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 Future of Practical Creature Effects

What does the future hold for practical creature effects?

Ah, was there ever a question more likely to raises the hackles of fans of old-school special effects? Or to cause a look of blank bemusement to cross the face of the average moviegoer? Ever since Jurassic Park, argument has raged over which is better: a CG dinosaur or its mechanical equivalent? Whenever the issue is raised, emotions run high; discussing it at all is only marginally safer than poking a nest of snakes.

But is it an issue? Is it valid even to ask the question at all? Isn’t it time we rejected all that “either/or” nonsense and concentrated on simply getting the job done in the best possible way?

There’s only one way to get a decent answer: ask the experts. So that’s what I’ve done. I put my question to a group of top professionals from the field of practical effects, left them to ponder … and then stood well back.

You want to know what the future holds for practical creature effects? You’re about to find out.


Richard TaylorRichard Taylor
Co-Founder & Creative Director, Weta Workshop

“At Weta Workshop, we very much believe there is still a dynamic place for physical creature effects in the entertainment industry. While there has been a huge shift towards CG creatures over the last ten years, there are still directors who are interested in utilising more traditional, real-world effect solutions for characters in their films.

“There is no doubt that films such as the latest Planet of the Apes, with work by Weta Digital, give a clear indication how extraordinary characters can be fully realised through CG, but there remains a very compelling reason to have real actors in prosthetics and creature costumes on set to create particular characters for the right project. A great example is the recent blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, which uses a huge ensemble cast of aliens of which, I believe, only three are digital. Here is a wonderful use of traditional makeup and creature effects (created by a truly superb and world class team) to do something absolutely extraordinary.

“Owning a physical effects company, I have to believe there will always be some demand by an audience and the directing community for the wonderful attributes of practical creature effects and makeup. It may become niche, but just look at the way stop-motion animation continues to have a presence, delivering some of the most engaging and beautiful films of the last ten years, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox, ParaNorman and Coraline. In the same way, those wonderful monster makeups that were pioneered by so many greats in the early days of filmmaking can still have power today.”

Richard Taylor and Mike Asquith of Weta Workshop study a Bilbo scale-double makeup design sculpture for "The Hobbit"

Richard Taylor and Mike Asquith of Weta Workshop study a Bilbo scale-double makeup design sculpture for “The Hobbit”


Phil Tippett - Photo by Chris Morley - © Tippett StudioPhil Tippett
Co-Founder, Tippett Studio

“The answer to your question can be easily determined with the use of a crystal ball …!

“The method of producing VFX and character work is usually determined by the studio, the VFX supervisor, and the director. A great deal depends on the director. Films like Hellboy 2, The Wolfman, and The Hobbit all employed a mix of technologies that was decided during the preproduction design process.

“The current spate of scripts we’re seeing requires an unbridled quotient of spectacle. Current production methodologies dictate that you spend as little time on the set as possible – it’s preferable to just push the issues downstream and “fix it in post”. Given all the cash these recent VFX-heavy films have scored – Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Ninja Turtles, Transformers – I think the die is cast.

“Frankly I’m not so sure there are any significant demographics to indicate a real ground-swell movement toward practical. Currently, studios tend to just go with the “let’s do it all CG” bag because it’s the flavor of the day, and god forbid you’d want to go against the prevailing trends in a corporate climate. Ain’t gonna happen.

“There will continue to be the anomalies like Beasts of the Southern Wild, where budgetary issues force smart, low-budget approaches. In that case, VFX that drove the story in a very economical way were pulled off with a fine level of execution. For the same reasons, there’s still a good amount of practical stuff going on for TV. Hopefully that will continue.

“There are still skilled folks out there who know how to do this practical stuff. Let’s hope there can be enough work to keep their knowledge base from falling into atrophy, lest we go the way of those ancients of yore who built the Pyramids and the Mayan temples. We couldn’t pull that off today.

“SO! To answer your question: the future lies with extraterrestrials who tell us how to make stuff. And crystal balls. I think those are the way to go. Weird magic, no? (That’s what it’s all about anyhow, aint it?)”

Phil Tippett with the Rancor from "Return of the Jedi"

Phil Tippett supervised the creature shop on “Return of the Jedi”. He is currently supervising the dinosaurs of “Jurassic World”.


Alec Gillis - Photo by John AlesAlec Gillis
Co-Founder, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.

“Fans seem to love practical creature FX, as do many directors, but studios tend to promote the near-exclusive use of digital imagery. This has led to an audience belief that the look of CG equates to a “big Hollywood” look.

“While I don’t like not being invited to the party, being regarded as a PFX pariah has an upside. PFX are becoming more unique, less corporate and edgier than mass-produced CG FX. While I miss the days when the aesthetics of PFX artists like Rob Bottin, Rick Baker and Stan Winston drove the look of the creature work, I can still appreciate the scope of today’s big pixel-fueled VFX orgies. Whether you think modern VFX films are hollow, overblown corporate sputum, or a dazzling nexus of art and technology, doesn’t really matter: they sell.

Harbinger Down teaser poster

“Of course, most fans don’t really care what technique is employed, as long as the movie is good and the effect looks cool. It doesn’t even need to look real, just cool. So there’s no need to argue which technique is better. They’re just tools used to build a film. If you’re constructing a house, is a nail gun better than a table saw?

“Here at ADI, we believe in the mixed bag approach – we try to promote the strengths of both techniques. The frustration arises when there’s an effort to suppress or eliminate techniques as a matter of corporate policy. It’d be nice if the new Star Wars movies had more PFX in them, or if Mr. Del Toro and Mr. Favreau swayed studios towards PFX, but I can’t wait around for that to happen. I plan to keep making modest movies like Harbinger Down that rely on PFX. If the audience responds positively, the PFX resurgence will grow. If not, we’ll join the theramin and become a faint echo from a quaint bygone era.”


John RosengrantJohn Rosengrant
Co-Founder, Legacy Effects

“Of course there is a future for Practical Effects. Hey, they provide a spontaneous, tactile quality, an actual in-the-scene feeling. They provide not only a visual reference for an actor but something to actually perform with. In Real Steel, for example, having actual robots for the young actor to work with was essential.”

Iron Man 3

Legacy Effects created partial and complete suits for the “Iron Man” films and “Avengers Assemble”, used both on camera and as reference for the visual effects teams.


Mike ElizaldeMike Elizalde
President & Creative Director, Spectral Motion Inc.

“I have never wavered from my position that practical effects will always be relevant. The huge pendulum swing that occurred over the past two decades in favor of digital effects – where practical effects would have been more effective – has lost its momentum and is beginning to swing the other way. This discussion has raged for a long time, but the proof is in the meetings I take weekly with young, upcoming filmmakers. The dialogue in those meetings is the same, time and time again. They want their creatures to be practical.

“They need the tactile accessibility for not only their audiences, but also for their cast members. Practical effects are emotionally engaging on a level that we can immediately relate to. When it comes to organic, living characters, pixels cannot stand in for molecules. Digital effects have their place and they are here to stay, but the prevailing sensibility among filmmakers is that practical effects should have never taken a back seat. I agree with them.

“I feel that when an artist touches clay, or paint, or any other tactile medium with their hands, they impart a measure of their soul into their creation. There is passion and life and an undeniable soulfulness that’s clear to the human mind. Their weight and presence are not an illusion, and that is something that we all recognize on both a primal and an intellectual level. I feel no greater joy, creatively, than when I stand back and look at something I have been sculpting or building with my own hands, and see the piece claim its place in the tactile universe.”

Russel Lukich of Spectral Motion works on a parasitic "roly-poly" for "Pacific Rim".

Russel Lukich of Spectral Motion works on a parasitic “roly-poly” for “Pacific Rim”.


