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.

Rodeo FX Opens Office in L.A.

Game of Thrones - visual effects by Rodeo FX

Los Angeles is a ghost town. The film industry – in particular the specialist field of visual effects – has abandoned its birthplace in favour of pastures new … not to mention controversial economic incentives.

In short, Hollywood is doomed.

Or is it?

Montreal-based visual effects facility Rodeo FX, which recently won awards for Game of Thrones and whose work features in the critically acclaimed Birdman, has just announced the opening of an office in Venice, CA. According to Rodeo’s press release:

“The Montreal facility has signed on the Hatch FX team, renowned matte painter, Deak Ferrand, and long-time executive producer, Cheryl Bainum, to lead the Rodeo FX Los Angeles team. The new office offers Hollywood studios and creatives direct access to all Rodeo FX services.”

Here’s what the Rodeo team has to say about the venture

“L.A. is still the starting point for much of the early development and creative process. Rodeo FX now has a physical presence here and can be a part of the early pre-production phase. We will provide conceptual art, work with writers, directors, and creative executives, and follow these same projects through to final delivery. Being involved and collaborating from the onset of any project helps control costs while specifying and maintaining the creative vision.” Cheryl Bainum

“The boutique feel of the Venice office is a great place to start the creative brainstorming process with the client. Using our visual reference library and pen in hand, the ideas can begin to take shape. Having the client physically in the same space during this process is very exciting and provides for a more hands on and collaborative experience.” Deak Ferrand

“As Rodeo FX grows, it is important for our clients that we have a presence in L.A. Studios, directors, and producers can develop ideas for their projects from pre-production through delivery of final shots in collaboration with the team at our Venice Beach location. Our L.A. office provides access to senior creative staff and opens the door to a team of 200 talented artists based in a province with some of the best tax credits anywhere,” Moreau added. “It’s the best of both worlds for our clients.” Sébastien Moreau, President of Rodeo FX

Could this be the beginning of a new era for visual effects in Los Angeles? Watch this space.

Related articles:

J is for James Bond

J is for James Bond

In the VFX ABC, the letter “J” stands for “James Bond”.

The James Bond movies comprise the longest continually-running film series ever, beginning with the release of Dr. No in 1962 and continuing all the way up to the present day … and beyond, if you factor in last week’s press blitz announcing the title and cast of Spectre, the latest film in the franchise, due for release in November 2015.

While the Bond films aren’t exactly effects-driven, they still require the services of a crack team of illusion-wielding agents both on-set and in post. The output of these SFX and VFX mission specialists typically includes spectacular chase sequences, a big reveal of the evil mastermind’s hidden lair and, almost certainly, lots of inordinately large explosions.

The first Bond film of all, Dr. No, features just such an explosion during its climactic scene, when Bond causes a nuclear reactor to blow up, destroying the bad guy’s island base. Later films delivered more big bangs, from the airplane crash at the end of Goldfinger through to the pageant of pyrotechnics that closed You Only Live Twice, when agent 007 infiltrates the volcano-crater headquarters of arch-villain Ernst Blofeld and sparks off – you guessed it – a giant explosion.

"Diamonds Are Forever" composite shot by Albert Whitlock

Artist Albert Whitlock contributed a number of matte paintings to “Diamonds Are Forever”.

The visual and special effects in these early years were the province of industry stalwarts such as Roy Field, Frank George, John Stears and Wally Veevers. There was even a brief contribution by legendary matte artist Albert Whitlock, who provided some essential scene-setting spectacle for Diamonds Are Forever, and whose paintings are showcased on Peter Cook’s ever-reliable Matte Shot blog.

When Live and Let Die came along in 1973, the 007 team recruited Derek Meddings, whose modelmaking background with Gerry Anderson on shows such as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds allowed the “big set” visions of production designer Ken Adam to be realised in miniature form.

In this extract from Don McGregor’s 1981 interview in Starlog 49, The Man Who Creates The Magic For James Bond, Meddings describes the submarine-swallowing supertanker seen in The Spy Who Loved Me:

“Nobody suspected that the supertanker was a miniature until the front opened, and then, lots of people still thought there was a boat that did actually have a front that opened. Even the people who were originally going to supply us with a real tanker went to the premiere of The Spy Who Loved Me and they had forgotten they had not rented their tanker to us. They said to the director or the producer, ‘I can’t remember when you used our tanker.’ And he said, ‘We never used your tanker.’ There was never one shot in the whole film with a real tanker. We built our miniature tanker at Pinewood Studios; I had it built 63 feet long. It had a crew of three, all special effects men who ran it. We shipped it out to the Bahamas, and shot those scenes all at sea.”

Effects scenes reached a frenzy in 1979 when Moonraker jumped on the Star Wars bandwagon and propelled Bond into orbit. Meddings’s involvement with the series continued on and off, all the way up to Goldeneye in 1995, by which point the use of effects had settled back into a more conventional supporting role.

The Living Daylights - bridge hanging miniature

With Bond at the controls, the Hercules makes a bombing run on a bridge as Soviet tanks attempt to pursue their equestrian adversaries. The lower structure of the bridge was a hanging miniature constructed by a special effects crew led by John Richardson and Mike Lamont.

That’s not to say 007 didn’t serve up some spectacular action in the meantime, nor has he failed to do so since. In The Living Daylights, Bond drops a bomb from a Hercules transport aircraft on to a bridge in order to thwart an advancing convoy of Russian tanks. In this extract from Nora Lee’s article 007×4 in Cinefex 33, veteran special effects supervisor John Richardson describes the visual sleight of hand employed to create the shot:

“There never was a bridge like the one you see in the film. Well, there was a little bridge. Lengthwise it was the same as the one you see on screen, but heightwise it was at most fifteen or twenty feet above the river bed. We constructed a foreground miniature of the ravine and a different bridge. We used the existing bridge from the handrail down to the road level so that you could see vehicles driving along it, but everything beneath that was a miniature.”

This use of miniatures – ever a staple of the Bond movies – continues to the present day. In Skyfall, the explosions at both the MI6 headquarters and Bond’s family residence were enacted using models. Describing the former, here’s an extract from Joe Fordham’s article Old Dog, New Tricks in Cinefex 133:

“Chris Corbould’s special effects team built a 14-foot-tall, ¼-scale miniature representing the central tower and offices of the MI6 building, and then rigged the structure with pyrotechnics. Visual effects supervisor Steve Begg oversaw the element shoot at Pinewood Studios, using a pair of Arri Alexa cameras running at high speed. Peerless Camera Company then composited the miniature explosion into plates of the real Secret Service building photographed from Vauxhall Bridge, and blended the miniature with additional pyrotechnics and CG debris.”

