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.

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 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 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.


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.

The Strain – Creature and Makeup Effects

The Strain - a shocking discovery on Flight 754

The horror genre is replete with monsters of all kinds, but few are more enduring than the vampire. The latest incarnation of this bloodsucking beast can currently be seen prowling TV screens on Sunday nights, in FX’s new 13-part series The Strain.

The Strain is based on the best-selling series of novels by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. Del Toro is behind the show too: in addition to serving as Executive Producer, he co-wrote and directed the pilot episode. So what’s the show all about? Here’s the official word from FX:

The Strain is a high concept thriller that tells the story of Dr Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), the head of the Center for Disease Control, Canary Team, in New York City. He and his team are called upon to investigate a mysterious viral outbreak with hallmarks of an ancient and evil strain of vampirism. As the strain spreads, Eph, his team, and an assembly of everyday New Yorkers, wage war for the fate of humanity itself.

Not surprisingly, The Strain boasts a wide range of creature and makeup effects. Responsible for these were co-supervisors Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom. Newburn and Sansom also created a number of special props, and a range of sculpted pieces for use on set as stand-ins or lighting reference, as well as models of the creatures to be scanned and digitised for VFX purposes.

Starting Up “The Strain”


“The Strain” co-creator Guillermo del Toro hired Steve Newburn and Sean Sansom to supervise the creature and makeup effects for the modern-day vampire show.

Before The Strain, Newburn and Sansom were working on Pacific Rim, for which they and their crew created most of the practical creature effects. Both had also worked on previous del Toro films for other companies, but the blockbuster monster-fest was their first as independent contractors.

“As Pacific Rim was wrapping up, Guillermo told us, ‘I’ll see you guys toward the end of the year,’” said Newburn. “Of course, we hear this all the time in this line of work. But he was true to his word and we were contacted around November 2012 about The Strain. We met over dinner in early January 2013. Being familiar with the scope of the story, and the amount of potential work involved, we went in thinking we would be acting as local support for one of the large L.A. shops. Instead, Guillermo offered us the whole project. That was a surprise to both of us, but a great opportunity at the same time.”

“It meant a lot more preliminary work,” said Sansom. “We had to find a suitable studio space to accommodate the build, assemble a larger crew, and try to break down and budget the entire series based on just a few outlined details. We began doing breakdowns and schedules in March 2013, our actual prep began in April, and we went to camera in September. That is an unheard of amount of prep time for a TV show, especially these days. But Guillermo wanted to prep The Strain as if it were a large feature film.”

Guillermo del Toro’s artistic vision for The Strain was clear from the outset. Concept art by Guy Davis fleshed out the ideas, while Simon Lee established a rough direction for the design of the vampire overlord known as the Master (played by Robert Maillet). It then fell to Newburn and Sansom to develop the concepts into practical makeups and props.

“Guillermo is always thinking, so there was an ongoing evolution to the look of all the makeup elements,” said Newburn. “At the same time, he’s been very trusting with us and quite open to fleshing out new ideas and possibilities as they presented themselves.”

The Coffin

The Master's Coffin

Central to the plot of The Strain – and one of its key iconic props – is the giant coffin in which the Master arrives on American soil. The coffin was sculpted during the early days of pre-production by Newburn, Sansom, Adrian Burnett and Chris Bridges, while del Toro was still in L.A. finishing Pacific Rim.

“We took the Guy Davis art, scaled it up and went to it, so that piece is very much unchanged from the original concept – Guillermo had us make only very small tweaks to a couple of details,” Sansom commented.

Graham Chivers, Adrian Burnett and Marc Dixon (front to back) prepare the mould for the nine foot-long Master's coffin.

Graham Chivers, Adrian Burnett and Marc Dixon (front to back) prepare the mould for the nine foot-long Master’s coffin.

The Master's coffin - detail“The coffin was the largest single thing we produced: nine feet long, four feet wide and three feet tall. Every square inch was covered in ornate carvings, and the entire thing was sculpturally aged to look like rotting wood. It was sculpted in Chavant NSP clay, moulded, and then run in fibreglass for durability. We made one with a steel framework which allowed the doors to be opened, and another as a ‘lightweight’ version.”

Autopsy Suit

In a shocking scene near the end of the pilot episode, a morgue full of corpses is reanimated by the vampire virus. Newburn and Sansom created a range of prosthetic and make-up effects for this sequence, including a full-body “autopsy suit” worn by performer Javier Botet, who played the grotesque title character in the del Toro-produced Mama. Botet has Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder which means his body is unusually thin and flexible.

All is not seems in the morgue ...

Actor Javier Botet wore a full-body “autopsy suit” for his role as a reanimated vampire.

“Guillermo wanted a dead passenger from the plane to be in the morgue, mid-autopsy,” Newburn explained. “He wanted this person to not just sit up, but actually get up and attack Dr. Bennett (Jeffrey Smith). This type of thing has been done many times before using a slant board gag, but Javier’s narrow girth allowed us to add an entire open chest cavity which, in profile, didn’t look built up.

“The problem was that, as we bulked up Javier’s torso, the rest of his body looked disproportionate. So we ended up creating a full head-to-toe naked body suit. There’s one great shot in profile where I think most people will assume there was CG augmentation. But there was none.”

The starting point for the autopsy suit was a full silicone body cast of Botet. Based on this, a full-body suit of an “average guy” (complete with slight pot belly) was sculpted in Chavant.

Steve Koch sculpts the autopsy suit over a body cast of Botet

Steve Koch sculpts the autopsy suit over a body cast of Botet.

Steve Newburn, Melissa Nicholl, Liz Rowe, Jay Graham, Jeff Derushie (left to right) work on the full-body autopsy suit.

Steve Newburn, Melissa Nicholl, Liz Rowe, Jay Graham, Jeff Derushie (left to right) work on the full-body autopsy suit.

Javier Botet wearing the autopsy suit“Steve Koch did a beautiful job with that sculpture,” remarked Newburn. “A mould was taken in epoxy, which generally creates a much tighter seam when running than polyester-based fibreglass. The suit was then run in foam latex and made to be zipperless. Javier would climb into it through the chest opening. He was wearing a harness which we built to support all of the internal silicone organs and guts; these would go on afterwards. The final step was blending the prosthetic with Javier’s own skin just below the chin, and at the wrist and ankle.”

Dissection Scene

Episode 4 of The Strain opens with a scene in which the body of Captain Doyle Redfern (Jonathan Potts), pilot of the airliner that brought the virus to New York, is dissected, revealing a grotesque “Stinger” – the fleshy organ by which the virus is spread.

“Guillermo wanted to be able to cut into Redfern’s skin, open the chest cavity, push around some organs, and then finally remove the Stinger,” explained Sansom. “He was very specific about what details he wanted, and what needed to be seen for later discussion by the characters performing the dissection.”


The unfortunate Captain Redfern is revealed to be host to a vampire “Stinger”.

“We started by bringing in Jonathan for both a head and full body cast. The plaster replica of his body was cleaned up, while his head was re-sculpted in clay and attached to the body. We took a mould from that assembled piece, and used it to create the final silicone skin for the body.

“The head and torso were made hollow, while the limbs were solid silicone around a fully poseable armature. We fitted the torso cavity with a kind of resettable plug; it contained everything that would be seen once the skin was cut open. We had a section of ribs and sternum that could be removed, as well as the newly transformed internal organs that could be poked and prodded and generally moved around.


The completed Stinger prop was six feet long.

“The Stinger itself is removed from outside the body – pulled from the mouth – but is clearly visible within the open torso cavity as well.  The oesophagus was made clear and connected the throat to the covered abdomen, which contained the remainder of the six foot-long Stinger. We filled the abdomen with plenty of vampire blood and slime, to help move the Stinger along and out of the mouth. It was a lot of work and preparation for a short scene, but the result was very satisfying.”

Animatronic Master

Despite the usual constraints of time and budget associated with a TV production, Newburn and Sansom created several effects they consider ambitious for the medium. One was the Botet autopsy suit; another was an elaborate animatronic of the Master.

“We built a waist-up, motion-controlled, full-functioned animatronic of the Master,” said Newburn. “The motion control element was necessary in order to keep the number of on-set puppeteers down to two, at the request of the production. We had the option of pre-recording the performance and hitting play through the computer, performing live via radio control, or using a combination of the two. Bud McGrew was the lead animatronics technician for that, primarily building with Jurgen Heimann.”

VFX With Mr. X

In addition to creating practical effects, Newburn and Sansom worked closely with visual effects providers Mr. X Inc.

“Initially, Guillermo wanted to do as many of the effects as possible in-camera,” said Newburn. “But we always knew the Stingers would be primarily CG. However, we did build two animatronic stingers which were used in a couple of shots, although primarily as lighting reference for the VFX team.