Howard BergerHoward Berger
Co-Founder, KNB EFX

“One of the many questions I get asked frequently – aside from if I have fun on Halloween – is how VFX has affected the world of special makeup and creature effects. This sparks two feelings. One is how frustrating this often-asked question is. The second is how much I enjoy working with VFX, and utilizing their tools and art to enhance ours.

“It all started with Jurassic Park. When we saw that first shot of the dinosaur walking across the screen, we looked at one another and said, “We are extinct”. After numerous discussions among the shop owners, it seemed there were three ways to deal with this potential new threat:

  1. Get out of doing special makeup effects and join the digital revolution, which a few shops did. They are now extinct.
  2. Fight the digital revolution and convince ourselves that anything VFX can do, we can do practically.
  3. Find a way to integrate what we do best, and work with VFX to create a brand new magic trick for filmmakers and audiences.

“We at KNB EFX Group chose option 3.

“At first it was a bit of a struggle, as certain film makers wanted the new “state of the art” way of doing things, even if the practical solution was the better way to go. For example, when we worked on Little Nicky, the director went digital for a certain gag. If we’d been allowed to accomplish the effect via special makeup, it would have looked heaps better, and not been the strange, floating mess that ended up in the final film.

“There was grandstanding from both sides. We’d come to set with mechanical puppets, set them up and shoot a few takes, only to see the VFX supervisor whisper something in the director’s ear. The next moment we’d hear, “OK, lets move the puppet and get a plate shot, just in case”. Well, you can guess what happened next …

“When we were awarded The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in 2004, we knew this would only work if we all came together and formed a team. Luckily our VFX supervisor Dean Wright and Bill Westenhofer from the late Rhythm & Hues felt the same way. Take Otmin, the Minotaur. We made a huge suit and mechanical head that was worn by Kiwi actor Shane Rhangi. For full-body shots, Otmin was ours from the waist up, and R&H’s from the waist down.

“Otmin was a perfect blend of techniques, and the beginning of a very successful collaboration between special makeup and digital VFX for KNB. We love making creatures, and now we can create anything by working hand in hand with VFX. It’s a great marriage of the two arts.”

Otmin - KNB EFX

Beth Hathaway and Clare Mulroy from KNB EFX prepare Otmin for . scene in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”


Tom Woodruff JrTom Woodruff Jr.
Co-Founder, Amalgamated Dynamics Inc.

“Practical VFX has never completely disappeared, but it has been vastly overshadowed during the last two decades, as CG has become the primary tool for visual effects. Yet the audience knows the difference, and has grown steadily to be the strongest advocate for a balance onscreen.

“For the longest time, we couldn’t get producers and studios to consider that balance. Even studio VFX supervisors – for all their understanding of the value of real images – couldn’t turn the tide. In recent years, there has been some turnaround. The big studio ships aren’t exactly turning around and coming back to us, but more and more are dangling their dinghies.

“Our next challenge is re-educating people about what we do. The industry has a short memory. Today I sit in meetings where producers and directors ask if it’s possible to change the look of an actor’s face without rebuilding it as a digital asset. Alarming too, that the term “asset” has replaced the term “art”. We have to convince producers and supervisors that practical VFX can work – when they are designed with a plan of how they will be shot, and that plan is followed on stage.

“Is there a war between practical VFX and digital VFX? There is when you listen to the buzz of social media. Personally, I’ve always advocated balance. Our studioADI YouTube channel presents over a hundred clips of the work we’ve done for the past 30 years – a great deal of which works by overlapping with digital VFX. In fact, most of us working understand we’re all practitioners of the single art of visual effects – I myself have an Academy Award for Special Visual Effects. That term can’t be usurped solely for digital effects simply because of a misconception that we’re at odds.

“Yes, I’ve got a dog in this fight. Some of our best recent work at ADI has been altered, ruined or simply replaced in post by those who don’t have a big-picture vision. I don’t like seeing our art being downgraded to a service. I don’t want to close down my studio and send the artists away for good.

“The future won’t restore what has been compromised, but we do seem to be at the brink of a renaissance, with smaller films choosing an alternative to digital-only VFX, and big films understanding they can use the support of practical VFX. We’re not going anywhere. We just want to have our cake and eat it too.”

Director Tom Woodruff, Jr. tests makeup with actress Danielle Chuchran, for his crowdfunded feature film "Fire City".

Director Tom Woodruff, Jr. tests makeup with actress Danielle Chuchran, for his crowdfunded feature film “Fire City”.


Steve NewburnSteve Newburn
Creature FX Supervisor, Pacific Rim, The Strain

“It can be tough for a traditional creature shop to survive today. Profit margins are tight. Seven-figure paychecks are a thing of the past. Those who openly embraced change early on, incorporating 3D modeling, milling and printing techniques into their workflow, are generally still going. But CG has had 20 good years to dig in, and we are on the verge of a generation of viewers who don’t know what “real” looks like any more.

“I remember a practical effect from a few years back. The director allowed three takes – which took roughly 15 minutes – before saying, “This is taking too long. We’ll do it in post.” No explanation about what wasn’t liked, even though it was exactly what was asked for. Everyone on the crew sat there for another hour-and-a-half while they shot take after take of the setup, followed by clean plates and HDR for the VFX team – around 18 additional takes. The attitude of the director fueled the perceived failure of the practical effect. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Yet there are many good directors (generally veteran filmmakers) still willing to work with practical effects. And most of the digital artists who come to reference our work say nothing but positive things about it. Many say practical effects are what they wanted to do for a living but, because of their apparent decline, they chose digital instead.

Strigoi makeup

Strigoi makeup created by Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom for “The Strain”

“So what does the future hold? Personally, I think the industry will continue, but in constantly-evolving form. Creature shops are starting to look at smaller films, art projects and corporate work. This approach can keep smaller operations going, and is a good filler between other projects for the big shops.

“For both Pacific Rim and The Strain, we knew we couldn’t deliver the volume of work under the standard creature shop model. Our solution was to create a department under the production roof. This planted us firmly in the minds of the other departments – art, props, wardrobe, even construction – and resulted in additional work being sent our way. The producers saw that every dollar spent was going on camera and not into paying vendor overhead for months after wrap.

“With this model, we use the same crew we would as a vendor and, in most cases, those people are paid better … yet the ultimate price tag is cheaper. The producers have more control, and can see exactly where every dime is going. It eliminates our own need for clerical staff, as much of financials goes through the production’s accounting department.

“Further still, it encourages a more open-minded approach as to what tool is best for the job, and fosters a more fluid working relationship with the digital VFX team. As for the “practical vs digital” debate – it can finally take a back seat.”


Todd MastersTodd Masters
President, MastersFX

“Personally, I’m banking on a growing use of practical materials and FX. As more artists – both practical and CG – become more comfortable with integrating these tangible items, thing should continue to open up. Of course, practical elements don’t help every effect, but I feel they can often help keep things grounded, honest and organic. Even if only when used as reference.

Cochise - Falling Skies

The alien character Cochise was created by MastersFX for “Falling Skies”

“There’s little debate that, when possible, filming physical elements on set can be good for the overall production. Actors perform better to something if they can see it, touch it, experience it. Directors work better with a real monster than a tennis ball. Scenes can be blocked out more successfully, and the overall belief in the experience is far more satisfying. The trick is figuring out which methodology is best suited for each case.

“As CG has evolved, so have practical FX materials. Now our “real”  stuff looks and reacts like CG. Of course, CG has become more convincing as well. The art is in mixing them in a satisfying way. Ultimately, there’s only cool shots and good work. There aren’t sides to FX, until you choose to take them.”