Chris Corbould is a true James Bond perennial, having undertaken his first Secret Service mission in The Spy Who Loved Me way back in 1977. With Corbould and Steve Begg now confirmed as effects supervisors on Spectre, we can reasonably guess that the classic Bond blend of practical and visual mayhem will continue to wreak havoc across the globe for some considerable time to come.

"Skyfall" finale explosion

The Living Daylights photographs copyright © 1987 by Danjaq LLC, United Artists Pictures Inc. Skyfall photographs copyright © 2012 by Danjaq LLC, United Artists Corporation and Columbia Pictures Industries.

VFX Videos of the Week 12-05-14

Wanderers - Ringshine

I’m launching this week’s personal selection of VFX videos with a tour of the cosmos. Wanderersa short film by Erik Wernquist – is an inspirational vision of a near future in which humans are beginning to venture into and colonise the planets. According to Werbquist, “All the locations depicted in the film are digital recreations of actual places in the Solar System, built from real photos and map data where available.” If Wernquist’s stunning images, combined with a spine-tingling narration patched together from old Carl Sagan recordings, don’t make your spirit soar, nothing will:

My next choice is a cute little video called A Cup of Tea at Engine House VFX and – entirely appropriate for a visual effects company based in England’s rural county of Cornwall – it demonstrates the basics of CG using, well, a cup of tea:

Now that we’re all maxed out on the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s time to take a trip back in time to the early days of the saga. From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga is a 1983 documentary narrated by Mark Hamill and packed with classic behind-the-scenes footage. I kept my original VHS recording of this for years, until the march of time made it obsolete. So when I stumbled over it on the official Star Wars YouTube channel the other day, I was delighted. The video’s been uploaded in nine parts – here’s the first:

Milk VFX have posted their latest showreel, featuring a wide range of work from features including Snow White and the Huntsman and Les Misérables, TV shows including Doctor Who, not to mention a whole menagerie of prehistoric beasts. Click the image to watch it on their Vimeo channel:

Milk VFX showreel

Only a couple of trailers this week. The first is Terminator: Genisys, the latest attempt to reboot the classic sci-fi franchise. This looks a lot more like a Terminator movie than we had any right to expect – future war scenes, big stunts, Arnie, and Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke channeling Linda Hamilton in her role as Sarah Connor. While I didn’t see anything that had me pumping the air with excitement, if they can get the promised “twisty timeline” story right, this could be a winner. Visual effects are led by Double Negative and MPC, and the teams there are clearly on-brief to emulate the style of Cameron’s original movies. Check out the Hunter-Killer that flies in at around the 20-second mark and tell me it doesn’t have that old-school “swinging around on wires” vibe:

The second trailer is for Vice. I’m not sure I’ll be queueing up to see this action-heavy movie about a hedonistic resort populated by client-serving androids, but it’s interesting to note the current popularity of “artificial intelligence in a female body shell” movies, which surfaced recently with the British indie flick The Machine and will continue early next year with Alex Garland’s upcoming Ex_Machina:

Last up is an oldie but goodie. Powerful Visual Illusions is a TED Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Al Seckel. It’s got nothing to do with movie visual effects … except actually it does. Seckel’s lecture is rammed with optical illusions and examples perceptual trickery, all wrapped up in an entertaining monologue which proposes that the human brain actually derives pleasure from being fooled. As Seckel himself says, when we witness the impossible “our expectations are violated in a pleasing way.”

Any theory which statesthat visual effects are pleasing by their very nature scores high points with me. How many points does it score with you?

It won’t surprise you to learn the video you voted into first place last week was – you guessed it – the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Which one’s going to be top of the tree this week? Now’s your chance to decide!

Rediscovering Star Wars

John Boyega in "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed"

Can Star Wars ever be fresh again? That’s the question that’s bugged me ever since it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be helming the first in a brand new series of movies set far, far away in that fabled galaxy.

So it was with considerable trepidation – and yes, a healthy dose of new hope – that I watched the first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens when it hit the internet last Friday – a teaser which, according to The Hollywood Reporter, is set to become the most-viewed movie trailer ever.

I’m pleased to report I was encouraged by what I saw. Strike that, I was thrilled. Okay, it was just a tease – a stream of disconnected shots punctuated by tantalising seconds of black – but everything was married neatly together by a soundtrack that was one part pure Star Wars sound effects, one part new John Williams score (yes, that music really was brand new).

I also saw enough of the new film’s design and visual effects to thrill even the most jaded fanboy. There’s a cute robot that looks like the unlikely offspring of Artoo Detoo and a soccer ball. There’s Daisy Ridley’s character riding a cool and chunky new speeder bike. A hooded character in a misty forest igniting a lightsaber with extra twiddly bits. Next-generation X-Wings powering majestically over a lake.

The Millennium Falcon is back in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Best of all, there’s the Millennium Falcon barnstorming her way at zero altitude over what has to be the Tatooine desert before encountering a pair of screaming TIE Fighters. The ever-reliable internet drew my attention to the fact that everyone’s favourite heap of junk appears to have exchanged her radar dish for some kind of squat, square thingummy, but it took my son to point out the obvious: she lost same dish after colliding with one of those pesky bulkheads in the interior of the Death Star during the climax of Return of the Jedi. And, you know, those replacement parts are hard to find.

Further discussion of the trailer sent me and my son into full nerd-mode, during which he mused that the extra beams on the lightsaber – allied with the fairytale feel of the forest environment in which it’s seen – give that particular shot the feel of a medieval fantasy. Are the Sith being presented as an ancient warrior caste? Only time will tell.

And so on. In short, it’s geek heaven.

Who's the mysterious cloaked figure in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"?

But I think it’s also more than that. Random though the shots might seem, there’s no doubt they’ve been very carefully designed and selected to make sure they’re fit for purpose. What purpose? To excite, yes, but also to reassure. Did the teaser do both those things for me? You know, I think it did, and for three reasons:

First, this looks like the Star Wars I remember from my youth. The Star Wars that came alive for me when I received through the mail my copy of The Art of the Empire Strikes Back and sat for the best part of the day opening my mind into a larger universe. The teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens looks just like the pictures in that book, and I’m not the only one to think so. The best comment I’ve seen in this regard was this tweet by comic artist Rob Liefield:

Robert Liefield tweet

Second, this sounds like Star Wars. John Williams? Check. Crisp reiterations of all the right audio cues, from the schzoooom of a lightsaber to the elephantine shriek of the TIE fighters. And did I hear a probot buried somewhere in the mix?

Third – and for me most important of all – there’s the opening shot. Arguably, it’s the least spectacular of them all, although it performs the essential task of defining John Boyega as the new face of the franchise. But let me tell you what else I think it does.

