Resident Evil: Retribution – just add bacon

Resident Evil: Retribution, the fifth film in the RE franchise, once again pits Alice (Milla Jovovich) against the Umbrella Corporation – and zombies – and bacon-inspired Uber Lickers. Returning for this new Resident Evil installment were director Paul W. S. Anderson, Milla Jovovich as Alice, and visual effects vendor Mr. X, Inc – now a veteran of the last four films – which completed 700 stereo effects shots under VFX supe Dennis Berardi. We talk to digital effects supervisor Eric Robinson and lighting supervisor Trey Harrell about some of the studio’s key effects tasks.

How to make an Uber Licker

One of Mr. X’s major challenges on Retribution was the creation of the Uber Licker – a battle tank-sized iconic Resident Evil creature that terrorizes Alice and her crew. When designing the Uber, the visual effects team looked to a surprising source of reference. “The skin of the creature had to look like burnt meat, so we had to do some very odd research to get that look,” recalls Robinson. “I actually spoke to my local butcher to do photo reference of meat that has a fibrous cut to it.”

Watch a clip of the Uber Licker chase in Moscow.

“We ended up with bacon for the outer skin and steak for the inner skin,” adds Harrell. “We kept going back to food reference, because we could calibrate everybody’s eyes that way.” Going with that look, too, meant that the Uber had more of an elastic outer membrane instead of skin, but Mr. X still introduced muscle movement and secondary motion into its Maya rig, plus extensive CG spit and slime and a green misty breath.

“Because he had that charred, almost gelatinous feel, you could really take in the spec hits from rim lights and dial in a lot of interaction with his environment,” says Robinson. “It also didn’t leave a lot of face control. There were no eyes, so there weren’t the traditional ways of getting the character to emote. So we had to rely the mouth and tongue more than we would. In the game world, the Uber Licker comes from a frog somewhere – it’s been genetically modified or transformed – so it does tongue-attacks. One of the beasts uses its barbed tongue as a weapon and in another moment it’s more of a tool to pick up one of the characters in the film.”

Final shot.
Original plate for the Moscow chase.

To get the right movement of the beast, artists looked to something between a cheetah and a gorilla and also relied on very graphic-like, almost silhouetted, key poses. “We had this massive creature – how does it move plausibly?,” says Harrell. “There was a fine line between making it stylized and making it overly-realistic.”

The Uber makes its most stunning performance in the streets of Moscow, pursuing Alice and co. who are inside  Rolls Royce Phantom driving through Red Square, already being chase by zombies. Mr. X re-created the famous streetscape via second unit plates, digi-environments, two-and-a-half-D re-projections, the CG Uber and occasionally a CG Phantom, constructed from photo reference and LIDAR scans.

In one spectacular shot, a CG Alice power-slides the CG Phantom into the CG Uber Licker, sending it crashing into the front window of a vodka shop. The resulting plate glass – and bottle – smash required a combination between practical on-set effects and Mr. X’s digital additions, an incredibly challenging task that also had to upped during post-production.

Slime was an important addition to the Uber Licker.

“During the evolution of the shot and the edit,” says Robinson, “the Uber Licker was initially going to get up right away and continue chasing the car. But during production, Paul’s vision of the Uber Licker changed and he got a little less screen time to try to go with the idea of not seeing him for a long time. So we went from briefly knocking him out to really knocking him out. The animation was modified to really impact him into the scene.”

To film the glass and bottles breaking, production rigged a green ladder to smash through the shop window, which, observed Harrell, “was being reflected in all of the glass breaking, and all the glass that’s not breaking. And we had to set our Uber Licker behind and in-between the window glass that’s breaking but behind and refracted through the vodka bottles in the foreground. It was first and foremost a comp challenge in Nuke, plus they spent a lot of time roto’ing glass elements. In the end it was a 50-50 mix of practical and CG glass that is blended in seamlessly.”

Glass sims for the vodka bottles, caps, the window and even the pyramids of glass between the vodka bottles were created in Houdini and rendered in V-Ray. “I think we had, at worst, a 500 depth refraction in that shot before we got out the other side,” says Harrell. “The vodka bottles were pretty insane – we clocked in about six hours a frame on the worst motion blur bottle frames. The Uber Licker in that shot averaged about two and a half hours a frame.”

The Uber Licker relied on Mr. X’s physically plausible lighting and shading pipeline.

