London’s leading vfx houses Double Negative, Cinesite and MPC have spent the last two and a half years working on the vfx for Walt Disney’s recent release, the sci fi 3d action adventure John Carter.
Directed by Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E), John Carter is perhaps the biggest vfx-heavy feature film so far to have chosen London for its effects work. It features vfx on a similar scale to Avatar.
The film is set on an imagined version of Mars, with the action taking place in two ‘city states’ – the beautiful Helium, which has a large glass palace in the middle, and the mile-long rusty metal tanker Zodanga, which crawls slowly around the Mars landscape.
Cinesite’s key task was creating these cities and their extensive environments, which amounted to over 830 vfx shots. The company also handled the 2d to 3d conversion of the movie.
Meanwhile, Double Negative created and animated 12-foot tall barbarian creatures called Tharks, along with other creatures that inhabit the planet, and worked on over 1,900 shots for the film. MPC also handled a proportion of the wide-ranging vfx work.
A team of up to 310 people worked on the film at Cinesite, lead by vfx supervisor Sue Rowe, who also attended the studio shoots – studio locations included Pinewood, Shepperton, Long Cross and an ex-Woolworths warehouse – and went on location for the duration of the shoot in Utah for three months last year.
“Zodanga, the bad guy’s city, was based on brutalist architechture, while the city of Helium is beautiful and elegant,” says Rowe. “[Concept designer] Ryan Church did lots of concept images for the city and environment, which gave us a really good starting point.”
“With Helium, to take it from concept to the build in cg, we needed to be true to the scale and materials the environment was built in, and we needed to put in a great level of detail. We had 300 people involved overall over about two and a half years. While we were shooting we were also busy preparing the environments.”
Part of Cinesite’s work involved a battle sequence with two intricately detailed airships: “We had to turn Ryan’s concept drawings for the airships into photo-real cg models – the glass and the cracked surface of the ship were probably the most challenging aspects,” says Rowe. “And the environment we shot in – in Utah – had a very fine red dust, so the ship needed this too.”
“The airships travel on light, so we gave them solar panelled wings, and worked on a shader that gives off different colours (gold to blue and purple) depending on how it hits the light; like the scales of a fish.”
For Double Negative, animation supervisor Steve Aplin says: “It was a huge undertaking for us, with many different characters, including runts (baby Tharks), full-size Tharks, Thoats (a creature with eight legs and a broad, flat tail) and Woola, the side-kick dog.”
“The principal race we were dealing with was the Tharks. We not only had hero action performances with the Tharks, but also shots where there were thousands of them on screen at any one time,” says Aplin. “For the background Tharks, we created 800 animation cycles, dropping them in and switching them out. The closer the Tharks were to the camera the more involved we were with the animation. For a mid-range character we would drop in the cycles by hand. And for the ones close to the camera we used motion capture to give them very detailed animated facial expressions.”
“We used a stereo camera to capture the facial details of the actors playing the Tharks, and tracked the left and right images and transposed them onto the cg Thark faces. The 3d mesh of the actors’ face gave a very natural feeling result,” says Aplin. “The difference between an animated feature and vfx is, in vfx there’s a live action character next to a cg character, so the cg character has to have the same level of fidelity in its face. So you have to capture very subtle movements.”
When it came to representing the Thoat characters on set, “We had to figure out a big contraption to replicate what they would look like,” explains Aplin. “We did test cycles, which gave us the measurements for the creatures, and then Chris Corbould of the special effects team created a vehicle with a skeleton on top of a saddle, which was given inputs for the creatures’ movements, derived from our animation. We got a pretty similar motion to what we were after using this.”
One of the biggest challenges for the production team on ITV1 drama Kidnap and Ransom was turning Cape Town into an authentic looking Kashmir. Here's how it was done.
The second series of ITV1 drama Kidnap and Ransom is set in Srinagar, Kashmir, and centres on the hijacking of a tourist bus that crashes into a busy Kashmir market square. All the colours, vibrancy and architectural details are exactly as you would associate with India, but, due to budget restrictions, the series was almost entirely filmed in Cape Town, South Africa.
It was down to the production team, and in particular the efforts of production designer Robert Van De Coolwyk, to turn Cape Town into Kashmir – in a limited timescale and with a limited budget.
“We did a lot of research on what the place should look like, and the key thing we had to do was concentrate on signage and colour and dressing things up,” says Van De Coolwyk. “You have to go with what you find and adapt it to suit. Indian buses are quite specific in their colour and decoration, so we gave the bus a blue exterior and things like headdress covers.”