Putting all the geek stuff to one side, what’s the one thing we all want out of the new Star Wars film? The same things we want out of any adventure story: characters we love, fully engaged in a compelling story. And I think that’s exactly what this one shot promises. Whoever John Boyega’s character may be (is he a Stormtrooper, or just dressed up as one?), he looks to me as if he hasn’t a clue what’s going on. Where am I? What is this place? What the heck is going to happen next?

This, I believe is the key to rediscovering Star Wars. We need to forget what’s gone before. We need to leave all the baggage behind and see these wonderful worlds through the eyes of someone who has simply no idea what’s gone before. I hope Boyega’s character has never heard of Luke Skywalker. I hope he has only the vaguest idea about empires or rebellions, or squashy little green guys with big pointy ears. I hope he wouldn’t know one end of a lightsaber from another and has never, ever kissed a Wookiee.

In short, I hope he’s as fresh to all this as I want to be in December 2015.

Daisy Ridley on the new speeder from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

So what did the other Cinefex staffers make of the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Here are their thoughts:

“My gut reaction is that it has all the fun of the original … without the cheese! I am unexpectedly excited to see it. Even though I was in the primo demographic group – 22 years old, a frequent movie-goer, up for doing whatever the ‘thing’ to do was at the time (mood rings, pet rocks, watching Saturday Night Live) – I was one of about five people who didn’t stand in line to see the first Star Wars. I’ll stand in line to see this one!” Jody Duncan

“It seems like J.J. may have caught the spirit and look of the original films quite wonderfully. The gadgets and such were updated and fun, and there were also some beloved familiars. But I think the reason why Star Wars hit the chord it did – and endured – isn’t because of the effects (which were great) or the excitement of the adventure (which was wonderful). It’s because of the deeper story it told, and the archetypal depths it plumbed. If Mr. Abrams thinks so too, I shall be a very happy fan.” Janine Pourroy

“This looks like a Star Wars film should look. I like the way J.J. Abrams has honored the nostalgic visuals and sounds from the original films. I also like the look of the new droid and lightsaber. The X-Wing fighters looked really good flying low over water, and the Millennium Falcon clip makes me want to see more. Bring it on!” Gregg Shay

“My knee-jerk reactions? The youngsters look intriguing. The zippy rollerball astromech immediately reminded me of Ralph McQuarrie’s “Art of Star Wars” Artoo thumbnail sketch. The 88 seconds did of course include Abrams visual trademarks: at least one lens aberration and a swirly whirly upside-down aerial chase-cam shot. But I got a tingle at the new needle-nose X-Wings zipping over the lake. Kudos, ILM. I know from skimming online that some commentators are kvetching, and I don’t need to hear any more opinions on the moral sins of CGI — if that’s your criticism, it’s time you threw away your 1995 ‘to do’ list. As far as I’m concerned, J.J. appears to get it, and I know he’s one of us in that he loves this stuff. I think we’re in safe hands.” Joe Fordham

VFX Videos of the Week 11-28-14


Omote Project

Omote Project – image source nobumichiasai.com

Thanksgiving has come and gone for another year, which means it’s time to put down that turkey sandwich and enjoy my VFX videos of the week.

Top of the list is this amazing example of real-time projection mapping. The Omote Project is an international collaboration between media artist Nobumichi Asai, makeup artist Hirohito Kuwahara and digital image engineer Paul Lacroix. “Omote” is the Japanese word for “face” or “mask”, and this art installation draws heavily from the traditions of Japanese Nogaku musical plays, which use masks to portray a multitude of emotions. The marriage of this ancient art and digital technology is stunning to behold:

In 14 Movie Special Effects You Won’t Believe Weren’t CGI – presented by Cracked.com – Amalgamated Dynamics founders Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis expound on the virtues of practical effects. Packed with great clips, and hosted by two of the most engaging men in the business, this falls into my “drop everything and watch this now” category:

Click to watch "14 Movie Special Effects You Won't Believe Weren't CGI"

Oh, and I’d be neglecting my duties if I failed to mention Joe Fordham’s exclusive interview with Tom and Alec, which you’ll be able to read in Cinefex 140 – out in just a few weeks!

This week’s seen an internet trailer war. It started innocently enough with this teaser for Pan. Directed by Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), this is a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. With visual effects by vendors including Scanline VFX, Framestore, Rising Sun Pictures and MPC, this looks luscious, and promises to be an interesting take on a tale that’s close to my heart:

However, Pan‘s thunder was decisively stolen by the first trailer for Jurassic World. It took the world by surprise on Tuesday when Universal Pictures released it into the wild a full two days ahead of schedule.

Like me, you’ve probably watched this trailer a dozen times already. Like me, you probably had a big, goofy grin on your face when you saw that Great White Shark hanging out over the lagoon. Like me, you probably can’t wait to see the movie when it’s released next June – and especially to eyeball those visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic, Legacy Effects and Image Engine. Oh, and don’t worry, I’ve been told dinosaur supervisor Phil Tippett will keep the darned things on a tighter leash this time around:

While there’s no official statement on the subject, there’s every chance the dinosaurs were unleashed early to stop them being taken apart by Jedi Knights. Yes, it’s true, the first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released today, thus winning the internet – and quite probably breaking it – as roughly a gazillion eager fans send the iTunes Movie Trailers website spiralling into meltdown.

What can I say about this? It look like Star Wars. It sounds like Star Wars. It has a cute robot, a cool bike-speeder thing, X-Wing-style craft zooming low over water and a Millennium Falcon flyby to die for. And it’s giving me goosebumps. What are you waiting for?

In all that excitement, you could be forgiven for overlooking another Lucasfilm trailer: Strange Magic. Based loosely on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and directed by sound maestro Gary Rydstrom, it’s described as a “madcap musical fairy tale from the mind of George Lucas”. If you’re a Lucas-basher, look away now, but I reckon any trailer that looks this good – and makes me chuckle to boot – deserves its place on my VFX videos of the week:

There’s magic of a different kind in the music video The Last Goodbye, Billy Boyd’s closing credits song for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Intercutting Boyd’s studio performance with clips from both the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, this is the perfect coda to Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth odyssey:

Have you heard of Secret Cinema? If you have, you’ll probably know what to expect from this next video. If not, I won’t spoil it by telling you. Let’s just say that, following their critically acclaimed interactive presentations of The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shawshank Redemption, this London-based event company has been staging the most immersive screenings of the Robert Zemeckis classic Back to the Future you can imagine. Roads? Where they’re going, they don’t need roads:

While I’m straying from VFX in the strictest sense, take a look at The Animated Adventures Of Firefly: Production Diary, in which artist Stephen Byrne spends a dazzling 8 minutes and 48 seconds breaking down the process of creating a single 2½-second animated shot that portrays a heartbreaking character moment from Joss Whedon’s Firefly ‘verse. This will first hypnotise you, then make you shed one, small tear:

