|01 November 2012
London's film post production companies are rated amongst the best in the world thanks to their work on some of the biggest films ever made. Michael Burns takes a stroll behind the scenes
London is the biggest dream factory outside Hollywood. Huge effects houses such as Framestore, MPC and Double Negative employ hundreds of staff, while a raft of medium scale and boutique facilities all offer talent to fulfil or illuminate the vision of a director or studio.
There are many reasons for the evolution and concentration of this wealth of talent in London. The sector has flourished thanks to a wave of Hollywood movie franchises choosing to shoot in the UK, attracted by the country’s experienced crews, tax breaks and vfx reputation.
But many identify the decision to create the vfx for Harry Potter in the UK as a key springboard for the homegrown visual effects industry.
“The decade of Harry Potter has transformed what was a cottage industry into a centre of excellence,” says Will Cohen, managing director at Mill Film.
We can make it for you
There are several reasons that films require vfx, says Christian Manz, vfx supervisor at Framestore on films such as the Harry Potter series and Nanny McPhee. “It is either to go somewhere fantastical, as in John Carter or Avatar; to create whole scale destruction of a real life location, as in Avengers Assemble; or to create a futuristic take on a real life location, as in Looper.”
Though a smaller facility, One Of Us has always tried to involve itself in projects where there is as much room as possible for creative engagement. “We try to think not just about the shot or the sequence, but about the film as a whole,” says vfx supervisor Dominic Parker. “The job of a vfx team – and it is a team effort, from supervisors, artists and production – is to find the most effective way of realising the director’s vision, and because each director is different this is always a new challenge.”
Designing the impossible
As sole visual effects studio on Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, One Of Us completed over a hundred shots, which helped to realise the fantastic backdrop to Wright’s re-thinking of the Tolstoy classic. The work spanned every type of visual effect, from green screen, rig removal and matte painting to full 3D character and environment work.
One shot that would have been absolutely unachievable without vfx was a scene where Count Vronski and his mount crash off a stage and out of a horse race. “Far too dangerous to perform as a stunt and impossible to get the desired performance out of any kind of practical build, the decision was made to build a CG horse and rider,” says Parker. “The difficulty then came in animating a compelling performance which joined the existing performance of the pair to the aftermath of the accident. The animation of this shot was ongoing from the beginning of previs to the end of the schedule, at least in part because the action informed the cut and the cut informed the action.”
Though only with a permanent vfx staff of 15-20 people, LipSync Post covers all bases when it comes to film effects from cg characters, period-enhancement work, large scale digital matte paintings to hard-bodied dynamic work such as crashing cg planes and trams. “We also do subtler effects,” says Sean Farrow, LipSync’s executive visual effects supervisor. “We worked on Salmon Fishing in the Yemen last year, where they shot in a place where there was no fish and no water, so we were responsible for adding those two elements of the film. We did a few dozen CG salmon shots, but pretty much everybody we’ve talked to doesn’t believe that there are any CG shots in that sequence at all. Which is always the highest compliment.”
Building new worlds
MPC is another key player on the London post scene. Most recently Richard Stammers was the overall vfx supervisor for Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which posed huge aesthetic challenges. “The planet and space environments and the Prometheus and Engineer space ships were MPC’s biggest undertaking on the movie. Ridley wanted to depict a desolate world of monumental bleakness, with an exploration site located in a vast valley that would dwarf the visitors. As the scale was so crucial, Ridley spent some time with the team at MPC constructing his ideal landscape in a previs form. Using a model of the desert valley of Wadi Rum in Jordan as a basis we interactively scaled all the architectural components and spaceships to find the compositions he liked best, which helped us scout the locations we needed to shoot at.”
One of Iceland’s grey volcanic plains served as the location to take the actors for the shoot. “It provided a great starting point for us to build the digital environment,” recalls Stammers. “Ridley felt it was a good ‘sample’, but the ground had to be populated with a greater number of rocks and strange looking pinnacles. The background had to blend into the steep valley walls of an enlarged Wadi Rum, and fast moving clouds had to blend into the valley and larger distant mountains, all the while providing constant moving patches of sunlight across the landscape. So despite the plate photography being so beautiful we had to digitally replace large sections of it, and only preserved the immediate area surrounding the cast.”
“We’re doing things now that we could only dream of five years ago,” says Stammers. “Software is always improving; tools are faster, but processing power and memory play a large part in what we are achieving. One sequence on Prometheus required us to create a dust storm out of a render of 14 billion voxels. In Wrath of the Titans, Kronos and his surrounding volcanic fluid simulations and volumetric rendering was equally vast in its creation. Sequences like this just wouldn’t be possible without a regular overhaul of our workstations and render farms.”
