Masters of effects

Digital Studio takes a look at some of the top visual effects from 2014 to present
Alex garland, Cgi, Digital Studio, Doctor who, Ex-machina, Jupiter ascending, Milk studios, Olypus, The whale, VFX, Woman in black 2, X-men, Analysis, Content production


Last year’s Oscar win for Gravity in visual effects, led by Framestore, sealed what the industry has known for some time - that there is significant and world leading talent and post production facilities in the UK.

Incentivised by tax credits for feature films introduced in 2007, and for high-end drama, which came about in 2013, more overseas productions are shooting and posting in the country than at any time. Perhaps the most high-profile is Star Wars: The Force Awakens for Disney. Disney-owned facility ILM has opened a shop in London with the next sequel already shooting at Pinewood.

Here is a snapshot of some recent achievements in TV and film — each revealing creative innovation and problem solving.

Tremadoc Productions/ Reunion Pictures/ Great Point Media, Content Television and Digital/ LipSync Productions

The $30m 13-episode series Olympus, scheduled to appear on the SyFy channel in the US soon, is having all its post production done at Lip Sync. The creation of an Ancient Greek world requires over 50 CG environments, several mythological creatures and more than 5000 vfx shots.

“It’s a huge technical challenge because it’s all shot green screen with moving cameras, so the CG had to be created initially as background to allow the director and actors to know where to walk, where virtual creatures and objects were in the scene,” says Sheila Wickens, head of 2D.

“It’s full CG forests and believable environment like caves, integrated with live action shots of castles and palaces.”

The Whale
Producer: BBC Factual/ Animal Planet

Jellyfish Pictures created a sperm whale for this 90-minute retelling of the fateful last voyage of the Nantucket whale ship, Essex. The story is based on the true events that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick.

“We needed to create a 25 metre photoreal creature that could pass by camera in close-up,” explains vfx supervisor, Luke Dodd. “This was a difficult task as the male sperm whale is such a large animal. Time and care was needed to add detail to every inch of his skin.” Sculpting began in Maya and Zbrush to form the overall shape with displacement, texture work and shading in Mari.

“Barnacles, parasites, skin colouration, scratches and deep scars where all added to build up intricate layer. This combined with old spears and frayed sea ropes made for a believable deep sea monster.”

Working with director Alrick Riley, the animation team, led by Chris Seed, choreographed the whale’s movements to play out the stalking and attack of the Essex. Plates and lighting ref were shot on location in Malta where the crew had full use of the huge infinity tanks.

“Shooting on the Arri Alexa we collected extensive plates and elements which we used in all 60 vfx shots in our XSI and Arnold pipeline,” says Dodd.

“We used live action footage of seascapes where possible. This is critical in helping the CG to blend with the overall film. In some cases where the whale would interact with the water surface, a full CG water solution was developed in house.”

Doctor Who Special 2014
BBC Wales

Milk completed 61 shots on hour-long special, Last Christmas. “The main challenge was the Santa’s sleigh sequence as it involved actors shot on a green screen, CG reindeer and CG backgrounds,” explains vfx producer Louise Hasting.

“Delivering almost 30 sleigh sequence shots, all of which were shot on green screen meaning there was a lot of green spill on Santa’s white fur trim to clean up and complicated keys due to hair blowing in the wind.”

The opening polar landscape shot was also challenging as it involved blending (using Cinema 4D) from 3D dmp into the polar base-plate shot in a studio and projected on matching geometry from Photoscan. This was achieved by Milk’s Simon Wicker.

Achieving realistic and complex animation of the three reindeer in a short space of time was another trick.
“Particularly getting the animation of the bucking Rudolf to work with the plate of actor Nick Frost on the rocking horse on set,” explains animator David Bennet. “This required accurate matchmove by David Jones and Robert Nzengou-Tayo to support the animation, while Dom Alderson created their look development and grooming.”

As is always the case with TV, turnaround times are tight. All of this was achieved in just five weeks using a combination of Nuke, Houdini, Maya with Yeti for fur grooming and rendering in Arnold.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past
20th Century Fox

VFX supervisor Richard Stammers oversaw the work of 12 studios including Digital Domain, Rising Sun Pictures on this X-Men franchise, which was nominated for a 2015 visual effects Oscar.

MPC were lead studio, delivering 372 out of the total 1311 shots, primarily tasked with creating the Future Sentinels from concept art through to final comp, the X-Jet, Xavier’s virtual world, future environments and creating mutant effects for X-Men characters.

“The Future Sentinels were particularly complex,” explains Stammers. “One challenge tackled by MPC was how to make these 12-foot robots look agile, deadly and not hindered by their size or weight. Another challenge was how to implement Mystique’s powers into the Sentinel’s design. The scales/blades were a very important part of the animation, which allowed for fluttering wipes across the body to initiate the various transformations to different materials, such as steel, diamond or rock.”