For these Uber Licker shots, and others, Mr. X capitalized on its own Alembic pipeline that has moved to a more physically plausible set-up. “On RE5 we had extensive HDR surveys done for every single set and scene that were brought into our calibrated light workflow,” outlines Harrell. “All of our assets are look-dev’d within V-Ray – no matter what renderer they end up going through. We’ve got an in-house shader pipeline that actually ports the shaders between different packages and ends up with very similar results. One of the biggest pluses of the physically based workflow is that once you understand how it works, our texturing artists can do 90% of our look development. Our lighters spend way more time doing test renders and doing minor tweaks rather than setting up the lighting of the scene – it substantially speeds up the turnaround time.”

Wide environments

Retribution is a worldwide adventure; Mr. X helped re-create New York’s Time Square, Shibuya, Moscow’s Red Square, The White House, a ship graveyard and numerous other places. In the opening sequence, which replicates the end of the previous RE film, rotor Ospreys converge on the ship Arcadia, with Alice and the heroes on board. The visual effects team combined CG water, ships, Ospreys, heat distortion and digi-doubles for the sequence.

Osprey exit shot – original plate.
Final shot.

In one particular shot, troopers exit an Osprey to abseil down to a CG ship, with the camera following the men from inside the craft to outside in full daylight. Robinson recalls viewing reference of a real Osprey exit to gauge the lighting change and style of the shot. “There were porthole windows completely blown out,” he says, “but we loved the reference because we wanted to go for as realistic lighting as possible. I think it’s a CG give-away when things are illogically exposed.

Adds Harrell: “In CG we sometimes have the urge to see every pixel we pay for – that’s one of the curses of CG. One of the things we knew about the shot early on was we had to rack exposure over the length of the shot where we’re exposed for inside, and we allow the outside to blow out, which in CG for better or worse we almost never allow that to happen. Then we expose for the sky and troopers over the length of the shot. We take over from practical troopers and convert to digi-doubles mid-shot, all CG.”

The clone chamber

Another particularly challenging sequence involved the clone chamber – a massive rail system of Umbrella Corporation clones. It’s an enormous underground manufacturing room,” says Harrell, “where hundreds of clones are floating in this enormous environment of which we shot very, very little practically. I think we had 9,000 hero clones on rails simultaneously.”

The clones.

Production filmed plates against a floor and wall, with Mr. X adding the huge dark and moody environment. “We had to sell the idea that this was a deep freeze for clones,” says Robinson. “But at the same time it had to be in motion. One of the creative references was the hangars in a dry cleaners. To get the mood working right, and to keep a lot of life in the environment, we had lights behind fans, so that we could project moving shadows across the room. We could also use it to cast shadows of the clones onto the opposite walls, just to give the whole area some dynamism.”

The clones were CG digi-doubles, created via XYZ RGB actor scans, photo reference and cloth sims. “For the whole show,” explains Harrell, “we would send out the team who take extensive photographic reference in every costume. The resolution of the shots are 5K or 6K even just for a hand, and we do multiple-bracketed exposures. Occasionally if we have time on set we do cross-polarized shots and try to extract specular maps from that. More often, time is at a premium, and we choose to paint our specular maps.”

Original plate.
Final shot.

“Then we take our scan data,” continues Harrell, “and that gives us point cloud data to sanity check our model so that they’re the right proportions. Then we bring it in-house and conform our universal humanoid mesh to this scan data – from there one of our modelers will take the head, and do a high-res sculpt of the head, while another does the rest of the body. Further down the pipeline they will be combined as a combination of modeling and displacement maps. Parallel to that, our texturing and shading artists work on the digi-doubles. Our texture artists are now also lookdev artists. So roughly 80% of the time, the person who paints the textures in MARI, with V-Ray our lookdev package through Maya, is also the final lookdev artist who finishes assembling the shaders and they end up in the final show.”

All in stereo

The Uber Licker, Osprey shots and clone chamber represented just a portion of Mr. X’s work on Retribution. The studio was also responsible for other destruction sequences, a tidal wave – relying on RealFlow, Houdini and proprietary sim work – environmental effects like snow and ice and several environments and city builds. All of this, of course, was completed in 3D (the film was shot in native stereo on RED EPICs) and had to fit within the established Resident Evil ethos. “The film was a fun, creative challenge for Mr. X,” sums up Eric Robinson. “With each new movie in the franchise, they keep trying to make it bigger, better and more dynamic.”