Daniel Askill is an Australian filmmaker and artist who uses film, photographs, video installation and sculpture in his work. He recently directed Universal Machine. The film is a meditation on the ultimate fate of humanity’s relationship with technology. It follows a young woman who awakens in a post-apocalyptic world and must transcend a violent confrontation with a lifelike Artificial Intelligence. The film progresses through an elaborate sequence of dance and fight choreography. The filmmakers have said that “the action of the film beckons towards an evolved future of peace and compassion.”
Envika Saadvaskass plays the hero character. Saadvaskass won internet fame with a staggering clip of her training. She has her own Guinness Book record for most punches per minute. The film was made by Collider, Strange Invention Company with Qlbeans. With additional matte painting & clean-Up by Framestore. The film was finished at the end of last year and has been in the festival circuit.
The film was shot in Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates by DOP Jacob Møller. The performances were designed by Belgian choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet Flanders, who choreographed Beyoncé’s much-lauded 2017 performance at the Grammy Awards. The soundtrack was by Grammy winner, and 3-time Oscar nominated composer Philip Glass (Mr Robot, Stranger Things, The Truman Show, Powaqqatsi, Kundun and many more).
The production VFX supervisor was, Todd Sarsfield, (Strange Invention). We spoke to Bogdan Mihajlovic, the Visual Effects Supervisor at Qlbeans. He had previously worked with Sarsfield in LA. His company, Qlbeans, did the AI robot character development, tracking, rotomation and animation. The AI robot work included CG interactions, reflections, and shadows. Building the AI robot was challenging for the CG team as they had to find a balance between Saadvaskass and Tsuki Kozuki who was on set as the stand-in for the robot. Kozuki is much more muscular and as an older male, has a different body structure and joint position. Tsuki Kozuki is a very well respected modern ballet dancer from Japan, but as a man, his hips were higher and wider, his knees were jointed at a different height and his build is more muscular than the AI robot.
In the film, there are clear interaction shots where both Saadvaskass and her stand-in were rotomated, tracked, and animated. Balancing both characters played a critical roll in perfecting the animation so that the VFX team could follow Kozuki’s amazing moves and acting. The location was extremely hot, with a hot wind, so there was no chance of LIDAR or sensible photogrammetry due to the conditions. Instead, the team tracked the shots, with only the help of some reference Go-Pro clips. Following that, detailed rotomation was done to transfer Kozuki’s complex movement to the AI robot rig. Then a team of animators made an additional pass to tighten up the timing, and “make the moves a bit more robotic but still keeping the graceful choreography from the original footage” comments Mihajlovic.
The AI body armor was complex and was meant to look rigid which Mihajlovic said “gave us constraints during animation and the posing in scenes”. “We had to find solutions in rigging and then deal with complex body animation….we had Terminator 2 on constantly as a reference for the running shots,” he joked. The Robot also had major parts of it’s design, such as the skull, that were meant to be glass-like. Both solid gold and glass are difficult to animate during fluid choreography and graceful fighting. “It was extremely complex to animate, and we had to be very careful not to show armor interactions. It was tricky to make everything work ‘as a robot’, so that when the robot moves the armor parts didn’t go through the glass. We started it in Maya but the final rendering was via 3d Studio Max in V-Ray and then composited in Nuke,” he explained. “Actually the final rendering was done from Sarsfield’s, studio (Strange Invention) “.
In addition to obvious big rig removal and clean up, there was enormous attention to small details. For example, there are a few eye blinks in the film that “were barely visible but important to the director and story” explained Mihajlovic. “That was tricky to achieve with the dense body of polygons and have a consistent topology. We had to keep her inner glass part fully closed in topology for rendering and do an effects sim inside. At the same time, we had to preserve the model details in the eye while ‘it’ blinks”.
In the final digital embrace Qlbeans needed to work on the robot, matching the body of Kozuki and also do a very exact digital double for Saadvaskass. “What you see is actually her, but we matched her exactly with a digital double. We then projected her footage back onto the geometry so that we could use this textured model in the ray-traced render of the Robot’s glass head” Mihajlovic comments. This also means that the shot has all the right reflections and shadows on the robot and in turn, the AI robot casts the right colour of shadows back on Saadvaskass. “I think, as a result of working this way, the shot looks very real, even as we see it from so many different angles as the camera moves”.