No stranger to the world of haunting effects work, director Guillermo del Toro recently utilized the worlds of practical makeup effects and digital visual effects for his Crimson Peak tale, most particularly for the film’s ghosts. There were deliberately designed to be grounded in reality, but Del Toro also wanted them to look ‘somewhat ethereal’, according to Mr. X CG supervisor Chris MacLean, who worked with the studio’s visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi on Peak. “Guillermo wanted the ghosts to feel like something wasn’t quite right. There was a lot of time spent in production design with Tom Sanders (production designer) getting everything to look Victorian, so we decided to go for practical hybrids for all of the ghosts except one.”
As a result, makeup effects supervisor David Marti and DDT Efectos Especiale established practical character and creature builds – to be portrayed by Doug Jones and Javier Botet – with deliberate planning for digital augmentations. For example, the ghost of Margaret McDermott was performed by Botet wearing makeup with a greenscreen section on his head to allow for part of the skull to be removed in post. Other ghost make-up incorporated some tracking markers and greenscreen covered fingers.
A detailed on-set survey effort was then undertaken, since areas behind the removed portions of the ghost would sometimes have to be removed. It was decided, too, that the ghosts would be shown with varying levels of transparency and some ‘optical’ effects over their bodies. This meant that clean plates and re-created digital backgrounds were vital. The visual effects crew acquired full LIDAR scans of locations involving the ghosts, as well as photo surveys. “We used a Nikon D-800 and did tilt shift photography to make sure we had clean plate and reference for re-building the area in CG or comp,” outlines MacLean. “Then when they shot, every shot was filmed with a clean plate of the area that the ghost was in. In no shots were the ghosts on greenscreen. Every shot was done in-situ.”
The performers in make-up and maquettes were themselves scanned, also, using white light scanning tech and Mr. X’s photogrammetry setup called Xscan. One challenge for obtaining reliable meshes, geometry info and textures was the bloody nature of the make-up design, as MacLean discusses. “Red is always hard to deal with but what we found is if you post-process the images, if you’re using photogrammetry, to add a little more contrast. And then even sometimes inverting the image will give you enough detail to align them properly and give you all the information you need. But for the red ghosts, because we were doing the white light scanning with Industrial Pixel, they were projecting and using infra-red cameras, so it was not a big an issue.”
Back at Mr. X, artists then began the process of augmenting the practical make-up ghosts and building an entirely digital ghost for Enola Sciotti (see below). For example, the ghost of Pamela Upton, played by Botet, required digital prosthetics from the waist down. “Guillermo knew he wanted to make the legs skinnier than what Javier’s legs were,” says MacLean. “We then slowly ate away at parts of the practical make-up by seeing up into the rib cage. Part of her back was fully CG and portions of it were CG, but a lot of the performance was still practical.”
Other CG additions to the hybrid ghosts included skeletons and, for Edith’s mother’s ghost, a skeleton jaw capable of lip sync. Mr. X also added in flowing blood or ‘ectoplasm’, as the VFX team called it. “It was kind of a smokey effect that came off all the ghosts,” notes MacLean. “We did that all in Houdini with particles, and lit and rendered it in Mantra.” Dialing in the level of transparency for the final ghosts proved to be one of the hardest aspects of the visual effects work for Mr. X, for example on Edith’s mother’s ghost. “We did a lot of development on the ghost,” describes compositing supervisor Scott Riopelle. “Guillermo would get us to push it as far as we could, and then we would dial back. It wasn’t just a full transparency over the ghost, it was kind of this fractal moving noise that would flow through the body and reveal the skeleton and the character in different parts throughout the shot.”
“We had to track in and match move skeletons that would each have their own transparencies that would reveal separately,” adds Riopelle. “The noises played a big part on reveals and they would also drive the optical effects – the aberrations and distortions that would happen behind the character. We also had different grades running through the character just to give it a more natural organic feel.”