Right. Back to the VFX … with a vengeance. MPC has just released this stunning breakdown reel of their work on Godzilla. While I had issues with the script of Gareth Edwards’s blockbuster, the VFX were never less than amazing … as this reel proves:

As for my final choice of the week, well, it’s bigger than Jurassic World. It’s more gasp-inducing than Godzilla. It’s as deliciously hands-on as the practical FX of Amalgamated Dynamics. Yes, it’s Gregg Shay’s teaser video showing our next print edition, Cinefex 140, running smoothly through the state-of-the-art Heidelberg Speedster XL-106 8-Color UV Perfector press at Neyenesch Printers in San Diego:

Last week’s winner in the reader’s poll was the MPC breakdown reel for X-Men: Days of Future Past. Now it’s time to vote for your favourite video in this week’s selection. Will you favour the practical or the pixellated? It’s time to decide!

Visual Effects – Art or Science?

Is visual effects and art or a science?

In this digital age, visual effects has stopped being an art and become a science. Now that computers rule the roost, movie magic has become an endless round of number-crunching, pixel-wrangling, and worshipping before the Great God of Physics-Based Simulation.

Or has it?

Isn’t the opposite true? Don’t the infinite possibilities of CG mean that visual effects professionals have the freedom to craft moving images that are more spectacular and dramatic than ever before? Physics be damned – surely the primary aim of visual effects is just what it’s always been: to tell an amazing story.

Truth or beauty? Which is it? Or is there room for both in the ever-evolving world of visual effects?

There’s only one way to find out: ask the experts. So that’s what I’ve done, by putting this simple question to a range of leading VFX professionals from around the world:

  • Which is more important – obeying the laws of physics, or producing a shot that’s artistically right?

Here’s what my panel of experts had to say:

Joe Letteri
Senior VFX Supervisor, Weta Digital

“Realism informs everything that we do. But there’s no way to get all of the science absolutely right. Most of it is still unknown, or can’t be solved exactly. So in the end we use artistic interpretation and instinct to make audiences believe in what they are seeing.”

Joan Panis
Head of FX, MPC Montreal

“What’s important is the end result. It’s all about composition and timing. This can vary from shot to shot, but a lot of the time real physics doesn’t actually achieve good results. CG artists often need to cheat by reducing gravity or changing its direction, adding forces to get a plume of smoke in the right position, or manipulating the way explosion debris flies towards the camera or past an actor.

“Sometimes, things just don’t look right, even if they are physically accurate. So we create invisible forces to make it feel right. All that matters is that the composition of a shot throughout its frame range makes sense to our brains. I find that our eyes and brains have a surprisingly high tolerance for real-world inaccuracies.

“For the end battle sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy, our FX team built a library of ship explosions that were placed – mostly automatically – through our crowd system. One of the main problems we anticipated was that, as the ships flew up, down and sideways, the accompanying explosions would have to keep their directionality. But we also had to keep in mind that gravity should be pulling the exploding pieces downwards.”

Guardians of the Galaxy - MPC

“For the end battle sequence of “Guardians of the Galaxy”, our FX team built a library of ship explosions that were placed – mostly automatically – through our crowd system. But CG artists often need to cheat by reducing gravity or changing its direction, adding forces to get a plume of smoke in the right position, or manipulating the way explosion debris flies towards the camera or past an actor.” Joan Panis, MPC

“We thought about creating a large number of library elements to cover all the angles at which the ships were flying and exploding. In the end, it turned out we didn’t need to do as much as we’d thought. We mostly used just three types of element: the ship flying straight horizontally, flying upwards at an angle of 60 degrees, and flying downwards at an angle of 60 degrees. That was all we needed in order to sell the physics of the battle.

“Technically, the ships flying at 45 degrees and exploding have a gravity skewed by 15 degrees. But as most of the shots were fast-paced action shots, and because the explosions fire pieces in all directions, our brains don’t have time to register the skewed gravity.”

Andy Hayes
Head of Effects, Framestore

“We’re always searching for the best-looking motion to enhance the director’s vision for a shot. This means making things move correctly so that the illusion of reality is not questioned. But it also means adjusting that motion to convey the many aesthetic targets – composition, timing, scale, peril, etc – that are key in making the shot and sequence work.

“Starting with something that’s physically correct is the norm for us. But a shot naturally evolves with feedback. Physical parameters are tweaked or animated, and additional constraints or forces are applied to make things move in a more specific way. So we end up with something which may not be 100% physically correct, but which conveys the director’s vision – which is far more important.

“As an example, for the destruction of the Hoverbots and Necrocraft in Guardians of the Galaxy, we didn’t rely on simulation alone. Our underlying physical rigs utilised many different constraints and forces to pull the craft into specific crash locations, based on compositional art direction.”

Guardians of the Galaxy - Framestore

“For the destruction of the Hoverbots in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, we didn’t rely on simulation alone. Our underlying physical rigs utilised many different constraints and forces to pull the craft into specific crash locations, based on compositional art direction.” Andy Hayes, Framestore.

“Abstract effects with simulation qualities can add additional complexities. For example, the Tengu Monk fight sequence from 47 Ronin showed swathes of a cloth-like substance extruding from the demonic monks. In these shots, we were totally breaking physics in that the simulation material grew and changed over time – and ultimately even transformed into a gaseous substance. It was important to wrangle this material into something that was physically correct initially, but once that was done, our Creature FX department head, Carl Bianco, employed a LOT of tweaks to make the simulation twist and fold in the desired way.”

Daniele Bigi
DFX Supervisor, MPC

“In every production I’ve been involved in over the last 12 years, the main goal has always been to achieve the filmmaker’s artistic vision. How the team accomplishes that is really secondary.

“Building a set-up that obeys the laws of physics can help to produce a controllable and predictable result. Nevertheless, there are many situations where the director’s vision calls for a specific look or effect that’s completely artistically driven. In this situation, the software we use has to be flexible enough to allow artists and TDs to step back from real-world physics.

“On Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, at the beginning of the final battle between Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Ronan (Lee Pace), a gigantic hemispherical plasma shield is deployed by the Ravagers in order to hide their ships from the Dark Aster mothership.

“The shield is made up of a red-orange storm cloud effect, scattered with thousand of electric bolts running through it. The shield distorts the sky, and its opacity changes based on the camera angle, making the Ravagers invisible only from the Dark Aster’s point of view. Anyone trying to tackle this complex effect by obeying only the laws of physics would find it very difficult indeed! I think we created a visually beautiful shot without being restricted by the rules.

