Francisco to look for the new shots, and a diagram of a shot he had in mind to establish Hawaii later in the story. Syd Dutton took those cues and developed new concept sketches that quickly got us on track with Tim’s thinking. The shots included two additional establishing shots in Hawaii (the Honolulu overlook and the radio station – matte artist Jim Hawkins helped with this one) and a totally fabricated and stylized shot of the 1964 New York Times entrance in Manhattan.

Also included was a shot establishing a fictitious French restaurant, Chez Henri, where Walter and Margaret have their first date (I made up the name based on the name of the maître d’ in the film). This was set on Powell Street in San Francisco, on the site of the famous Omar Khayyam Restaurant and surrounded by otherwise authentic establishments of the period.

"Chez Henri" - original plate

During post-production, additional establishing shots were photographed in San Francisco, including the exterior of the fictitious French restaurant “Chez Henri” – original plate.

Chez Henri - final composite

“Chez Henri” – final composite.

The final two shots were an establishing shot of the China Dragon Restaurant (I made up that name too, based on the dragon motifs in the interior location) set in a Chinatown location authentic to the period, and a very stylized shot portraying the Hungry I nightclub in the midst of the swinging nightlife of San Francisco; that was an amalgam of Kearny Street, Broadway, and the International Settlement.

I travelled back to San Francisco and Hawaii to shoot plates, then to Vancouver, where line producer Brendan Ferguson and production manager George Horie had fired up a film unit for a day and night of greenscreen photography, to add people and cars to the scenes. Those shots were the biggest and most challenging of the film for us. They were also the most satisfying, because Tim gave us a lot of responsibility for their design and execution. We packed a lot of production value into a very slim budget and schedule for those shots.

What will you take away from your experience on Big Eyes?

I’m never happy with everything on any show. The work is never done completely to my own satisfaction. I think on my feet, to try to pack as much as I can into a low-budget feature with high standards, and I always feel like there are things that I missed on such a short schedule and tight budget. I guess I learned exactly what I forget each time I start a new project, big or small: to let go.

I also had one of the most embarrassing moments of my career on Big Eyes. As I was leaning in close to Amy Adams on location to shoot reference shots of her hair for roto patching, Katterli whispered, “Mark! Your pants are split all the way up your backside!” And they were. They were a new pair of cargo pants I had bought just for the project! I kept shooting, of course. The kind wardrobe department team stitched them up on the spot, as I was wearing them, right there on the Washington Square Art Show set in Lumberman’s Arch Park in Vancouver!

Special thanks to Lauren Weidel, Jenna Wigman and Joe Fordham. Photographs and videos copyright © The Weinstein Company 2014 and courtesy of Zoic Studios.

“Horns” – Makeup and Visual Effects

Daniel Radcliffe sports KNB's demon makeup in "Horns"

What would you do if you were suddenly granted the power to read minds? And what if the secrets you discovered were in fact their owners’ deepest, darkest desires?

These are just two of the unsettling questions faced by Daniel Radcliffe in his lead role as Ig Perrish, in the Lionsgate production of Horns. Adapted from the novel by Joe Hill and directed by Alexandre Aja, Horns is released on Blu-ray and DVD today.

The satanic horns of the film’s title materialise one morning when Ig, wrongly accused of his girlfriend’s murder, wakes to find them growing inexplicably from his forehead. Using their supernatural powers, he embarks on a personal crusade to track down his girlfriend’s killer.

Horns features makeup effects and prosthetics by KNB EFX, supplemented by visual effects from Tippett Studio.

Makeup Effects and Prosthetics – KNB EFX

The primary task for KNB EFX was to create the various sets of horns worn by Daniel Radcliffe during his gradual transformation from Ig Perrish into a fully-fledged demon.

“We did four different stages of horns that we attached to Daniel, as well as a fantasy drug-dream prosthetic makeup,” recalled KNB EFX on-set makeup effects supervisor Mike McCarty. “We did a burn suit and accompanying makeup, the final demon look with its huge set of horns, a few blood gags, an exploding head and some mechanical snakes. We had Daniel in and out of prosthetics at least 35 times over the course of the shoot.”

The makeup and prosthetics team benefited from the company’s long association with director Alexandre Aja. “KNB EFX has done all of Alex Aja’s projects since The Hills have Eyes (2006),” McCarty remarked. “I’ve personally been on set for most of them: Mirrors, Piranha 3D, Maniac, Horns, and his current project, The 9th Life of Louis Drax. As Alex likes to say, we’re part of the family.”