Mark CoulierMark Coulier
Creative Director, Coulier Creatures FX

“Has there been a better werewolf transformation scene since An American Werewolf in London? Has there ever been a better or more popular creature character in a film than Chewbacca? Name an alien that has captured the audience’s imagination – especially children – as much as E.T. Has there been a better creature built since the T-Rex in Jurassic Park?

“The Jurassic Park T-Rex and raptors have never been bettered as real, believable characters and I think that is partly down to the mix between practical and VFX. It is, after all, about fooling the audience’s eye and creating characters that are real. Once you have a King Kong that does multiple somersaults, and a herd of stampeding Brontosauri with people running between their legs, it doesn’t matter how real they look; it looks impressive from a technical point of view, but it fools no-one.

“I see one technological Hollywood masterpiece after another and they are all starting to look the same. I think that lack of technology in the past forced filmmakers to be inventive about how the story was told. We should make sure that magic is not lost forever. Fortunately, there are filmmakers out there who still embrace all aspects of our craft. None of it should be discounted. We should use whichever effect tells the story best.”

Voldemort

Mark Coulier, working under creature effects designer Nick Dudman, sculpted and applied this makeup for Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series of films. The makeup was further refined with digital enhancement by MPC.


Conclusion

Despite the challenges of the last couple of decades, it’s clear to me that the practical creature effects industry is very much alive and kicking. Sure, it’s been forced to move with the times – and not always painlessly. But isn’t change inevitable, in all walks of life?

The practical shops that are surviving – in some cases thriving – are doing so because they’ve embraced that change. Some have done this by seeking ways to integrate with their digital peers, other by entering new markets, or by exploring new business models. Some have embraced all these things and more. Meanwhile, a new generation of filmmakers has emerged that is keen to explore the possibilities of today’s sophisticated brand of practical effects.

Throughout – and without exception – the creature-makers and makeup effects artists have continued to do what they’ve always done: used extraordinary skills to create amazing visions of imaginary beings. And if the above passionate – and sometimes impassioned – responses to my question prove anything, it’s this: however great the challenge, there is a viable alternative to extinction.

Evolution.

Now it’s your turn. Which side of the fence do you stand? Or are you ready to burn that fence down? Cast your vote below:


“Return of the Jedi” photograph copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd. “Pacific Rim” photograph copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Pictures. “The Chronicle of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” photograph copyright © 2005 by Disney Entertainment and Walden Media. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” photograph copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures. “Real Steel” photograph copyright © 2011 by Dreamworks II Distribution Company. “The Strain” photograph copyright © by 2014 FX Networks, LLC. “Harry Potter” photograph copyright © by Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.

Doug Trumbull’s “UFOTOG”

Douglas Trumbull's "UFOTOG"How many frames per second is enough? According to film director and visual effects pioneer Doug Trumbull, it’s 120fps. And he’s determined to prove it.

This week, on Thursday 11 September, the Toronto International Film Festival is staging the first public showing of UFOTOG, an experimental sci-fi adventure film written and directed by Trumbull. At the event – which will be moderated by Scott Feinberg – Trumbull will also deliver a keynote speech about the creation of the film.

UFOTOG is designed to showcase MAGI – a new combination of technologies that will, Trumbull believes, take motion pictures to the next level and compete with the various technologies threatening to draw audiences away from conventional theatrical presentations.

“Younger audiences are enjoying the benefits of low cost and convenience via downloading and streaming, causing tidal shifts in the entertainment industry, and particularly in theatrical exhibition. Theaters must offer an experience that is so powerful and overwhelming that people will see the reward of going out to a movie.” – Doug Trumbull

Trumbull is no stranger to stretching the boundaries of cinema. After supervising the groundbreaking visual effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he went on to develop Showscan, a 60fps film process which, had it taken off, would have brought high frame rates to theaters nearly thirty years before Peter Jackson managed it with The Hobbit.

UFOTOG was shot on a combined laboratory/stage/studio, with 120fps 4K 3D live action being staged inside virtual environments, and the results being relayed to a large screen adjacent to the shooting space.

MAGI isn’t just about high frame rates. According to the Trumbull Studios press release, UFOTOG “explores a new cinematic language that invites the audience to experience a powerful sense of immersion”. In collaboration with Christie Digital and Dolby Laboratories, Trumbull aims to transform the theatrical experience by improving screen size, image brightness, atmospheric sound and the effectiveness of 3D, as well as optimising the colour saturation and dynamic range of the projected image.

“We are exploring and discover a new landscape of audience excitement and do it inexpensively and quickly – we are pushing the envelope to condense movie production time, intending to make films at a fraction of current blockbuster costs, yet with a much more powerful result on the screen.” – Doug Trumbull

Watch the teaser trailer for UFOTOG:

Back To The Wizard Of Oz

The Wizard of Oz 75th AnniversaryWhen I sat down to write about the 75th anniversary of MGM’s iconic musical The Wizard of Oz, the strangest thing happened. No sooner had I booted up my laptop than the skies darkened, and the wind began to howl.

Heart hammering, I ran outside. Sure enough, there on the horizon was an undulating tower of dust and debris. An enormous twister, headed my way.

Looking harder, I saw that the tornado was made not of bad weather, but ordinary muslin: a 35-foot sock of the stuff, suspended from a gantry and disappearing into a slot in the ground. The roar I could hear was the sound of compressed air pumping fuller’s earth up through the sock’s interior, and spilling it out into the air.

This twister was a fake.

But it could still kill me.

Terrified, I ran to the storm cellar, my trusty laptop clutched to my chest. But it was too late. The cyclone was upon me. It seized me, lofted me skywards and carried me away, not over the rainbow but 75 years back through time to 25 August 1939, and the city of New York. On that very day, right across the USA, The Wizard of Oz was enjoying the biggest simultaneous launch of any motion picture in history, with synchronised openings in 400 theatres, and the support of a massive $250,000 ad campaign.

I flew above Broadway. Everything below me was black and white, like a Movietone newsreel. I was surrounded by flapping wings. Not birds, nor even flying monkeys, but the popular magazines of the day. They spun past me, spilling their stories about the making of the most famous movie musical ever made …

"Photoplay" magazine - September 1939

Motion Picture Daily, 18 August 1939:

“… opening of Wizard of Oz at the Capitol, with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney making a personal appearance, had Broadway gasping yesterday. Lines of waiting patrons, four abreast, extended to 51st St., west to Eighth Ave., down 50th St. and back to the box-office for a complete encirclement of the block on which the Capitol stands. The house played to absolute capacity all day, and it was estimated that 35,000 paid their way through the box-office. Sixty police were assigned to the theatre area …”

Hollywood, March 1939:

“… as the tin woodman in the Wizard of Oz, Jack Haley has to put on a silver make-up of such a chemical nature that it’s dangerous to wear. When putting it on, the make-up man protects the actor’s eyes by using shields. Once on, Jack is followed around by assistant make-up men who watch closely to see that Jack’s face is free from perspiration. The make-up takes about three hour to put on and two to remove and Jack has figured out that before the picture is finished he will have devoted more than five hundred and forty hours to make-up alone …”

Photoplay, September 1939:

“… 165 arts and crafts … 65 separate sets … a city of 22,000 glass objects … 40,000 poppies … 212,180 separate sound effects … Jack Dawn, head of the make-up department, devised 116 separate faces for [the Munchkins] …[costume designer Adrian turned out] 4,000 costumes for the more than 1,000 members of the cast [and] devised “skins” and eagle wings for the Flying Monkeys and two skins with a zipper for Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion …”

Motion Picture, March 1939:

“… [Jack Dawn] has invented a gelatinous, flexible substance that looks like flesh, and when put on the face allows complete freedom of expression. It’s light and porous, absorbs perspiration, and is comfortable to wear … He considers [The Wizard of Oz] his biggest and most difficult assignment to date. And it will show his wonders of make-up. A man will look like a lion or flying monkey and still preserve his identity …”

I clawed at the pages of the magazines, seeking more detail. What of the special effects? What of those glorious matte paintings? What more could I learn about the construction of the very twister that had carried me away?

