Alien versus a 5″ gun

Peter Berg’s Battleship features all manner of visual effects – water sims, destruction and alien creatures. In this interview we talk to Image Engine visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey who worked with lead vendor ILM to help craft the alien Thugs for two on-ship sequences, including the spectacular demise of one of the creatures care of a 5″ gun on the deck of the ship. Watch break down clips showing how Image Engine created the VFX.

See Image Engine’s breakdown of the Thug entering the engine room.

fxg: Can you give me a brief overview of the Thug sequences Image Engine worked on?

Harvey: Image Engine handled the Engine Room and Ship Deck sequence. After a small group of Thugs rescue a Regent, one stays behind to gather information about their human enemies. It is here that our sequence picks up. Initially the Thug is completely unconcerned by the humans on board, as he doesn’t see them as any kind of threat, instead he is simply more interested in gathering information. It might be interesting to know that this was something that changed during production – when we first started on the sequence we had a number of shots that showed the Thug smashing and cutting the engine room apart. Peter Berg decided he wanted to shift the focus, so our shots changed into repairing the practically damaged engine and coming up with a scanning tool instead. However, once the Thug is attacked, it flips back to all hell breaking loose and you really get to see the damage one of these guys can dish out! Throughout the rest of the sequence we see the Thug reign down havoc on the crew, that is, until Rhianna says “Mahalo” and blows him to pieces with a 5″ gun.

This breakdown shows the iMocap suit and final shots.

fxg: What assets and designs did you receive from ILM for the Thug character? Can you talk about how you fit those into your pipeline at Image Engine and also what extra components and design work was required?

Harvey: Working with ILM was a great experience and the sharing of assets, designs and concepts went both ways in an open and collaborative manner. Initially we received a Thug asset and rig with some look-dev which was at about 75% completion. The model we were able to pretty much use as was initially, however the design changed in a number of ways that I will get into in a moment. The rig was used only as a way to translate on-set iMocap data as Image Engine has a robust animation and rigging pipeline with a lot of proprietary tools. So it was better for us to build our rig from scratch.

In terms of look-dev, we took the textures and the turntables that ILM provided and translated everything into our 3Delight lighting and rendering pipeline. Once we had these things “in the system” the actual work to bring him to the final level really began. Throughout this project the Thug went through a number of visual design changes, he got “thicker” through the torso and legs giving him more bulk and mass, we added armoured boots to previously unclad feet, his tool hand went through a number of design changes and modifications. Luckily we had built a very flexible rigging and animation system, and even though all of these changes came throughout actual shot production we were able to update and have most things just ripple through the shots without an immense amount of pain. In the end, getting to put so much creative design work back into the Thug was very rewarding. ILM gave us lots of space to come up with things we thought would work and in the end we would simply package it up and send it to them to integrate back into their Thug shots as well. Like I mentioned before it was very collaborative back and forth.

The Thug demonstrates its weapon.

fxg: What were some of the tools and techniques you used to animate the creature? How was that designed to look and feel as an alien creature?

Harvey: The process of animating the Thug was not set in stone, and it definitely could vary from shot to shot, however one thing that was always very important was that he felt physically and realistically present and never over animated or “creature like”. All the shots were filmed with a grey suit actor. About half of these went through the ILM iMocap system and came back to us as essentially rough blocking. The other half we would create our own rough blocking pass. Either way the first step was to get the Thug into the shots as quickly as possible in a blocking pass that matched the grey suit performance.

From that point we would discuss both internally and with Glen McIntosh (the movie’s animation supervisor) how successfully we thought the actor’s performance translated to the Thug. In some cases it worked quite well and we simply need to “polish and refine/Thugify” the motion. In others we would completely ditch the performance and start over from scratch. It was always important for him to feel strong and heavy with motivation. But it was also important to convey emotion and thought, something that we primarily had to do with body language, as you would only get moments and glimpses of his face. Once we were all happy with the performance our Thug was giving we would run him through a dynamics pass to add subtle muscle and armour jiggle. Hats off to all the animators that worked on it, in the end I was very happy with the results, the pacing and cadence, the rise and fall of the animation, I felt it comes across as a performance, not just movement.

Watch the ILM featurette on the aliens: Enemies From Another World.

fxg: In particular, how did the mechanics of the tool-set and weapon hand work?

Harvey: The tool was a lot of fun, and it’s an area we got to play a lot with. It was pretty much an open book in terms of what it could do or become, so that’s how we handled it. But instead of handling it from a modelling or design perspective, we approached it from what initially might be considered a backward approach. We looked at its motion first and then backtracked from there. We pulled the animators into a meeting and basically gave them free reign to see what they could come up with, telling them to take the existing model and just start animating it into different configurations with only one rule – it shouldn’t feel like its something coming from nothing.

