Part 2: Mill Film
Mill Film worked with MPC (principle vendor) on the VFX for Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Here in Part 2 we speak to Mill Film’s Laurent Gillet, VFX Supervisor about their work. In Part 1 we talked to MPC about their character pipeline.
Mill Film worked with director Joachim Rønning to bring back Disney’s favourite fairy godmother in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the sequel to the 2014 live-action retelling of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, starring Angelina Jolie as eponymous Maleficent. Rønning once again collaborated with Production VFX Supervisor Gary Brozenich [having previously worked together on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales].
For Gillet and the Mill Film crew, work centered around the creation of the Island home of the Dark Fey, Lickspittle’s laboratory and the wedding scene. Mill Film’s work totaled over 320 shots made up of CG environments, set extensions, FX particle simulations [CG water, magic FX], creature animation and fur dynamics. The crew also worked tirelessly to roto animate and integrate the one-of-a-kind Fey wings developed by MPC onto dozens of characters, including Maleficent herself, finishing the final look for the shots.
The laboratory sequences are home to some of the pivotal plot points in the film’s narrative, – but it is also where the audience spends the greatest amount of time with 3 of the cutest CG characters of the film.
fxguide: In Lickspittle’s laboratory what was filmed on set?
LG: For the laboratory, the whole room was built on set. It was truly an awesome set to work with.
fxguide: There seemed to be such wonderful detail blending into the deep rich dark backgrounds – how many characters were there in those wider shots with the jars?
LG: The set for these shots was really impressive, which made them really fun to work with. You’ll notice that in the background there were about a dozen creatures in jars along with Tombbloom and the main characters Pinto, Button and Dandelion. It was a sequence with a lot of great characters.
fxguide:. Blocking and framing of the drama must have been interesting, to capture the epic scale of everything, Maleficent is very tall, Lickspittle short and the captured creatures tiny.
LG: Scale was a major subject throughout the show, as was focus. We spent a lot of time on making sure the enormous scale of the Fey Island would be understood. For example, whenever the Fey fly to or from it. As far as the creatures were concerned it was pretty straightforward for us as these discussions happened mostly during principle photography, layout and animation.
fxguide:. Did Lickspittle require digital makeup or enhancement?
LG: Yes, Lickspittle’s ears and antenna are CG, so Warwick wore blue pads to indicate their placement throughout filming – much like the Fey characters and their wings.
One of the most challenging environments for the team was the Dark Fey Nest – an island inspired from an erupted volcano in the middle of the sea. The Mill Film crew used references of lava spikes, tundra, and forest to create the rugged interior and exterior terrains of the nest environment. The result is a dark and moody almost cave-like micro-universe, which draws the audience deep into the world of the Fey.
fxguide: Inside the home of the Dark Fey there was a wonderful blending of environmental conditions that seamlessly transitioned. Was that a challenge for lighting (and texturing)?
LG: It was definitely a challenge as different parts of the environment were shared assets between Mill Film and MPC. We worked hard to blend the different assets together over the course of the same sequence.
fxguide: The Rigs drove the feather simulations and fur simulations – but what did the animators have to work with – how detailed or ’nude’ were the rigged assets that saw at their desks?
LG: Animators had control of the feather animation. The wings and their feathers were pretty big and ended up needing to be animated by hand. The smaller feathers and fur reactions to things like wind and flying were rigged and visible at the animation stage. Joachim (Joachim Rønning, Director) was very specific with the shapes he wanted the wings to take, especially when it came to Maleficent’s wings. A great example of this is when Maleficent wakes up and walks away from the Fey’s infirmary. Animation would do a technical posing of the wings that Tech anim would then take over from. In those shots, her wings are wrapped around her and animators didn’t have the controls to do that.
fxguide: 1. How did you approach the Home of the Dark Fey?
LG: Mill Film worked on the exterior views of the Island. The process followed a standard, rough Maya build process to previs and help the team get a better understanding of how we could see things. The team then finalized through Maya, Zbrush, and Mari – along with a great polish from our DMP (Digital Matte Painting) department. To render everything, we used Renderman. The standard working resolution was 2154×1136 with a variable overscan resolution increase in CG renders. Generally, the keying and matte extraction were done in Nuke.
fxguide: Could you discuss the character pipeline for the secondary characters that are seen throughout the sequence?
LG: The secondary characters throughout the sequence were traditionally animated with keyframes, there was no roto-animation or performance capture used. As we shared the assets with MPC, we needed to get their rigs up and running within our facility.
fxguide: Was there extensive rig work and rig removal?
LG: There was a significant amount of painting out and plate preparation work before the shots could be worked on. An example would be the number of Dark Fey in shot and how the crew needed to remove their blue pads which indicated the wing attachment points on the actors. Another challenge was Maleficent’s dress for the wedding, there were some creative changes after the shoot which required us to build out a new dress. A specific asset was built for the dress she wore at the Wedding.
fxguide: The Wedding set presented some wonderful lighting challenges, once inside the structure how did the team address lighting
LG: When under the tree canopy, there was one warm source coming from the outside but apart from that, it was mainly a global ambience in CG. FX were rendered in Mantra and creatures in Renderman but once in comp there are tools to adjust the lighting and make all the elements interact with each other. The comp artists did a wonderful job at balancing all the elements together.
fxguide: Where there nods or references to the original Sleeping Beauty?
LG: The idea comes from how the creatures bring materials from the area to help build Aurora’s wedding dress. To accomplish this, our VFX team stitched together pieces of cloth, flowers, and thin tree and plant roots with a magical effect. The main reference was the original Walt Disney animated feature with the main difference being that we didn’t want to fully reveal the dress before Aurora walked out with Maleficent from under the wisteria tree.
fxguide: Were the particle effects done in Houdini?
LG: Yes, the particles were done in Houdini and rendered in Mantra. Everything was assembled in comp.
fxguide: In terms of sharing assets, how did you share models ? Have you looked at using USD – would you consider using it in the future?
LG: The asset build included both the animation rig and a general Tech animation rig, which were shared with MPC. The animation was exported as geometry as a general rule, and Tech animation could regenerate those from the animation curves if simulation required it. A good example is cloth simulation or self-intersection removal. The pipeline used for Maleficent was not USD as we had to share assets with MPC. But we are actively transitioning towards it in our next pipeline evolution.