An animatronic version of the Stinger emerges from the mouth of Emma, one of the first victims discovered on Flight 753

Newburn and Sansom built two animatronic Stingers, used primarily as reference for the visual effects team at Mr. X Inc.

“Ultimately, because of the volume of work and the fact that we were working in the TV world, we ended up with far more VFX involvement. We knew from the start that would probably be the case, so we worked closely to provide sculpted and finished models of nearly everything creature-related for the Mr. X Inc. team to scan and photograph for their models and digital doubles.”

“Also, there were a number of things that were “questionable” in terms of what we could get away with showing,” added Sansom. “Because of this, our stuff was sometimes downplayed and sometimes overdone, knowing that it could always be tweaked or enhanced later. This allowed the final concept for certain effects to be locked down at a later date. All in all, it was a happy collaboration, and I think we ended up finding the best end result for everything under the circumstances.”

Actor Andrew Divoff poses beside his sculpted likeness

Actor Andrew Divoff poses beside his sculpted likeness

Vampire Reflections

By the end of the season, Newburn, Sansom and their team had created around 600-700 vampire makeups, as well as numerous other gags and effects. Despite del Toro’s desire to raise the bar as much as possible, Newburn and Sansom found themselves resorting to tried-and-true techniques in many instances, due to the nature of television.

“While it was nice to have that feature film prep time,” Sansom reflected, “we knew it wouldn’t last. Before we knew it, the episodes were getting more ambitious, larger in scale, and closer together. By the end though, we did have a nice steady routine – we knew what to focus on, and what not to dwell on. Plus, now that we’ve worked out the bugs on our more extensive make-ups, it will be easier to translate the same techniques on a larger scale.”

Thanks to Thomas Ruffner, Dominic Pagone and John Lavet. Images copyright © 2014 FX Networks, LLC All Rights Reserved.

Lucy – Paris Car Chase VFX

Lucy - Cinefex VFX Q&A

What would you do if your brain power was suddenly increased by a factor of ten? That’s the premise of Lucy, the new film from Luc Besson, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a drug mule who receives an unexpected dose of her illegal pharmaceutical cargo … and develops superhuman powers as a result.

While the main visual effects vendor for Lucy was Industrial Light & Magic, 164 VFX shots were create by Rodeo FX. Of these, 73 shots feature in a high-octane car chase sequence through the streets of Paris. Rodeo’s contribution to the film represents about eight months’ work for a crew of around 60 artists, plus a management and support team of 15.

In this behind-the-scenes Q&A, François Dumoulin, Visual Effects Supervisor at Rodeo FX, details the planning and execution of the visual effects used to enhance the stunt-filled live-action shoot.

"Lucy" police crash with visual effects by Rodeo FX

How did you get involved with the show?

Rodeo FX had recently completed a car chase sequence with VFX Supervisor Nick Brooks on Now You See Me. Nick was very pleased with the results, and so, when he took on the role of VFX Supervisor on Lucy, he got us on board. I’d also previously worked with Lucy VFX Producer Sophie Leclerc, having been teamed with her as Production Supervisor on Upside Down.

What was your overall contribution to Lucy?

Rodeo FX was initially awarded just the car chase scenes, but we ended up doing a lot more: digital matte-paintings and set extensions, CG props, motion graphics, CG “X-ray vision” and some very complex wire removal.

Did Luc Besson give you a specific artistic direction to follow?

Luc Besson originally referred us to a scene from The Blues Brothers, in which dozens of police cars pile up in a crazy, yet realistic way. For the crushable models of the cars, we compiled our own set of reference material, and studied hours of crash test footage, analysing how the individual components would break, how much debris was spreading out and so on.

For generic animations, rigging studies and suspension behaviours, we were given some great video of the stunt driver rehearsals for the film. We also analysed footage from Paris traffic survey cameras to get a sense of the makes of vehicles, textures and variations of car paint you find specifically in the city. We knew from the start that our asset library of New York taxis and Hummers from Now You See Me couldn’t be used on this show!

Can you describe the car chase sequence?

A police officer is driving Lucy through the streets of Paris. She begins to visualise the data emitted by every mobile device in the environment, and uses it to spot the location of the person she’s looking for. She then gets in the driver’s seat and begins racing through the rush hour traffic. Completely fearless, she drives against the flow through the iconic surroundings of the Louvre, takes a shortcut through a pedestrian arcade, exits in the middle of a crossroads and speeds through a tunnel packed with incoming cars … the whole time leaving crashes and chaos in her wake. We have created lots of really cool shots for Lucy, but the car sequence is something we are really proud of.

How much preparation did you have to do for the car chase?

We started off by doing a very precise previz, based on storyboards from the production. Luc Besson also had this great idea of capturing the major crashes on video using miniature cars – he moved the toys himself over his desk!

Production also provided us with maps of all the locations, with clear indications of where the real and virtual car crashes would happen.

Extracting data from Google Maps, we created a previz that was accurate down to a decimeter. Our lead previz artist, Alexandre Ménard, created hundreds of shots, including all the technical specifications required for the shoot: distance, speed, focal length and so on. We sent each individual take at full length to EuropaCorp. Luc’s editor then cut the previz himself, so most of the sequence was pretty much locked weeks before cameras started to roll.

"Lucy" police car crash - VFX breakdown by Rodeo FX

The complex car chase sequence in “Lucy” called for meticulous planning. Based on production storyboards, tabletop choreography and stunt rehearsals, Rodeo FX created hundreds of previz shots, with precise staging which carried through to the production shoot and subsequent CG prop and collision enhancements.

How extensively did you research the Paris locations?

I flew to Paris with Robert Bock (Rodeo’s VFX DP) to meet the crew while they were prepping for the live-action sequences. Nick Brooks had set up a photo-survey session of the cars being used by the production, which we used as a starting point for our modelling. I also gathered additional reference pictures, such as props that would eventually be reconstructed in CG. My adventures included one very long and lonely drive to a showroom lost in the middle of nowhere, where they sell one particular type of bollard you will see in only a couple of shots!

Just before shooting began, we took part in the tech-scout: a wonderful summer’s day strolling the streets of Paris with Luc Besson and all the heads of departments. After that, I met with the great people of 4DMax, who were in charge of the LIDAR scans. I asked them to collect very precise data, especially all the little details of the road surfaces. Centuries-old pavements in Paris make for a very uneven ground plane, and I wanted to make sure we could produce realistic and accurate suspension behaviours for our CG cars.

The scope of the scanning work was tremendous. We had to cover every inch of pavement from Place de la Concorde to the Louvre – as well as other locations – but the 4DMax gang did it all within the shooting schedule, scanning the locations at night after wrap.

"Lucy" car chase - VFX before and after

Accurate LIDAR scans of the Paris street environments, together with HDRI location photography, helped lock the additional CG vehicles to the original live action plates (Top: live action plate. Bottom: final composite shot)

How did you use the LIDAR data?

We based so much of our work on the LIDAR scans, from the simulation rig we used to get the suspension of the cars right, to the rock-solid match-moving of some extremely challenging shots. We reprojected HDRI and textures on to the LIDAR geometry to generate lighting and reflections. The data was really invaluable.

Was the location shoot exciting, with all that stuntwork?

During the shoot itself, I spent most of my time with Nick and Luc discussing the shots: what could be enhanced in post; where the CG cars would be; how we could make the shot even more amazing. Watching the live-action stunts performed by Michel Julienne and his team was quite something. We would often hold our breath at the end of a take, anxious to make sure nobody got hurt. Those guys are crazy, and their skills are unreal. They created amazing performances, which gave us inspirational plates for our VFX work.

While the real cars were flying around, Robert Bock was running across the set gathering HDRI 360° stills for almost every single take, and from every position. Since the show was being shot entirely digital, we were able later to determine the time of day from camera metadata, and make sure we used the appropriate HDRIs for our lighting. This proved to be critical, because lighting conditions changed a lot from one shot to the next, from early morning bright sun to overcast afternoon.

Luc Besson likes to have things moving fast, so he started editing right away during the shoot. The car chase was the very first scene that was shot, and we got plates turned over and a rough version of the cut just a few weeks after I left the set. From there we jumped straight into match move, layout and blocking of the animation.

You added CG cars to the live-action plates, and also created a number of crashes. How did you go about integrating your work with the original photography?

Nick Brooks gave us initial turnover notes as to where they wanted the extra cars, and the timing of the different crashes. But, really, he gave us enormous creative freedom. We went on adding a lot more cars then initially planned, and a lot closer to camera, too! So the lighting became really critical.