The buildings in the Cape Town market square required less work than might be anticipated to make them appear like they were in Kashmir, as Van De Coolwyk explains: “India has a lot of English colonial architecture, which is the same in South Africa. We put shutters onto certain buildings and added lattice work, and put on colours to more closely match the architecture between India and South Africa.”
Van De Coolwyk had five weeks of prepping in South Africa prior to the shoot to try and get everything looking right. In this time, exec producer Rachel Gesua went over to do a technical recce and take the writer around the square to see how they could make it work.
“I was a little scared at the start about how we could make it work,” says Gesua. “The maths didn’t work out to shoot in India and turning Cape Town into India was going to be challenging as British audiences have a good idea of what India should look like.”
But once Van De Coolwyk’s began adapting Cape Town into Kashmir, Gesua’s mind was put at rest: “The impression of India relating to the colours and textures was spot on, and the lattice gates and fabric were exactly right,” she says. “Robert did a remarkable job, it’s incredibly authentic. In the end I never felt we were compromising very much. The whole attention to detail of the art department is really impressive – the shop and street signs are incredibly accurate.”
The square where the bulk of the action happens has a train station that continued to be in constant use throughout the 10 days of the shoot. So the production team had to be creative in positioning the bus in such a way that masked a lot of the background activity.
“We had to be clever in the way the bus was positioned and only shoot it in certain directions, avoiding shooting behind where the station was,” says Gesua. “Towards the east and west of the square, Robert created these fantastic big walls plastered with Indian posters and signage, and this obscured most of the station and pedestrian traffic.”
“We had to do some ADR to cover the loudspeaker announcements at the railway station,” adds Gesua. “The rest of the post production work has mostly just been dropping stuff onto TV screens, erasing Cape Town phone numbers and things like that.”
Beyond the major hurdle of getting everything to look like India, Gesua says this series of Kidnap and Ransom was always going to be a difficult production to get right: “It was a huge challenge to shoot something such as this. It was a very tight schedule, shooting 16 actors on a bus from their point-of-view, and including stunts, car chases and crashes would have been challenging wherever you were.”
And this is where being in South Africa finally worked to their advantage: “Shooting there was very easy. We had a great extras coordinator, which was another area that could have given the game away, and the costume and make up was spot on,” says Gesua. “Crews over there are very conscientious and quick – things take half a day in South Africa that would take three or four days in the UK. It’s easy to get permissions – it’s a lot more ‘can do’.”
2011 was a reasonable year for the UK’s post industry. Only one big player fell by the wayside – Pepper – and the Ascent brand was lost after its takeover by Deluxe, but on the whole it was business as usual. A lot of the focus has been on ensuring post houses can handle and offer expert support for new file-based workflows for the cameras that have taken over production over the last year.
However, with the economy on the verge of another collapse, production budgets continuing to recede and significant ongoing investment still required to keep facilities up to date and able to cope with the ever increasing image sizes being pumped out by the next generation of cameras, will things remain relatively rosy this year?
“2012 will be a year of consolidation for post houses – the rapid transition to tapeless workflows has begun to settle down and though these new formats have changed the dynamics of client and supplier relationships, they have ultimately led to creative benefits for both parties,” believes Rowan Bray, md, Prime Focus.
“Post houses have had to respond by quickly upskilling their teams, changing infrastructure, and developing new workflows to allow for increasingly complex acquisition choices,” she adds. “In 2012, the ongoing need for highly skilled workflow managers will be just as prevalent. By rights, budgets need to reflect all the changes that have occurred but it will continue to be a challenge to receive budgets that match the requirements of most programmes.”
Bray sees the ongoing investment necessitated by file-based workflows as not an entirely negative thing: “Facilities will continually be required to update their storage infrastructure and technical training to meet client needs. But this has, perhaps for the first time, created a new differentiator between the established post houses and the one-man bands.”
Meanwhile, Envy’s md Dave Cadle remains optimistic about the immediate future: “The post landscape is very different to two to three years ago, which is exciting for all of us. We are going to be looking for more space as the demand for more facilities is very high.”
A marker-less desktop motion capture system was used by UK-based filmmaker/animator Ian Chisholm to create his machinima (a film made using the graphics engines from video games) epic Clear Skies III.
Chisholm, who works in IT and describes himself as “just some ordinary Joe without any background or training in film” learnt the skills required to make his films as he went along.
He used iPi Soft’s entry-level mo cap system to create character animations, which he then applied to the graphics engines of some well-known computer games.
iPi Soft's system accurately captures human motion data using inexpensive, off-the-shelf cameras and doesn’t require sensor suits or green screen stages.
