FMX 2012 – day two

Day two of FMX 2012 here in Stuttgart was certainly full of highlights – we were treated to exclusive clips and making ofs from Sony Pictures Imageworks for Men In Black 3, Pixomondo broke down their work for Game of Thrones – Season 2 and Hugo, and the Virtual Production thread at the conference also began. This thread showcased the convergence of production design, art direction, previs and visual effects in films like War Horse and the upcoming Total Recall. Here’s our look at the key sessions from the day.

The previs of Total Recall

Colin Farrell in a scene from Total Recall.

Chris Edwards, CEO/Creative Director of The Third Floor, and William Cheng, Set Designer for Total Recall, had a special look at the previs for the upcoming release. The session was part of the Virtual Production stream and certainly highlighted the benefits of doing solid previs for a project. In fact, they took it a step further. Edwards said that a new approach to development and preproduction was used for Total Recall with story and visual development being done at the same time. This entailed a very close collaboration between the director, production designer, and previs supervisor.

According to Edwards, Director Len Wiseman was the force in building the highly collaborative environment for the production. Artists working on the previs had open access to his office whenever he wasn’t in a meeting. The previs team were given the action beats for most scenes, and it was up to the previs team to flesh out a shot and then ask for another shot to tackle. There were three or four “signature scenes” for the film which were a bit less loose, but overall the guidelines were very flexible. There were no true hard deadlines during this process – they would work on the scenes to get them to a point and then move on to the next scene. According to Edwards, this lead to an environment where it “really felt like the flimmaker trusted us.”

The Third Floor team was called upon to create the “pitchvis” sequence – basically the new benchmark for pitching to studios and raising funding for projects. The success rate for The Third Floor in working on pitchvis has been dramatic, according to Edwards. “Almost everything we touch has a much better chance of getting funded,” he says. These aren’t your pitches from years ago…very flushed out with much better techniques. The results aren’t to the level of game cinematics in render quality, but it’s truly a very polished step up from the previs one is used to seeing on past projects.”

All the work on the pitchvis was done in five weeks at The Third Floor, creating the hover car chase sequence that is actually part of the final film. The movie was greenlit about a week and a half after the sequence was played as part of the entire pitch presentation at Sony. From a pacing, framing and timing standpoint, the pitchvis sequence was so complete that many of the final scenes from the sequence made the trailer in very close form to the pitch.

William Cheng joined the production once a lot of initial concept art has already been done, with a general sense in tone has already been set under the direction of production designer Patrick Tatopoulos. Cheng covered the design and building of the largest set piece in the film, China Fall. It is a giant 30-40 story tall train/subway that travels through the Earth’s core, connecting the future United Federation of Britain to New Asia. The set effectively included the “station” for the futuristic train, which plays a pivotal, yet currently secret story plot point in the film.

– Above, watch the Total Recall trailer.

Early designers used Google SketchUp which, while limited, does what it needs to do in a very small and fast application: basically start to figure out how much of the set they had to build and how much needed to be handled in post. They began by working on building the rooftop and once that was semi locked-in they started on the multi-level design of the China Fall.

Once approved, the SketchUp model was exported to Autodesk AutoCAD for the start of the construction drawings, which in turn provides more details for budgets in building the set. Because the story is based in the future, every single item had to be designed for the set, from windows to door knobs to locks. At the same time, images from SketchUp were also exported for the concept artists, who began painting over the images.

For this project, The Third Floor’s Todd Constantine was actually based in the same office as Cheng, so it was a nice change from the norm, where they would usually work in different offices or even different cities. Cheng appreciated the ability to walk down the hall to see work in progress as well as bounce ideas off of Constantine and vice versa. Seeing the previs so often was useful because the production design team could direct their resources appropriately. For instance, if a camera is pointing in a certain direction they would make sure this area is well dressed or know that they would need to do more set extensions. Scenic artists had to add graphics and materials (like heat resistant tiles, various types of metals, decals, type, etc).

They would also have to add detail based upon the previs action. One thing they had to do is add hiding places for the actors to hide during firefights or add places for the robots to come out for the firefight. Or even do simple things such finding ways to get actors onto the appropriate parts of the set as well as up and down between the various levels.. In this case, they would build something that operates as a step ladder without looking like a ladder. Though it does beg the question of wouldn’t they have ladders in the future?

Generally Chen would have left the project once the set was built, but he stayed on to help design the actual China Fall Tunnel. Drawing inspiration from hydro electric dams for scale, he added touches such as NASA rocket gantries for servicing and shipping container docks for loading of cargo. These elements grounded the future into the real world, via things the viewer would know.

Upside Down

Perhaps one of the most interesting presentations today was ‘World Building for Independent Cinema’, also part of the Virtual Production thread at FMX. Here, production designer Alex McDowell and cinematographer Mario Janelle outlined their work for Upside Down, an as-yet unreleased film from director Juan Solanas.