Watch a video breakdown of the car chase:

Under the supervision of CG Supervisor Mikael Damant-Sirois, our team of lighters pulled the relevant HDRI spheres and projected onto the LIDAR geometry. Since both the cars and the camera are moving at high speed, we used lots of different HDRIs in any given shot to get the lighting and the reflections right. On a few occasions where the lighting scenario evolved drastically throughout the shot – inside the tunnel, for example – the HDRI was not precise enough and we had to place light sources manually inside the CG space.

Once the blocking of the animation was approved, and individual car models chosen, we ran a simulation of the suspension rig over the ground geometry. This gave us spot-on ground contact, and kept all the little bumps consistent with each car’s individual weight and scale.

For the collisions and crashes, we developed a rig that deformed the vehicle meshes depending on impact point, speed and angle. Once we got the basic impact right, we would refine it by adding details: modeling specific interior parts that would be revealed, breaking custom parts, and adding secondary animations. On top of that, we ran FX simulations in Houdini for debris, dust and smoke. All these elements were pre-comped by the lighters before being handed to compositors.

Arnold position passes allowed artists to pick specific parts of each individual object in the scene and attach 2D elements to them, change reflections, add dirt or modify the car paint. To supplement the CG elements, we organised a shoot in our in-house studio. We captured live-action debris and smoke, plus a few extras including myself and most of the compositing artists!

Watch a video breakdown of one of the car crashes:

How do you feel when you look back at your experience on Lucy?

This show reminded us how useful on-set elements, references and data are. It was a real privilege to be on set for the scouting, prep and shoot of the car chase sequence, and to have time to take lots of reference picture and HDRIs. And those LIDAR scans were invaluable. It all came in incredibly useful when the time came to light our CG cars and integrate them seamlessly in the environment.

I truly believe that what makes for a totally imperceptible comp is the quality and availability of the reference material. When you’re working on photoreal shots, you just can’t beat reality!

We love it when the audience doesn’t realise that some of the images that they see are filled with CG elements, take place in full CG environments or involve major set extensions. At the same time, it is a challenge to do more conceptual shots – like the mobile rays and the X-ray vision – and perhaps establish a new artistic look: something that has never been seen before and which might become a reference for future movies.

“Lucy” images copyright © 2014 by Universal Pictures. Thanks to Anouk Deveault.

I is for Innovation

"I" is for "Innovation"

In the VFX ABC, the letter “I” stands for “Innovation”.

If you’re a VFX artist, you probably dream about showing movie audiences something new. A truly original visual effect. A cinematic illusion that nobody has ever seen before.

It’s a dream that crosses disciplines. You might be an artist or a technician, it doesn’t matter. Whether you’re brushing sunlight across a digital matte painting, or wrangling code to perfect the physics of the latest cloth simulation, the driving force that keeps you seeking that Holy Grail is the same.

I’m talking about the desire to innovate.

A love of innovation appears to be hard-wired into the brains of most VFX artists. If you’ve any interest in the history of the craft, you’ll know it’s littered with quotes from people saying: “We just wanted to do something new.”

But let’s not dwell on the past. Let’s look instead into the place where innovation takes us. The future. To find out what innovation means to VFX professionals today, I asked a panel of experts the following question:

What cutting-edge technique or technology is getting you excited about the future of visual effects?

What The Panel Thought

Andrew Whitehurst, Visual Effects Supervisor, Double Negative

“Advances in 3D printing and photogrammetry enable VFX, SFX and art departments to work even more closely together. We can now move between the physical and virtual worlds more easily than ever before, and the possibilities for creative collaboration are vast.”

Sam Hodge, CG Supervisor, Rising Sun Pictures

“I think the hot new thing is a suite of tools that allow us to collaborate more easily: more people, working on bigger shots, together!

First, tools such as Aspera, Cinesync and Shotgun allow us to easily transfer data between each other. We can communicate and collaborate all over the planet at a moment’s notice, passing work in progress through the chain of command to turn discussion into notes. The artists and technicians can iterate on these instructions, turning the vision in the creative’s head into pixels on the screen. We love working face to face but the internet allows us to reach across borders and time zones.

OpeSource LogoThen there are the tools that allow us to pass data between artists, departments and facilities in a standard common format. OpenSource solutions such as OpenEXR and Alembic have succeeded where previous commercial attempts have failed. It is possible to receive whole complex set ups from one facility and have them working in another’s pipeline in minutes. If you don’t like how the software works, the source code can be modified, after which other can benefit from the improvements made.

Finally, computer resources have become vast in this 64-bit and concurrent computing age, allowing us to reach for new levels of complexity. Tools such as Katana from The Foundry, and the developing Universal Scene Description from Pixar, allow massive permutations of data to be treated as simple database queries. Also computing power is available the cloud, so resources can scale up and down on a per needs basis. It’s a brave new world indeed.”

Geoff Scott, VFX Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures

“Live action deep compositing. I would love a future where our film cameras have the ability to create a per frame scan of the actors and environment and store it within the data of the frame. If (when) we can create a system like this, with a fidelity that is detailed enough to capture hair and differentiate between transparent objects, we can eliminate the need for blue screens or green screens. Artists will no longer have to do the painstaking task of rotoscoping. It would be amazing.”

Green screen plate - "Avengers Assemble"

In the future, live action deep compositing may eliminate the need for blue or green screens

Simon Stanley-Clamp, VFX Supervisor, Cinesite

“I read recently that Sony have developed a system which analyses textures to assess materials’ properties during the scanning process. These are then relayed to the final shader and lighting passes. Ultimately, techniques like this will help speed up the creation of realistic, believable CG integrating with live action environments.”

John Dietz, VFX Supervisor & Head of Production, Pixomondo

“Currently editing technology feels archaic in that you are only able to ‘cut’ between multiple streams of ‘footage’. After the shoot is done, why can’t we change the camera moves? Why can’t we change the lighting?  Why can’t we change the actor’s performance?  With all of our VFX innovation we are still at the mercy of the live action plate.

“Over the recent years we have gotten much better at pre-production and planning for principal photography to supply us better plates. BUT we have not been very good at changing the fact that once footage has been captured through a lens, we can’t change much without huge effort.

“The VFX industry is in a race to create the biggest most realistic robot destruction on or off earth. But I’d prefer, in post, to simply change the actress’s little frown into a smile and swing the camera from her front around to her profile to better catch that playful twinkle in her eye.

“Innovation is not about the next algorithm or simulation that makes our CG output more impressive or realistic. Big innovation is about harnessing the many advances in data capture, from across many diverse industries, to acquire more and more highly accurate information from the real world shoot and give filmmakers a way to improve their story by editing everything up until the very last minute.”

Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor (Commercials & Games), Digital Domain

“I’m always more interested in the creative aspects of a visual effect shot than the technical ones, but that is not to say I don’t pay attention to developments in the field. For me technology is a means to an end – everything depends on what we are trying to achieve visually. Although new technology is essential, I’m more excited about what our technological advances are allowing us to dream about than the techniques themselves.”

Christian Kaestner, VFX Supervisor, Framestore

“As a visual effects artist, I’ve had the chance to work on various innovative productions with some of the smartest people in the industry. Every time we start a new project, I wonder, ‘How do we push the bar to the next level?’ These days, from a purely technological point of view, the possibilities are endless. The biggest challenge for me personally is always: how do we combine our cutting edge technology with artistry that makes your jaw drop?

“I think the one area we have yet to conquer properly is the art of digital characters. Making a believable digital character has evolved enormously in the last decade: we have gone from tiny actor replacements to full screen medium close ups of digital characters. The industry keeps throwing new challenges at us with high frame rate cinema and 4K resolution, but I am certain that one day we will be able to create digital characters that even the most critical of experts won’t be able to distinguish from real life footage. Maybe even shown in 4K at 72 frames per second. One day.”

Caesar - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

You may think Caesar looks good in “Dawn of the Planets of the Apes” but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet

Blake Sweeney, Head of Software, Method Studios

“There’s a lot to be excited about. Although not the sexiest, I love the work that teams across the industry are doing to establish standards which transcend a single application and simplify interchange. It’s hard to imagine life before OpenEXR and Alembic; these and other projects already make supporting a multi-package VFX pipeline considerably easier. I’m excited to see how Pixar’s Universal Scene Description develops in the future.

“Real-time rendering is another exciting topic. While many renderers have supported progressive rendering on the CPU or GPU for years – and games have completely adopted it – performance often limps along when faced with the high-density scene data required for large-scale productions, especially on the CPU.  With 6GB graphics cards becoming available and affordable, artists can really start to render full-scene geometry with raytracing and nothing pre-baked, and have a near real-time experience.

“The capability for real-time rendering without concessions in production will open possibilities for different workflows; it’ll be interesting to see how VFX studios react to this.  For example, it’s not hard to imagine reviewing huge portions of dailies with a VFX supervisor becoming an interactive experience – much like a DP works with gaffers on set. In fact, some companies are already starting to do this.”