Alas, it was too late. Already the cyclone was carrying me back home. I snatched one more glance at Motion Picture as it tumbled away, fascinated and amused by its closing lines concerning makeup artist Jack Dawn:

“Jack lives in the San Fernando Valley, and is the husband of the beauteous Marla Shelton, who patiently submits to his various tests and experiments, and with whom he is very much in love.”

The Wizard of Oz 75th Anniversary

I awoke at my desk, blinking and bemused. In front of me was my laptop. On its screen were the very words you read now. I had no memory of writing them.

I stretched, went to the window. The sky was clear, the air fresh as if from recent rain, though the ground was entirely dry.

Far in the distance, a rainbow sparkled.

I gazed into the rainbow’s many colours, remembering the long-ago world of 1939 to which I’d been unexpectedly whisked. The monochrome world. I thought about how, in the film, Dorothy’s Kansas homeland is black and white, while her destination of Oz is a many-hued dream. Yet my experience had been the opposite. After a moment, I understood why.

In 1939, movie magic was still a closely-guarded secret. Read the magazines of the day, and you’ll be lucky to find anything more than the kind of studio flim-flam I’ve just shown you. As for what you do read, well, it may be true … or it may just be humbug.

So I was glad to return to the world of today, a rainbow world of infinite colour, in which the secret world of cinematic illusions is there to be discovered, if only you know where to look. Some say knowing spoils the magic. Others say knowledge is power.

Me, I say there’s no place like home.

Wizard-Collectors-Bluray

The Wizard of Oz: 75th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray 3D / Blu-ray / DVD / Flash Drive

Quotes and magazine image sourced via the Media History Digital Library

Prosthetics Emmy Win For “Game Of Thrones”

Barrie Gower (right) and Tristan Versluis apply makeup to the Night King for HBO's "Game of Thrones"

Barrie Gower (right) and Tristan Versluis apply makeup to the Night King for HBO’s “Game of Thrones”

HBO’s hit fantasy series Game of Thrones didn’t just take home an Emmy for its visual effects. As well as a host of other prizes, it also won the award for Outstanding Prosthetic Makeup For A Series, Miniseries, Movie Or A Special. Other nominees in this category included: American Horror Story: Coven, Anna Nicole, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad and The Normal Heart. The Game of Thrones makeup and prosthetics team was led by:

One of the key sequences featuring the award-winning prosthetics was an attack by a band of skeletal reanimated corpses known as “wights”. A seamless blend of practical and digital effects, the showstopping sequence features extensive prosthetics work by Gower and his team. Further examples of their work in the winning episode The Children include a three-eyed raven, as well as makeups for old age, injuries and burns. Barrie Gower had this to say about receiving the award:

“We feel highly honoured to be awarded the Emmy for best Prosthetic Makeup on Game of Thrones. We are delighted to be recognised for our crew’s hard work and passion. I see Game of Thrones as a bucket list for prosthetics. In any one season we can be asked to provide anything from old age makeups, creatures, likeness silicone heads and bodies to models for VFX lighting reference. We feel privileged to be a part of one of HBO’s flagship shows!”

Watch HBO’s behind the scenes video on the Game of Thrones season four finale – The Children:

“Game of Thrones” Wins VFX Emmy

Game of Thrones - visual effects by Rodeo FX

The prestigious Emmy Award for Outstanding Special and Visual Effects 2014 has been snapped up by the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. The show was up against some stiff competition in the form of Almost Human, Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and The 100.

The episode singled out for glory was The Children, the tenth and final episode of Game of Thrones season four. Here’s the list of the credited VFX crew:

  • Joe Bauer, Lead Visual Effects Supervisor
  • Jörn Großhans, Visual Effects Supervisor
  • Steve Kullback, Lead Visual Effects Producer
  • Adam Chazen, Visual Effects Coordinator
  • Eric Carney, Visual Effects Previs Lead
  • Sabrina Gerhardt, Visual Effects Animation Producer
  • Matthew Rouleau, CG Supervisor
  • Thomas H. Schelesny, CG Sequence Supervisor
  • Robert Simon, Visual Effects Concept Designer

Rodeo FX delivered 150 shots throughout season four. In addition to creating the city of Meereen, their team generated the massive CG army that attacks it. They also designed a series of grandiose CG environments, created a zombie-horse, modelled and animated a cavalry of thousands of horsemen, simulated atmospheric effects, and contributed to a number of wolf sequences.

“There was such a contagious desire to perform and deliver beyond-stunning visual effects,” said Rodeo’s CG Supervisor Matthew Rouleau. “The artists really put all their talent and their heart into the work. This is why we now have this amazing statuette decorating our office!”

Watch the Rodeo FX Game of Thrones Season Four VFX breakdown reel:

A further 72 shots were delivered by Mackevision. Their team spent around six months creating crowd replications, full CG ships and water simulations, set extensions, and an elaborate, full-CG digital environment of the city of Braavos, seen for the first time this season.

“We’re extremely happy about this award”, said Mackevision’s Visual Effects Supervisor Jörn Großhans. “We have worked on very beautiful, highly complex and dramatic shots in this season. Receiving the Emmy Award is a great honor for everyone involved in creating the show’s VFX.”

Watch the Mackevision Game of Thrones Season Four VFX breakdown reel:

Other key contributors to the show include Scanline VFX and concept designer Robert Simon. Lead Visual Effects Supervisor for HBO is Game of Thrones veteran Joe Bauer.

Guardians of a Colourful Galaxy

The Novacorps Starblasters from Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy"

Stanley Kubrick has a lot to answer for. Single-handedly, he took all the fun out of space travel. All the fun, and all the colour

Ever since the release of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, spaceships in the movies have been painted white. Or grey. Or black. Ooh, is that a hint of silver? It’s the NASA look, defined in the sixties by the Apollo missions with their black-and-white Saturn V rockets, and inherited in the eighties by the equally monochromatic Space Shuttle.

Dennis Muren prepares the Death Star for shooting at ILM

Dennis Muren concedes that grey does at least stand out well against a bluescreen

Even the Star Wars saga – with its riotous assembly of galactic cruisers and space jalopies – is hamstrung by a limited colour palette. The evil Empire has shares in a paint shop that specialises in shades of grey.

Same with the rebels. Luke flies as Red Five during the Battle of Yavin, but does that mean his X-Wing is decked out in gaudy crimson? Nope. There might be a red stripe or two under all that grime, but Luke’s interstellar hot rod is as colourless as the TIE fighters he’s up against. Sure, they pushed the pigment envelope with the prequel trilogy, but who remembers that, right?

Meanwhile, the list goes on. Pick any iconic spaceship of the last forty years, then consider the paint job. The Nostromo? Light grey. The Sulaco? Dark grey. Then there’s the Rodger Young from Starship Troopers, or the Battlestar Galactica, or the Prometheus

You get the picture.

The "Discovery" pod bay from "2001: A Space Odyssey"

“Which pod shall we take, Dave?” “I don’t know, Frank. How about the white one?”

Now everything has changed. Thanks to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, space travel just went Technicolor.

In Gunn’s film, the spaceships shine like mechanical insects, wasp-striped and butterfly-winged. Peter Quill’s Milano is a confection of vivid blue and orange. The Nova Corps Starblasters are angry yellow and black. As for the many worlds explored by these many-hued craft – they’re simply dazzling. Space itself – that traditionally black interstellar void – is drenched with more colour than an exploding paint factory.

