X-Men: Extreme Makeover

In this week’s podcast we talk to Greg Strause, of Lola and Hydraulx and John Bruno visual effects supervisor of X-Men, about the amazing 25 year digital facelifts in X-Men: The Last Stand. We are also joined in our companion written story by Eric Saindon who headed up the Weta X-Men 3 team .

In this week’s podcast we speak to Greg Strause, of Lola and Hydraulx and John Bruno visual effects supervisor of X-Men.

As a bonus, we have some additional high resolution side by side 16-bit tiff comparison files for download. Download the files via this link.

Before shot
After shot

After years of vanity visual effects work that included films such as Terminator 3, MI 3, and many others, yet in most cases this work was both invisible and not publicly discussed. With X-Men 3, the work is no longer designed to be invisible, and the team took the process further than they – or anyone else has done before.

Before shot
After shot

These anti-aging shots are not achieved by the use of custom software or sparks, rather the team at Lola relied on standard inferno and flame software. But while the programs are off the shelf, the techniques have been developed over several years. The team cleverly uses a huge combination of discreet tools such as extended bicubic patches meticulously tracked in a technique the team calls “digital skin grafts”. But every trick in the book is used, from advanced colour correct to 3D tracking inside action.

Before shot
After shot

The anti-aging of each actor is built on extensive research, both visual reference, and medical advice. Lola consulted with leading hollywood plastic surgeons and a vast library of material. It was discovered that noses continue to grow, as to ears, so noses were thinned and ears were removed resized 10% and retracked back on. But as you can hear in this week’s podcast – the team paid special attention to the original lighting and respected the exact on side lighting

Before shot
After shot

Lola’s own web site lists the companies services as including:
– Digital Weight Management
– Muscle Definition and Tone
– Six-Pack Abdominals
– Prosthetic Clean-up
– Laugh Line and Wrinkle Reduction
– Age Reduction
– Digital Aging
– Eye Enhancements
– Tattoo Placement and Removal
– Breast Augmentation
– Skin Resurfacing and Blemish Removal
– Dental Corrections

Before shot
After shot

While Greg Strause was on set for much of the filming of this sequence, by his own admission, there was little to do. The actors had no special makeup, not even hair colouring. There were no special tracking markers, greenscreens, measurements or considerations given to the effects team.

The sequence was initially scheduled to be a makeup effects, when tests were not satisfactory, alternative actors were briefly considered but thanks to a previous relationship with Visual Effects Supervisor John Bruno, Lola was given the chance to helm the sequence. Lola’s first test was 19th of Nov 05. Not only did Lola contribute the opening sequence but the company was also used on “hundreds of other little” shots according to Bruno.

Before shot
After shot

TM & (C) 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. X-Men Character Likenesses TM and copyright symbol 2006 Marvel Characters Inc.

Hydraulx and Lola founders Greg and Colin Strause are highly successful film makers in their own right. The brothers have directed countless TVCs and music videos, and each brother are highly skilled VFX artists in their own right, Greg on flame and Colin primarily in 3D but also flame, “he knows his way around a good batch setup” – says brother Greg – talking about Colin’s extensive skill base. Hydraulx and Lola actually moved entire offices into their new custom facility, in the middle of X-Men production.


While Lola is a spin off from Hydraulx, separate from Lola – Hydraulx had a large number of their own shots, including multiple man, Some of Storm’s effects sequences, and also the Convoy attack. Hydraulx use exclusively discreet system boxes for their compositing, with the world’s largest Burn render farm. This new 64 bit farm allows artists to be assigned groups of shots and then work more flexibly on multiple shots at once. For the Convoy sequence car crushing completely 3D cars were deployed, crushed and discarded.


Hydraulx uses a multi-render pass approach to all their 3D. Both Flame stations and the company’s Burn render farm have extensive spark / plugin licenses, allowing for complex shots, normally not financially viable to be rendered and composited.

Wolverine fight scene shot 1

For the famous claws, the real strap on claws could not be used during fight sequences as they are far too dangerous. For this sequence for example, Hugh Jackman would wear tracking markers – alternate colours for each ‘claw’ – ” just so we can see what they are doing”. The prop claws are custom build by a special effects expert called Jimmy Claws who takes his job very seriously.

