Watchmen VFX supervisor John (DJ) Des Jardin tasked a global team of VFX houses with the job of creating a reimagined 1980s for Watchmen, the keenly anticipated adaptation of a revered graphic novel. Sony Pictures Imageworks stepped up to the plate when asked to handle one of the key characters, as Bill Dawes discovers from VFX Supervisor Pete Travers.
FXGUIDE: Pete, I understand you didn’t know a lot about the world of Watchmen when you first came onboard for this film
PT: Watchmen had never crossed my path. I was a great fan of the graphic novel, and loved 300, but I had never encountered this particular title. However as I started to delve into it early on in 2007, I realised it had zealous fans, and it was exciting to see people so enthusiastic about a graphic novel. I read it and could see what people were excited it about. This was very different, a very intelligent story.
FXGUIDE: It must be a TOUGH challenge to recreate in film a title such as this, where you just know that fans will be checking off each frame against the original pages?
PT: That’s true, they are a zealous bunch, and you certainly don’t want to piss those people off. You want to get them excited about the film. I am pleased that now I can see so many people saying they can’t wait to see Watchmen. When the first trailers started coming out, people were either psyched or incredibly curious.
FXGUIDE:Were you aware of what you would be handling when you first read the graphic novel?
PT: No but right away I knew we wanted Doc. John (DJ) Des Jardin and I had worked together on Matrix, and I was itching to do a good character. Doc was staring me in the face as the thing to do. It was a great opportunity and we had to time to focus on one character and make him look really good. Back in Summer 2007 we did a test and we had the ability to work on the character steadily and have a lot of input how we shoot it.
Instead of creating a character from scratch, we got to take a main character in the story who had to emote with the other characters, so the idea of shooting an actor in place and replicating him in CG was where we started. The unique thing about Doc is him being a light source which was challenging for the shoot and required a lot of R&D to have the environment react properly. First and foremost we needed a performance, so we had to have the actor and cheating didn’t seem the way to go, so we had to figure out a suit. The result was a distributed packing of blue LEDs with a remote power source. Global Effects Inc built the suit for us and it has about 2500 LEDs on his body, gloves. He looks like he’s in Tron.
FXGUIDE: Did you consider using traditional motion capture?
PT: Capturing the performance required we get as much reference as we could. A normal mocap stage would have been cumbersome because there was so much to shoot. We needed to be able to have a low footprint on set. Once they setup the cameras and the lighting we would fire in there with our HD witness cameras and set those up and try to capture as much as we could beyond the film cameras. For the witness cameras, Sony F900s, we used one focused on the head, one on the body. There were upwards of four, but most days it was two. This was used for tracking and matching the performance of actor Billy Crudup. Everything was synced together with the film camera. When we first arrived up in Vancouver the film crew was curious what we were doing turning up a whole lot of additional cameras and lights. It was a newfangled thing but the guys on set were very responsive about making the whole thing work because I think they understood the importance of us getting what we needed.
FXGUIDE: How did that go down with the director of photography?
PT: He was totally onboard. Larry Fong was actually involved very early on with tests of the suit because it is actually a lighting tool for him. So if he wasn’t onboard the whole thing would fall down. He needed to figure out the brightness settings he wanted for the suit. We were there to capture Billy’s performance, it’s like the Verizon commercials where the guy looks behind him and there are hundreds of computers, our crew was there to help Billy’s performance and he was such a trooper for taking this on. You can imagine as an actor you must have doubts, because there’s this risk that 90% of the movie he’s not in it, he’s replaced by Doc Manhattan, so there’s a leap of faith that we can capture what he’s doing. We showed tests of the character as soon as we could to Billy and Zack Snyder and there was a lot of excitement that started to build even further as time went on.
FXGUIDE: Imageworks is renowned for the Performance Capture process you have developed for 3D features such as Beowulf and Monster House. Does the work you did on Doc Manhattan represent a new approach?
PT: Yes it’s a different mode and I think ultimately the primary goal of what I was capturing on set was to capture as high res visual data as possible of Billy’s performance. When we came back with what we had captured on set you realise that no technology on it’s own is the complete solution, you have to get some talented people to jump in and make it look right, and that’s talented character animators. That’s what we focused very early on when we did crewing for this show. We have the talent here at Imageworks, and we realised how necessary they were we we began trying to figure out the controls that we needed to get this character right.