I love the exuberant hues of Guardians of the Galaxy. Not only do they overturn years of space-going sterility, but they also hark back to the science fiction paperbacks I devoured as a teenager. My favourite authors were Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven, whose books boasted cover illustrations by Chris Foss and Peter Jones respectively.

Paperback SF

When my bookshelf collapsed, it did at least leave a colourful mess.

Foss specialises in giant, gaudy spaceships, each one perforated by about a billion tiny windows. His vehicles were huge and outlandish, bulging with unrestrained geometry and belching out entire fog banks of glowing exhaust gas. Jones’s artwork is just a riot, with one primary hue crashing against another as funky aliens fired unfathomable weapons into a collision of eccentric hardware.

Colour, colour, colour.

For years, that colour has been trapped on the covers of those battered old paperbacks. Now, at last, it’s beginning to find its way on to the silver screen. The first hint of this new trend came with James Cameron’s Avatar, whose alien world of Pandora was a rainbow brought to life. Yet, even in Cameron’s universe, the spaceships were still grey.

There was good reason for that. Thematically, the human technology in Avatar is cold and heartless, while the jungle inhabited by the native Na’vi – despite its many hazards – is warm and inviting. A perfect example of colour as subtext.

The Milano approaches Knowhere in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy"

The Milano approaches Knowhere in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians of the Galaxy is different. In Gunn’s film, vivid colours are packed into every corner of every frame. Colour is what this galaxy is all about. It’s no coincidence that, tucked away in the credits at the end of the movie, you’ll find a host of talented concept and matte artists whose portfolios are also bulging with science fiction paperback covers. Artists like Fred Gambino and – you guessed it – Chris Foss.

Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy"Are we finally witnessing the end of Kubrick’s legacy? Has James Gunn opened the flood gates of a reservoir filled not with water, but all the coloured paints you could ever wish to see? One thing’s for sure: with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 already on the starting blocks, we’re set to be dazzled for some time to come.

Read the definitive behind-the-scenes story of the visual effects of Guardians of the Galaxy in the October issue of Cinefex, available to pre-order now!

2001: A Space Odyssey photograph copyright © 1968, 2001 by Turner Entertainment Company. Star Wars photograph copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd. and courtesy of ILM. Guardians of the Galaxy photographs copyright © 2014 by Marvel Entertainment.

Guess The Cover – Cinefex 139

Cinefex 139 Lineup

If you follow our Facebook page, you’ll already know the lineup for the next issue of Cinefex. In case you missed the news, however, I’m here to tell you that our Fall edition – issue 139 – is a blockbuster package covering the visual effects of four of this year’s biggest movies: Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Given such a great selection of films, which one would you put on the cover? Make your guess below – it’s just for fun. All will be revealed soon …

Dream Landscapes – The Mountain

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

Throughout human history, the mountain has stood tall as a home of spirituality, as a challenge to physical endurance, or simply as a vision of breathtaking beauty.

It was on Mount Olympus that the gods of Greece decided the fates of mortals; Moses received the Ten Commandments on the peak of Mount Sinai; in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay captured the world’s imagination by becoming the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, whose Tibetan name Qomolangma carries meanings including “goddess” and “mother”.

Mountains stand tall in the history of cinema too: monumental examples of Werner Herzog’s idealised “dream landscape”, and guardians of a lethal realm in which spectacle and peril are balanced precariously over the abyss.

But consider the challenge of elevating an entire film crew – not to mention a cast of fragile actors – to the top of a remote and snowbound peak. Little wonder the art of visual effects has played such a large part in putting these high sierras on the screen.

"Black Narcissus" was shot at Pinewood Studios in England. Its spectacular Himalayan backdrops were provided by matte painter Walter Percy Day.

“Black Narcissus” was shot at Pinewood Studios in England. Its spectacular Himalayan backdrops were provided by matte painter Walter Percy Day.

Take Black Narcissus, the 1947 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, in which a group of nuns establishes a convent high in the Himalayas. Even as they struggle to adjust to the precipitous surroundings, their fellowship is torn apart by simmering sexual tensions and haunted by echoes of the past.

Much of the uneasy mood of Black Narcissus is created by the edgy performances – not least a tour de force turn by Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth. However, the film also relies heavily on its Himalayan setting to evoke an atmosphere of entrapment in isolation. In short, it’s the mountains that make the movie sing.

For all its Asian airs, Black Narcissus was shot entirely in England, mostly on sets built at Pinewood Studios. The expansive Himalayan vistas were conjured by an extraordinary series of matte paintings designed by art director Alfred Junge and executed by Walter Percy Day.

For more examples of Walter Percy Day’s amazing matte work on Black Narcissus, visit Peter Cook’s Matte Shot blog.

In 1982, Herzog himself made symbolic use of a mountain, not to evoke feelings of alienation, but to represent man’s hubris. In Fitzcarraldo, the title character (Klaus Kinski) drives a team of Amazonian natives to transport his steamship up and over a steep wooded slope, only to see the vessel plunge headlong downslope and into the river beyond. Unlike Powell and Pressburger, however, Herzog eschewed the use of special effects altogether and staged everything for real (although debate continues about several shots during the rapids sequence in which the good ship Molly Aida looks suspiciously like a miniature).

Matte artist Rocco Gioffre touches up a mountain painting for Renny Harlin's "Cliffhanger"

Matte artist Rocco Gioffre touches up a mountain painting for Renny Harlin’s “Cliffhanger”

Michele Moen touches up a massive “Cliffhanger” matte painting while matte camera operator Alan Harding prepares for a take.

Michele Moen touches up a massive “Cliffhanger” matte painting while matte camera operator Alan Harding prepares for a take.

Fitzcarraldo’s jungle peak is tiny compared to the Rocky Mountains, presented in all their vertiginous glory by Renny Harlin in his 1993 film Cliffhanger. In the film, mountain climber Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) is drawn into a race against time to recover $100 million stolen in a heist.

Once again, the spectacular scenery is the background against which the lead character faces ghosts from the past – in Walker’s case, the fateful day when he watched fellow rescue ranger Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) plunge to her death. And, while Stallone performed a number of climbing scenes on location in the Rockies, some of the film’s most spectacular sequences come courtesy of Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios.

To achieve dizzying pull-back shots showing Stallone ascending seemingly impossible cliffs, Boss employed their elevator rig: a vertically configured motion control camera cantilevered precipitously out from mountainsides in the Italian Dolomites. Footage from the rig was rear projected into matte paintings, with foreground miniatures used to add extra depth and scale.

Schloss Adler - the Austrian castle created in miniature at Borehamwood Studios for "Where EAgles Dare"

Schloss Adler – the Austrian castle created in miniature at Borehamwood Studios for “Where EAgles Dare”

As well as landscapes in which to search the soul, mountains are also obstacles to be surpassed, strongholds to be penetrated – perhaps even targets to be destroyed. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo’s band of adventurers are thwarted by cruel Caradhras, a malevolent alp represented by New Zealand locations, studio sets and the ever-reliable digital matte painting. In Where Eagles Dare, the imposing castle Schloss Adler was doubled by the Austrian Burg Hohenwerfen, but also re-created in miniature on the MGM backlot at Borehamwood. The old-school was honoured in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for which a mountain fortress was constructed in miniature by New Deal Studios … and then summarily blown up.

Inception-Miniature

New Deal Studios created this one-sixth scale mountain fortress miniature for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”

Action aside, the movie mountain has ever been a place of the soul – a thesis supported by The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), in which the title character (Ben Stiller) literally climbs a mountain to find not only the man he’s been searching for – Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) – but enlightenment.

