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UK vfx showcase on Narnia

The latest installment of the Chronicles of Narnia – Chronicles of Narnia : The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – is the most recent blockbuster film to make extensive use of London’s vfx houses, with MPC, Framestore, The Senate VFX, Cinesite, The Mill and Prime Focus all working on the movie. Here’s a breakdown of what each of the companies did.

The principal vfx supplier was MPC, which completed more than 700 vfx shots on the film. The bulk of its work was creating and animating the mouse Reepicheep, the dragon Eustace, the Dawn Treader ship and a sea serpent. As well as character creation, MPC also worked on extensive digital environments.

MPC had already created Reepicheep for a previous Chronicles film, but with the mouse featuring prominently in over 200 hero shots in The Dawn Treader, MPC decided to update the character to “take the spotlight”.

The vfx house’s art department designed in what it describes as subtle changes to help create a “wiser and more mature Reepicheep”. And MPC’s animators even went so far as to take fencing classes to “learn the moves and tricks of the trade” to ensure the little mouse’s sword skills were tip top.

When it came to the dragon Eustace, the main challenge for MPC was conveying emotions through facial expressions alone, as Eustace is unable to speak.

For the giant sea serpent, which appears in a 180-shot ‘dark island’ sequence in which it attacks the Dawn Treader ship, MPC designed in ocean surfaces and splashing water effects for the serpent’s interaction with the sea. The serpent itself was designed with blubbery skin and “hundreds of articulated feelers” (whatever these are) by MPC’s art department.

MPC’s work on the Dawn Treader ship varied depending on the scene the ship appeared in. For some, a complete cg ship was built while, for other sequences, MPC added surrounding ocean to a land-based physical set of the ship.

The vfx supervisor for MPC was Adam Valdez, cg supervision was by Kevin Hahn and animation supervision was by Gabriele Zuchelli.

Framestore was responsible for the next biggest batch of vfx work on the film, working on around 280 vfx shots. The company’s key role was creating the God-like lion character Aslan – once again, Framestore had already brought the lion to life for the previous installment of the Chronicles series, so its work was focused on further refinement and improvement of the character design and animation.

On top of this, the 170-strong Framestore team also worked on the one-legged, giant-footed dwarf characters, the Dufflepuds, and vfx-heavy sequences including a standing wave and bringing a picture of a seascape to life.

The Framestore team, led by vfx supervisor Jonathan Fawkner (who also attended the shoot) worked on the rigging of Aslan to “bring it in line with Framestore’s centralised rigging tools”.

“We had shots where Aslan was walking and you saw his full body. The old rig didn’t allow the legs to be stretched far enough to make the gait look realistic,” says head of rigging Nico Scapel. “When this issue arose, we were able to iterate a change on the rig and then see a render the next day, which makes a huge difference.”

The animation of Aslan, which was handled by a team of eight at Framestore, had to be done within the constraints of him being a God, so should show “minimal signs of normal animal behaviour.” So, the team implemented “subliminal signs” that the creature lives, such a breath cycles, blinks, nostril flare, a slight shift in weight, a swish of the tail, and so on.

For the seascape picture sequence, where a picture of a seascape comes alive and waves start to roll and churn before water engulfs the room, Framestore combined a wet and dry set of the attic room with the picture hanging. The actors did their parts in the dry set, while a set of the same room was descended into a water tank to create the effect of the water rising as it enters the room.

Next, Framestore augmented water filmed gushing out of the painting on set, as there was a limit to how much could realistically be pumped into the set. To create the desired effect, Framestore used a “moving painting effect, using Corel Painter’s overpainting technique – we’d take moving footage of water and then, on a still frame, we used the impasto-like brush effect to give us something that looked a lot like the source painting but was based on footage of moving waves,” explains lead compositor Jan Adamczyk.

Finally, the Dufflepuds were created by mixing real actors for the top half and cg for the lower bodies, skin and cloth. Over 250 performances of the actors bouncing around and acting were filmed on blue screen, which were then scaled down to dwarfish size, tracked and given an animated leg and composited into the scene.

The Senate VFX
The Senate VFX produced the next largest amount of vfx work, completing 250 vfx shots for an opening sequence of King’s College, Cambridge as well as the creation of the star Liliandil, which takes on a human form.

Cinesite’s main work on The Dawn Treader involved creating the White Witch character. The vfx house’s team, led by vfx supervisor Matt Johnson and 3d supervisor Stephane Paris, scanned principal photography of the actress Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch, to generate a 3d model of the actress’s head.

The 3d model was then rigged and animated using Maya, to match Swinton’s live performance. Cinesite then added cg hair and a shroud of upper body mist to enhance the effect of her being a mythical, floating creature.

Cinesite also created green mist tendrils, which take on the form of the greatest fears of the crew of the Dawn Treader. Other Cinesite vfx included creating set extensions of The Goldwater Island sequence, and extending the bejewelled valley.

The Mill
The Mill’s work focused on the Naiad water nymphs and their movement through the sea and around the Dawn Treader ship. The company spent six months on research and development and concept work to achieve the desired look for the characters.