Jordan Soles, Chief Technical Officer, Rodeo FX

GoPro Hero 3“I’ve been looking into Time-Of-Flight cameras and evaluating how best to pair them with simple off-the-shelf cameras like GoPros, to build a simple and cost-effective rig capable of producing an animated depth-map synced with the high-res footage. I like the idea of having a few of these low-profile reference cameras on-set. Ultimately the data might translate directly into a painted point-cloud, and eventually a virtual set.”

Lou Pecora, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

“I am excited to see what opportunities VR will bring to the VFX party. It will be interesting to see what comes out of a technology that allows us to create an experience unencumbered by the confines of the physical reality we are so often charged to recreate. Visions of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Strange Days, and The Matrix are the obvious examples that spring to mind, but I am looking forward to more extreme uses of this technology – applications that will allow content creators to bring experiences to audiences that are not just alternate versions of our same world, but ones that are totally different and as yet unimagined.”

Neo realises his potential in "The Matrix"

The future of visual effects is just around the corner – are ready to take the red pill?


So what conclusions can we draw from all this? In short, what does the future of visual effects really hold? Here are a few predictions based on the panel’s answers. Nor are these fanciful projections – they’re all beginning to happen right now.

Collaborative working will become more and more commonplace, not just between departments and neighbouring facilities but right across the globe. 24-hour work schedules will become the norm as digital assets leapfrog their way through the timezones, bouncing from one workstation to the next in an effort to conquer time. OpenSource protocols will facilitate this. It will no longer matter where in the world you work; it will only matter how well connected you are. VFX Nation anyone?

Real-world data capture will continue to improve. Cameras will no longer record just a two-dimensional moving image, but will capture complete spatial, textural and lighting information. These data will be used – probably in real-time – to generate environments and synthetic characters and integrate them with live action. Compositing will be instant, seamless and, in the current vernacular, deep.

Simulations will become ever more complex. Despite recent speculation that the effects of Moore’s Law appear to be slowing down, computer capacity will continue to find ways to grow. Cloud-based systems will dominate, supporting the trend towards remote working and international cooperation. Artists will no longer use render farms. They will use a render world.

Visual effects technologies will influence filmmaking as never before, as image manipulation becomes increasingly embedded in the filmmaking process. As everything in the motion picture frame becomes infinitely editable, directorial choices will open up that were previously unavailable (what directors do with those choices, of course, is entirely up to them).

Now it’s time for you to bend over your own crystal ball. Which innovations do you think have changed the world of visual effects? And what do you think the future holds?

Special thanks to Sarah Harries, Ian Cope, Che Spencer, Helen Moody, Melissa Knight, Stephanie Bruning, Rob Goodway, Joni Jacobson, Tiffany Tetrault and Anouk Devault. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” photograph copyright © 2014 by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. “The Matrix” photograph copyright © 1999 by Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow Pictures.

The Visual Effects of Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer - VFX Q&A with Cinefex

The world has turned cold. A botched attempt to counter global warming has gone disastrously wrong, creating a new ice age and wiping out life on the planet. All that remains is a single train called the Snowpiercer.

Built by billionaire industrialist Wilford (Ed Harris), this monumental vehicle circles the frozen planet on endless tracks. Its carriages contain a highly stratified society of survivors, from the working classes at the rear to the privileged bourgeoisie at the front. It’s an atmosphere ripe for revolution.

Snowpiercer was directed by Bong Joon-ho, and released to both popular and critical acclaim in Asia and Europe beginning in the summer of 2013. Now, after delays caused by – among other things – a dispute between Bong and US distributors The Weinstein Company over proposals to re-edit the film for the English-speaking market – this cautionary tale of an icebound future is finally on release in the USA.

Not surprisingly, a film set in a perpetual blizzard on board a gigantic futuristic train requires no small number of visual effects shots. The man responsible for these was Eric Durst, whose previous films include Batman Forever, Spider-Man 2, City of Ember and Knowing.

Eric Durst Talks Snowpiercer

Thanks for sharing your experiences on Snowpiercer, Eric. Firstly, how did you get involved with the show?

I had been recommended by a VFX producer friend of mine to Bong, who was interviewing candidates for Snowpiercer in July of 2011. We met at his hotel in West LA and, as with many first meetings, you never know what doors it will open, so you walk in and let it unfold. Bong has this wonderful spirit – a lightness mixed with riveting focus that’s truly extraordinary. There’s an instant sense of fun and possibility that just opens everything up from the first moment, and this led to an expansive hour-long conversation.

Bong showed me beautiful concept illustrations showing his vision for the train and the ice environments – really magnificent and inspired work. I had seen a number of his other films – Mother, Memories of Murder and The Host; I loved the way they mix extreme and dark circumstances with humour and irony, exposing the humanity of all his characters. Snowpiercer had many of the same themes, yet unfolding in a totally different way.

Needless to say I was very excited about being involved, and extremely happy to get a call for a second meeting a few weeks later. A few months after that I found myself in Prague with Bong, Production Designer Ondreji Nekasil, Director of Photography Alex Hong (Kyung-pyo Hong) and Special Effects Supervisor Pavel Ságner, figuring out logistics and how to bring the show to life.

The Snowpiercer train cars race through an icy wilderness

You acted in dual roles as both VFX Supervisor (credited as VFX Designer) and VFX Producer. How did that work out?

Taking on these two often opposing roles worked in this instance, largely because of the way the production flowed. Bong has a beautifully organized mind, which displays itself in everything relating to the film’s production – from design and storytelling, to the way he shoots the film. Every step is methodical and well thought out. Working in this kind of environment was a huge asset when it came to filling these two different roles.

How much pre-planning was involved?

Every shot was storyboarded with extreme care and precision. In some productions the storyboards get thrown out of the window, with new ideas evolving as production begins. But in this case the storyboard was the “word” – an accurate blueprint for the production ahead. There had been so much pre-production planning – literally years of work beforehand – so most alternative approaches had already been explored.

From a visual effects standpoint, this clarity was extremely helpful. All that pre-planning, and most importantly sticking to the original layout, gave everyone a large degree of confidence and understanding up front. In turn that meant both the resources required to achieve the work and the representative bid estimates could also be lean and accurate.

How many vendors were involved?

There were discussions with many VFX houses in the beginning. Everyone was smitten by the terrific concept work, as well as a cool teaser trailer that had been created to pitch the show. So the competition to be involved was pretty fierce.

The needs for the show included heavy simulation work for the ice and snow sequences, so Scanline was chosen as the lead VFX house because of their vast experience in this area. Their office in Munich was only a few hours from Prague, so the proximity was also a huge plus.

Method Studios in Vancouver and London were also chosen for their work in both environments and animation, and the terrific UPP in Prague did a wide range of work from CG figures to train interiors. 4th Creative Party out of Seoul did extraordinary work as well, with a multitude of VFX shots and design of the monitor displays.

Watch a before-and-after clip of a scene in the Pool Car:

What sources did you reference to get the creative juices flowing?

The best inspiration was really the initial artwork and teaser trailer. Hundreds of images and concepts followed, but those initial images set the tone.

We had an early recce to the Alps in Austria to scout the end sequence location, landing everyone in the middle of a glacier-encrusted ski slope. That trip really helped everyone to understand what a frozen world would be like. While we were there, we took many pictures and panoramas of the ice and snow landscapes so we could understand what gave it the right qualities.

Did you explore any new VFX techniques on Snowpiercer, or did you rely on tried and trusted solutions?

On a technical front we were using known tools. But certainly from an international workflow standpoint, with the degree of international collaboration that was necessary to put all this together, it was a revolutionary production.

This was basically a Hollywood film without any Hollywood, at least as far as studio interaction goes. An English language film, but with the director, producers and the majority of funding coming from Korea. It features an all-star, mainly western cast, with lead crew members from either the US or Europe, all with deep film experience.

During the production process, three languages were constantly in the air – English, Korean and Czech – but this never impeded the fluidity of the production process. On stage you would hear something in Korean, which would then filter down the train set into English and into Czech. Then Czech into English. English to Korean. Back and forth this process would go on throughout the day. It was amazing to see it in action.

In post-production, the editing was done in Seoul and the visual effects in Los Angeles. I had initial concerns about how smooth the workflow would be across such a distance. However, because of the methodical way in which the film was being put together, it worked extremely well. The film was edited in Final Cut so, with two 27” iMacs and all the source material, we were able to assemble daily updates of the edit as it evolved, incorporating the latest VFX shots and sending them back to Korea.

