The team behind Iron Sky fought a long hard battle to bring their movie to the big screen. Firstly, the satirical story was left-field – about Nazi Germans who had fled to the moon in 1945 and planned their return attack on the Earth in 2018. But with a teaser trailer prepared for the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, the filmmakers slowly gained partners and embarked on a crowd sourcing approach to partially fund the project, which finally became a Finnish/German/Australian co-production.
In this interview we speak to VFX supervisor Samuli Torssonen about the realities of forming a small specialist team of artists and bringing to life a film shot on location in Germany and on sets in Australia, with a race against time to complete the incredibly ambitious visual effects.
fxg: What kind of project was this like working on for you?
Torssonen: Well, everything begins as nice and exciting, but it certainly turned into a tedious and tough job. We were fighting against the budget, and not all the money was in place when we began. We either could have stopped the production or taken the risk – and we took the risk.
fxg: Can you talk about the planning and early work involved?
Torssonen: Iron Sky began in 2007, but financing a film about moon Nazis wasn’t an easy task. There was a lot of doubt and we took quite a dark direction in many ways. Of course, it’s a comedy but it’s not slapstick. Then the development of the script took a while and we had time to concept the film and make previs. So in the end the long process of getting the money in place was a good thing to let us think about the visual style.
- Above: watch a breakdown of the visual effects in Iron Sky.
fxg: Tell me about some of the virtual sets, which you shot against greenscreen?
Torssonen: They were filmed at Village Roadshow Studios in Queensland, Australia. We knew we’d only be able to build small things. We had a plan that within five metres would be real, and the rest as CGI. On the set, I would be placing the characters in the same position on the virtual set and showing the director and actors.
fxg: What were the virtual sets built in?
Torssonen: We built them in Maya and rendered in Mental Ray (and the space shots were done in Lightwave).
fxg: How did you prepare the plates?
Torssonen: One of the first problems we had was that the edit wasn’t locked down. We were hoping to get the edit locked in two or three months, but that wasn’t the case. We found that the director and editor were having a hard time cutting down scenes that had only greenscreen. So the first phase was to do really quick hand-animated tracking and previs-level shots in After Effects, with rough keying. Then they could start editing.
fxg: What kind of pipeline did you form?
Torssonen: We didn’t have a big compositing team initially. We wanted to use Nuke and ended up finding some trainees who were then trained from the ground up. We built a comp team and their first learning experience was keying. The next phase was 3D tracking with SynthEyes. One good thing was that some scenes, like on the moon, had camera work that appeared outdated – say from the 40s. That helped us because there was quite a lot of fixed cameras or small movement.
fxg: The space battle and the Zeppelins were impressive. How did you previs that?
Torssonen: We were originally supposed to tackle those space shots in Maya, but I found out in about Spring 2011 that we just couldn’t do them that way. Of course, I didn’t say anything to our producer at the time! He was also having to deal with financing so this was my issue to solve. We called into our community and said, ‘If you know something about 3D and space battles, please contact me.’ It was quite a long shot but we got some really talented Lightwave guys from all around the world.
One problem was that in the script there wasn’t much detail about the space battles. So we had to create the previs the shots to work out what was going to happen, and then start to turn those previs shots into final shots. Lightwave is really good in turning over fast previs shots.
fxg: In one shot the George W. Bush ship begins an attack on the Nazi Zeppelins – can you talk about that shot?
Torssonen: I always had that shot in my mind and that shot was my ‘baby’ in a way. In Lightwave, you can move the camera very easily and the animation workflow is very fast compared to Maya. I can use both programs now, but in terms of playing around with camera movement and trying out new things, it always seems faster in Lightwave. It might be that I’ve used it for 10 years, but still Lightwave is much faster with simple things.
The good thing with the space battle really is that ships really are just flying boxes. We took the approach of not doing too many complex moves. We would shatter the ships manually and we could control it a lot more. There is one shot where the Zeppelin is exploding in the Earth’s atmosphere and the dynamic work was done in Maya originally, with cloth simulation where the panels are tearing off. That was baked into MDD and brought into Lightwave for rendering and further explosion work. We used Lightwave’s fluid plugin called Turbulence Fluid Dynamics.
fxg: How did you deal with the digital workflow?
Torssonen: The film was shot on RED ONEs with the Mysterium-X chips. We received all the R3D files. It was edited in Final Cut Pro, although we only had PCs in the visual effects team. We opened the edit sequence in Premiere and synced all the RED files in the edit. We always used the original RED files and put a 10 frame handle. The good thing with Nuke is that you can also load the RED file in proxy mode, which lets things run a lot faster.
fxg: How was the visual effects production set up?
Torssonen: We rented a couple of flats near the production office, and actually got some beds there after a couple of months. The artists believed in the production and gave it everything. They wanted this film to be completed. Half of the guys were Finnish and half from around the world. It was a pretty small office – about 130 square meters with 20 people. With 50 computers there it got quite hot with them all rendering the whole time – and there was no air conditioning because we don’t need that in Finland usually!
fxg: What do you think you might do differently next time if you had the chance on a film like this?
Torssonen: We were happy with how it worked out given the time and budget but one of the things that I under-estimated was the time that goes to previs. I think that’s one of the most common mistakes of a CGI supervisor. I had this idea that when we were shooting the film in Australia that I could do the previs during the evenings myself! Yeah…right [laughs]. I just can’t believe how I could think like that. There just wasn’t time after shooting. So we were still doing previs back in Finland, and I think I would have allocated a lot more time to that.
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