“As DFX supervisor, however, I must say that I would probably pick scientific accuracy over artistic interpretation. I think the industry is moving naturally in that direction anyway and the quick and wider adoption of PBR (Physically Based Rendering) is just one example of that.”

Ron Herbst
CG Supervisor, Digital Domain

“Hands down, no matter what, the shot must ‘work’, and physics be damned. What we do is entirely about storytelling. If the shot doesn’t tell the story, it is not serving its purpose.

“My answer is both philosophical and pragmatic. A client will reject a shot that in his or her opinion doesn’t work. Their reasons for why something does or doesn’t work are theirs to give, and ours to interpret to the best of our ability. In the end, what we deliver must satisfy the client, and any energy we exert in the interest of scientific correctness risks delaying a show’s delivery or chewing up the margin.

“That said, how we move towards getting a shot to work must begin with correct physics. There’s something in the subconscious of all audiences that looks for what it expects. If some of the basic physics isn’t there, the viewer won’t believe it’s really happening.”

Lon Molnar
Owner and VFX Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures

“That’s a tough question. This is the constant internal battle: challenging our technical integrity with the creative ability to bend reality, in order to tell the story.

“I think that, in the world of filmmaking, what we ultimately do is create illusions. We do this by any means necessary.  We aim to replicate reality, yet we might also create an alternate reality. Our goal is to satisfy the director’s unique vision – sometimes at the sacrifice of real world physics. If the rules need to bend in order to accomplish this, so be it. At the end of the day – if we’ve done our job – the audience is lost in the spectacle.”

James Reid
Head of Effects, Milk VFX

“When designing an effect, it’s important to find the right balance between realism and art. An awareness of the science behind natural phenomena is key to building something that’s believable, even when dealing with magical effects. This approach can be useful in refining an effect, and thinking of ways to add interesting detail.

“However, it ‘s paramount to know when to be more flexible and stray away from realism. From a technical point of view, similar results can often be achieved through a variety of methods, and the most scientifically accurate approach is rarely the most efficient, both in terms of artist time and computation time. Furthermore, the requirement to choreograph the movement of an effect often dictates a more visually-driven approach.”

Kevin Campbell
Director of Production Technology, Rising Sun Pictures

“The most important thing is producing a shot that the director likes. This is generally something inspired by physical laws, but not bound by them.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Rising Sun Pictures

“Most of the effects in the Quicksilver sequence were inspired by physically correct simulations, but we retimed them in an art-directed way which broke most physical laws.” Kevin Campbell, Rising Sun Pictures.

“The Quicksilver kitchen sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past is a good example. Most of the effects in this sequence were inspired by physically correct simulations, but we retimed them in an art-directed way which broke most physical laws. The results are largely physically plausible and artistically satisfying but not physically correct.”

Ara Khanikian
VFX Supervisor, Rodeo FX

“I think this issue exists in almost every shot I’ve worked on! I also think VFX should always obey the laws of physics … for the first take or two at least. After that, it’s up for grabs.

“Most feature film VFX work tries to replicate real-world physics and behaviour. It’s an on-going challenge to always produce photoreal effects … but then again, what is photorealism? Is it what we see with our own eyes, or what we’re used to seeing through a lens? The difference is a huge one.

“I believe that if you create VFX using real-world parameters like gravity, weight, laws of inertia and momentum, and proper lighting, it’s easier to then dial in artistic liberties than if you start off by considering only the artistry. The laws of physics ground the shot, and the artistic interpretation makes it appealing to look at, and communicates motivation and performance.”

Sean Faden
VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo

“Ideally, the simulation software allows the artist to experiment with the behaviour, while being able to rely on basic physical principles to give the effect its underlying realism.

“Five years ago, we would probably have used a combination of physical sim software and hand animation or procedural particles. However, today’s sim engines are faster and more reliable, to the point of letting the artist or TD create something pretty great in a few iterations and with minimal manual adjustment.

“This is especially true with water sims. Sure, we can art direct things like spray and secondary effects, but the overall behaviour when left to tools such as Realflow or Houdini fluids is pretty amazing. Sims for volumetric effects (including fire) leave a little more room for interpretation and fudging of parameters to get the desired final effect or feeling of scale.

“A recent project required us to create burning flags for a battle sequence. Since the shots were hyper-dramatic, we simulated the fire at a much larger scale to emphasise the slow-motion and high detail. We used Fume’s simulation toolset, but with cheated physical parameters to hit the desired look.”

Erik de Boer
Animation Director, Method Studios

“In the work I do – the photorealistic integration of animals and creatures – understanding the laws of physics is crucial. But most often, selling that physicality means that once we’ve determined the ‘real-life rules’, we happily break those rules for dramatic and artistic reasons.

“Maybe the top speed of an F-16 feels too slow relative to the camera, and makes the shot a bit boring. The way an animal’s limb changes shape when it meets the ground might need to be exaggerated, or its fur might need extra overlap to show a violent percussive impact.

“Such deviations from Newton often annoy our technical animation department or FX colleagues who like to play by the rules. But although we’ve often tried to implement algorithms or interfaces that help or even force us as animators to obey the rules, we usually find that they get in the way, and that we need to have some fun with them to make the performance work.”

Max Solomon
Animation Supervisor, Framestore

“On Gravity, the challenge was to create physically extreme, visceral shots that were totally believable. It was a fine line to tread. If the audience thought for one moment that Sandra Bullock wasn’t really slamming into the ISS, or spinning off into space at the end of the Shuttle’s Canadarm, the spell would be broken and they would cease to share in the jeopardy of the character.

“However, we were aware that if we had stayed within the limitations of what the human body can endure without sustaining serious harm, we would have ended up with some pretty boring shots. So we needed to push all the action to the max.

“In reality, the G-force she would have experienced while attached to the end of the Canadarm would probably have made her head explode, and when she slams into the solar panels on the ISS at 60 miles an hour … well, you’ve seen car crashes!”

Gravity - Framestore

“On “Gravity”, we were aware that if we had stayed within the limitations of what the human body can endure without sustaining serious harm, we would have ended up with some pretty boring shots. So we needed to push all the action to the max.” Max Solomon, Framestore

“We were certainly helped by the fact that the action was taking place in zero gravity, and the astronauts were in suits which cushioned the impacts, so the audience subconsciously were less critical of what they were seeing. But ultimately it was about making everyone go, ‘Wow!’ and not, ‘Oh yeah that looks just like NASA footage on YouTube.’”

Geoff Scott
VFX Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures

“Both are important, to a degree. It’s paramount to always start with reality as your base, whether it’s the motion of a creature or person, how light reacts when passing through a certain type of material, or a complex fluid simulation. The laws of physics always provide us with our foundation.