Live action plates for Mitty’s vistas were shot in Iceland, with LOOK Effects and Hatch FX teaming up to create digital extensions, based on Himalayan photography provided by Alex Nice and laid out by matte artist Deak Ferrand.

As well as being a classic “dream landscape”, the mountain is also the perfect metaphor for the filmmaking process … and within that the task of the visual effects artist. In every worthwhile creative endeavour, there is a mountain to climb. At its peak there may lie enlightenment, or exhaustion, or both.

But the peak is only the destination. In fiction, as in life, the real value of the mountain experience lies in the journey. The truth behind all imaginary landscapes – mountains included – is this: those sights which make us gasp in awe are won only by tremendous toil, undertaken one slow step at a time. The toil of the climber, yes. But also the toil of the artist who opens our eyes to scenes we might otherwise never experience.

“In a sense everything that is exists to climb. All evolution is a climbing towards a higher form. Climbing for life as it reaches towards the consciousness, towards the spirit. So we climb, and in climbing there is more than a metaphor; there is a means of discovery.” – Rob Parker, Explorer and Mountaineer

“Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life.” – Werner Herzog

“Cliffhanger” photographs copyright © 1993 by Carolco Pictures, Inc. Boss Film still photography by Virgil Morano. “Inception” photograph copyright © 2010 by Warner Bros. Pictures and courtesy of New Deal Studios. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” photographs copyright © 2013 by 20th Century Fox. 

Into The Storm – Visual Effects

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

They say it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Well, Warner Brothers are hoping that Into The Storm – their summer spectacular that’s just brimming with bad weather – blows audiences away. Directed by Steven Quale (director of Final Destination 5, and second unit director on Avatar), the film chronicles the battering taken by the fictional American town of Silverton as it’s overwhelmed by wave after wave of devastating tornadoes.

Townsfolk and stormchasers alike are pushed to the limit as they try to survive this torrent of twisters. As for the cyclones themselves, they appear on screen courtesy of a number of visual effects vendors, including Cinesite, Digital Domain, Hydraulx, Method Studios, MPC, and Scanline VFX.

Join me as we head into the storm with VFX supervisors Nordin Rahhali (Method), Simon Stanley-Clamp (Cinesite) and Erik Liles (Hydraulx) – together with Hydraulx VFX producer Eric Kohler – as they share some of their extreme weather experiences.

Method Studios

Method Studios delivered around 180 shots for the climactic tornado sequence in Into The Storm. Nordin Rahhali was Visual Effects Supervisor in Method’s Los Angeles office, with Simon Carr supervising a number of shots at the London office, and Bruce Woloshyn supervising additional work in Vancouver.

During the sequence, a mile-wide tornado descends upon the town. With a classification of F5 – the highest on the internationally-recognised Fujita scale – the deadly twister unleashes winds of over 200mph, demolishing an entire school even as the people who have been sheltering inside flee the doomed campus in a ragtag convoy of vehicles.

Watch a series of visual effects clips from Into the Storm:

While movie audiences may be familiar with the sight of giant twisters tearing up the screen, nevertheless the team at Method relished the prospect of generating a cyclone of their own. “Did the prospect of working on a film with a giant tornado destroying anything in its path excite me? Absolutely!” said Nordin Rahhali. “I remember watching Twister back in the day, and loving it, so this was a chance to work on a modern tornado film that had a different story to tell.”

To gain inspiration, the Method team referenced earlier disaster movies including Twister and The Day After Tomorrow. “We also looked at work we had done at Method in the past,” added Rahhali. “Doug Bloom, one of our CG supervisors, had previously worked on Beautiful Creatures, leading development on the tornado scene. Taking what we learned from that film, we were able to begin development on Into the Storm from a solid base. This was key in being able to deliver the show on such a short schedule.”

Even so, the majority of the reference used came from real-world footage. “YouTube and other sources were invaluable for researching real events,” Rahhali commented. “Pretty much everyone walks around with a camera phone these days, so it’s amazing what shows up online. The challenge was how to sift through it all and collect the really good stuff.”

Having assembled a collection of reference clips, Rahhali’s team categorised them on a sliding scale, according to their severity. Each shot for Into The Storm was assigned a position on that scale. As shots were finalised, they in turn became reference for subsequent shots. “But we always started from real world footage to base everything in reality,” Rahhali asserted.

Original plate photography

The motorcade flees the mile-wide tornado – original plate photography

Final composite

The motorcade flees the mile-wide tornado – final composite

The climactic tornado is so immense that it decimates not just stands of trees, but entire forests. Simulating the wind’s effects on such large areas of foliage proved a time-consuming challenge. “We developed a Houdini-based system that allowed us to work on the trees as lightweight skeletal wireframes,” explained Rahhali. “We ran simulations on those, then applied the resulting deformations to the full tree models as a post process. This allowed us to iterate simulations on vast numbers of trees relatively quickly, doing the heavy lifting only when the simulation looked promising.”

The tree models themselves were created using SpeedTree, and rendered in Mantra. “For distant trees, leaves were shaded as points, with actual geometry being used only when the leaves were large enough to be noticeable.”

As the cataclysmic winds tear into the school, the buildings are systematically torn apart. “We modelled much of the structural detail that the real school would have been built with,” commented Rahhali. “We used reference of smaller buildings being destroyed by extreme weather to give us an understanding of what features would be visible as it broke apart: the internal wooden frame, drywall, bricks, air ducts and so on. All these elements became pieces in a Houdini DOPs simulation.”

Watch extensive VFX breakdowns from Into The Storm by Method Studios:

The extensive storm sequence required Method to integrate their effects not only with ground-based footage (shot mostly using an Alexa) but also with aerial photography shot with a Red Epic. “The aerial shots gave us a unique viewpoint from which to show the scale of the tornado,” remarked Rahhali. “They also presented challenges we didn’t have with the ground shots: namely, we see much further into the scene, and have a much wider view of the storm. This made for more work in terms of environment reconstruction, digital matte paintings for the ground, CG forests and atmospherics and, of course, the tornado itself.”

When it came to the ground-based shots, the daylight plate photography had to be adjusted to conform to the overcast lighting conditions of the storm. “A number of shots had been done against a sunny, clear blue sky, with the actors in shade in the foreground, being hit with wind and rain machines,” Rahhali explained. “That posed a unique compositing challenge: we had to grade the background to match the required gloomy look. To achieve this, Compositing Supervisor Jeff Allen worked with artists to develop techniques using creative keys, roto, grades and paint projections.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

Method Studios provided visual effects for a sequence in which evacuees from a destroyed school shelter in a storm drain

Following their narrow escape from the school, the evacuees find their way blocked by a fallen power line. Unable to continue, they seek shelter in a partially-constructed storm drain, where they find themselves beneath in eye of the tornado. At the climax of this sequence – and making good on the promise of the film’s title – Method delivered a number of shots in which the audience is truly taken “into the storm”. “Director Steven Quale was very keen on the concept of a tornado within a tornado,” commented Rahhali. “Chris Sanchez, one of our seasoned concept artists, created illustrations to explore this idea.”

The sequence includes several fully-CG shots, with the camera first looking up into the eye of the tornado, and later rising with a vehicle as it is lifted high into the spinning vortex. “Compositing Lead Brian Delmonico helped develop the look beyond the original concept,” said Rahhali, “while CG Supervisor Blake Sweeney led the lighting team to create realistic water sheets coming off vehicles, and tied together all the objects – including cars, buses, construction equipment, a semi-truck, and large pieces of debris – with the highly art-directed lighting coming from within the tornado. The hard surface models were lit in Maya and rendered in V-Ray; atmospherics and particle FX for the sequence were created in Houdini and rendered in Mantra.”