Cinesite also prides itself on awarding-winning environment techniques, such as on Skyfall, John Carter, Generation Kill and the Harry Potter franchise, but creature animation is an area that it is starting to get more recognition in too, following on work on Clash of the Titans where it created the Scorpioch. The lastest challenge was Skyfall, for which a cg komodo dragon had to look photo-real and interact with the live action environment. “As a plot point, the scene shows Bond trying to evade the creature after he falls into a pit while fighting with an enemy,” says Antony Hunt, Cinesite managing director. “To model the dragon, we used Maya and a series of reference photos and illustrations. Texture was then added using Mudbox and Mari to bring the look and feel of the Komodo dragon to life before it was composited into the live action plate. The challenge for us was to ensure the dragon interacted accurately with the live action plate, which meant the lighting and contrast had to be carefully thought through to ensure the depth of field and the dragon’s shadows were cast correctly in proportion to the actors in the scene.”
Though offering the full gamut of vfx, Framestore is rightly famous for its cg character work. For Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Christian Manz led the Framestore team tasked with breathing new life into Dobby and Kreacher, the House Elves. “The director, David Yates, wanted the audience to connect more with the characters than in the previous film – particularly as Dobby sadly dies,” says Manz. “To this end we did some subtle redesign to the characters to make them more human. We used reference of old and young people – video and photographic – to anatomically rig the characters to deliver a realistic performance.” Manz says that about three man-years of rigging development was involved.
“We also used images of the voice actors performing in plate to tie our digital elves as closely to them as possible,” he continues. “This proved to be a fantastic lighting reference for us to match to. We developed new skin shaders as well as tools to simulate skin slide and fat jiggle. The emotion the audience feels as they watch Dobby breathe his last stands as a testament to the work of the vfx team, fulfilling Yates’ brief.”
The Mill also has a well-developed skill set for a full gamut of cg effects, creatures and environment work. However a certain type of creature does seem to be in demand from directors who approach the facility. “For The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we had a water creature [a Naiad],” says The Mill vfx supervisor Nicolas Hernandez “On 47 Ronin we have an elemental creature and on Snow White and the Huntsman we created the Mirror Man.”
This key scene in the film required a liquid entity to flow from the wall and coalesce into a reflective form to converse with the Queen (Charlize Theron).
“We did a lot of tests, five months of R&D with a small team including experts in fluids and particles,” says Hernandez. However instead of using fluids, the Mirror Man ended up being formed out of a cloth simulation in Maya, producing a heavily draped metallic creature. “We managed to achieve an effect beyond which [the filmmakers] had in mind when they first came to us,” explains Hernandez. “We did a lot of technical previz and design to get the lighting and reflections right on set. We developed a manikin shaped reflective surface with a 4K RED Epic camera to capture Charlize’s performance from the Mirror Man point of view.”
Unlocking the creative potential
London’s facilities are increasingly being brought in at very early stages to influence the shots or the look of a film. Method Studios London runs an in house art department and as such is often leading the look development or concept. “This absolutely aids in fulfilling the director’s vision,” says vp (features) of vfx Drew Jones. “Recently on the Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas we were able to take designs and concepts from very early visions through to final completion in hand with the director’s and vfx supervisor’s creative vision.
“Dredd 3D is a great example of a movie for which our early involvement was crucial,” says Tim Keene, head of production (London), Prime Focus World. “Our vfx supervisor on the movie, Jon Thum, met with Alex Garland, screenwriter and creative force behind Dredd 3D early in the development of the project, helping him to produce ‘pitch-viz’ to secure financing for the movie. Jon and PFW art director Neil Miller then worked with Alex and producer Andrew Macdonald to develop concepts and designs for the film even before the director and art department were attached to the film. Once the [other filmmakers] came on board, the group collaborated on all aspects of the film, building on the look and design that had already been defined by Alex and the PFW team.”
The collaboration was hugely advantageous for the production says Keene, in terms of creative ideas, cost-efficiencies, a streamlined production, more efficient delivery of vfx, fewer layers of approval and less conflict between the creative forces on the film.
The Mill also had creative input on Dredd 3D, including an opening sequence where the team received instructions for vfx to show the lawman shooting a villain in the face. “We suggested that [using an incendiary bullet] the face should burn, the eyes melt and the tongue would pop,” says Nicolas Hernandez. “They loved it. That level of violence set the tone for the whole film.”
Another innovative scene built from scratch formed part of LipSync’s work on Total Recall, comprising a holographic sequence in which Colin Farrell has his memories extracted via a special ‘tripping den’ chair.
Says LipSync’s head of vfx Stefan Drury: “[Director] Len Wiseman described what he was after in very broad conceptual strokes and tasked us to come back with an animated sequence roughed into a near locked cut. We essentially did several processes in tandem. We designed the content graphics at the same time as designing the story reveal, with 3D in Maya and graphic animation in After Effects, developing a look for the holographs and prepping all of the shots for compositing in Nuke. Normally we’d be waiting for graphics and then comp them in, but in this case, with so little time we needed to design and create everything in one timeline.”