For the final Twilight Saga film, Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Tippett Studio returned to deliver its stunning photorealistic wolves. They reveal their full ferocity in the movie’s final and gruesome battle sequence, where they take on the evil Volturi vampires. We talk to Tippett visual effects supervisor Eric Leven and animation supervisor Tom Gibbons about some of the new challenges.
Note: this article may contain spoilers.
– Above: watch a breakdown of Tippett Studio’s work for the final battle sequence, in cooperation with our media partners at The Daily.
The snow-drenched battle takes place over the entire last act of the Bill Condon-directed pic, and sometimes features 16 wolves in a single shot. Production filmed the sequence in Baton Rouge on a white-backed pitch. Environment extensions, snowfall and other effects for the battle were handled by Hydraulx, with Tippett contributing the wolves. The overall production visual effects supervisors were John Bruno and Adam Howard.
Just prior to the battle, Edward and Bella’s new daughter Renesmee climbs the wolf Jacob’s back and is taken away to safety. For these shots, Tippett employed a motion control rig. “We could put the actress on top of this rig and then program the rig based on the animation,” says Eric Leven. “We took animation curves from Maya and translated them into motion control curves that the rig was able to understand. When we got there we put her up on this rig and ran the run cycle and we were able to matchmove that and it matched relatively seamlessly.”
The rig also relied on a Jacob fur-covered ‘saddle’ constructed by Legacy Effects. “We sent them reference pictures of our wolf from previous movies and guidelines about length of mane et cetera,” says Leven. “It’s funny – we never met them face to face but the practical prop on set looked exactly like what we expected.”
Leven had perhaps only half-expected to be able to do a soft blend between the fur saddle and their CG wolf, but that was not a viable solution. “I don’t know how seriously we took ourselves when we were selling that idea – it never really worked. We had to completely replace the fur with our digital fur. But at same time we had to save shadow information actress was casting or use digital human and cast a new shadow. We’d matchmove a human in there and get where her pressure points were on the fur to displace the fur.”
Creating a cougar
Tippett also modeled and animated a cougar for a scene of Bella using her new-found vampire hunting skills. “That was a fun challenge because it’s always fun to create a completely photoreal asset only in three shots,” says Leven. “For reference we had a cougar on set used to shoot shots where it’s stalking deer. Then when Bella takes it down she actually grabbed a potato – a big bean bag that she rolled around with. We ended up making a gigantic cougar, but when they saw the bean bag they said this looks tiny!”
Tippett’s fur creation tool, Furator, was of course relied on for the wolf coats with the ability to quickly adjust length, scraggle and other properties. It has been modified on several recent productions (including earlier Twilight films), and was also adapted here to enable tight integration of snowflakes into the fur.
Tippett also took advantage of a move towards a more physically plausible rendering approach using RenderMan for its final wolf shots. “This time we had some really nice area lights that we were never really able to get before,” notes Leven. “It helped with really subtle soft light. All these Twilight movies take place under completely sunless skies – the light is really diffuse and really soft – which is tricky in regular computer graphics but when you’ve got nothing but fur it makes it really hard.”
The wolves are shapeshifters who change from human form. In this film, the transformations remained fast but Tippett was able to show more details. “The one thing we were able to do this time was that when Jacob reveals himself as a wolf to Bella’s dad – he does it intentionally,” says Leven. “All the other transformations in the rest of the movies are done, say, when someone’s upset. We changed it to have a little precursor to the event – we had some steam rising off of Jacob’s body and muscle twitches and high frequency things and then it just bursts out.”
For the battle itself, Tippett contributed previs, but scenes were mostly shot ‘wild’, and then artists performed some postviz before tackling final animation. On set, significant help came from the use of cardboard wolf cutouts, as Leven explains: “That was really important to have on set because these wolves are massive, and if you’re not thinking about where the wolf really is and how much space it’s going to take up, it’s easy for the camera operator or even the director to forget the wolf is there.”
“Once we get that set-up,” adds Leven, “we film that for reference, we take that out, we shoot an empty plate. We film reference passes – gray ball, chrome sphere, HDRI – then we’ll have some fur – we call them the fur loaves – like big pillows wrapped in fur that we can use for lighting reference to give them an idea of what the fur should look like.”
In terms of animation, a new approach to wolf fight cycles became an important requirement with so many animals in the scenes. “I had a very strong opinion,” recalls Tom Gibbons, “that we should build a library of fight actions that could be foreground, midground and background actions that we had already done that we could put into the scenes so we didn’t have to depend on the short tight schedule.” These performances were animated to work from any angle, almost like ‘game assets’ according to Gibbons.
The ferocity of the battle also meant that the animators could find more dramatic moments for the wolves, while leveraging off their previous experience. “One of the things that helped a lot with the two final films was that Bill Condon was more absorbed with making sure that the dramatic moments were being hit and the performance moments of how wolves act and react,” says Gibbons.
“We’ll also talk about other iconic film moments that we think are important,” he adds, “whether it’s a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood film or some sort of action moment where we think it’s appropriate to say that moment might play well here, with what we know about the characters already.”
The battle calls for graphic moments, too, including vampire heads being ripped off and the death of some of the wolves, a somewhat emotional ride for the Tippett team. “Felix, this big vampire guy crushes Seth the wolf’s ribs and you cut to Seth and his last gasps and you see him die – it’s so sad,” relates Leven. “This poor little dog just dying in front of you. It’s essentially a full CG shot with full CG snow and subtle animation. There’s nothing extraordinarily technical about it but animation wise it was really moving.