Animation Supervisor Keith Roberts led the animation for the sequence. “Much of the energy of the storm, inside and out, was the result of layers and layers of animated debris – trees, cars, school buses,” Rahhali pointed out. “The camera was animated too – along with the vehicle it’s attached to – with lots of subtle secondary bumps and shakes, with everything choreographed to flow and feel believable. It was difficult work, but the end result was a very memorable shot.”

The challenge of delivering FX-heavy, photoreal sequences was compounded by the tight time frame within which the work had to be completed. “We had about four months from award until we delivered final shots,” said Rahhali. “That included R&D and assets. A very aggressive schedule, to be sure. We shared some data with Hydraulx: models, skies, ground digital matte paintings, animated geometry representing the tornado and rendered layers of the tornado. They had a few shots in the middle of our sequence, so it was important to share as much as we could. With the right team of people, incredible results can be achieved in very little time.”

The stormy weather seen on the screen in Into The Storm was created in the aftermath of another storm: the recent collapse of long-established visual effects studio Rhythm & Hues.

“This show was particularly bittersweet for me,” reflected Rahhali. “Originally, Rhythm & Hues had the majority of work on the show. When they went bankrupt, that work was divided between us and other vendors. With the struggles of big studios like Rhythm & Hues and others, and the folding of many mid-sized studios, it’s been a rough few years. I had many personal friends at Rhythm & Hues, and it was a terrible blow to the whole industry when they went through bankruptcy.

“Because of their struggle, we had the opportunity to work on an exciting project. While it’s unfortunate the way it happened, I’m extremely proud of the work we did at Method, and of the entire team involved. The collaboration across our different offices was key in being able to deliver, and speaks to one of Method’s strengths in these challenging times.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Method Studios

Method Studios delivered a number of fully-CG shots looking up into the eye of the tornado

Cinesite

Cinesite were tasked with completing work on a variety of sequences throughout the show. “We worked on twisters, building destruction, environment enhancement and clean up,” said Simon Stanley-Clamp, Visual Effects Supervisor at Cinesite. “These sequences had been started by another facility.”

2_Cinesite_VFX_Into_The_Storm_ 052__sh090

Among the sequences worked on by Cinesite was one in which the principle characters take shelter with a group of students in the school. “The lights go out,” explained Stanley-Clamp. “Paper, dust and debris blows along the corridors while the students cower, then – wham! The roof peels back and kids are sucked out of the building. This was a sequence of about ten shots, comprising many FX passes, roto and comp work.”

Reference material for the sequence included CCTV and security footage taken from inside sports halls, supermarkets and schools. “There was also the ubiquitous camera phone footage of destructive weather events,” Stanley-Clamp added. “We used this extensively, particularly for the scenes where we ripped the roof off the school, showing ceiling tiles gradually peeling back and so on. What struck me most about this real life material is the speed at which the devastation occurs: a sports hall can be demolished in frames. This actually doesn’t make for a good cinematic experience, so our shots give a longer glimpse at what being inside a building during a storm would be like.”

3_Cinesite_VFX_Into_The_Storm_ 053__sh050

Cinesite provided support on “Into The Storm” with visual effects including twisters, building destruction, environment enhancement and clean up.

Hydraulx

Hydraulx was brought in by Visual Effects Producer Randy Starr late in the day, to pick up some additional VFX sequences for Into The Storm.

“We created the funnel tornados first seen in a sequence at a farmhouse, and in subsequent scenes. We also did the hailstorm sequence at the motel, the collapsing paper mill and CG rain,” said Hydraulx Visual Effects Supervisor Erik Liles and Visual Effects Producer Eric Kohler. “One of our most exciting sequences was the airport getting destroyed during the mile-wide tornado scene.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Hydraulx delivered visual effects showing an airport being ravaged by the mile-wide tornado that descends during the film’s climax

Like their counterparts at the other visual effects studios, the Hydraulx team used real-world stormchaser videos and images as inspiration: “We found so many great videos online, featuring all types of great tornado events and destruction. One of our favourite references was a video of 18-wheelers getting tossed through the air during a huge tornado in Texas. We used this as inspiration for the airport destruction scene.”

During the sequence, a gigantic tornado ploughs through a working airport, tossing 747s into the air like toys. The sheer scale of the action made for a considerable technical challenge, particularly when it came to CG dynamics and rendering.

The slideshow below shows the step-by-step layering of one of the final airport composites.

“We decided to render everything on the airport tarmac in a single pass, from the tiny pieces of baggage to the 747s themselves,” Liles and Kohler explained. “This way we made sure the lighting was consistent, that there were proper reflections and shadows on the many objects interacting with one another, and that all the dynamics and debris reacted properly with each of the collision objects.

“On top of everything else happening in these shots, we also had to incorporate a mile-wide tornado element provided to us by Method, along with a dust cloud element we created. We had to ensure the dust cloud interacted properly with the tarmac objects, as well as maintaining the look of the big tornado being used by Method in surrounding sequences. In trying to keep within the reality of real world physics, we learned a lot about the realistic dynamics of tornado formation and funnel characteristics … and of course took some creative license to make things look cool.”

The slideshow below shows the step-by-step layering of a scene in which a funnel tornado tears into a barn.

Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Visual effects breakdown of the farmhouse destruction scene

Hydraulx delivered around 150 shots in four months, although the complexity of the airport destruction sequence saw them working for three months on three shots alone. “We had a great time working with Steve Quale, Randy Starr, and all the other vendors involved.” Liles and Kohler concluded. “Together we made a great team, and the experience was fantastic.”

Into The Storm - VFX by Hydraulx

Thanks to Ellen Pasternack, Rita Cahill, Melissa Knight, Helen Moody and Greg Strause. Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Method Studios. © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. – U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda and © 2014 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Limited – All Other Territories. All Rights Reserved. Photo Credits: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, Method Studios and Hydraulx.

The Strain – Visual Effects

"The Strain" - Cinefex VFX Q&A

Vampires! Just when you think you’ve seen every bloodsucker under the sun (or should that be the moon?) someone sharpens the teeth of the old myth and serves up something new. In the case of The Strain – the new 13-part series currently airing on Sunday nights on FX – that someone is Guillermo del Toro.

Based on the novels by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, The Strain tells a story of escalating horror as an ancient evil arrives in New York City, spreading a vampiric virus that threatens not only the metropolis, but the entire human race.

Lead vendor for the visual effects of The Strain is Mr. X Inc., whose recent feature work includes Noah, Pompeii, Robocop and Pacific Rim. Our exclusive Q&A features contributions from Stacey Dodge (VFX Producer), Craig Calvert (CG Supervisor for pilot episode Night Zero) and Trey Harrell (CG Supervisor), as they reveal the challenges of delivering huge numbers of shots, of feature film quality, within the time and budget constraints of a television production.

Flight 753 brings the vampire virus to New York City

When did you first get involved with The Strain?

In December of 2012, we got a call from our long-time friend and client Miles Dale who said that Guillermo del Toro might be bringing an exciting new TV show to town and we should pitch on it in the new year if we were interested. We read the trilogy of books over the Christmas holiday, met with Guillermo in January, and shot a post-apocalyptic live-action pitch sequence in the lobby of Mr. X in February of 2013.

We hired an art department, camera crew and makeup FX artists for the shoot, and cast Jason Edwardh – one of our lead Animators – in the role of our vampire. While prepping for the live-action shoot, we were busy modelling a full head and neck asset for Jason, as well as the CG “Stinger” asset, based on concept art from Guillermo. After the shoot we modelled and matchmoved Jason’s head, neck and torso and animated the Stinger to launch out at the camera per Guillermo’s brief to us.

