Bunraku: digital origami

For Guy Moshe’s film, Bunraku, a revenge story set in strange post-apocalyptic world, Origami Digital produced over 1000 visual effects shots, marked by constantly folding and unfolding paper-like buildings and skies. The film was shot mostly on stages in Romania and had a lengthy post-production process to fill the greenscreen frames with stylistic imagery. We talk to visual effects supervisor Oliver Hotz and vfx producer Matt Rubin.

Original plate.
Final shot.

fxg: For a film like this with such a high greenscreen stage shooting ratio, what kind of preparation work did you undertake?

Hotz: The director had been working on the film prior to shooting for over a year, pooling images together. He also started some previs with Proof. So by the time we got involved, he had literally done what I would call pre-pre-production, and had pulled around 1000 images of painters and things he liked to present us with those. The previs was more for aesthetics at that point, more creative. When we got involved, our first part of the project involved taking those scenes and making them so they could be practically done, whether it was the visual effects realm or the live action part of it.

fxg: What was the film shot on?

Hotz: Well, the first thing we did when we got to Romania was test different film stocks. One was 5218 and 5219. We knew it was such a colorful movie, so when we looked at it at the lab with the DP (Juan Ruiz Anchía) and the director we all decided on 5218 because it was bringing the color across the best. From a visual effects standpoint it was more grainy than we would have liked, but we scanned a couple of frames and pulled a couple of keys and we knew we’d be able to deal with it. It was more about what was the best choice for the movie. The DP was very comfortable on film as well.

fxg: What about the sets – what kinds of things were being done in terms of tracking or survey data?

Hotz: From the previs we had done, we gave construction our plans in terms of how stuff was laid out, which fit the film stages. The only trouble we ran into was basically how far we could film the sets from the greenscreen, just because we ran out of stage space. There was some creative lighting from the DP’s standpoint to give us some separation so we wouldn’t have a massive amount of spill on the set.

We set up everything with 360 degree greenscreens on these huge sets. The biggest stage we had was a combination of two stages each 400 feet by 150 feet, so literally 800 feet long, which we draped with greenscreen. There were about 23 stages we shot in in the same complex. We didn’t have enough greenscreen for all of it, so we would literally shoot a scene out and then take down the parts that were finished and start building the next greenscreen set.

Watch a breakdown of a wood chopping scene from Bunraku.

fxg: What was the process after shooting? Were there any rough comps done or did it go through editorial first?

Hotz: It went through editorial first over about five months, and once they turned things over to us, we basically temp’d everything as quickly as we could to give them something back. There was such a huge amount of greenscreen that adding in the backgrounds would give it a completely different feeling.

fxg: What was your workflow in terms of managing so many shots and production?

Matt Rubin: At the point I came in, I sat down with Oliver and it was really our first opportunity to see the entire movie and start parsing out the work. The bulk was going to be done by Origami Digital, and the production had an in-house unit doing prep work and some of their own sequences. We got the plates scanned. Oliver has a pretty elaborate internal job tool – once we had brought the shots into the pipeline, the job tool takes over from there. It puts all the material in the appropriate folders, puts proxy versions of the scans to be used, makes QuickTimes automatically which we used to check the scans.

Original plate.
Final shot.

Another thing that we did, such as for the opening sequence which had 76 shots, was that we went through that and identified which direction the shots were looking. So everything that was looking at the south side of the city square got grouped together with an identifier, for example. By doing that we had a guide to parse out work to our artists, we were able to keep people working on similar shots throughout the sequence and maintain continuity.

fxg: In one scene we follow a train as it goes past the city – can you talk about what was shot for that and how the backgrounds and city were created?

Hotz: In the train sequence, there’s a live action segment that happens in the city square before we move over the top of the city to the train. The director wanted to travel between sequences to reveal some of the weirdness the world and show the buildings folding up. In the film, anything you travel towards folds up but anything you travel away from, folds back down.

Watch part of the train sequence.

We filmed a train cart set as far away as we could, and then just extended it digitally. The interesting part of a shot like this, which was a 2500 frame shot, was that it was completed by pretty much only two people – a compositor and a 3D artist, although we had people doing roto as well. This is quite different to how a lot of the other companies work. In terms of the shot, it’s a very stylized look that you have to be brought into through the movie to see why it looks that way.

fxg: How was the 3D part of that shot created?

Hotz: We used LightWave for shading, rendering and lighting, and even for modeling some of the buildings. We had about 50 or 60 components of buildings built in LightWave, and then we would take the assets and have scripts in Maya that would generate the city. We could have different parts of the city – a Western town, Japan-town – and for this shot it was city square. So we built the assets using the city square components and it would automatically populate the city and fold the buildings in based on camera distance. It let us make quick adjustments in Maya when we had to sit down with the director. The smoke elements were done by the compositor for this shot using FumeFX. All of the other atmosphere is from live action and some fog tools.

Digital Fusion screenshot from the train sequence.

fxg: Can you talk about the skies for this shot and other where they are constantly moving?

Hotz: All the skies were done in 2D. We would build a complete 3D set-up within Digital Fusion for the sky. All the panels in the sky actually move, and in some scenes, depending on the mood, they move more. The choice we made early on was not to do that in 3D, because of the amount of changes we would have had to make and do re-renders for. So the whole entire set-up is built with hundreds of panels in Fusion. It was a ‘macro-gizmo’ that the artist could call and then they would have the correct sky. We would output a 3D camera to have the same motion in Fusion, and then literally all they would have to do is type in the camera to that macro. It had options for ‘how much do you want to move the panels?’, for example.

Also, throughout the movie, we go through seven days, and each day has a different color. So there’s a very specific color palette. We would have these different set-ups – say if it was day one, the artist would select that from a drop down for the correct color. Out of LightWave we were rendering multi-pass EXRs, that were put together again in Fusion, along with the usual depth and other passes. We also exported all the scene information with the models, and there were a few instances where the compositor would load the 3D data so they could parent a smoke element to a certain object that was moving through.

Breaking down the cliff scene.

fxg: What kind of interaction did you have with the director on the show?

Rubin: We ended up being in the same building as the director and editorial staff, and he would come by our offices and he could experiment on the look of the movie. Even with all the pre-production time and previs, there was actually a lot of the look of the movie that was figured out after principal photography had ended. And actually the production designer Chris Farmer came back and sat with us and talked about what the entire world should look like and how the practical world should extend to the CG world.

fxg: Finally, how big was your team on Bunraku?

Hotz: We had about 25 people at the height of production and we did 1000 shots, and the thing I really liked was letting the director have the exploration time to arrive at the look he wanted.

Images and clips copyright © 2011 ARC Entertainment.