COWBOYS & ALIENS: Simon Maddison – VFX Supervisor – Fuel VFX

Simon Maddison joined Fuel VFX nearly 11 years ago. He has worked on projects like FARSCAPE or RIVERWORLD. Then he will oversee the effects of CHARLOTTE’S WEB or BEDTIME STORIES.

What is your background?
I have a degree in Fine Arts that I applied to computer graphics in my final year. I then had various jobs in vfx before starting Fuel VFX 11 years ago with my fellow directors.

How did Fuel VFX got involved on this show?
ILM had been talking to us about doing some work on the show. They thought we’d be a good fit for the funeral pyre sequence and we were excited by the challenge of it.

How was the collaboration with director Jon Favreau and Production VFX supervisor Roger Guyett?
Roger is an amazing person to work with. He is incredibly involving and allows you to pour as much of your own creativity into the shot as possible. The sequence we were working on had heavy connotations to the story and it was very interesting to be involved on that level – trying to solve story using complex visual effects. Challenging, but ultimately very rewarding.

What sequences have you made on this show?
We worked on the sequence where Ella is reborn within the bonfire of a native American camp. We also worked on a sequence that had a hummingbird visit Daniel Craig’s character during a trance that he has been placed under while trying to remember what happened to him in his recent past.

What references and indications did you received for the Ella (Olivia Wilde) reborn sequence?
Not much reference as it was one of those ‘something we’ve never seen before’ type briefs. Roger shot a whole bunch of dummies on fire which was great for reference but we needed the fire to move more seductively than real fire, without making it too other-worldy. Roger and Jon wanted to ground this sequence in reality, but anything that got close to a HARRY POTTER effect was quickly steered away.

Can you explain to us in details how you create the beautiful particles for this reborn?
The fire is made up of a few things. Firstly, there is a 3d rigged Ella in the fire that is animated. She is acting as a force within Maya which pushed and pulled Maya’s fluid dynamics around to create what we referred to as the ‘base’ fire. This was heavy to simulate and heavy to render, so we needed to develop a system on top of it that allowed us to add some of the more ethereal effect within it. This was a particle system that was both driven from the ‘base’ fire and also affected by its fluid dynamics. We also rendered the digital double for the moments when we see glimpses of her. We didn’t end up using any practical fire elements at all.

Did you develop new tools for the particles?
Yes we did. The particle system that is driven by the fluid solver was created to get us around long sim times.

How was filmed the shots in which Ella is walking is the fire?
She was shot with practical lights on set and we added the flames to her body as a digital post element.

How did you create the hummingbird?
The hummingbird was modeled and rigged in Maya. The feathers were made using Shave and a Haircut and it was rendered in Renderman.

Can you explain to us how you create the bird and wings animation?
The animation for these wings was tough because of just how fast they move. We had to do a lot of testing to get the motion blur and the strobing just right. We looked at a lot of hi-speed video reference!

What was the biggest challenge with the hummingbird and how did you achieve it?
Getting the motion right as well as making sure it followed Daniel Craig’s eyeline. Luckily we had a great animator on it, Thomas Price, and Daniel’s performance on the day was spot on.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
I lost many nights on the Funeral Pyre sequence because it consisted of big, time-consuming simulations. When the clock is ticking towards a deadline, this can become quite stressful!

What do you keep from this experience?
A fantastic setup for medium scale fire! Also, that some things can appear relatively easy on paper but can prove to be harder than anyone can imagine.

How long have you worked on this film?
I was on this film for about 8 months.

What was the size of your team?
Including production, we had about 30 people touch it some degree during that period, but at any one time it was a fairly small team of 4 or 5 people.

What is your next project?
We have a few projects currently in production, but the only one we can mention publicly at the moment is Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS for Fox – which of course is extremely exciting to be a part of. We also did a small amount of work on THE HUNTER starring Willem Dafoe. It recently premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and was really well received.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Only 4? Tough. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, ALIENS, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and more recently FIGHT CLUB.

// A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Fuel VFX: Dedicated page about COWBOYS & ALIENS on Fuel VFX website.
fxguide: fxguide article about COWBOYS & ALIENS.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2011

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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