“Once we establish this baseline, that’s when we enhance the effect according to the client’s direction. The key goal is not to get locked into the mentality of “but this is real”. When dealing with a director or producer, that doesn’t matter – it’s about the integrity of the scene and the shot. Our goal is to support that; if we need to bend the laws of physics, so be it.

“For example, for the documentary Battlefield: Cell, we worked with Cambridge University and various scientific advisors to recreate a viral invasion of a host cell. Our mandate was to design the film as if it were a space epic – à la 2001: A Space Odyssey – showcasing huge expanses between sister cells and the inner cell was massive. The reality is that cells are so densely packed there’s no negative spaces between them, plus we’re not even sure if light works the same way at that scale. So, although our protein structures were accurate, the entire film is an impossibility.”

Lee Carlton
CG Supervisor, Digital Domain

This is a great question. It should really be answered by the person you’re trying to please with the shot direction. More often than not, the answer is that you need more control in artistic direction, to be able conform to a preconceived concept already developed as an ideal in that person’s mind, and waiting to be realised in digital form.

A perfect example is a recent shot we did involving a ship in space being obliterated by foes. We needed to art-direct the shot to create an ideal, crowd-pleasing explosion, rather than a truly realistic explosion as it would happen in space. By the way, the shot came out fantastic!

Wil Manning
VFX Supervisor, Pixomondo

“I find the idea of obeying the laws of physics to be seriously flawed. Our own eyes and brains play tricks on us constantly and, in my opinion, visual effects is a bunch of magician’s tricks designed to make people feel amazement, emotion and excitement.

"The Prestige" poster“In defence of this argument, I’m going to borrow from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (perhaps with irony, as his films are known for invisible effects and an avoidance of CG).

“The first step in any magic trick is ‘The Pledge’, where we show something ordinary: “It’s film, it’s through the camera, what you see is real.” Next is ‘The Turn’, where we take the ordinary and we make it extra-ordinary. With VFX, that means doing something that’s impossible: travelling into space; making someone run faster than the speed of sound; venturing into a boys dreams.

“Then comes ‘The Prestige’. This is the art: once the audience suspends disbelief of the unreal, we can show them fantasy. From space, we take them into a black hole; our speed runner catches bullets; the boy dreams of turning into an automaton. What you end up with is immersion in fantasy, and that’s pretty cool.

“For me, to make physically accurate visual effects is very important – it’s the foundation on which the artistry rests. If someone believes what you’re doing could be real, then you have them in your pocket and you can start to truly amaze them. You can perform magic.

“In addition, cinema is a language of codes and signals that’s tacitly understood by the audience, and it shouldn’t surprise us when we move to another culture than the language of cinema is as different there as the day-to-day spoken language. I work a lot in China, and it amazes me what’s important to the Chinese market, culturally speaking, compared to the USA and Australian markets (where I hail from).

“In China at the moment, there is much less emphasis on physically accurate work and a much stronger focus on making something that amazes – even if the work at times seems implausible. This can be pretty hard to deal with, because it’s in the nature of Western VFX to put realism before artistry. Most of our tools are biased this way – look at the recent tidal shift to Physically Based Rendering.

“The language of Chinese cinema seems more forgiving of the unreal and informal. Film makers as diverse as Tsui Hark, Jiang Wen, Zhang Yimuo, Wong Kar-wai, John Woo and Jia Zhang Ke (to name just a few) all speak with voices etched in unreality. I feel that for them realism takes second place to story and raw impact, and for Westerners working in VFX in China that sometimes that means leaving our preconceptions at the door. It’s a great experience!”


Well, the vote seems unanimous. For animation directors, VFX supervisors and FX experts alike, the answer remains the same: real-world physics may be the perfect starting point for most visual effects challenges, but it takes a healthy dose of artistry to make a truly sensational shot.

Is this a surprise? Hardly. As has frequently been observed, a computer is just a tool. It’s the person behind it who pulls the rabbit out of the hat.

And visual effects remains what it has always been: magic.

Special thanks to Stephanie Bruning, Jenny Burbage, Ian Cope, Anouk Deveault, Dave Gougé, Joni Jacobson, Melissa Knight, Che Spencer, Liam Thompson, Jonny Vale and Karl Williams. Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past photographs copyright © 2014 by Marvel Entertainment and Twentieth Century Fox. Gravity photographs copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Cinefex 140 Preview

Cinefex 140 "Interstellar" cover

The next issue of Cinefex magazine is just around the corner. Yes, the presses are rolling on issue 140, and our digital team is busy finalising the online and enhanced iPad editions. So we thought it’s about time we unveiled the cover, with its spectacular shot of the Ranger spacecraft docked to the Endurance station, from Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic Interstellar.

Paul Franklin tweets about "Interstellar"We’re not the only ones excited about our latest cover. Not only did it debut on the official Interstellar Facebook page and Twitter feed, but the film’s visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin tweeted these comments about it:

Here’s a run-down of the four articles featured in Cinefex 140, which is locked, loaded, ready for launch on December 15, and available to pre-order in our online store right now:


Christopher Nolan directs Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in an adventure story about interstellar space travel. Co-written by Nolan and brother Jonathan, the film is a journey of discovery, realized 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.

The Zero Theorem

A neurotic computer genius (Christoph Waltz), employed by a vast futuristic company named Mancrom, attempts to find a mathematical formula that may lead to the meaning of life, but instead falls in love with a beautiful avatar (Mélanie Thierry) and slowly loses his mind. Filmmaker Terry Gilliam brings his idiosyncratic visual flair to create a nightmarish technological world and phantasmagoric landscapes working with production designer David Warren, special effects supervisor Nick Allder, and visual effects supervisors Felix Lepadatu, Jonah Loop and Fredrik Nord at LenscareFX, Haymaker, The Chimney Pot Group and Bold Turtle Productions.

Exodus: Gods and Kings

Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul star in director Ridley Scott’s retelling of the biblical account of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. Spain and Mexico stood in for Egypt throughout filming. Double Negative provided visual effects to imbue the film with a grandeur and epic scale befitting its source material, with additional effects support from MPC, The Senate, Method Studios and The Third Floor.

Q&A: Tom Woodruff Jr and Alec Gillis

An in-depth look into the history and more recent adventures of special makeup effects designers and creature creators Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, co-founders of Amalgamated Dynamics, Incorporated. Woodruff and Gillis discuss their backgrounds in the burgeoning 1980s creature effects industry, early assignments at Stan Winston Studio, and their creative partnership that has spanned 25 years, encompassing Death Becomes Her, Starship Troopers, Tremors, multiple Alien films, and more recently Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs and Harbinger Down — a pair of independent monster movies, wrought with passion and crowdfunded resources, that mark Woodruff’s and Gillis’ feature directing debuts.

