STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS: Ben Grossmann – VFX Supervisor – Pixomondo

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Ben Grossmann began his career in the VFX more than 10 years ago. He has worked on many films such as THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, 2012 SHUTTER ISLAND or ALICE IN WONDERLAND. He received an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for HUGO.

What is your background?
I got my start as a photojournalist. Went from that to TV cameraman and editor, then producer in TV. When I moved to LA from Alaska, VFX was very attractive because it was all those things rolled into one, plus a lot of mystery and a little magic.

What was your feeling to be part of the Star Trek universe?
It’s a crazy feeling to be a part of such a long-running franchise that’s covered so much creative territory. I felt like I’d never really done a sci-fi film, so to crack that nut on a Star Trek project and to be able to do some cool stuff with Klingons was pretty fun. Heck, just standing on the bridge of the Enterprise was an awesome experience.

How did Pixomondo get involved on this show?
We had worked before with VFX producer Ron Ames, and we’d just completed HUGO and had a great team assembled, so he introduced us to JJ and Roger and we hit it off.

How was the collaboration with director J.J. Abrams?
It was pretty fun for a change. Usually working on a big movie with a big director can be high pressure and stressful, but he’s a very fun guy to work with, so it feels like making a movie with family & friends. His office is just a couple blocks away from Pixomondo in Santa Monica, so going over for dailies a few times a week was really easy. We didn’t have to rely so much on remote communication, which feels odd these days when everything is coming and going all around the world. He’s an energetic guy with a great eye, and sensibility for putting a story together. He has very high expectations but really made the journey fun along the way.

What was his approach about the visual effects?
He likes to keep the work connected to the actors and “natural.” He has a style of cinematography and rhythm that take a bit to get your hands on, but once you get yourself into his mindset the work all comes together. He’s not one for big wide sweeping “oh that must be a VFX shot” scenes. So you’re always looking for a way to connect the shots with the characters in the story, and give them a flair that seats well with the cinematography and the edit style throughout the movie. It’s ok to have a big wide sweeping shot that looks awesome, as long as it starts, ends, or “visits” with the characters at some point. This gave us a great opportunity for some really long shots in the film.

How was the collaboration with Production VFX Supervisor Roger Guyett?
We were together with him On Set and throughout post and stayed in touch on a regular basis. We had dailies with him in person several times a week and had constant phone calls and text message reviews in between. He’s got his finger on the pulse of JJ’s style, and a great eye for details and choreography so he was a great partner for seeing the whole movie and keeping it all consistent and awesome

What have you done on this show?
We contributed to about a dozen sequences in the movie, with some of our biggest sequences being Kronos & the Klingons, the Conference Room Attack at Starfleet Headquarters, and Kirk in the Warp Core. We did a lot of work inside the Enterprise to show the scope and destruction in several scenes where the Enterprise is falling to Earth, plus a lot of phaser battles and various fun one-off scenes throughout.

Can you tell us more about a typical day for you on-set and then during the post?
Typical days on set were nice because they were shot in Los Angeles primarily. So it was nice to be able to drive to work for a change, instead of being sequestered in some hotel in a far off land. The vibe on the sets were very high security, more so than usual, but once you were in, it was very much a family feeling with high energy and a great “crew vibe.” Of course typical days start very early in the morning and are spent chasing down the myriad of sets to be shot that day and making sure that everything was going to plan, while still being flexible enough to accommodate new ideas as they arose.

In post, because I was supervising facilities around the world, my day could start much earlier as I was doing shot reviews with the offices in Europe and would end much later as I was working through the artists in China. At some point in between, I’d be in the office in Santa Monica doing reviews with Roger and JJ, and working with the artists in California. Days could sometimes start at 6am and end at 2am in order to get all these reviews done, but fortunately I’ve developed an aversion to sleeping. By default when you’re working globally it becomes a 6 day week because Sunday is Monday across the time zones, and as the production picks up steam, you can find yourself working 7 days a week regardless, so it’s quite some work to keep up with all the shot flow.