The 16-hour time difference was a good one to work with, especially since, along with Seoul, we also were working with London, Munich and Prague – eight and nine hours respectively from LA. For reviews, our 9am was 5pm for Method London, and 6pm for Scanline Munich and UPP in Prague. In the late afternoon, our 5pm was Korea’s 9am for reviews with Bong and the editor. Vancouver being in the LA time zone allowed for a full day of work on every front.

View from the roof of the Snowpiercer train

Were you closely involved with the special effects department?

There was a very close connection with Pavel Ságner and his team at Flash FX, whose offices reside on the lot at the Barrandov Studios. They did a beautiful job of getting the massive train platform to move back and forth as if we were actually on a train car. Considering the tonnage of all the steel, support systems and people packed into the car it was an impressive feat.

Pavel rigged the car on airplane wheels and drove it from various axis points, allowing different degrees of sway. The train interiors were filled with garbage and debris collected from the 17 years that the train had supposedly been running, so there were a lot of hanging props that needed to move back and forth.

Because of limited studio space and the expense of building multiple train rigs, we weren’t able to use the motion rig for every car stage that was built (around 20 in total). With those stages that had no practical movement, VFX animation was used to add sway to the props and keep the look consistent.

We also had fire and explosions. These were combined efforts between SFX and VFX, taking the original elements and expanding them with CG fire and flame.

The Aquarium Car

The train is an eco-system, where balance must be maintained at all costs and where every train car has its own purpose to sustain the population inside. As we travel in the film from the dismal steerage sections into the more privileged classes, the environments get more and more lush. One of the train cars in the upper classes is the giant Aquarium Car, where hundreds of exotic fish live.

On the set, a very thin structure defining the form of the Aquarium was built to represent where the glass would be. At the other end of the car was a high-end Sushi Bar and a large window. Everything was surrounded within large green screens.

Watch a before-and-after clip of a scene in the Aquarium Car:

It was an interesting lighting challenge, with the water environment on one side and the window looking out on the frozen landscape at the other. Director of Photography Alex Hong had light travel through water trays on top of the aquarium structure. These refracted the light spilling on the actors, replicating the way light would react in an actual aquarium environment. This became a wonderful base to work with so the CG tank and fish could become integrated. Light streamed through the window in the Sushi Bar area, reinforcing the look of the ice and cold outside.

Mark Breakspear and his team in Vancouver really took on the challenge of creating this world, with many visits to the Vancouver Aquarium to study the fish, the lighting environments, the way the light refracted through the water and glass, along with how it distorted the fish as they passed.

Many, many iterations of fish animation were produced to get the right quality of movement, along with the reactions of the fish to their surroundings and the humans observing them. Plants and greenery in the water swayed as fish passed, while an underlying vibration suggested the movement of the car over the tracks.

The end result was a terrific environment that many have commented on, thinking that it was actually real and built on stage.

The Shootout

Original green screen plate of the shootout with Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov)

Original green screen plate of the shootout with Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov)

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

“Snowpiercer” shootout – final composite

Another great sequence is the gun shootout that takes place between train cars encrusted in layers and layers of ice and snow. Our hero Curtis (Chris Evans) and Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov) duel it out as the train travels around a large curved section of track. Even though they are separated by 20 cars, the curve allows both Curtis and Franco to see each other.

The shootout begins as Curtis and his band of rebels are storming through the open glassed environment of the First Class Pool Car. Franco unleashes the first round of  bullets that spray through the large windows surrounding the pool and the battle begins, with glass, frozen air and water flying everywhere. Ondreji Nekasil and his team of artists and craftspersons made a gorgeous pool set, with large windows surrounding a pool filled with water, again surrounded with a green screens.

The windows had to be thick – about eight inches – to withstand the cold outside, so having bullets go through the glass was a real design challenge. We came up with three kinds of bullet reactions: one where a bullet would go directly through the glass; another where the bullet would get stuck in the middle (sometimes in front of someone’s face); and another where it would ricochet off the surface.

Mike Mielke and his team from Scanline in Munich did fabulous work in creating all the environments, bullet effects and windows. 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. Reflections were placed in the large glass surfaces, along with ice build-up in all of the windows. The windows themselves incorporated broken edges and holes where the bullets would hit.

Original green screen plate of the "Snowpiercer" shootout

Original green screen plate of the “Snowpiercer” shootout

Final "Snowpiercer" composite shows the depth of the bullet tracks through the train car glass

Final composite shows the depth of the bullet tracks through the train car glass

How long did you spend working on Snowpiercer, and how many shots did you deliver?

There were about 850 shots in the show, so there was a lot to keep track of both aesthetically and organisationally during the 15-month production. Pre-production and production out of Prague began in November of 2011 and completed in July 2012. Post production ran from July 2012 to March of 2013 in both Los Angeles and Seoul.

What did you learn from working on Snowpiercer?

One of the first thoughts I had upon arriving in Prague was: “Why are we here? Snowpiercer is being filmed entirely within the walls of a studio, and the magnificence of this city will never appear on a single frame. It’s not inexpensive and a stage is a stage … we could do this anywhere.” Or so I thought. In my uninitiated mind, I thought the castles and architectural wonders of the city were a key asset that would never be taken advantage of.

However, led by Production Designer Ondreji Nekasil, I gained a deep appreciation of the tremendous resources that lay here and what a privilege it was to be around such artistic capabilities. I discovered that the DNA that created this magical place, and the deep beauty found in the elaborate detailing of almost everything you see and touch … all of what is present in Prague is also present in the vision and craftsmanship of the artists who design and build the sets – and therefore in everything that’s being photographed for the film. The castle you can see outside is right in front of the camera on the stage. In speaking with others who have shot films here, this is a shared revelation.

Any final words?

I hope everyone gets to see Snowpiercer in a theater because the distribution, at least in the US, has been limited. Almost every film review – from the New York Times to the LA Times and all parties between – names it as one of the best films of 2014. I was very proud to have been a part of it and I wish the film all the success it deserves, hoping it will parallel the great success it has had in both Asia and Europe.

Catch The Train

Snowpiercer has finally ploughed its way through the icy wasteland of international distribution negotiations, and is currently enjoying a limited US theatrical release on around 350 screens. It’s also available through video on demand.

Eric Durst compiled his answers to my questions in the evenings after working extraordinarily long days on his current production shoot. Thanks, Eric – I hope you get some sleep soon! Images copyright © The Weinstein Company 2014.

VFX UK – The Shape Of Things To Come?

"Star Wars: Episode VII" table read at the UK's Pinewood Studios

“Star Wars: Episode VII” table read at the UK’s Pinewood Studios

You hardly need me to tell you there’s a new Star Wars film in production. As I write these words, principal photography for Episode VII is currently underway on soundstages at Pinewood Studios. In case you didn’t know, that’s in the UK.

What’s more, Industrial Light & Magic – the VFX company set to deliver what will undoubtedly be a plethora of eye-popping visuals to that galaxy far, far away – is in the process of setting up a brand-new branch in London’s Soho district, due to be fully operational by late summer. UK again.

As if that wasn’t enough, the UK’s three main studio facilities have all recently announced major expansion plans. So what’s going on? Why are productions turning to the UK? And what’s so special about British special effects?

Before these thorny issues can be addressed, there’s another question to be answered, namely: “Has Great Britain always been so great?” To find out, we need to wind the clock back to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

London 1936

Let’s begin with an extract from Cinematographic Working Conditions In London Studios, an article written by US cinematographer Harry Zech and published in American Cinematographer in June 1936:

“England is making remarkable progress in this business of motion picture production. The boom is on. Millions of pounds sterling are being poured into the industry. More millions are waiting impatiently. When I left London a few weeks ago, twenty-two new stages were under construction and still more were on drafting room tables. There is no question but what Britain is determined to have its place in the cinema sun.”

Given what I’ve been reading in the UK press over the past few weeks, the above might have been written only yesterday. So maybe times haven’t changed after all.

The original entrance to the UK's Pinewood Studios

The original entrance to the UK’s Pinewood Studios

Except, of course, they have. In 1936, the UK film industry was only just crawling out of the swamp. Compared to their Californian counterparts, the Brits were novices behind the camera. Harry Zech didn’t mince his words when he said:

“To a cinematographer who has grown up with the industry and who takes as standard the high-pressure efficiency of Hollywood studios, English mechanical and technical equipment, and general studio procedure, seem sadly inadequate.”

There were even some high-profile Brits who doubted the UK’s ability ever to excel at the craft. The celebrated author H.G. Wells made the following remark to interviewer Pearl Katzman in the July 1935 edition of Screenland:

“Do I think English films will ever surpass American films? Well – no-o-o. But we’ll run you a pretty pace. But I do not believe English films will ever surpass those produced in California. Hollywood is beautiful, colourful. Hollywood has sunshine. Hollywood has hundreds of your vivid, charming American girls. If you permit English films to surpass your own, it will be no one’s fault but your own.”