Despite their fantastic aspect, the look of Ig’s horns was developed using real-world reference material. “We looked at a lot of horns in nature, and went back and forth with what our conceptual designer John Wheaton came up with,” McCarty explained. “We got notes from Alex, and ultimately ended up using various stages of ram horns as reference.”

Daniel Radcliffe in "Horns"

After the initial sculpting stage, the horns themselves were cast using dental acrylic.

“Dave Grasso and Jaremy Aiello handled most of the sculpting duties in the shop,” commented McCarty. “Then Jason James ran the horns out of acrylic and attached them to a wire rig we made on Daniel’s head cast. The horns were set at the perfect angle so we could just plop them into place, and they would naturally rest there.

“Then we hid the wire rig under Daniel’s hair. We had a few hair clips attached to the rig as well, so when he shook his head, they wouldn’t move. Once we had them secured, we hid the edge with a small prosthetic to blend them and make it look like they were coming out of his skin. Mike Fields and myself shared the application duties, and so did it twice as fast as it would have taken one artist.”

For a scene in which Ig gouges his horns into a plaster wall, a more resilient solution was required. The solution was to produce a robust, wig-covered helmet, on to which the horns were screwed.

To effect Ig’s climactic transformation into demon form, Radcliffe wore a full-body foam latex suit. “The suit created the burned look, and then we had a cowl, some face pieces and some hand pieces, which we blended into the suit,” explained McCarty. “The huge horns were super-lightweight. We just clipped them into place on a helmet under the cowl. We painted bright neon orange paint into the cracks in the suit. VFX were able to key on this and add fiery lava to make it look like he was burning from within.

“The whole final demon makeup took us only two hours; it was applied by Mike Fields, Maiko Gomyo and myself. If you can do something that extensive and still keep makeup chair times down, it’s better for the actor – especially when they have a such a physical day ahead of them. And Daniel Radcliffe was a joy to work with.”

As well as Radcliffe, McCarty and his team also had the opportunity to transform Joe Hill, during a visit by the author to the set. “Joe wanted to try the horns out, so we glued a small set on him,” McCarty recalled. “That was kind of cool. He was really glad KNB EFX was involved, and he loved everything we were doing. That was a nice justification for the hard work we had put in.”

Cyberscanning and Lidar – Industrial Pixel

Character scanning and lidar for Horns were undertaken by Industrial Pixel.

“We scanned Daniel Radcliffe, Heather Graham, and the majority of the cast,” said the company’s president Ron Bedard. “We scanned Daniel in make-up in three different looks – including his prosthetic horns, and the “nubs” on his back where the wings were to go.

“It was definitely a challenge, as we were scanning outdoors in a small town called Squamish. We were in an old tennis court and it was raining cats and dogs. But we thrive on challenges like this.”

Industrial Pixel also lidared the abandoned Britannia Mine, located north of Vancouver. “I believe that was used for a set extension as well as tracking,” commented Bedard. “It was damn cold and dark. There was water dripping everywhere. I’m sure Jason from Friday the 13th was hiding out there!”

Daniel Radcliffe and Heather Graham star in "Horns"

Tippett Studio – Visual Effects

Tippett Studio delivered around 170 visual effects shots for Horns, in a timescale of less than three months, a tight schedule due to their being called in at the eleventh hour to take over the visual effects work from another facility.

Shots included wire removals, 2D comps of set extensions, character make-up augmentations, and fully articulated, animated and rendered snakes. Visual effects supervisor duties were shared between Matt Jacobs and Chris Morley.

“We were moving at a very fast pace from start to end,” commented Jacobs. “I think that can only happen when you work well with the director, and he trusts that you will make his movie look good. Luckily, I’d worked previously with Alex, as well as with the production VFX Supervisor, Derek Wentworth, on Piranha 3D.”

Daniel Radcliffe in "Horns"While the Tippett Studio team received a number of assets during the handover, others still had to be created. “The direction was very clear,” Jacobs observed. “The show had been in production for quite some time, and Alex knew what he was looking for.”

During the demon transformation scene, Ig briefly grows a pair of wings. “Our CG supervisor, Aharon Bourland, created the look of the wings,” said Jacobs. “Right out of the box, they looked realistic. The wings are very pale, and the way the light passes through them makes them look like a practical wing shot on set.”