The transparency effects made use, of course, of the clean plates, although since the plates with the make-up ghosts were not always shot to line up with the clean versions, Mr. X had some extra work to do. “We would take the photography,” says Riopelle, “and we had the digital environments that we created cameras from, and then we would just re-project those images onto the geometry and they would track in fine with the plate. It didn’t necessarily need to line up perfectly because we were running these distortions through, and the aberrations and slight defocus.” Matchmoving was done in Maya with tracking completed in PFTrack and 3dEqualizer and roto carried out in NUKE.
“One of the more time consuming tasks was extracting mattes for the ghosts,” continues Riopelle. “Obviously ‘mother ghost’ is a little tougher because she’s black, but for the red ghosts we were able to get decent keys off of the colors, and then filled in the rest. It saved us a lot of time on rotos.”
A fractal or ‘optical’ noise element was also added to the ghosts. “That really played a key part in everything,” says Riopelle. “We could link up the transparency to what was being revealed through the actual ghost to the back plate. And that same tool we could then instance into the softness of the aberration and the distortions. That noise is effectively just procedurally running all those – it took some time to set up that tool but that was a great way to get the tool to all the artists and make sure the look was similar. “
To craft the noise effect, Mr. X relied on the roto of the ghost and then built a noise tool within NUKE. Says MacLean: “We would use that tool to create what we called optical effects because they had to represent something you could capture in-camera, even though it was an ethereal look. We took this noise tool that we could plug into the ghost, with the roto, with the clean plate and then take the CG elements like the matchmoved skeleton, the ectoplasm and any of the digital prosthetics and apply the same tool to them to create the final image.”
For Enola’s ghost, which would be completely CG and also be holding a baby, Mr. X still took advantage of a practical makeup effects effort produced for the character and a maquette. “It resembled Javier in the costume but in the end the maquette had very elongated limbs with a lot of negative shapes,” reveals character artist Atilla Ceylan. “So there was a lot of deformation that we could all add into the sculpts in ZBrush. In the maquette and drawings, too, there was no face visible for Enola, so Guillermo gave me the direction to put some beauty in the face, which was hard to do with a mummified character.” A combination of ZBrush, Mudbox, MARI and Maya was used for modeling and texturing.
Enola’s long ghost hair, sim’d in Houdini and generated in Yeti with 30,000 curves, was also a major challenge to achieve in CG. “It was supposed to be thicker and clumpier than normal hair and be wrapped all around her body,” notes Ceylan. “One of the directions Guillermo gave early on for the hair was to make it feel like it was underwater and make it feel like it was weightless. At the beginning the hair was meant to wrap around the baby. We went a little away from that design because it looked like she had a diaper on her with the hair tangled around her waist. We scanned the baby and processed it in ZBrush and projected the textures from our photo survey. Then we rendered the whole thing in V-Ray.”
Mr. X’s final ghostly challenge came with the ghost of Thomas Sharpe after he is murdered. Edith has a farewell moment with Thomas in a scene in which she touches his cheek only to find her hand going through his face. “They shot that practically and we had to take over her hand completely in CG,” explains MacLean. “Then on the B side sync up to the plate again which was a very strange way to do a shot, but nonetheless it was one of the most rewarding ones. It really pushed us to find new ways to do pose base deformation quickly. We used ChronoSculpt to build the face and the interaction and then integrated that with our noise effects. We ended up doing a full 3D volume inside Houdini as well. We did a volume sim of the fingers going through, which then connected with the ectoplasm that she pulls out of his face and swirled around her fingers.”
Having both a practical and digital side to the ghosts perhaps wasn’t something necessarily new, but the artistry from the makeup effects artists and the visual effects team ultimately combined to serve a clear story Del Toro was looking to tell. “I think in a period or Gothic piece like Crimson Peak,” comments Riopelle, “to push the CG too far would really take people out of the movie. But it was important for Guillermo and us to have a nice mix of both that was a little bit strange and that’s what really worked.”
All images © 2015 Universal Pictures.