"Things To Come" press ad

This “Things To Come” press ad appeared in “Motion Picture Daily” May 1 1936

Among other things, Wells was discussing the adaptation of his science fiction novel Things to Come, then in production … you guessed it, in the UK. According to the March 4, 1936 edition of Motion Picture Daily:

“’Things To Come’ is a product of British enterprise and will violently open the eyes of any Hollywoodians who may still be sceptical of the reality of the British challenge. The impression of colossal scale [in the future city Everytown] is overwhelming, with human beings no bigger than flies walking in balcony-like streets which wind from the depths thousands of feet up, or tending machinery of nightmarish size and complexity. Nowhere, it is safe to say, is the line between model work, camera trickery and stagecraft definitely recognisable even to the expert.”

Even Zech concedes that, before long, the UK will be a force to reckon with:

“All factors considered, London is entitled to the fullest measure of praise for the progress made and being made in its picture production. We [in Hollywood] have been making pictures on a big scale for twenty-five years. They have been at it in intensive fashion for only three or four years. But they are learning and progressing fast.”

The Things That Came To London

Forty years after William Cameron Menzies shot Things To Come on English soil, George Lucas crossed the pond to make the original Star Wars, although he kept his “trick photography” department – the newly-created ILM – on home ground in the USA. In J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, producer Gary Kurtz gives both practical and financial reasons for the decision: not only was it relatively cheap to stage the production in the UK, but it was also nearer to North Africa, where the scenes on Tatooine would be shot. Kurtz also adds:

“We wanted an English cameraman, with a certain level of technological sophistication.”

During this and the subsequent Star Wars productions (not to mention countless other films) British set builders and decorators developed a reputation for the quality of their craftsmanship and attention to detail. Less appreciated – by some visiting directors at least – was their insistence on interminable tea breaks.

ILM crew with the Millennium Falcon at ILM

Although “Star Wars” principal photography took place in England, the visual effects were created by ILM in California

Now another forty years have passed, more or less, and Star Wars is back in England again, this time with its trick photographers in tow. Greg Grusby, Senior PR & Communications Manager at Industrial Light & Magic, told me this about ILM’s decision to open a branch in London:

“First and foremost, the city has top-tier talent. Other primary factors include the fact that the UK government continues to make a concerted effort to invest in the industry and the atmosphere is business friendly. Due in large part to those three factors, clients are attracted to the region.”

Despite ILM’s long history in California, its London division will be the new kid on the block compared to the other Soho-based VFX facilities, notably Double Negative, Framestore and MPC. Collectively, these three companies can claim over 70 years in business, in a dense urban melting pot described in a recent research report (by UK-based BOP Consulting) as “the world’s creative hub”. According to the report:

“There is strong evidence of Soho’s creative strengths, both as the site of much of the UK’s successful creative industries, either as the hub of the UK VFX industry, for its eight theatres, or for its historic importance as the site of the invention of the television, or of the legendary Colony Rooms. Creative industries directly employ over 46,000 in the West End/Soho (96,000 in Westminster). The entire [film] production chain is available in an area of about one square mile.”

What The Locals Think

Framestore LogoI asked William Sargent, CEO of Framestore, what factors he believed were attracting filmmakers to the UK. This is what he had to say:

“Here at Framestore we were using computers to make filmed entertainment before anybody on the West Coast. From the mid-80s to the mid-90’s, a lot of British talent went west, only to return to the UK during the last decade.

“As for the factors attracting the filmmakers – they are the same as what attracted them here fifty years ago. In the UK we have talented individuals who are flexible and innovative in their work. We have ample capacity in terms of both people and studios – even more now than ever! With many of the top box office films now being made in the UK, we have credibility in terms of credentials and experience, as well as our ability to adapt to changing trends. The tax credit helps, but there are better and less restricted ones in Canada and Australia, so it’s not just about that.”

I put the same question to Steve Norris of Apollo Productions, a UK production services company run jointly by Norris, Pinewood Shepperton and Double Negative Films. Here’s what he had to say:

“What makes the UK so popular globally for film makers is a combination of factors – the size and quality of the talent pool, the UK’s strong support for the creative industries, the competitive cost of production and the film friendly tax incentives for UK qualifying productions. All of those factors, and more, work in combination to make us the production destination we are”

The Circus Is In Town

Nor is it only about visual effects. UK studio space is in such demand that Warner Brothers has approved the construction of three new sound stages at their Leavesdon Studios, home of the Harry Potter films. Meanwhile, Pinewood Studios (whose stages are even now filled with top secret sets for Star Wars: Episode VII) is set to double in size.

Even the venerable Elstree Studios, where all three films in the Star Wars original trilogy were shot, and which once closed its doors altogether, is now busier than ever and planning its own expansion. When I asked Roger Morris, Managing Director of Elstree Studios, what was behind the UK’s appeal, he gave this answer:

The current tax credits both for film and television, the crews that we provide and the facilities on offer – though not enough of them. Other benefits include good work environments, the dollar-pound ratio and the use of the English language.

Elstree Studios

The original “Star Wars” trilogy was shot at Elstree Studios

Now, there’s a big difference between hiring out studio facilities and crews to the travelling circus that is the average film production, and maintaining the more permanent facilities required to create modern visual effects. The former – by its nature – is a transitory thing. The latter – ideally – is not.

Perhaps that’s why the latest developments in Soho reflect the steady globalisation of the VFX industry. ILM has branches not only in San Francisco and London, but also Singapore and Vancouver. Double Negative is setting up shop in Vancouver too, and the recent announcement of a merger with Prime Focus World significantly extends both their interests around the world.

Many will cite tax credits as the true driving force behind the UK boom, nor can their influence over decision-makers be underestimated. Yet the great work delivered by the above-mentioned facilities and others stands on merit. Wherever you may be in the world, talent is a currency too. No subsidy ever created a great visual effect.

"Thing To Come" - Everytown telescope

Even the citizens of Everytown cannot foresee the future of visual effects

So will this UK boom lead ultimately to a future UK bust? I’d need H.G. Wells’s time machine to answer that one. It’s certainly possible; one look at California’s troubled VFX industry proves that nowhere is safe – not even Hollywood. But are such slumps inevitable? I hope not. Perhaps evolving business models may yet find a way to sidestep the endless up-and-down cycle – in all regions – and herald a more sustainable age in which change is perceived as a force for good, not evil.

One thing’s for sure: as long as the circus is in town, the UK film and VFX industry will continue to bang its drum and shout at the top of its voice that traditional cry of all fairground barkers: “Roll up! Roll up! See the Greatest Show on Earth!”

Which is more or less what one J.J. Abrams will be shouting when Star Wars Episode VII hits our cinema screens at the end of next year.

Related articles:

Motion Picture Daily page image from Media History Digital Library. Star Wars photograph copyright © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd.

What Does Magic Look Like?

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Magic! It’s what films are all about. Just think about how often the word crops up in cinematic conversation. Visual effects are “movie magic”. People still talk about the “magic of Hollywood”. There’s even a well-known VFX company with the word “magic” in its name.

Portraying magic on the screen requires considerable ingenuity. As a filmmaker, how exactly do you visualise this eldritch and elusive force? Do you stir up a witch’s brew of pyrotechnics and black powder? Do you unleash your best fire and fluid sims?

Or do you forget the light show and focus instead on the way wizardry affects the physical world? Perhaps you abandon visual effects altogether and rely wholly on crafty cinematic techniques to imbue a scene with the appropriate sense of otherworldly wonder.

Ask a hundred people to name their favourite magical effect, and you’ll get a hundred different answers. Here are a few of mine.

Fantasia – Mickey Wakes The Brooms

Fantasia - Mickey's broom comes to lifeIn the third segment of the classic Walt Disney animated feature Fantasia, Mickey Mouse plays the part of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Early in the sequence, his mystical master conjures fantastical images from a glowing skull. In order to communicate its supernatural properties, Disney animators added a pulsating yellow aura around the sorcerer’s hat. When Mickey borrows the hat, similar lighting effects appear round the household brooms he brings to life.

The “magical glow” is such a familiar conceit that it’s easy to underestimate the significance of this early example. Yet I believe Fantasia is the template on which almost all subsequent movies have based their many and varied visualisations of wizardry. How so? Because Fantasia was one of the first films to make a fundamental connection between magic and light.

It’s a connection we now take entirely for granted. It’s also an entirely logical choice. Cinema is light – quite literally. What better way to represent magic on screen than to manipulate the glow of the projector in extraordinary ways?

Mary Poppins – “A Spoonful of Sugar”

Mary Poppins - "A Spoonful of Sugar"Still with Disney, here’s a sequence that contradicts everything I’ve just said. You all know it: it’s the jaunty musical number during which Mary’s magic helps Jane and Michael Banks tidy up their nursery.