The plot of the film centers on two worlds – the up world and the down world – that are literally opposite to each other, both physically and in terms of wealth and status. But when one man (Jim Sturgess) meets a girl (Kirsten Dunst) on opposing mountain tops, their lives suddenly become extremely complicated. One particular aspect of the film involves a central city skyscraper featuring floor zero – where people from both worlds work, with opposing gravities. These aspects of production and other upside down set pieces relied on early visualization and previs techniques in order to make the film possible.

The film was shot in Montreal – much of it on greenscreen – and featured Sketch-up designed sets aimed at working out what could fit on stage and how to choreograph the action. Other challenges included contemplating how to normalize the cameras when shooting for the up or down world, and showing people in both worlds. That came down to Milo motion-control solution featuring fixed cameras with tracking software, slaved cameras on two different sets shot simultaneously and also teleprompter monitor solutions for characters having to interact with those in the other world in corridors of the skyscraper. We’ll have more coverage of the film in an upcoming fxguidetv episode.

From left: Andrew Jones, Jeff Wisniewski, Mario Janelle and Alex McDowell.

Another great presentation in the Virtual Production thread was Jeff Wiskieswski and Andrew Jones’ art directing-themed look at design, in which they showcased their work for films such as Tintin, Avatar, Real Steel. We saw some very impressive behind the scenes footage, including a time lapse of every single day shooting in the ‘volume’ on Avatar and the method for integrating live and virtual props, and how a scene on a paddle boat for Real Steel became the fighting scene at the abandoned zoo. Another interesting factoid involved the shooting solution for scenes on boats and ships in Tintin – an inflatable inner tune. Steven Spielberg even commented to Andrew Jones how much he liked that approach, “because he thought it was like how he made films when he was a kid.”

There were many other Virtual Production presentations taking place today – focusing on Tintin, War Horse and The Last Stand, with more tomorrow on Hugo, Real Steel, TV series and games. And John Kilkenny, an Executive Vice President at 20th Century Fox, delivered a virtual production keynote and showed scenes from Prometheus. It’s clear that virtual production is now an important part of the new production paradigm.

Men in Black 3

Sony Pictures Imageworks visual effects supervisor Jay Redd took the FMX audience through several sequences from Men In Black 3. It was the first time breakdowns from the film had been shown, and we saw some great work. Redd also discussed his own career in visual effects and how he got to be a VFX supe.

Redd says he was a person always curious about things. He was inspired by films such as Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts and Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (even flipping out upon visiting the real Devil’s Tower from the film as a boy, although he couldn’t believe there was no actual alien landing strip at the back of the landmark).

Growing up in Utah, Redd got early exposure to CG after attending university there (where computer graphics luminaries Ed Catmull and Jim Blinn had also previously attended). He then attended a SIGGRAPH conference and saw the potential of visual effects when Jurassic Park was released, and found himself with a job at Rhythm & Hues in LA in 1993. Soon, Redd became a TD on George Miller’s Babe. He later heard that a film version of Carl Sagan’s Contact was being made, and did everything he could to work on it, so left R&H to work at SPI. So enthused by the film, he actually began producing storyboard’s for the film’s opening cosmic pullback sequence in his own time, which he showed to VFX supe Ken Ralston who in turn showed director Robert Zemeckis. The response as delivered by Ken Ralston: “Bob loved it – put a team together.” Months later the pullback was 3 and a half minutes and at the time one of the longest visual effects shots in history.

Redd would later work on Stuart Little and the sequel, Haunted Mansion, Monster House, some Looney Tunes shorts, and now Men In Black 3. He described for the audience the challenges of the show – a long principal photography and post period arising from weather and script changes. In fact, the visual effects were only finished three weeks ago. Redd, of course, was on set for most of the production, often leading splinter units in and around New York to shoot various shots, pick-ups or plates. He found on this film as VFX supe he would collaborate with every single department constantly – from make-up to costume to stunts.

In terms of visual effects, some of SPI’s particular challenges were having to work within the MIB look and feel, supporting director Barry Sonnenfeld’s particular style which relies wide-angle lenses and defined compositions for an almost cartoon style, script changes even while on location, and a ballooning number of shots (from 600 to 1200 by the end).

– Above, watch the film’s trailer.

Redd’s talk then moved to showing us final scenes from the film and before and after breakdowns (note: this may contain spoilers). Firstly, we were shown the fight between Will Smith and a giant fish in the restaurant, an effect achieved by shooing Smith entering the kitchen, then a stunt person being yanked out on a wire, and the visual effects artists adding in a digital fish with layers of wetness and augmenting crashing furniture.

The next clip was Smith’s jump from the Chrysler building, part of the time traveling requirement in the film. Shot on a partial set, Imageworks fleshed out New York with completely virtual views, and also cheated the scale of the Chrysler building from 80 floors to 200 in some cases. In this kind of film, said Redd, it was OK to make the scenes more cartoonish and to art direct the lighting. Also, he related, “Ken Ralston says reality is really boring.”

A cool shot of a young Kay removing an alien’s head and using it as a bowling ball was next up. On set the actor held a blue-painted soccer ball (complete with smiley face), and then SPI worked on tracking the scene, creating skin textures and relied on Arnold for rendering the face. Another scene featured the aliens of the MIB headquarters – a great mix of CG aliens and Rick Baker practical creations, plus flying saucers, electromagnetic lifts and graphic read-outs produced by Cantina Creative.