Prime Focus
Prime Focus completed the film's full stereoscopic 3d conversion. It converted 1,500 shots into stereoscopic 3d for the 115-minute movie. The globally focused post facility spent 24 hours a day across three different time zones working on the conversion process. In total, it delivered 600 shots from London, 550 from Los Angeles and 350 from Mumbai.

Posted 17 December 2010 by Jake Bickerton

Free grading and editing tools

There’s a whole load of excellent free stuff available for post production editors and grading artists at present. Grab it while you can.

Free professional editing system - Lightworks

First up is the pro editing system Lightworks, as used to edit the likes of Pulp Fiction and Notting Hill, which has been updated and relaunched by new owner EditShare (which acquired Lightworks last year) as a free, open source editing package.

The new, free Lightworks provides resolution, format and codec independent edits, real-time 2k effects, varispeed, primary and secondary colour correctors, a multi-track audio mixer and voiceover tool and a newly designed user interface.

It also now works with Avid and FCP keyboard shortcuts and has native support for ProRes, Avid DNxHD and AVC-Intra, as well as stereoscopic support for left and right eye files.

The free download is not a trial version and isn’t time limited. Get the latest version of Lightworks for free

Free colour grading - Airgrade
Next up is an interesting colour grading app from Pixel Farm. The company, best known for its vfx and restoration software, has focused its attention on colour correction for the first time with a combined free Mac software and iPhone app grading package called Airgrade.

Airgrade makes it possible to do anything from a one light pass to a complete professional-level grade. The bulk of the work is done by the Mac software, which “emulates professional film and TV grading tools”, while the iPhone app is used to wirelessly remote control the software, by rolling a virtual 3d trackball and rotating a radial wheel.

Airgrade provides lift, gamma and gain controls to control shadow, midtone and highlights, as well as a saturation control to tweak the overall colour intensity.

The grading data created by Airgrade can be saved in the universally recognised ASC CDL format to transfer to a dedicated professional grading system. The graded image is also auto-transferred to the iPhone’s photo album for quick reference.

The Pixel Farm believe Airgrade will not only be useful for DoPs to establish a basic look on location but also for aspiring colourists to familiarise themselves with grading techniques. Download Airgrade for free

Free digital cinema qc, grading and editorial tool - STORM
Finally, The Foundry has made a beta version of its ‘digital cinema camera production hub’ STORM available as a free download, for unrestricted free use until 1st March 2010 (when you’ll have to pay £250 to continue using it).

STORM provides extensive on-set digital rushes quality checking tools (to check exposure, focus, colour and audio), focusing specifically on Red-acquired rushes, as well as grading and multi-track timeline editorial tools.

It makes it possible for the director, DoP and editor to view high-res takes, make a rough edit and establish a basic look for a production, all while on location.

STORM also includes straightforward metadata tagging and timeline re-conforming to speed up the movement of content through to editorial and post production systems.

Red’s ridiculously titled Ted Schilowitz, who’s apparently the leader of the rebellion, says: “Having seen STORM in detail, I’d describe it as REDCine-X on steroids. It’s well worth the time to investigate its capabilities if you are involved in post production, working with Red footage.”

Download the free beta of STORM

Posted 15 December 2010 by Jake Bickerton

The outlook for post in 2011

There’s a lot going on in the post and facilities sector at present, with Deluxe in particular shaking things up in a big way with its purchase of Ascent Media Group.

Also in the last month, Warner Brothers confirmed its £100m purchase of Hertfordshire’s Leavesden Studios, making it its UK home.

And, at the other end of the scale, Manchester post facility Hullabaloo Studios, which worked on Fify and the Flower Tots and Roary the Racing Car, closed down for undisclosed reasons.

In a facilities sector as changeable and erratic as this, I asked a handful of post house mds what they think is in store for them in the coming year.

Cinesite’s md Antony Hunt singles out stereoscopic 3d as an ongoing positive development: “It’s been a tough climate for post houses and it’s those that continue to be cutting edge that thrive. Stereo 3d dominates the film industry and will continue to do so in 2011. We’ve made significant investment in stereoscopic and can deliver complex effects in this growing format, something that will define our work in 2011.”

The Mill’s exec producer Stephen Venning says the build up to the 2012 Olympics is the shining beacon for the coming year. “My personal excitement will be in seeing the effect the London Olympics has on the advertising industry and the creative vfx challenges that holds for us.”

Meanwhile, in Manchester, Andy Sumner, md of the city’s largest post house Sumners, acknowledges the year hasn’t been great for local facilities but believes there’s now every reason to be upbeat: “So farewell 2010, it’s certainly been a bit of a brutal time for post in Manchester – Red Vision and Hullabaloo have gone and everybody has striven for efficiencies simply to survive,” he says.

“So hello 2011, finally MediaCity is here, with seven HD studios, BBC children’s and BBC sport set to tip up in the North West, and, if we are to believe the BBC, this is only the start. If this is the case it has to be good for the whole production economy and what’s good for production has to be good for post.”
Jake Bickerton is Televisual’s features editor

Posted 13 December 2010 by Jake Bickerton
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