And that’s just what they did. We produced lots of different variations and configurations of potential weapons and how they might translate into them. This allowed us to get a lot of flavours very quickly without long or tedious modelling, or considerations on the “how” of things, and instead just focused on the coolness of the motion and silhouettes. We took the best and showed these to ILM and Peter. Once we had a design settled on, it went back to modelling to actually create the components that fit into what the animators had done, and the rigging team to create a rig that could actually support it. From there it just grew. Peter loved the tool so much that he kept looking for new opportunities to show it off, resulting in a number of different configurations and movements.

A close-up view of the Thug.

fxg: How did you handle the helmet work and ensuring you could both see into it and also reflect the environment?

Harvey: Ha, that’s an interesting question because originally we didn’t have to deal with this at all – it was supposed to be almost entirely opaque. That changed one day, when we took one of the close-ups and decided to give more of a hint at the emotion the Thug was going through, revealing more of his eye and face. Again, Peter liked it so much that every shot we had already completed suddenly got opened back up, as he wanted to add more and more visibility to the face. The system was made up of a lot of 2d components. Obviously we were rendering lighting and reflections for both the visor exterior and the interior of the helmet and face. Compositing then took these passes and carefully balanced them together mixing in breath vapour and condensation (both sets of practical elements) playing carefully between light and shadows and what we were trying to portray in the Thug’s performance in any given shot.

fxg: What were some of the on-set pieces of data and capture methods, and then rendering and compositing techniques you used to integrate the Thug into the scene?

Harvey: On-set data was the usual standard mix of HDRI, witness cameras, iMocap, lens grids etc. In terms of integrating the Thug into the scene, the usual (black levels, key to fill ratios, fringing, etc) plus every trick in the book. But there were a few standard practices and places to start. For lighting and rendering we always started with the HDRI and how things were lit on the day. That was however, only where we would start – blocking really. From there we would start to think about how the shot would have been lit differently if the Thug was actually present on set, in all his armour and gear. We would add extra kick lights, reflection cards, masks etc to not just make him fit into the shot but to make him look “good” in the shot.

Watch a clip of the Thug on the deck.

This would then move into compositing where we might start to push and pull the plate around with the same thoughts and ideas – how would it have been done differently if he was actually there on the day of filming. Then beyond the lighting we would add as many practical elements as possible to help tie him into the environment. I am a big believer in using practical elements wherever possible as they can really help to ground the CG into the real world. We used breath, mist, dust, particulate, anything we could. Oh, and of course there were the lens flares. Anyone who has seen this show is aware it’s got a lot of lens flares and light contamination. Our sequence was no exception, but one thing we did not do was use any digitally generated elements for this, instead we relied solely on practical elements that our compositors would cut and mash together into different looks for each shot.

The Thug contemplates using its hand weapon in this Image Engine breakdown.

fxg: What kind of effects and sim work was involved in the Thug’s destruction?

Harvey: This was an interesting shot, and actually the last one to be completed…twice. We took this shot to final once, but after the sequence was complete Peter wanted to make some adjustments, adding a few shots and embellishing the final death of the Thug a little more. Initially the destruction of the Thug was much more concealed, mostly consisting of a large fireball that enveloped the Thug. In this incarnation the effect was primarily compositing based on practical elements with some augmenting from the FX department. However, once the sequence was adjusted Peter wanted a moment the audience would actually cheer out for. And in order for that to happen we needed to actually see the Thug get ripped to pieces in slow motion!

So it was back to the drawing board for this shot, all the way back to animation. We started with some rough animation blocking, getting the overall arc of the Thug as he is destroyed and animating his arm being torn off. Then we did some FX blocking in compositing using rough mattes and elements to help determine volume, intensity, and timing of the effects. Once we were “more or less” sure it was the right direction, it moved to the FX department where they literally created terabytes of simulations. Everything from deforming/tearing/shearing metal, shattering glass, sparks, fire, smoke, misc debris, and more. In the end almost all of this destruction effect became synthetically generated. Together, the FX TD and compositor really pulled out all the stops to create a moment of destruction worth cheering for.

All images and clips copyright © 2012 Universal Studios.

3 thoughts on “Alien versus a 5″ gun”

  1. Hi Dillon – there’s audio on the ILM featurette and ‘on deck’ clip, but not in Image Engine’s breakdowns. Cheers, Ian.

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