Doc Manhattan is a little different to what we have done before because Billy’s performance is so subtle. Even though he’s this six foot two blue guy, his performance is not over the top at all, he’s soft spoken and that’s what makes it so scary. He almost talks a little like HAL. The hard part for us is we are not focussing on a character doing amazing things or flying through the air it was all about little eye twitches and the curve of the lip and nostril flaring, really subtle stuff that had to be read in each performance.
We had to understand his knack of breathing, the muscle shaping that is there in most performances. Inevitably when you try to capture it using whatever technology you have available, inevitably the data gets pared down a little bit. So you have to check back on whatever visual data you have, look at it and even if you did everything you were supposed to do maybe it still doesn’t look right, so you just have to keep going. The process was constantly checking back with the video reference to see how that looked. Some shots that looked like they would have been hard came straight out of the gate, and others we struggled with and had to beat on them for months. There is no exact science on what animation is going to be hard or easy with this kind of stuff. Once you dive in you find out some things work and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes Billy will deliver a line and you know that if you match it exactly it’s not going to work, you won’t be able to read him saying those letters. So we had to change things a bit of the time.
FXGUIDE: I understand one of the scenes you worked on involved some pretty intimate moments?
PT: The Bedroom scene is the creepiest love scene you will ever see. There is no actual nudity for actress Malin Ackerman, but there is naked flesh, although you don’t see Doc’s private parts in this particular scene. You see them everywhere else in the movie, which made it borderline whether the movie was R-Rated or even higher, because we made him completely nude for most of the movie. In the end, as long as it wasn’t of explicit sexual nature then it could retain it’s R rating.
FXGUIDE:So Doc Manhattan lets it all hang out. How did you capture that?
PT: That part we made up. We asked a lot of Billy Crudup, but that was going to be a bit much.
FXGUIDE: It would have been tricky painting on the marker dots?
PT: Exactly. We just animated that based on what we felt looked right.
FXGUIDE: Did you do any tests?
PT: Oh yeah, all kinds of tests. We did scale wedges. We forced the director Zac to have to pick a frame out a scale wedge of penis sizes, the famous frame 22. We all remember the frame, because we were all wondering how big we should make it. We let the director decide, we were all guessing which frame he was going to pick. Actually, having him be fully nude ends up being such an important character trait because he is this apathetic character who is growing less and less concerned with humanity to the point that he teleports himself to Mars because he doesn’t want to hang out with earthlings anymore. For most of the movie he is sitting on Mars building his glass palace. it’s necessary to his character arc that he started off as a normal human being and ended up with superpowers and as time went on he becomes disenchanted with humanity and just moves on, which is a way of asking what superman would really be like? The brilliant thing about the novel is deconstructing what would the world have looked like if superheroes existed. Inevitably the world would look at them as a threat. One of the things I love about the story is it’s a distortion of our current realty with a cast of characters that play a role, Nixon is very prominent, and we get to imagine how he would react if he had Doc Manhattan and could recruit him to fight the war in Vietnam.
FXGUIDE: Apart from the LED suit what was unique about the pipeline for your shots on this film?
PT: Because this wasn’t a CG movie, it was a live action movie, we had to operate differently and that’s where we developed the idea of the low footprint witness cameras and making sure we had an actor integrated with the other actors on set became essential so we weren’t guessing. The more we had to guess the worse it would have looked.
There’s is one particular shot of Doc out in the snow, and I won’t spoil the film for you by saying exactly what happens, but there are a bunch of closeups and Billy barely talks. He’s looking and pondering, there’s so much subtlety in his performance and we were just staring at it in our dailies room, looking at a 2K projection. We’d look at it again and again, then we’d notice the ear scrunching or the nose twitching, the poor animator is writing all this down, which we needed to do to get it all, which we did, and the realism is amazing. It’s pretty much all hand animated. We had an automated tracking system to help us get started, with the dots on Billy’s face driving a FACS library to build some face shapes ahead of time. It was used when it would work and in some cases it was very helpful for timing, but inevitably no shot went through without an animator touching it in some shape or form. Once we realised it was helpful and we could use it it fit very well with our plans.
FXGUDIE: How long is Doc Manhattan on screen?
PT: It’s 38 minutes, which is a lot. He’s the equivalent of some of the the other main actors in the story, it’s an ensemble cast
FXGUIDE: How many animators worked on this movie at Imageworks?
PT: The artist numbers peaked at around 100, with 20-30 animators working in Maya. For all the heavy duty simulation FX, a lot of that was done in Houdini, like the destruction of New York and the blowing up of people. Rigid soft body simulation was done in Houdini.
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