During the song, clothes fold themselves into drawers, beds make themselves and the scattered contents of a doll’s house fly back into their proper place … all without a single flash of light or zap of electricity.

Rejecting the “magical glow”, this sequence relies instead on that other cinematic staple: the manipulation of time. This is very much a filmmaker’s solution, exploiting as it does the mechanical principles behind the movie camera in order to alter real-world physics. In short, it achieves most of its effects through reverse action photography (nimbly assisted by a variety of wires and hidden rigs courtesy of the special effects department).

Most modern audiences will know more or less how the tricks were done (as I suspect did many viewers of the time). Yet the tricks still work. Sure, they’re just funhouse illusions, but I’d argue it’s their very simplicity that keeps them both charming and fresh.

The Fellowship of the Ring – “You Shall Not Pass”

The Fellowship of the Ring - "You Shall Not Pass"There’s plenty of magic in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, just as in Tolkien’s novel, much of it is implied rather than overtly stated. In this respect, the films bear as much resemblance to Mary Poppins as they do to Fantasia.

If you think I’m crazy comparing Gandalf to a prim English nanny, consider the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where he and Saruman come to blows. The two wizards slug it out in a kind of telekinetic fist-fight, with nary an energy beam in sight.

However, the scene that really sells Jackson’s approach to magic is the confrontation between Gandalf and the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. To deflect the giant beast’s blow, Gandalf creates a shining spherical force field. Yet the glow is subtle enough to make you wonder if it’s the magic itself that you’re seeing, or just its effect on the surrounding atmosphere. The same goes for the flashes of light that accompany the wizard’s sword strokes. Magical force or just superheated air? You tell me.

I like this knife-edge approach. Magic should be a slippery thing, hard to see, even harder to grasp. Something you glimpse out of the corner of your eye … and then question whether you ever saw it at all.

Harry Potter

Final showdown between Harry Potter and VoldemortIf it’s pyrotechnics you’re after, look no further than the Harry Potter series. In film after film, wizards wield their wands both in battle and in play, generating a bewildering array of energy streams, plasma balls, electrical discharges – you name it. This is magic writ large enough to fill the widest widescreen … and to bring the biggest render farm to a grinding halt.

Subtle it ain’t, but the magic of Harry Potter undoubtedly delivers the sort of visceral thrills only clever conjury can muster. And, like the magic of Mickey Mouse, it’s all done using the primary element from which all movies are made: light.

These are my choices. What are yours? Should magic explode like a fireworks show on the Fourth of July? Or should it creep beneath the surface, working its charms not on your eyes but on your mind?

Is magic light or dark? You decide.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows photograph copyright © 2011 by Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.

H is for History of VFX

"H" is for "History of VFX" in the Cinefex VFX ABCIn the VFX ABC, the letter “H” stands for “History”.

How important is the history of visual effects to the modern VFX professional? In an industry built on innovation and imagination, does anyone really need to remember the past? Who wants to linger in bygone times when there’s a bright, shiny future waiting right around the corner? It’s like the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw said:

“We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.”

But wait! Maybe history’s not so bad. In fact, isn’t history just about the most important subject going? The past is a vast repository of wisdom, knowledge and experience. We’d be fools to ignore it! The philosopher Machiavelli was on board with this:

“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past.”

When it comes to visual effects, who are we to believe? To find out, I put two simple questions to a panel of VFX experts:

  • How important is it for a modern visual effects artist to know about the history of VFX?
  • Can you name a VFX sequence you’ve worked on that was directly inspired by something from the past?

Here’s what the panel had to say:

Hal Hickel – Animation Director, Industrial Light & Magic

“I think that in any endeavour it’s important to know what came before, and to learn from it. There are valuable lessons to be learned from both the failures and successes of the past. The trick, of course, is to know which is which. Something that was a failure or limitation of older technologies could be an asset today.

Talos from "Jason and the Argonauts" and Gypsy Danger from "Pacific Rim"“In the pre-digital era, good planning on set, low VFX shot counts, and clever solutions to problems were a necessity, not a choice. This forced a certain restraint in the use of VFX. At the time, those limitations were something that everyone involved with VFX wanted to conquer. Nowadays, I’d say restraint is something that filmmakers using VFX could use a good dose of.

“In Pacific Rim, the scene where a seriously damaged Gipsy Danger strides ashore and collapses equates to the Talos sequence from Jason and the Argonauts. Ray Harryhausen’s compositions in that sequence inspired the sense of scale we were going for in our work on Pacific Rim.”

Lou Pecora – Visual Effects Supervisor, Digital Domain

“Absolutely without question, knowing about the history of visual effects makes a VFX professional better. All that reference becomes a shorthand that can be used to convey the type of effect one is looking for. Also, knowing some of the techniques, tricks and shortcuts used in the past to creatively solve problems can inspire solutions to the same types of challenges today.

“The great Richard Edlund has a story about the trouble he had lining up two different scale models of the Death Star as the POV from an approaching X-Wing pushes into it. In the end, they had one of the laser cannons flash the frame to allow for the “seamless” transition between the two models. If you go back and watch that scene you can see exactly what they did, but you would never know just watching the film cold. I’ve used that trick a few times in the past to get me out of a bind!

“In X-Men: Days of Future Past, we had a bit where the 1973 Sentinels lift off and hover over the crowd in DC. In order to achieve a sense of menace in the otherwise expressionless Sentinels, I thought back to the scene in The Terminator where we get a glimpse of the Future Wars. The Terminators that shoot up the underground human HQ had glowing red eyes that were all you could see in their dark silhouettes. I remember seeing that when I was a kid and thinking how terrifying it looked, so that was what we went for.

“We also drew inspiration from that same part of The Terminator for the shot where the Sentinels fly out of the smoke and into the stadium behind Magneto. The way their silhouettes are obscured by the smoke, and the shadows they cast on the smoke, were directly inspired by that scene.”

The Sentinels from "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

The Sentinels from “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

Thomas Dyg – Environments Supervisor, Cinesite

“Knowing about the history of visual effects isn’t a must. But understanding at least some fundamental events and procedures can bring inspiration and deeper knowledge, which can advance VFX artists’ skills.

“The biggest difference in going from analog to digital could be symbolised by the “undo” button. Before digital, choices had consequences and artists had to have knowledge about exactly what would happen once they committed to a creative decision. Now, technology has made it possible to create ever more fantastic visual effects, which would have been impossible before. However, as a child of the digital age, I feel that we have perhaps lost sight of one important thing, and that is not to overthink solutions and complicate matters unnecessarily. Maybe the old magic and the simplicity of old techniques are something all modern VFX artists could learn from. Those pioneers are the giants whose shoulders we stand upon.”

Pablo Helman – Visual Effects Supervisor, Industrial Light & Magic

“It’s kind of ironic that, although our VFX business is based on “innovation”, I often think about how specific challenges were met in the past. That’s how I came to be in awe of miniatures, and the work done on the original Star Wars movies. Having worked at ILM for eighteen years, I’ve met and worked with some legendary modelmakers – artists who are hyper-aware of reality, scale, weight and speed, and who have an insatiable urge to search for the details that complete the illusion.

“So it’s no wonder I found miniatures to be one of the pillars of the VFX process in War of the Worlds (2005) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I literally had a blast destroying a miniature New Jersey neighbourhood by an alien invasion, and a complete New Mexico town by an atomic bomb. However, before destroying them, we photographed the miniature buildings to use as projections in computer models that were used for dynamically manipulated backgrounds in different sequences. In that way, we combined old and new techniques to tell the story. I love my job!”

The Doom Town miniature for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”

The Doom Town miniature for “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was shot using four 35mm cameras and one motion-controlled Vistavision camera on a raised platform beyond Kerner Optical’s backlot slab in San Rafael.

Björn Mayer – Visual Effects Supervisor, Pixomondo

“Yes, knowing the history of visual effects is important – even though VFX is considered a “young” field, we have a long and fruitful history to learn from. Technology is always changing, giving us better and more powerful tools, but we often use those tools in addition to – or to augment – previous techniques. That’s why it’s important to know as much as possible about the field – not only camera techniques and computer skills, but also how to find a clever work-around if needed.

“A visual effects artist is not just a button-pusher in front of a computer, or a single-skilled technician aware of one or two software packages. Most of us are creative, visual problem-solvers driven by passion and the diligence to go the extra mile to generate the shot that helps to tell the story. The more techniques an artist knows and can draw from, the richer their ability to create extraordinary visual effects.