The CG wings were built using Tippett Studio’s proprietary feather system. “Using RenderMan’s plausible shading, millions of individual curves created the barbs,” Jacobs explained. “Render times were brought down by baking curves into area shadow maps, and only tracking against the base geometry. Transparency color was also baked in to simulate light scattering through the wings.”

Having created Ig’s wings, the VFX team’s next task was to set them on fire. “The feather shader read an animated coordinate system that drove the burning,” Jacobs related. “The wings themselves were eroded away with procedural noise. We also passed off point clouds that the FX animators could use to create embers coming off the burning wings.”

"Horns" poster

Despite the challenges of the breakneck pace, Jacobs reflected that tight deadlines can have their advantages: “We actually learned to work a little faster. We did that by not getting hung up on things that were less important. All too often these days, people are fixated on finding out what’s wrong and going over every pixel in the picture. That didn’t really happen on this show. When the pictures look great, and tell the story, you’ve succeeded.”

Special thanks to Niketa Roman and Howard Berger. Images copyright © 2014 Lionsgate Entertainment Inc.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Cinefex VFX Q&A

In Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Ben Stiller reprises his role as night guard Larry Daley, and sets out on an international odyssey to restore the powers of a magical Egyptian tablet that brings the museum exhibits to life. Without the tablet’s sorcery to sustain them, the various characters who have become Larry’s friends will return to their former lifeless states.

Shaun Levy returns as director for this third film in the popular series, with Erik Nash taking on the role of production visual effects supervisor. Under Nash’s guidance, the task of breathing life into the film’s many and varied characters fell to a collective of visual effects facilities scattered as far across the globe as Larry and his companions.

VFX supervisors from four of these facilities – MPC, Digital Domain, Cinesite and Method Studios – are here to share their experiences on the film, in this extended VFX Q&A.


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - constellations VFX by MPC

MPC – VFX Supervisor, Seth Maury

How many shots did MPC deliver for the show, and how was the work divided between the different offices?

MPC delivered 250 shots in total. I was personally working on the show for about ten months.

The way MPC works is that all asset work – models, texture, rigging and so on – is centralised in London and Bangalore. From look-dev onwards, most of the work then happens in Vancouver. On Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Bangalore also animated some sequences and lit some shots; MPC are bringing up the Bangalore division to be able to do those things.

How did you get involved with the show?

I got the call back in February 2014, when I was finishing up working on Maleficent. I was really interested in the show, because I like doing character work. Also, my eight year-old son loves the movies. So I said, “I’ll do it!”

So you were primarily involved with character work?

Yes. The first time I met the production VFX supervisor, Erik Nash, he asked, “How’s your fur pipeline?” It kind of cascaded from there.

From the previous movie, we recreated animals including an antelope, a boar, a moose, a mammoth, an ostrich, a rhino and an oryx. For the British Museum scenes, we had a whole host of statues that come to life. Before I came on the movie, the production art department had worked with the British Museum to see what pieces they had that we could make digital versions of. They had some cool little turtles, and some small ceramic elephants that we made life-sized. We also made these pretty metal peacocks – for those we started with the shape of one of the museum pieces, then brought in our own colour and texture.

In revisiting the original animals, did you repurpose existing assets or create new ones?

We were given the final look-dev turntable models of some of the original characters. We also took a bunch of stills from the previous two movies for reference. A lot of times, that was a good starting point, but essentially we started from scratch, because of the way our character pipeline works and the way we do fur. Technologically speaking, a couple of years between movies is quite a long time. The modelling’s done in Maya and ZBrush. Then we use bunch of in-house plugins that run off Maya.

Did the sculptural nature of the British Museum creatures bring a different set of challenges?

Yes. The first thing we did was faithfully re-create the actual museum pieces, because we didn’t know how much latitude we had per asset. As we went along, we established which ones we could change.

One challenge was that a lot of the pieces – the ceramic elephants, for instance – were just a couple of inches long. When we scaled them up to life-size, we realised the textures didn’t look quite right. So there was a lot of translation from small to large. Erik was great about that. We would show him work in progress – an early model, then stuff at 50% and 75%. He might look at the feet on the turtles, for instance, and say, “Look at the way those feet are carved – if they’d been carved by hand at this size, the edge would be sharper.”

What about the animation? Presumably a ceramic elephant moves in a different way to a flesh-and-blood elephant?