VFX Videos of the Week 11-21-14

Fun with oobleck - The Slow Mo Guys

I’m starting this week’s collection of videos with a big serving of oobleck. What’s oobleck? It’s a non-Newtonian fluid. Or, to you and me, a thick‘n’sticky mix of cornflour and water.

If you’re a fan of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (there must be one or two of you out there, right?), you’ve seen oobleck before. It’s that weird black stuff that boogies away in the chamber full of alien urns, or whatever they were.

In the video below, the endlessly entertaining Slow Mo Guys have mixed up a bucketful of oobleck, dumped it on top of a loudspeaker, and set their high-speed cameras rolling at a zippy 1,600fps. The result? A peculiar practical effect that defies both gravity and common sense. The coolest, gloopiest video of the week:

This year, New Deal Studios is celebrating its 20th anniversary. One of the dwindling number of full-service VFX companies still operating out of Los Angeles – and still going strong – New Deal boasts credits spanning the decades, from Broken Arrow, Alien: Resurrection and Pitch Black all the way up to Inception, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Interstellar.

If you watch nothing else today, watch this interview with New Deal’s Digital FX Supervisor and Technical Lead Jeff Jasper. Brought to you by The Foundry, it’s full of stunning behind the scenes footage and breakdowns:

What would a Friday roundup be without a few VFX breakdowns? Check out this week’s new reel from MPC, deconstructing their meticulous visual effects from X-Men: Days of Future Past. Beautiful work:

On to this week’s trailers, of which four caught my eye. First up is the latest international trailer for Seventh Son. Fantasy beasts? Check. Sweeping panoramic landscapes? Check. Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore? Check and check. Due out in February 2015, this fantasy epic features spectacular effects from MPC, Trixter, Rising Sun Pictures, Method Studios and many others, all under the overall supervision of VFX legend John Dykstra:

Next up is Marco Polo. This new Netflix series about the famous 13th century explorer starts airing in December, with a roster of VFX providers including Pixomondo, Spin VFX and Phosphene:

It seems you can’t leave your house without tripping over another live-action adaptation of a traditional fairy tale. The latest is Kenneth Branagh’s colour-saturated rendition of Cinderella, starring Lily James as the girl with the glass slipper and Cate Blanchett as her wicked stepmother, and featuring effects both magical and mousey from MPC:

Last and definitely not least (actually, I like this so much I reckon it’s last and most) is the trailer for Peanuts. Some purists are already tearing this apart, but it seems to me that Blue Sky Studios have come up with an intelligent hybrid of 3D CG and sketchiness to bring Charles M. Schulz’s classic cartoon world bang up to date. Most important of all, this feels like Peanuts:

That’s all for this week. The video that scored the most votes out of last week’s selection was Black Hole Creation by Shanks FX. Way to go, Joey! You can vote for this week’s favourite right now – or add your own choice to the list – in the poll below. Ready … steady … vote!

Dream Landscapes – The Snowscape

Dream Landscapes - The Snowscape

“The kinds of landscape I try to find in my films exist only in our dreams” – Werner Herzog

The snowscape is one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Some valleys on the icebound continent of Antarctica are effectively dead zones – regions so cold and dry that not even a micro-organism can survive there, let alone a human being.

This essential lifelessness is one reason why, in Western tradition, snow has come to symbolise hardship and death. Yet danger is also a seductress. The very dangers of the snowscape make it appealing, both to explorers like Scott and Shackleton … and also to movie audiences, who are always ready for a vicarious sub-zero thrill.

The First Snowfall

One of the earliest cinematic trips to a snowscape (if not the very first) was the brainchild of pioneering movie magician Georges Méliès. For his 1912 film The Conquest of the Pole he replicated an Arctic wilderness in his studio in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, France. Like most of Méliès’ creations, however, his vision of the North Pole is the product more of whimsy than rigorous research.

The airplane makes an Arctic approach in Georges Méliès' "The Conquest of the Pole."

An adventurous airplane makes an Arctic approach in Georges Méliès’ “The Conquest of the Pole.”

A more realistic representation of an Arctic wilderness hit the screens in 1935, in Merian C. Cooper’s adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s classic novel She. The film relocates the book’s action from Africa to northern Russia, giving the RKO effects unit plenty of scope to build snowscapes using miniatures and matte paintings.

Check out Peter Cook’s blog for more of this film’s beautiful VFX shots, created by the same team used by Cooper for his groundbreaking King Kong.

The explorers journey north in search of the fabled home of "She."

The explorers journey north in search of the fabled home of “She.”

Scott of the Antarctic, released in 1948, features a wealth of location photography from Grahamland, Switzerland and Norway. However, the film’s star John Mills – along with the rest of the precious talent – rarely set foot outside the Ealing stage where the majority of the dramatic scenes were shot. Studio and snowscape were married together using process photography and the ubiquitous matte paintings, provided in the this instance by Geoffrey Dickinson.

"Scott of the Antarctic" features a number of impressive matte paintings executed by Geoffrey Dickinson.

“Scott of the Antarctic” features a number of impressive matte paintings executed by Geoffrey Dickinson.

Mattes and miniatures remained the solution for a wealth of subsequent snowscapes, including those in Ice Station Zebra, which in 1968 received an Academy Award nomination for its special effects (it lost out to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Like Scott of the Antarctic, it was shot largely on a soundstage, this time at the MGM Studio in Culver City. Its expansive Arctic vistas were the work of legendary matte painter Matthew Yuricich.

The "Ice Station Zebra" studio set was extended using Matthew Yuricich's stunning matte paintings.

The “Ice Station Zebra” studio set was extended using Matthew Yuricich’s stunning matte paintings.

A Whole World of Snow

Snowscapes don’t get much more fantastic than those which appear in The Empire Strikes Back. Scenes on the ice planet Hoth were shot both on a glacier in Finse, Norway and on soundstages at Elstree Studios.

For the spectacular snow battle scenes, the traditional matte-and-miniature approach was combined with Industrial Light & Magic’s new motion-control camera technology, to create what’s still one of the most dynamic snowfield sequences ever filmed.

For the sequence, stop-motion Imperial walkers were animated ambulating through a miniature set dusted with baking soda snow, and backed by Mike Pangrazio’s spectacular paintings.

Memebers of the ILM visual effects crew wrangle a toppling Imperial walker.

A four-foot walker model is rigged by an ILM crew comprising Richard Edlund, Ed Hirsch, Jon Berg and Steve Gawley. Surgical masks were worn to avoid inhaling the baking soda which doubled as snow.