In May 2013 we were confirmed as the lead vendor on The Strain, and so we’ve been heavily involved with the show since pre-production. Because so many of the sequences rely heavily on VFX, we were there from the planning stage forward to ensure we would be able to work with the photographed elements in a timely and cost-effective manner. Television schedules are so extremely tight there is little room for error. Our team at Mr. X consists of about 45 artists and production personnel, with four or five people on set.

Did the visual direction come directly from Guillermo del Toro?

Yes. A lot of the creature work in The Strain is so original that we took most of our inspiration from Guillermo and his concept work. However, we did look at a lot of YouTube videos of horsehair worms – this was the main reference Guillermo gave us for the parasitic blood worms in the show. We also studied the novels and comic books closely to get as familiar as possible with the world. When you can’t check your work against real-world logic, you have to make sure you have a world with a set of its own rules to reference constantly, otherwise the work runs the risk of becoming inconsistent.

The Strain features a large number of practical effects, including makeup, prosthetics and animatronics, supervised by Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom. How closely did you work with them?

Very closely, right from the moment we came on board the project. We kept in constant contact with them during prep for each episode and would crash each other’s meetings so we’d be 100% in the loop with what was going on, and to make sure not a moment was wasted on doubling up on the creature work. There are some moments that aren’t achievable practically, and some you can’t achieve digitally, but there is a muddy grey area in the middle where a shot can go either way. More often than not, those moments ended up being a combination of both.

The visual effects team at Mr. X Inc. worked closely with the makeup effects crew, maximising integration between departments

The visual effects team at Mr. X Inc. worked closely with the makeup effects crew, maximising integration between departments

What are the stand-out CG characters you’ve created for the show?

Our full-CG Master shots are quite an achievement in our books. There are several full-frame hero moments of the Master moving in a way that is not possible for an actor to perform – that’s when we bring out our full-CG Master to do the job. Everyone from Assets to Animation, Lighting, and Comp has done a remarkable job bringing him to life and integrating him into the practical photography. We’re also quite happy with our other 3D heroes: the CG heart, worms, and of course the countless Stingers!

Tell us more about the Master.

The Master was a fantastic character to build in 3D. He’s an eight-foot-tall, 500-pound, towering behemoth of horrific imagery, with a wildly frayed and ever changing cloak. He’s almost two characters in one: the main body of the being inside, and the writhing, tentacled mass of stained fabric and braided rope that covers him.

For the head and humanoid form, the primary foundation of the model came from scan data. We were fortunate that there was an incredibly detailed full-scale model of the Master’s head being used as a makeup template, which was available to scan long before the actor was dressed and in costume. This let us get a jump on the build before the full body was available.

The Master erupts from the hold of Regis Air International Flight 753

The Master erupts from the hold of Regis Air International Flight 753

We choose to do a detailed photosurvey of that model under reasonably flat light, and then, using AgiSoft’s Photoscan, we solved for the geometry. The results were extremely good, with a baked-in set of reference textures taken straight from the photos. All the gory details of that head were captured in one swoop, including the branching vein patterns and folding tissue of the sack-like “wattle” on his neck. From there, it was all about cleaning and retopologizing the mesh, building up the shaders and textures, and prepping for rigging. Within two days we had a beautiful looking 3D re-creation, ready for the team and Guillermo to see.

The main body cyberscan was done on the first day of shooting with the Master character. As the cloak is so large, we did multiple scans of Robert Maillet in full costume, both with the cloak and without. That way, we had photosurvey and cyberscan data of all costume details normally covered by the fabric. Our lead character artist, Atilla Ceylan, then built the mesh and re-created all the details, shaders, and subtleties missed by the scan data. He and the team tackled multiple types of layered fabrics, stain patterns of blood and vampire juices, ornamentation and jewellery, and the photoreal re-creation of the Master’s face.

For several weeks, we had the Master’s costume on a stand in-house, looming tall over the artists. It was unnerving, but an invaluable resource. We could easily walk up to it to check which way a rope was meant to twist, how the layers of fabric sat against each other, or how the light reacted to the costume as it moved. The riggers would often come in to feel its weight and check where the stitching lines were. That kind of reference is always the best thing you can have when trying to create something fantastical.

And what about all those worms?

When Guillermo first began discussions about the parasitic vampire worms – which feature prominently throughout the series – he recommended we search for videos of horsehair worms for reference: he loved the unnatural way the worm moved, rolling about without emotion or purpose. In the end, our team came upon a specific video of a horsehair worm and an unfortunate praying mantis. That video was a touchstone reference throughout although, instead of re-creating the simplistic forms of the horsehair worm itself, we were given a lot of creative freedom to pitch a more unique design.

Mr. X Inc. referenced horsehair worms in their development of the malevolent nematodes seen in "The Strain"

Mr. X Inc. referenced horsehair worms in their development of the malevolent nematodes seen in “The Strain”

We gathered masses of reference on worms, microscopic imagery of various parasites, and microstructures present in nature. Keeping the physical features of invasive burrowing parasites in mind we began the sculpting process. Quick ZBrush sculpts were knocked out and refined as we circled around various design elements. Guillermo was very open to our ideas, and guided the style development until we’d reached a final look. The dangling barbs, rear facing hooks, extendable proboscis and translucent organ forms were all driven from that combination of physical plausibility and artistic guidance. It was super gross, but really fun.

Particularly challenging was the shader development for such a small creature with so much visible internal detail. Light plays in and through its tissues at all times, greatly changing the apparent look depending on the environment and available light. We kept tuning the shaders throughout the series, sometimes branching the asset into “close-up worm” looks and “distant worm” looks, allowing for faster render times and greater control.

The-Strain-VFX-Stinger

Rigging the creature was a challenge. Using first-draft rigs, we had the animators explore movement styles and speed, and vary the length of the worm. We tried different amounts of aggression and twisting movement styles. The results were interesting, but never quite as compelling as the horsehair reference we started with. Eventually we circled back on ourselves and used the horsehair worm as a true motion template. Guillermo was simply in love with how it felt, and wanted that same alien feeling.

Using that initial rig during the development process was cumbersome and error-prone, so the riggers broke everything down and defined a toolset that would allow the animators to move the wriggling worm with more freedom. We created scripts that allowed us to draw curve shapes and snap the main worm rig into alignment; viewport tension maps to see where we were pulling the geometry too far; and a limiter to keep the worm inside an acceptable range of length stretching.

Multiple levels of control were built into the rig so we could drive the worm along a spline like a snake, but still maintain the freedom to twist it into arbitrary shapes at any point. Often the worms were burrowing into some unfortunate soul, so we created an FK (forward kinematics) setup that allowed us to lock one portion of the worm’s position to the hole, and maintain the freedom to pass it through and curl about on either side. Thus the animators were able to more quickly address animation notes and keep the movement style consistent.

How many visual effects shots have you delivered for the show?

At the time of writing, our current shot count is over 950. Our biggest shot was a full-CG 1,300-frame shot in outer space during a solar eclipse. It was a daunting task – when it was first turned over, Guillermo reminded us that a good friend of his had just made a space movie and wanted to know if our shot could look as convincing. So we embarked on our task to create a shot that looked as close as possible to those in Gravity, on a TV schedule and budget!

Have you drawn any lessons from working on The Strain?

That time is often the greatest resource. There never seems to be enough of it. Each episode has its own set of challenges, and when we’re at the spotting stage for each one, we think, “How are we going to get through all of this in such a short amount of time?” But there’s no time to even have that conversation, so we forge ahead and solve problems before they materialize. We’re very proud of the sheer volume of shots we managed to deliver at feature-level quality without a lot of time or resources.

An infected heart from "The Strain"

Special thanks to Thomas Ruffner and Bronwyn Handling. Images copyright © 2014 FX Networks, LLC All Rights Reserved.