Ceramic elephant VFX by MPCA lot of the style came from the first two movies. If something was made of a material like ceramic or metal or jade, the director, Shaun Levy, definitely wanted it to move as if it were made out of that material. It’s a fine line between making that work and not having it look like bad animation!

So, for example, while the ceramic elephant moves relatively stiffly, he can swing his trunk and swish his tail, just not with the amplitude or speed that a real elephant would do it. When he takes a step, his foot has a little squash to it, but not as much as a real elephant. So you get a subtle impression of all those things you’re used to seeing in a real animal.

So do your CG models have the same skeleton and musculature as their flesh-and-blood counterparts?

By default, our rigging team put ribcages inside these creatures, so that when muscles fired or when they took a big breath you would see the impression of ribs. I would have to say, “No, actually we don’t want that, because they don’t have that inside.” It was a delicate balance: putting in a certain amount of realism, but taking out what wouldn’t actually be there.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - dinosaur skeleton VFX by MPC

Which sequence gave you the most challenges?

At one point in the show, there are five or six shots of the monkey, Dexter, doing an acrobatic aerial silks routine, hanging from two strips of fabric suspended from the ceiling. We created a digital monkey for that. We worked on the sequence pretty much from the beginning of the project to the end.

On-set, they had the cutest little monkey called Crystal. In the first two movies, they’d also used a digital monkey for some medium and wide shots. When we started out, we had the same agenda. We were told: “We’re going to have a digi-double, but you won’t see it in close-up.” But we decided to future-proof the asset, just in case we needed a tight shot, because it’s easier to build it high-res in the beginning than to go back and upgrade everything later.

And did those tight shots actually materialise?

Yes. Sure enough, a couple of those shots ended up being a medium to tight shot on our digital face.

We’d done a photo acquisition of Crystal, and our CG supervisor, Mo Sobhy, worked with look-dev to make the digital double work, refining the textures and so on. It’s that fine line again – mostly in the animation: “How would a real monkey do it versus a human? How can we bring monkey traits to it, but still have it look graceful?” For example, a monkey doesn’t point its toes when it’s hanging upside-down.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - constellations VFX by MPC

Can you talk about the planetarium sequence, where all the constellations come to life?

They built a beautiful planetarium set at Burnaby, near Vancouver – I haven’t seen a set that big in quite a while. They built the first floor of the planetarium up to about sixteen feet, and put a huge translight around the outside to re-create the New York environment . Our first job was to top up the set to the roof.

Hanging from the roof is a huge sphere – it looks kind of like Saturn – and then there’s a circular walkway that goes up around the outside, with all the constellations displayed. We re-created that, minus the support structures that hold the sphere up. I feel like we did a really good job with that – it’s pretty seamless.

The next thing we had to do was to bring these five constellations to life: Leo Major, Leo Minor, Orion, Scorpio, and Cancer. As the show opens, these characters made of stars kind of float up in the higher regions of the planetarium and do a little performance.

How did you go about breathing life into what’s essentially just a pattern of stars?

The first reference we got from Erik was a picture of the Orion nebula. He said, “I like the essence of this. See what you can make of it.” So we started playing with modelling some characters, and got the effects team working on what this thing might look like. Is it transparent? Semi-transparent? Do I see nebulae swirling inside? Does it have a hard shell? How well can I read each form, or is it just made up of stars? That went round and round for a while, because it really could be anything.

We put a few different ideas forward, and what we got back from Shaun Levy was: “I really want it to be made of stars.” So Erik and I worked back and forth refining that idea. We ended up with a character that’s pretty transparent, but has a subtle surface impression of nebulae and galaxies. It’s pretty cool, actually.

Given that Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is the third film in a series, did it feel as if you were covering old ground?

It’s funny, it didn’t feel like ground we’d covered before. That’s the great thing about Erik and Shaun – those guys were up for fresh ideas and bringing either a new look to something, or having characters act in a different way. I think that permeated the whole project. We didn’t have to just dogmatically match what had been done before.

For me personally, I had a lot of fun with the Dexter acrobat sequence. I’d just come off Maleficent, which has a very atmospheric look, so for the Dexter sequence I enjoyed playing with light beams and spotlights to bring atmosphere to the shots, which I don’t think we’d seen in other parts of the movie. Plus, at the end of the day it’s just silly, and I know my son’s going to laugh at it!