''I started the Clear Skies series about six years ago,'' says Chisholm. ''I'd just started doing some basic video work when I discovered I could use blue screening to composite video footage together.”
“I'd always wanted to tell a full story, and by using the Eve Online graphics engine for exterior space and ship shots, and the Half Life 2 engine for interior sets and characters, I managed to achieve that.”
It took Chisholm over two years to make the first instalment of Clear Skies: “I learnt everything in the Half Life 2 development kit, wrote my first script, build the sets, shot and created the film itself,” he says.
''I continually challenge myself technically and creatively, and Clear Skies III is the culmination of what I learned producing the previous two films,” he adds.
“Practically every line of dialogue and every movement was motion captured using iPi Soft. Not only was this fun, but it also raised the bar on the performances I could deliver using the Half Life 2 characters – I could add more personality and dimension to the characters, rather than be limited to the built-in gestures that come with the game.”
The mo cap system also made it possible for Chisholm to capture whole body motion and walk around in a small area and interact with items. He created "action sequences and dramatic moments – gunfights, fistfights, character interaction – that wouldn't have been remotely possible without it,'' believes Chisholm.
Surf brand Rip Curl used a handheld underwater camera array of 48 GoPros to capture The Matrix ‘bullet time’ style footage of surfer Mick Fanning riding a huge wave in the South Pacific.
It’s the first time the portable camera array of miniature GoPro cameras has been used on a production, with the eye-catching footage being used as part of Rip Curl’s marketing campaign for its Mirage Boardshort surfboard.
“The pioneers of camera array photography” Tim and Callum Macmillan of Time Slice Films created the 48 GoPro array. An expansion kit for the GoPro, which enables two of the 1080p HD cameras to be synced together with a synch cable, is at the heart of the camera array, which extends the capabilities so make it possible for an unlimited number of GoPros can be synched together.
“We are always looking to lead the way when it comes to camera array effects and identifying new ways to push the limits for creativity and to acquire unique shots,” says Tim Macmillan.
Additional videos are planned for Rip Curl, using the GoPro array, to film surfers Owen Wright, Matt Wilkinson, Dillon Perillo and Dean Brady.
To mark the banning of the production of old-style clear tungsten bulbs today, here’s a well-produced new spot from Independent, directed by Philippe André for Philips LED Lighting.
The ad begins with a row of Philips LED lamps turning on one after the next in a domino effect, cutting across gardens, along the surface of a swimming pool and continuing along a road, a car park and a highway, and finally lighting up a cityscape.
“It was funny to block the traffic on an eight lane street in Buenos Aires to set up hundreds of lamps and make them light up, on one after the other, live,” says André.
Title: Philips What can light do?
Production Company: Independent Films
Director: Philippe André
Producer: Ohna Falby
Agency: DDB Amsterdam
Agency Producer: Marco van Prooijen
Creative Director: Chris Baylis
Creatives: Geert Jan Bijlstra & Sharon Cleary
A recently launched iPhone and iPad app enables you to legally sign production documents while on the move. Details below...
What is Softsign? It’s an iPhone and iPad app (Android is coming soon) from a UK-based company that enables you to ‘sign’ .pdf and .jpg documents with your finger. Production companies and filmmakers can use it to sign legally binding (in the UK at least) release forms, health and safety forms, expenses, timesheets and any other essential production documents on the move.
How does it work? When a document needs signing, open it in Softsign and input the names and details of those who need to sign it. They can then do so with their finger or a stylus. You can email the signed contracts to interested parties directly from the app and copy in the production team (or anyone else) if necessary. Documents signed using the app don’t need to be printed to be legally binding.
How much is it? The app is currently free, but a paid-for 'premium version' is in development.
Are Softsign-ed docs legally binding outside the UK? According to the maker of the app, electronic signatures on commercial transactions should have the same legal status as a written signature in the USA, but some States may have their own laws regarding e-signatures so you need to check to be certain. The company advises users to “ascertain whether electronic signatures are valid under the laws and jurisdiction applicable to your contract.”
Who is using it? It has received 35,000 downloads so far – users of Softsign in the film/TV industries include Agile Films and United Agents.
Dutch-Italian freelance director and motion designer Giovanni Bucci, based in both Los Angeles and London, has just completed an vibrant, striking animation for artist Antonio Meneghetti.
The film, to be shown at art galleries and exhibitions, deconstructs one of Meneghetti’s paintings and immerses the viewer into the creative process of making the artwork.
The painting was provided to Bucci as a flat image, with a completely free brief to do as he like with it. Bucci has made both 2d and 3d stereoscopic versions of the film. You’ll need a pair of the old fashioned red and blue anaglyphic glasses to view the 3d version.