A very creepy scene was revealed next, showing one of the characters – Boris – and his pet known as the weasel. Rick Baker designed a creature that lived inside Boris’ hand (the burrowing scene was particularly hard but incredible to watch) which SPI replicated in CG. We saw some speed tests – the weasel acts like both a cat and a spider – and methods for creating the translucency for its spec and skin. “We had to take a fine line between creepy and cuddly,” said Redd. “When we showed studio, people were going ‘Oooh nooo’ and shifting in their chairs, so we knew it worked. I think when the president of the studio says ‘That’s the grossest thing I’ve ever seen’, that’s just great.”

Finally, Redd outlined the monocycle chase as Jay and Kay chase a motorcycle through New York. Background plates were filmed on the ARRI Alexa with the help of a camera car fitted with a unique crane called The Edge. SPI built the monocycles and digi-doubles, but also had to extend many 1969 street sets, add water spray and extra cars. In one particular scene, the director requested an entire reverse view of a truck crash, and that shot was entirely digitally created from scratch to match the other shots around it.

Redd mentioned that SPI’s tools of choice were Maya, Houdini, Katana and Arnold, and that studios Prime Focus, Method and Cantina Creative also contributed to the film. Interestingly, he praised the fact that the film was not shot in native stereo which meant that the post-conversion could be adapted easily and made to suit the director’s style (“perfect for 3D”) with wide angle lenses, for instance. And fxguidetv will have an in-depth episode on Men In Black 3 with several of Imageworks’ artists once the film is released.

Game of Thrones

In an overflowing Stuttgart cinema, Pixomondo presented their work on episodes 1 – 6 of Season 2 of Game of Thrones. It was easily the most popular session so far, and perhaps could have filled the larger theater. VFX supe Juri Stanossek and environment supervisor Thilo Ewers broke down many of the sequences, revealing that over 10 episodes Pixomondo is working on 518 shots in a production time of 22 weeks. They have a deadline delivery every 2 weeks (in fact, a major delivery was required the day after this presentation). A worldwide team of 358 led by the studio’s Stuttgart office has been responsible for the work, which runs the whole gamut from creatures, environments, fire and explosions, CG water, ships, cloth and full CG shots.

The presentation began with a look at the shadow creature, a mysterious smokey and wispy being. Pixomondo looked to some existing film creations as inspiration, including the Dementors in Harry Potter and The Mummy. They received concepts from HBO and then undertook a R&D phase that involved liquidy ink looks and early animation with a skeleton and ‘rubber man’ incarnation with tendrils. More development led to the addition of Naiad sims to create an inky monster, with Fume FX adding a smokey look from backward sims. When they showed the first version to the client, Pixomondo and the client were both really happy, although the client said, “We want to have it even greater,” and iterations continued for 43 versions.

A massive undertaking was also required for the show’s environments, which make up 305 shots over 67 locations. Pixomondo had the benefit of a huge media catalogue – 43 million images – which included 43,000 images from the production alone. We saw a breakdown of Pyke, a headland castle appearing on a worn-way sea cliff with only pillars remaining and bridges between the buildings. Production shot on a real location in Ireland and Pixomondo rebuilt the headland using Google Maps and geo data, adding a 3D castle and matte painted detail. Small additions included digital horses and people, while birds flying on location were kept in the plate since they were prominent in the books.

Another breakdown for the ruined Harrenhal castle was then shown, the victim of a fiery dragon attack that has melted buildings. Only a partial set was filmed. An interesting image shown by Pixomondo was a mock-up of the scene with ‘client scribbles’ on the original plate showing the planned additions. Digital buildings and DMP work filled out the scenes, with artists having to connect front and back plates for one shot, and also deal with challenging issues such as a white horse over a contrasty white background. A final environment breakdown was also shown for Quarth.

Inside the FMX venue.

Pixomondo then showed us how they made the dragons – a collection of three beasts, one red, one green and one more black. Produced from the Frankfurt office under VFX supe Sven Martin, the dragons were seen in Season 1 but were revamped based on research into skeletons, skin and scales. Artists modeled in ZBrush and animated in Maya. One long shot features the dragon on a character’s shoulder for 500 frames – one of the challenges there was to make it sometimes sway and be off-balance as the character walks along. The work was clearly a passion for the artists at Pixomondo, many of whom are huge fans of the book and would even do concepts in their own time. fxguide will also be covering the work in an upcoming fxguidetv ep.

Other presentations

One of the unfortunate luxuries about FMX is that there are so many great concurrent presentations. Today also saw in-depth looks at Hugo from Rob Legato and Ben Grossmann, a presentation by LOOK Effects on their work for Bones, RISE’s vfx for The Borgia, a Ray Feeney retrospective, Dneg’s GPU based sand sim work for John Carter, The Mill on cinematic TV VFX and Mikros presenting their effects for Ghost Recon Alpha – just to name a few!