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - gold tablet VFX by Cinesite

Cinesite – VFX Supervisor, Zave Jackson

What was Cinesite’s involvement in the show?

We were tasked with the enhancement of the golden tablet – both look-dev and execution – showing the progression of its corrosion and the green glowing edge detail. We also created the golden glowing tablet shots. To do that, we referenced the first two Night at the Museum films to get an idea of the series’ vibe. We also looked at time-lapse footage of various metals corroding, and explored imagery of rust patterns and different types of tarnished metals. We delivered 87 shots over the course of about five weeks.

What happens during the corrosion sequence?

As the damaged tablet starts to corrode, the magic keeping the museum exhibits alive starts to die. There’s a close-up shot of the golden tablet on the wall of the museum, in which we see the corrosion texture crawling over its surface. The camera flies down on to the surface of the tablet to an almost macro-photography distance, then follows the decay as it advances. This establishes that the tablet is “dying” from this disease-like corrosion.

How did you go about creating the corrosion shots?

We began by building an accurate CG model of the practical tablet used on set: a golden slab with nine square sections engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphics. The squares rotate on spindles, like an ancient abacus. We knew we’d need to get extremely close to the model, seeing the fine scuffing of the polished gold surface and the more complex detail of the corroded parts, so we went through a detailed texturing process. Additional texturing work was required for the corroded version.

Next we created the intricate, organic movement of the corrosion’s green, glowing edge as it progresses over the tablet’s surface. The animated leading edge was created in 2D, using fractal noise tools. We turned the resulting animation into masks that were UV-mapped back on to the geometry. We also used the masks to displace the geometry in the 3D render, giving volume and depth to the edge of the corroded section of tablet.

For shots which didn’t need to be animated, our solution was to object-track the tablet used in the shot. We created a predetermined set of directional lighting passes, texture passes and utility passes based on a generic lighting set up and rendered using V-Ray. It was then up to the compositors to balance the lights to make the new corroded tablet fit into each shot.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - tablet corrosion VFX by Cinesite

Did working on Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb teach you anything new?

We learned that, given a body of shots that were quite similar and by using the right methodology, it’s possible to deliver a fairly large number of shots with just one person handling the lighting, and a small compositing team.


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - visual effects by Method Studios

Method Studios – VFX Supervisor, Chad Wiebe

How did you get involved with the show, and how many shots did Method Studios deliver?

I’d worked with Method’s VFX producer, Genevieve West, on several Fox films prior to this, so we were confident we’d be the right fit for the Fox team, including the production VFX supervisor, Erik Nash. We delivered 209 shots, over an eight-month post schedule, with a crew of around 70 people.

Watch Method Studios’ VFX breakdown reel from Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb:

What was your main contribution to the film?

Our animation supervisor, Erik de Boer, has extensive experience with creature animation – he worked on Life of Pi and The Maze Runner – so we were interested in continuing to build our animation and creature repertoire. For that reason, we focused on the sequence where the lion statues in London’s Trafalgar Square come to life, and the scene in which Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and his gang battle Xiangliu, a nine-headed snake creature. We also contributed shots involving Jed and Octavius (Owen Wilson and Steven Coogan), including the scene in the ducts, and where they’re watching kittens wrestling on YouTube.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Trafalgar Square lions VFX by Method Studios

How did you go about bringing the lions of Trafalgar Square to life?

During the London shoot, we were able to photograph the actual lion statues in many different lighting and weather conditions. This gave us texture and modelling reference, which proved immensely helpful. Together with what was shot on the day using the production’s Red cameras, that got us off to a fast start in building the lion assets.

What was your approach to animating these huge statues?

It was an interesting challenge. We wanted to respect their original scale and weight, but for shots where they chase a flashlight and wrestle, they also needed to have a kitten-like appeal and playfulness. So we keyed off the YouTube kitten clip, as well as a ton of real lion footage. To preserve the sculpted look of the animals, we skipped dynamic and harmonic skin sims for a more controlled blendshape approach in the face and body. By doing this, we matched the look established in the previous movies.

The lions’ manes needed a custom deformation toolset, created by James Jacobs and his creature team. By simulating underlying strips of geometry representing the mane, we were able to have sections sliding over top of each other and driving the deformations of the single mesh, creating more complex deformations than traditional weighting would have allowed.

Did you take a similar approach with the Xiangliu?