I didn’t usually find it necessary to have physical “dailies” in a screening room with artists because so many were around the world anyway, we had a great queuing system with Shotgun and Screening Room so that I could review all shots at my desk and make annotations and have cinesyncs as the shots popped up. Artists could submit a shot for review in Beijing or London or Baton Rouge, and the pipeline would transfer the media to the office in LA and even cache it locally on my machine, or send it to the theater if I needed to see it big. Then I could put notes on it or drawings or reference from the internet and send it right back while the artist was just getting back from lunch.

How did you create the Starfleet HQ building and its environment?
We had some rough concepts from the art department and Halon, that gave us a ballpark idea of where we needed to go, we knew the types of materials from some shooting we did at the Getty Museum in LA, but we definitely had to do a full design and build-out with a lot of detail to cover all the shots in day and night. We built lots of little landing pads and elevator systems that were pretty cool. The whole thing had a little bit of that World’s Fair feel with notes of a spaceship saucer. It was an 88 story building right in the hear to San Fran. We put a model of it in Google Earth and moved it around the city checking the sight lines to make sure we’d always have a nice vista for all the shots we knew we needed to do. Once we’d got it done, JJ added a few more helicopter shots to work with the city and the architecture a little more, so that was nice.

A ship attacks the HQ. Can you tell us more about its creation?
We had a set for the interior of the room, looking out into a dark stage, and experimented with the idea of using translights for far away buildings that we eventually replaced digitally. We had a NavCam rig controlling a platform that had lights attached to it so we could have a practical lighting source and eyeline target for the choreography of the action scenes. Our animator Eric Armstrong was able to make ship animation sequences in Maya and feel them to the NavCam control of the lighting platform so that it would replicate a flight attack sequence with all the search beams and muzzle flashes, which gave us great practical interactions with Special Effects.

Most of this sequence was being done in Berlin with environment work being done in London. We fleshed out a concept of the ship from production with an insane amount of detail because we ended up adding a lot of close-ups of the ship to bridge the story. It was a tough combination to choreograph so much action with so many little bits of footage. We spent several months in total just designing the look of the green targeting lasers of the ship, and simulated huge volumes of debris and smoke so that we could light them from within by the lasers. It required us to really light and render so much of it as an “all-in-one” render to get proper lighting integration. There are a lot of all-CG shots in that sequence that includes fully CG characters and stunt doubles sometimes playing close to camera.

The destruction itself was quite a challenge and the guys did a great job building systems to twist all that ship metal and break off parts of the building. Continuity was a huge challenge because we were destroying the building and the ship quite a bit. Id’ say getting the believability of the gun getting tossed into the engine was one of our biggest challenges because when you think about it after it’s all done, that’s a pretty crazy concept and tough to make real. We tried to keep the edit moving along quickly and not linger on it too much so you don’t really have too much time to think about it and go “wait, what?”

How did you manage the destruction on this sequence?
Mostly I just sat back and watched in awe as the guys in Berlin made awesome stuff. Michael Wortmann supervised the work there with FX supervisor Pieter Mentz. All the artists there just came up with some really amazing work time and again. And re-did it every time the edit changed, which happened right up until the movie was released.

Have you developed specific tools for the smoke and fire?
We used Thinking Particles and Fume for much of it, most of the tools we developed to work with those were about handling the work efficiently and creating large simulations that could still have insane amounts of detail. Plus all of it had to work when rendered in stereo. Doing big destruction stuff in stereo is a huge deal because of all the tiny details and volumetric effects. There’s just no cheating.

How did you approach the huge sequence on Kronos?
We moved in with a lot of ground troops supported by heavy artillery, tanks, and a lot of close air support. It was a tough battle for sure, but in the end, we’re all very happy with the havoc we wreaked.

What indications and references did you received to creates Kronos?
Very little, in retrospect. There were some various concepts from production, but we ended up going in a different direction for much of it, but we were able to blend in with the small set that was built for the ground battle. Even that required a lot of extension because of the size, but all-in-all Kronos was a big design job.

