Last week, people probably didn’t think they’d want to watch a darker, bloodier film involving the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The often maligned, but equally loved, live action television series was traditionally children’s fare, despite some action violence. Now, director Joseph Kahn has created his own spin on the characters with his short Power/Rangers, openly casting it as a ‘bootleg’ but featuring entirely original footage. And it’s certainly hit a nerve. After only days online, the short skyrocketed on YouTube on Vimeo. fxguide looks exclusively at the visual effects behind the film with Ingenuity Engine’s VFX supervisor Grant Miller and Screaming Death Monkey’s Jeremy Hunt.
Above: Watch Ingenuity Engine’s VFX breakdown for Power/Rangers.
fxg: Tell me a little about the background to this project – how did you get involved and how was the entire VFX team organized?
Grant Miller: We’ve been working with Power/Rangers director Joseph Kahn for years doing global commercial campaigns, indie features, music videos, and everything in between. He approached us with the pitch for MMPR early in the process and so we were involved from the onset. So many people jumped on board to help out, from the stunt crew to the sound guys, it was a real labor of love and dedication to Joseph by all parties involved.
The vfx team was composed of the same talented staff of artists that do all the rest of our work in the studio. Everyone squeezed in an hour or two here and there and dedicated weekend days between jobs over the course of 6 months in order to complete the 248 visual effects shots we were tasked with.
fxg: What kind of planning and prep was done – for eg storyboards, previs, concept art and shots?
Miller: There was very little storyboarding and no previz. Production ramped up quickly in July and with the tight shooting window our prep time was minimal.
The film’s style and director’s sensibilities necessitated a fair bit of evolution in post. We spent a lot of time finding looks for the data screens, explosions in the sky. We did our best to build systems and elements that can be reused throughout the short.
fxg: Can you break down that spectacular opening sequence – where was it filmed and how much action could they capture in-camera?
Miller: The opening scene was filmed at Vasquez Rocks just north of Los Angeles, an area most famous for it’s appearance in Star Trek. The location and production limitations permitted very little to be captured in camera. As such, the resulting footage of a bunch of Power Rangers running around dodging imaginary bullets and explosions looked pretty underbaked until the VFX were added.
fxg: How did you approach the fighting robots?
Miller: After seeing the cut we knew the giant robots would only ever be viewed from a distance. This allowed us to cut some major corners in their CG build. We blocked out each robot in ZBrush focusing on silhouette and overall aesthetic first, then once those were temp’d in and approved we went on to detailing the models.
We made heavy use of kitbashing for each robot’s mechanical framing. We’ve collected loads of gears, gizmos, and hydraulics over the years and can pretty quickly throw something together that looks like it might function in the real world. The robot’s plating and coverings were then added in ZBrush and cleaned up using ZRemesher. The resulting models definitely had some room for refinement but they hold up well for the shots’ requirements, and more importantly they were completed in a very timely manner.
fxg: The graphical interfaces in the interrogation are fantastic – what was the philosophy behind them and how did you design and integrate them into the final shots?
Miller: The director was keen to have the UI stand out from everything we’d seen previously. We focused on developing a circular language to the controls that helped lend to its alien feel. The philosophy was that the machine empire wouldn’t use a language or control system that was familiar to us petty earthlings so conveying that complexity was crucial. A large library of widgets was created in After Effects and then carefully placed to match story beats and actor interaction over dozens of shots.
Extensive matchmoving was required for the graphical interfaces as they are projected mid-air, often in shots with complex camera moves. Once the 3D holo-screens were in we added a layer of fine dust and particulate that really helped blend everything together.
fxg: How were the helmets realized in terms of what was shot and your CG work?
Miller: Any shot with a transforming helmet was shot clean with the CG helmet added in post. Once the camera was tracked and the black ranger was rotomated we hand animated the pieces of the helmet morphing out and sliding into place.
The most difficult aspect was matching the worn and battered practical helmet as they are cut directly together. Accurate HDRIs and a fair bit of shader work was required to reproduce the appropriate highlights on the helmet’s surface, and a final layer of small dust hits helped add some weight to our animation.
fxg: There seems to be some great invisible fx in some of the hand to hand combat shots – can you talk about various things you had to do for these?
Miller: The fight scenes contain a substantially amount of fx work. They were shot clean to avoid the lengthy reset times from using practical blood and explosions, the knives and swords were often non-existent as well due to safety concerns. As a result nearly everything except the fighting is added in post: gunfire, debris, dust from hand to hand fighting, blades, and of course tons of blood. There are even a couple of quick beheadings; the black ranger punches a henchmen’s face off towards the end of the Korean fight scene.
fxg: Anything else in particular you’d like to outline?
Miller: I want to thank the crew at Ingenuity and Jeremy Hunt for their hard work and dedication. This project was a big undertaking between the work on screen and the invisible work to help out the production constraints. Everyone really carried a ton of weight and did a fantastic job.
fxg: What was your software setup?
Miller: Software-wise the cg work was completed in 3dsMax and MODO, textured in MARI, and rendered with V-Ray. The FX work was done in Houdini and compositing took place in NUKE. The motion graphics elements were created in After Effects and composited with NUKE’s 3D system.
BONUS Interview – Screaming Death Monkey’s Jeremy Hunt on the leg prosthetic work
fxg: How did you get involved in the film?
Jeremy Hunt: I really came to the Power / Rangers party later in the game. I’ve known Joseph since around 2000 when I supervised the CG and compositing for the space battle sequence for his Backstreet Boys video, ‘Larger Than Life.’ When I started my first business, Chris Watts (VFX sup on P/R) brought us one of our first big jobs which was creating dinosaurs for Kahn’s Wu Tang Clan’s ‘Gravel Pitt.’ From there Joseph was one of our biggest clients and we got to work on a lot of amazing videos. Aerosmith, U2, Moby etc.
I hadn’t worked with Joseph for a bit but was following everything he was doing (his Twitter is great BTW) with his feature Detention etc. One day I got an email from him asking if I was available. We chatted and he told me about Power / Rangers and sent me a cut with a rough VFX pass. Basically they needed another vendor to come in and shore up one element, specifically James Van Der Beek’s robotic prosthetic leg.
fxg: Can you describe the leg work?
Hunt: IE had modeled the leg and it was great. We added some small modeling detail and surfaced everything from scratch. All of our modeling and rendering was handled by LightWave. Once Joseph had approved the model I got to actually animating and compositing. Autodesk’s Smoke has been our work horse since they integrated connect effects compositing pipeline in the workflow. The new 3D tracker that was integrated in Smoke 2015 worked flawlessly and allowed me to keep all tracking needs in house and also had the added benefit of keeping a clean workflow as I was able to export an fbx scenes right into Lightwave. Animation was a simple rigging and I didn’t use any IK as I knew I was matching the actors movements on screen and the turn around was fast. I didn’t want to spend a day or two doing an intricate rigging, I wanted to get shots done.
There really wasn’t any tracking markers specifically attached to the leg so once I had a camera solve it was a matter of hand tracking the model to the actor’s movement. I’ve done this technique a lot so I have the art of it down and was able to get really locked down results. Anything that might have drifted had a secondary 2d track applied in comp. We rendered the standard passes including floor reflections and shadows and back into Smoke it went to get it fully comped and colored to match. We did a fair amount of relighting in comp to match some of the ambient flashing lights they had on set. We were moving fast and it was a way more efficient work flow.