In the end sequence when Wolverine is being “atomized’, Bruno initially wanted to have Jackman act this naked, but Jackman was extremely concerned about images escaping onto the net, so a small pair of flesh coloured pants were worn. Ironically to maintain the film’s rating, digital cloths had to be hand tracked and re-added back onto Jackman to cover him up. Not only was nudity an issue, but much work went into the death atomizing to make it “oatmeal” according to Bruno and not too vivid.

Wolverine fight scene shot 2

Hydraulx used motion control footage for the multiple man sequence, with each “mutant clone” being a completely separate motion control pass.

Most of the actors did their own stunts. When Angel dives out of the clinic window, it is the real actor on wires that pulled off the stunt. The production actually got a “vrig from Cirque Du Soleil” which is a highly accurate computer controlled flying rig.

The final Alctraz sequence started life as an opening sequence. In the original storyboarding the Mutants were held on the famous Island and escaped. In this version Magneto still moved the bridge but he was of course not on it. When the rewrite happened, this sequence moved to the end of the film and the Dark Phenix rising scene. The Bridge Alctraz sequence was the first thing that the vfx team started on, and it was the last shot delivered on May 16th 2006. Due to terrorism laws, the production could not film within 1/4 mile (or a 1000ft) of the bridge with a chopper, – it could not even take a camera car or truck on the bridge, “so we walked over it a lot” joked Bruno. What stills they could take would often have the wrong fog or lighting for the final shots. Huge models were filmed, and often in an exterior car-park so real skies could be captured.

Another company who was responsible for a large number of shots was Weta. But while Weta handled a large amount of the final Alctraz, it did not start work until January. When we asked Weta’s effects supervisor Eric Saindon why that was, he admitted that perhaps they could have started in December but after Kong “there was really no one at Weta in December, we were fried”. Saindon was joined Weta in 1999 from Santa Barabra Studios to work on Gollium. (although his formal training is in Architecture) By comparison to Gollium’s 15 mins a frame, and Kong sometimes 5 to 8 hours a frame rendertime, Wetas shots on Xmen “were closer to real time”, he said.

Weta work in Xmen 3 used both the procedural city texturing from King Kong, and LOTR’s Massive software on X-Men. The Massive X-Men were not particularly complex – using the generic Agent that Weta already had as the agent base. Allit also wrote Weta’s GRUNT renderer and thus is very comfortable with complex setups.

Many of Weta’s 240 shots were relatively static or locked off, “by comparisons to Peter’s work” which Saindon explained are normally wildly hand held and wild. Match Moving was mainly done in 3D Equalizer. Shots were comped in Nuke and Shake. Weta had a large team on the project, given the short deadline, with “about 200 people in the final credits”

VFX on Xmen 3 were also provided by CIS Hollywood , Cinesite , Framestore CFC , General Lift LLC , Kleiser-Walczak , Rhythm & Hues , Soho VFX , New Deal Studios , MPC and W.M Creations. Interestingly, it was Bruno who was behind the process of breaking up films to different vendors. Prior to Bruno, feature films used to primarily award to just one company, Bruno pioneered the technique of breaking features into multiple vendor sets. While Burno commented that he primarily chooses facilities for the people he knows there. This multiple vendor – multiple country approached worked extremely well given the X-Men short schedule, but it was not without its humorous moments. During the death of Xavior at Jean Grey’s House, Bruno commented that he got a call from MPC asking for visual reference of the roof shingles – as the UK company had no American style shingles locally to refer to – he joked. Bruno said that he picked companies based on people he knew – who could speak his verbal ‘short hand’ and trusted. And in the end he was extremely happy with his choices.

Bruno managed to bring X-Men in on budget or ” 1% over ” – compared to Day after Tomorrow that doubled its budget by the end of production, explained Bruno. Much of the success of planning the film was due to the films extensive previz. The film had 6 storyboard artists and 3 previz companies working on the project, which “saves money” according to Bruno.

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