“In Oblivion, a large part of the action takes place in the Skytower, a luxurious glass residence built high up in the clouds. To create the surrounding environment, we could have shot everything in front of a bluescreen and inserted the background later in post. But it would have been very difficult to extract all the reflections from the plates. Instead, the Skytower was build as a full size set, surrounded by a 42-foot x 500-foot projection screen. Cloudscapes were projected by twenty-one cinema grade FullHD projectors hidden in the set. Not only did this help with subtleties like eye reflections and skin subsurface scattering, but it also helped the actors, because they could see the environment they would be in. Front projection is an old technique that’s been used in movies for decades. By scaling it up for Oblivion, we were standing on the shoulders of giants to achieve seamless effects.”

Watch a featurette about the creation of the Skytower sequence:

Joan Panis, Head of FX, MPC London

“I believe it’s very important to know the history of VFX. When creating something new, we often look at references to inspire ourselves, usually in the form of past films that use digital and practical effects. This helps us understand how we can create and shape our current effects. Other times we use this knowledge to tell us what not to do too. Doing this helps us define quickly how and what our effect should look like. At MPC, we sometimes nickname shots based on the type of effect it’s inspired from.”

Aladino Debert – Visual Effects Supervisor (Commercials & Games), Digital Domain

“I don’t think it’s necessarily important for a modern visual effects artist to know about the history of VFX, because each show is unique. Sometimes, coming with fresh eyes, unencumbered by past experience, can be a plus. Yet knowledge of film history – and visual effects history in particular – can be advantageous when it comes to creative decisions to new problems.

“I directed a trailer for Microsoft’s Ryse: Son of Rome, which had a shot that was greatly influenced by sequences in both Spartacus and the later Gladiator (probably the latter was itself influenced by the former). And by “greatly influenced” I mean I tried to make it very much the same shot! It was such a great sequence in the original movie – one of my favourites – that it was a pleasure being able to re-create it on our show. Like they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.”

Christian Alzmann, Senior Visual Effects Art Director/Concept Artist, Industrial Light & Magic

“I think it’s important to know how problems were solved with older techniques. Conceptually, those solutions can bring a lot of light to solving visual problems today.

“Recently I was designing a section of a long science fiction hallway – using 3D to create concept art – and the geometry was getting pretty heavy. I didn’t want to duplicate the section over and over to make the hallway longer because the scene would have been too slow to work with. So what I did was place a single polygon at the end of the hallway section and give it a mirror shader. When I did a test render, that section of hallway seemed to extend to infinity. It’s an old technique used in many early movies and theme park attractions, and it continues to be useful in the digital realm.”

Now we’ve heard from our panel, I’d love to hear from you. How important is VFX history to you, either as a fan or an industry professional? Should the old-school be locked in a cupboard and the key thrown away, or could today’s young whippersnappers learn a thing or two from the textbooks? Or do you think the past should keep itself to itself, allowing the forward-thinkers to spread their wings and fly?

Perhaps, like me, you believe that there’s room for both, that past and future are not divided things at all, but simply different aspects of a single continuum. As William Faulkner wrote:

“There is only the present moment, in which I include both the past and the future, and that is eternity.”

Thanks to all our experts at the following companies:

Special thanks to Greg Grusby, Joni Jacobson, Helen Moody, Tiffany Tetrault and Jonny Vale. X-Men: Days of Future Past image copyright © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull photograph copyright © 2008 by Lucasfilm Ltd and Paramount Pictures.

The Invisible Effects of “Tracks”

Mia Wasikowska stars as Robyn Davidson in "Tracks"

Small film. Big country. Interesting times.

Add these things together and what you get is Tracks. Adapted from the book by Robyn Davidson and directed by John Curran, Tracks tells the true story of one woman’s trek across the Australian outback. Accompanied by four camels and a dog – and observed by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan through his camera lens – Davidson endures hardship and finds inspiration in the one of the most unforgiving environments on Earth.

Australia’s iconic desert landscape has provided a dramatic backdrop for countless memorable films including Walkabout, the Mad Max trilogy and Baz Luhrman’s Australia. In Tracks, the dusty wilderness not only presents the ultimate challenge to its protagonist Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) as she faces up to the harsh realities of nomadic desert life, but it also marks a rite of passage for the Australian movie industry as outback filmmaking marches into the digital realm.

“This was one of the last feature films in Australia to be shot on film and processed locally,” observed Tracks’ visual effects supervisor James Rogers. “In addition it was shot with period anamorphic lenses. It was beautifully lensed by Mandy Walker, and was a fond farewell to film for many of us.”

I mentioned interesting times. These are what were experienced by Rogers and his team while working on the film. The VFX work on Tracks was begun under the Method Studios Australia banner; since then the feature film team of Method has now been incorporated into Iloura. Both companies are owned by Deluxe Australia, which has nationalised the Iloura brand in a move to grow its feature film capabilities.

“Now that we’ve come together as one brand,” asserted Rogers, “Iloura’s combined feature film and television teams are further strengthened, enabling us to work on a greater volume and complexity of projects. Method Studios Australia is now 100% focussed on the Australian commercials market.”


With a reported budget of just $12 million, Tracks is about as far from a Hollywood summer blockbuster as you can get. But even the smallest film can feature some great visual effects work.

The modest budget both allowed for and demanded close collaboration between the visual effects department and director John Curran. “I’d worked with some of the key crew, including production designer Melinda Doring and post production supervisor Colleen Clarke,” said Rogers, “but I’d never had the chance to work with John, though I’d previously discussed projects with him. This time around, everything came together.”

Pre-production on Tracks involved sourcing as much real-world reference as possible, to inform the look and feel of what Rogers describes as “a ‘non-VFX’ show with an emphasis on realism”. One important reference was the drama-documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel. Set in Mongolia, it follows two boys on a trek across the Gobi Desert in an effort to save an imperiled white camel colt. Also useful were a number of 1970s documentaries about the Australian outback.

“Intrinsic to the story are the photographs of Rick Smolan (Adam Driver),” Rogers added. “These really formed the best reference, and Rick himself was very generous in providing us with as much information as we needed.”

In all, Iloura delivered 133 shots on Tracks, over a period of around 3 months. They also designed the titles and credit sequences. Visual effects shots included a number of matte-painted vistas, sandstorms, extending an underwater sequence and various composites.

One of the big challenges was the camels – in particular the scenes showing these beasts of burden being shot and killed. Early on, it was thought that fully 3D CG camels would be required but, as production progressed, the team began to favour a 2D approach.

“While we explored the options of making CG camels,” said Rogers, “we pulled back to something which was very live-action based. This wasn’t just a consequence of budget, but also factoring in the look of the film. I think we ended up making something that sat elegantly within the edit. The subtle, almost matter-of-fact appearance of the killings underscores the profound effect it has on the lead character, and is a turning point in the drama of the film.”

For the shooting scenes, shots of tranquilised camels were enhanced by Iloura

For scenes in which the camels are shot, Iloura added bullet entry and exit wounds, and CG patches on the animals’ flanks to make the flesh appear to spasm

To create the sequence, male camels were filmed being dosed with tranquiliser darts.

“We manipulated the way they fell in comp, so they crumpled, shook and came down in a quietly dramatic way,” Rogers explained. “We did this using spline warps and rotoscoping appropriate elements from various takes. We added small bullet entry and exit wounds, as well as small CG patches on the flank which ripple and spasm.

“Additionally, we added froth to the camel’s mouths, using a base of motion-tracked 3D and live action elements. For the blood that pours out of the camels, we mixed up a few litres in the kitchen at work using recipes we’d found on the web. Then we filmed appropriate pours over objects in the car park, which we then composited in. The mouth foam was glycerol, art glue, and shaving cream – we shot it with a puppet camel mouth we’d made. There were quite a few elements included in the sequence, but ultimately it was a very simple, old-school approach.”

The limited budget encouraged the visual effects team to apply the same approach throughout the rest of their work on the film.

“We looked to create solutions that were a combination of camera, digital matte painting, and compositing work,” remarked Rogers. “The domestic Australian film industry is quite small, and demands a nimble approach to logistics and general approach in any aspect of production – including VFX. With tools like Nuke and Mari, we can dip into the simpler 3D side directly from comp software. But we did turn to 3D simulation for the heavy lifting in the sandstorm and rutting camel sequences.”

Reflecting on Iloura’s work on the film, Rogers concluded: “We had to come up with the most efficient way to approach a problem, without compromising the look or feel. We moved to an increasingly heavy element collection process, so that we were making bespoke elements that would work well. Coupling the elements with more modern, efficient workflows for projection and 2.5D manipulation meant we were able to turn shots around pretty rapidly. All in all, it was a good show for stripping back current, conventional solutions for VFX and rethinking them or bringing them back to basics.”


Special thanks to Hayley Davis. Tracks photographs copyright 2013 See-Saw Films.