There was a physical build of the nine-headed snake coiled in a sleeping pose. This was scanned and used as the basis for our CG build. It was also used in-shot, which proved to be extremely useful lighting reference.

From an animation standpoint – as well as visual – we wanted a creature that not only stayed true to its statuesque origin, but also fully reflected the real-world attributes that make snakes such amazing creatures.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Xiangliu VFX by Method Studios

How did you choreograph the action?

The sequence was extremely well-thought out – we were provided post-vis which was very close to what the director wanted from a blocking standpoint. Using this as reference, our animators were able to move full steam ahead with a clear target, pushing out some amazing animation in a very short amount of time.

From there, our lighting team got a very clear indication of where our creatures would be in the environment. This was a big plus, due to the challenges associated with trying to light nine reflective, tubular shapes all competing for screen space. For example, we noticed very early on that the most minor position change of one snake would have a dramatic impact on the lighting and reflections of all the others.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Xiangliu VFX by Method Studios

Animating nine heads simultaneously must have been quite a challenge.

The key for the snake animation was finding the balance between managing the shapes with animation controls, and maximising the usability of the rig for the animators – making sure it didn’t become too heavy or counter-intuitive. We wanted strong, broad shapes with solid, serpentine motion, and a real sense that the heads were driven and lifted all the way back from the tail, which was connected to the sculpture’s base. Our creature TD, Paul Jordan, created a very successful rig for this that allowed us to design the overall motion on one level, and to twist and sculpt on several lower layers.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Xiangliu VFX by Method Studios

Tell us more about the rig.

The big challenge was creating a rig which would allow extreme poses and actions without compromising the look of the snake or overly distorting its geometry. We also had to come up with a way to have the snakes’ scales behave in a realistic manner. Paul developed a follicle system that would allow each scales to slide over the next. That way, they stayed as true as possible to their original size and shape.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Jed & Octavius VFX by Method Studios

Did you bring anything new to the miniature characters of Jed and Octavius?

One interesting new bit of technology we employed was “focus stacking”, which created a much more realistic marriage between Jed and Octavius and their full-size environment.

When shooting macro-photography with traditional cameras, you typically have a very narrow depth of field. When compositing actors, this can typically result in a visual mismatch. For Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, we created our background plates by shooting footage in which we racked focus from a locked-off camera. We then compiled all the in-focus areas into one image. This allowed us to do something that’s traditionally not possible in miniature photography: create an infinite depth of field, and then adjust it to taste.

By this process of focus stacking, we were able to control and match the two opposing elements, allowing us to make the backgrounds look as though they’d been shot through tiny cameras in scale with our miniature characters. It also allowed us to preserve all the great detail you get from shooting real-life objects instead of building giant props, which can create its own visual challenges.


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - visual effects by Digital Domain

Digital Domain – VFX Supervisor, Lou Pecora

How many shots did Digital Domain deliver, and which sequences do they feature in?

Digital Domain executed around 340 shots. I started on the show after principal photography had wrapped in late summer, so we did this volume of work between August and November.

We were lucky enough to get the Escher Tablet Pursuit sequence, the Pompeii diorama eruption, the Greek statue encounter, and a smattering of complex 2D split screens with double the Stiller!

Let’s begin with the volcanic eruption. How close to reality did you stick?

For Pompeii, we studied lots of real volcano eruption footage to figure out which parts we could keep and which we had to lose. For instance, most of the real oozing lava we studied didn’t flow nearly fast enough to be as threatening as the sequence required, but the eruptive elements spewing out of the caldera were more true to life.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - volcanic eruption VFX by Digital Domain

Many films have used the splitscreen trick to duplicate actors. How did you go about twinning Ben Stiller?

For the “Ben and Ben” splitscreen work, we went back and watched Multiplicity. There’s some phenomenal work in there – work that definitely still holds up today.

The scenes where there are multiple Michael Keatons in the shots at the same time that don’t interact were really good; however, two shots in particular stood out to me. The first is where Michael Keaton’s character takes a cigarette out of a clone’s mouth, who then blows smoke back at him. The second is the scene where the original Doug keeps refilling clone #4’s glass with Coke. These shots where they interact with each other, and interact with the same objects, were the most impressive, so that’s what we aimed for.

We have a few places where Ben’s Larry character and his Laa character touch each other – patting each other on the back, touching faces, and so on. That really sells the effect, and it definitely was as difficult to execute as you would imagine.