According to Paul Mandell’s article Tauntauns, Walkers and Probots in Cinefex 3, the primary ingredient for the miniature snow was humble baking powder:

“Nilo Rodis was primarily responsible for the construction of the miniature snow sets … [Rodis] decided to use baking soda for snow. The original idea was to use micro-balloons – microscopic glass beads used in the casting process to create a light airway and to add strength to resin compounds. The idea was discarded, however, because the surface tended to ‘float.’ Baking soda looked more authentic. Surgical masks were worn to avoid unnecessary inhalation.”

In the same issue, animator Phil Tippett describes the particular challenges of animating in the volatile environment that is the miniature snowscape:

“One of the things Jon Berg felt should be was to have the walkers crunch down on the snow. That meant dealing with an unstable surface. That complicated things a lot, as you can imagine. You can’t cover up a mistake, and you can’t bump the surface with your arm.”

Snow Blowers

Micro-balloons – eschewed by the Empire miniaturists – came into their own on Firefox, when the script required extensive snowscapes to be disrupted by the low-level flight of the supersonic jet fighter. Visual effects for the film were provided by John Dykstra’s company Apogee.

In the photograph below, Dennis Dorney and Doug Smith film sonic shock waves ripping through a miniature mountain range. The model trees were covered with the snow-like micro-balloons, before being blown apart by an air cannon.

Dennis Dorney and Doug Smith film sonic shock waves ripping through a miniature mountain range for "Firefox."

The tradition of tabletop snowscape models continued into the 1990s. For the climactic scenes of the 1998 movie incarnation of The X-Files, in which an alien spaceship bursts from beneath the Antarctic ice, live-action footage of Mulder and Scully was composited with this large miniature built and photographed by Blue Sky | VIFX:

The Blue Sky | VIFX miniature snowscape used for the climax of "The X-Files."

Digital Snowscapes

The Day After Tomorrow saw digital techniques stepping up to the formidable task of snowscape creation. Hydraulx produced the film’s three-minute opening shot as a single, seamless CG take, scanning model icebergs and ice shelves, and using the data to create digital replicas.

At the end of the lengthy shot, the camera comes to rest overlooking a climatologists’ camp on an Antarctica snowfield. A live-action plate of the camp, shot on a minimal bluescreen set, was added to the composition and enhanced using additional CG structures, vehicles and characters.

"The Day After Tomorrow" - the climatologists' camp

In this extract from her article Freeze Frames in Cinefex 98, Jody Duncan explains how ILM created views of New York City encased in ice … and acknowledges the reassuring presence of the ever-reliable baking soda, still a valuable tool in the arsenal of even the most pixel-centric artist:

“ILM combined painted textures and 3D procedural rendering techniques on 150 lidar buildings. Maintaining scale in the all-white buildings – devoid of scale-enhancing textures such as rust, watermarks and stonework anomalies – was a particular challenge.

“To simulate expanses of snow-covered ground, ILM crew members laid baking soda or talcum powder on a flat surface, then tapped it to create interesting crevices and cracks. Photographs of the setup were used either as reference or as texture maps applied to the CG terrain. Subsurface scattering techniques gave the icy cityscape a translucent, photoreal look.”

"The Day After Tomorrow" - New York under ice

The issues of convincing scale is not the only problem face by artists when trying to put snowscapes on film. Talking on this blog about the visual effects of Snowpiercer, VFX supervisor Eric Durst pointed out the challenges of maintaining the right contrast and colour balance in an environment that is essentially white:

“Mike Mielke and his team from Scanline in Munich did fabulous work in creating the environments. The amount of detail required was staggering, especially with an ice and snow environment where color is greatly reduced. In this almost monochromatic world, where it’s basically all white on white and shades therein, the level of detail needs to be extreme to keep large surfaces from blocking up and becoming flat.”

Final composite of the shootout with Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov)

“Snowpiercer” shootout – final composite

The Future of the Snowscape

What of the future of snowscapes in cinema? If climate change does indeed mean that the days of the polar ice cap are numbered, and that the great ice shelves of Antarctica are destined to slide into the ocean, exposing the naked mountains beneath, perhaps one day visual effects might be the only way in which a snowscape can be visualised for the screen.

Regardless, it’s likely the spectacle of the snowscape – with its pervading sense of danger and death – will continue to entrance movie audiences into the future. Cinema is, as it always has been, a convenient way for armchair adventurers to visit those dream landscapes they would never otherwise see.

The Empire Strikes Back photograph © by Lucasfilm Ltd. Firefox photograph © 1982 by Warner Bros. Inc. The Day After Tomorrow photographs © 2004 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Snowpiercer photograph copyright © The Weinstein Company 2014.

2014 Awards Season Begins

The 2014 film awards season slipped into high gear yesterday with the the Hollywood Film Awards, held at the Hollywood Palladium, hosted by Queen Latifah and broadcast live for the first time in its 18-year history.

The ceremony came hot on the heels of the Hollywood Post Alliance awards, which recognises the contributions of individuals and organisations across a range of post-production categories in feature films, television and commercials.

Hollywood Film Awards

Winners of the Hollywood Film Awards are decided not through a process of nominations and ballots, but by a team of industry insiders and executives, with potential recipients evaluated on a body of work and/or a film on release during the qualifying year.

The 2014 award for Best Film went to David Fincher’s thriller Gone Girl, with the Best Actor and Actress awards going to Benedict Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game, and Julianne Moore for Still Alice, respectively.

The award for Best Visual Effects was received by ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar for his team’s work on Transformers: Age of Extinction. David White (Special Makeup Effects) and Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou (Hair and Makeup Design) accepted an award for their work on Guardians of the Galaxy, which also picked up the Blockbuster award.

Transformers: Age of Extinction

The Hollywood Film Award 2014 for Visual Effects was won by “Transformers: Age of Extinction”.

Hollywood Post Alliance Awards

The HPA award for Outstanding Visual Effects – Feature Film went to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, recognising Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Erik Winquist, Keith Miller and Paul Story of Weta Digital.

The Game of Thrones season four finale The Children picked up the award for Outstanding Visual Effects – Television, acknowledging the work of HBO’s VFX supervisor Joe Bauer, Sven Martin of Pixomondo, Jörn Grosshans of Mackevision, Thomas Schelesny of Scanline VFX and Matthew Rouleau of Rodeo FX.

Reflecting on Game of Thrones – which earlier this year won an Emmy for Best Visual Effects, Sébastien Moreau, President of Rodeo FX and VFX Executive Supervisor commented:

 “This is very exciting. We were already extremely grateful for the Emmy Award; we are now honoured to receive this HPA Award, which is one of the preeminent awards in our industry.”

Game of Thrones - Rodeo FX

Rodeo FX delivered over 150 shots for season four of “Game of Thrones”, including the majestic city of Meereen.