The Sentinels were covered in approximately 100,000 independent blades, the movement of which had to be directed artistically driven, rather than by simulation. MPC’s existing workflows supported a maximum of 15,000 blades so a new approach was required.

Software developer Tony Micilotta introduced the concept of a follicle that approximated the shape and size of the final blade model. These were combined into sets of follicle-meshes and could be manipulated using standard deformers.

“This not only provided a great visualisation for animators but doubled up as primitives from which transforms could be derived,” says Stammers. “These transforms were cached as particles and were subsequently ingested by a bespoke Katana Scene Graph Generator that instanced the complex blade models accordingly.”

Jupiter Ascending
Warner Bros.

Framestore’s London and Montreal teams delivered over 500 shots for Andy and Lana Wachowski’s sci-fi film about an ancient dynasty that farms entire planets for their DNA. The facility was involved in pre-production, with a team of animators spending six months carrying out tests at Leavesden to help the directors plan sequences and develop the alien characters.

These included the Keepers, a group of slinking aliens able to cloak themselves from sight. “They work more as creatures of the night than traditional aliens, so we gave them these reversible knees and elbows, which made them quite insect like,” explains animation supervisor Max Solomon.

Framestore also created several of Jupiter Ascending’s space ships. The most complex, Titus’ Clipper, is introduced with a majestic sweep through the icy rings of a planet. At three km long and consisting of around a billion polygons it is Framestore’s biggest model so far, a much bigger construct that the International Space Station in Gravity.

“Part of the challenge was giving the model enough richness to sell the scale while still looking functional,” says Montreal VFX supervisor Chris Lawrence.

In another sequence a pair nimble of one-man fighter ships called Zeros, must weave between half a million mines
and plenty of explosions and debris to escape. There was a lot of emphasis of choreographing the elements in a way that would be easy to follow visually.

“Making it readable was a big challenge,” says the sequence’s CG supervisor Andy Walker. “It was all about using different colours to contrast different areas of the shot, backlighting it with explosions so you could see the Zeros. We made the mines slowly spin to make them catch the light, which made them less flat. The idea was that they glistened a bit like shoals of fish. Otherwise they would remain black for much of the shot — either all invisible, or all too visible.”

Several other facilities worked on this feature including Blue Bolt. Its 200 shots included ageing and de-ageing the character Kalique, and creating a cloth sim — the addition of a dress wrapped over Kalique’s body with futuristic technology. Blue Bolt added holographic control panels, performed rig removal and prosthetic projections of feathers and forehead to aid in creating a character that is spliced with an owl.

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The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death
Hammer Films/Entertainment One/Cross Creek Pictures

Blue Bolt was the sole vendor for all 200 shots on this sequel to the 2012 hit British horror film. These included adding atmospheres such as mist and rain, as much for continuity as adding to the overall dark mood of the film and enhancing some of the shocks by slowing elements down or speeding them up.

One major sequence near the film’s climax was set underwater and featured the ghosts of children rising from the seabed. “We made sure we had a day with the water tank on the Pinewood lot to ensure we had all the elements we needed,” explains vfx on-set supervisor, Henry Badgett.

“We also shot additional elements in second tank which was filled with mud with a green-screen background. Three actors could stand in the tank, or be completely submerged in the mud. We replicated it until we had 30-40 people which we composited into a pyramid formation in Nuke, representing children clambering on top of each other while the heroine dives down to them.”

A second major shot is a scene setter at the film’s beginning. Starting at street level the camera rises on a crane to 20-30ft and is then taken in CG up higher, through smoke and clouds to give a panoramic view of London at the time of the Blitz.

“It’s one of those powers of ten shots where we zoom out to see the level of destruction of high above the city to suggest why people would evacuate to the country,” explains Badgett. “We worked on this right from storyboards in pre-production and it was the last shot to get signed off.”

Ex Machina
Producer: DNA Films/Film4

Director Alex Garland’s artificial intelligence sci-fi has won critical acclaim not least for its seamless visuals. Double Negative was tasked with the creation of robot girl Ava under the supervision of Andrew Whitehurst while Milk’s biggest scene was the design and creation of a CG AI robot Ava’s brain.

Milk was briefed to use jellyfish references while incorporating a computerised ‘tech’ feel in its design. Using Houdini, the build was fully procedural with strong emphasis on the ability to quickly choreograph and combine major features to reduce the turnaround of versions during look development.

Starting from a sculpted core mesh, a complex set up was built to create the main features of the brain — including frills, tentacles, pores, antennas, wireframe cages and air bubbles.

The Milk team, under command of producer Nick Drew and vfx supervisor Sara Bennett, opted for a noise driven animation over simulations in order to avoid having to rig and animate each shot separately.

Collisions were solved by post deforming wires and meshes using volume collision approaches where necessary. The resulting brain asset was then brought into Maya for shading and lighting using Arnold and finally composited in Nuke.

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