Can you describe the Escher Tablet Pursuit sequence?

The whole process of bringing this piece to life was one of the more interesting challenges I’ve faced in my career. In the sequence, three live-action characters end up in the M.C. Escher lithograph called “Relativity”. In this world of multiple gravities, a chase ensues with the characters all trying desperately to lay their hands on the tablet.

How did you set about transferring M.C. Escher’s mind-bending artwork on to the screen?

We studied the original artwork and other Escher pieces to make sure that the etch treatment we put on the photographic elements was authentic to his style. Taking a static piece of lithography and turning it into a cinematic experience brought all kinds of things into consideration – things one would never think about. For instance, how would we deal with motion blur, depth of field, and moving shadows? These were all design details that required lots of trial and error.

Then, based on solid previs from Proof, our VFX supervisor, Swen Gillberg, shot all of the action on a small greenscreen stage in Burnaby, Vancouver.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - visual effects by Digital Domain

How did you make your CG set look like the original lithography artwork?

We came up with complex shaders that dynamically resized the pattern density based on factors such as distance to camera and size in frame. Our CG supervisor, Tim Nassauer, devised a very clever way to achieve this by using multiple interlocking patterns that would increase the density and fidelity of the etch lines as the surface moved closer to camera.

Studying the Escher artwork taught us that shadows aren’t just darker areas due to light being occluded, but rather a more dense arrangement of the lithographic pattern that’s present in surrounding areas. This led us to render a full set of the denser pattern to be revealed through shadow mattes; these were either generated in the scene, rotoscoped or keyed from the plate photography. Our compositing department, supervised by Francis Puthanangadi, was ultimately tasked with blending these various density passes to attain the appropriate line density and fidelity.

It sounds like a highly technical challenge. Did you also have to make a lot of artistic judgement calls?

VFX always involves a balance of technical acumen and artistry. This sequence definitely provided its share of technical challenges, but most of the journey was spent making artistic decisions and creative calls.

The etch treatment applied to the photography, for example, was very finicky and sensitive, depending on how large or small something was in frame. There was no real formula for it, only artistic instincts on what looked right: pattern angles; how many different sections we would need; how fine or coarse the pattern should be; how heavily the effect should be printed in. These would all have to be dialed in on a case-by-case basis, sometimes animating them throughout a shot if we were going from wide to close or vice versa.

Did the same apply to more conventional effects such as motion blur?

Dealing with motion blur, depth of field, and so on is usually very straightforward. In this case, however, we had to make a lot of artistic calls on how they should be handled. Do we put the etch on before the defocus and let the lines get blurry? Do we let the etch treatment get motion blurred, or do we put the motion blur on before the treatment? There were many variables and decisions to make along the way and our comp lead, Brian Rust, and look-dev artist, Joe Spano, ran through the gamut of these variables – and many more – to achieve what ultimately became the look for the sequence.

For the most part, there’s some semblance of reality that one can use as a metric to see if an effect looks “right”. The design-oriented nature of this work made that more difficult, as we had to rely so much more on our far less concrete artistic intuitions. In the end, that was what made it so satisfying as it all came together.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Jed & Octavius VFX by Digital Domain

What new personal challenges did this show set for you?

The bulk of my experience is in compositing – I was a compositing supervisor for years before becoming a VFX supervisor.  So I never had much exposure to animation – particularly character animation. This show gave me a lot more experience in that arena.

Working closely with our animation director, Phil Cramer, and animation lead, Frankie Stellato, I was exposed to both traditional keyframe hand-animated work, as well as Digital Domain’s new cutting edge Direct Drive facial animation system. This was a fantastic learning opportunity for me that I took full advantage of.

I was extraordinarily lucky to be a part of the fantastic team that put this film together. Across the entire spectrum – the executives and internal team at Fox, director Shawn Levy, production VFX supervisor Erik Nash, the entire team at Digital Domain, and our counterparts at other VFX facilities – I was lucky enough to get to work with old friends … and make some new ones as well. For me, the most important part of a show is the team of people I’m working with on a daily basis. We spend most of our waking lives at work in this business, and long weeks away from home, and to be surrounded by people who are supportive, collaborative, creative and downright fun to be around makes going to work every day a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying experience.


Special thanks to Jonny Vale, Karl Williams, Adam Brown, Melissa Knight, Ellen Pasternack and Rita Cahill. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb photographs TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.