Can you explain in details about the creation of Kronos environment?
We knew the planet should be green (I think we moved away from that) and that it should be stormy (I think we kept that), and that it should feel like this city we’re in should be an abandoned factory town, kind of like Chernobyl. But aside from that we did a lot of concepts and modeling tests to figure out all the bits. As JJ was liking something, we’d flesh it out more and create larger portions of it. We had a lot of altitude to descend through to get to the planet’s surface (we never actually get there, the “ground battle” takes place high above the ground still).

We thought it would be great to have the chase scene start within pockets of evil looking all-CG clouds which giant spires and buildings climbing through them that were several kilometers high. Then as the descend though the city, we start seeing a lot more details of industrial development. We’d built a lot of “sets” kind of like massive city blocks that we could move around to design shots with our animation team and spent a lot of time coming up with a very dynamic chase scene for the ships. As we would get deeper and deeper into the planet, the atmosphere because very dense and we started to light things similar to the feeling you get in an underwater cave.

We actually used a lot of reference for that to create the look. It was a pretty massive undertaking by the lighters, headed up by Enrico Damm, the comp team led by Dan Cobbett, and the FX Supervisor Patrick Schuler because each of them had to give 100% to get the look dialed just right. Adam Watkins, our DFX supe who really led the LA team did a great job bringing it all together. We even added a lot of waterfalls coming from condensation on all the buildings. They just went nuts on detail in that sequence.

Aside from all the work in creating the environment, we also had to design those ships! That was many months worth of work to get all the little details right and have lot of secondary animation that could look awesome while flying and still hold up in very close shots. Some pretty amazing work by the modeling and animation teams.

How did you proceed to create the fight between the Starfleet shuttle and the Klingon ship?
For us, this was very much like a car chase scene, and we looked at a lot of famous car chases for inspiration. We really tried to nail the style of cinematography JJ and Dan Mindel are known for and then fit them into a narrative that still connected it with our crew. We’d make a lot of “takes” of action with our animation supervisor Sebastian Butenberg and many of the other animators, and slot them into the edit to see which ones were working before we’d flesh out all the details and the environments. JJ was VERY concerned about realism every step of the way and wanted to know that the flight dynamics and mass were always correct. It’s a hard thing to do when you’re flying ships in a massive environment at 5,000 mph. And when you’re animating without the atmospheric effects to sell the speed, it’s a tough thing to get right. Sometimes we’d have to go back after we saw a shot rendered and slow everything down or change the proximity to the buildings and clouds.

That was a pretty heavy rendering environment to get through. Some shots took thousands of proc hours to get just one version out so you’d be scheduling shot renders more than a week in advance.

Can you tell us more about the design of the various lasers during the fight on Kronos?
It’s a tough thing to figure out who’s doing what in a gun battle between 3 parties in a storm, especially when every moment is telling some part of the story and not many of them are just throw-away “cool” shots. We tried to keep the guns distinguishable by giving them different colors, for starters, so you could figure out who was shooting what. We also gave each of them a different textural style and spent a lot of time on Khan’s Boolean gun. That was quite a look dev operation. It was originally JJ’s idea on set that he should have a big gun that takes a while to charge and when it shoots anything, it’s like a flashlight that “disappears” whatever it hits. so we did a lot of rag-doll simulations of klingons having large chunks of their bodies “evaporated”. It was pretty fun stuff. Especially when we started shooting those Klingon Fighter ships down. That was some serious FX work and animation right there.

At a critical moment, Kirk entering into the Enterprise reactor. How did you enhance this set?
Basically the design wasn’t quite settled when we had to shoot it and it would have been a very expensive build, so they built what he was going to touch and let us create the rest. Most of that environment was full CG. JJ wanted to use flashes of light to reveal the set, but keep a lot of it dark and mysteriously evil. It’s a very tough thing to sell the jeopardy of “radiation” so we using a combination of lighting flashes and a lot of FX simulations to drive very subtle 3D distortions to give the room some energy. There was an immense amount of work to combine the CG set with the small portions of practical builds because the lenses were anamorphic, very wide, and the lighting was changing on every single frame. Quite an epic Lighting task to match, and an epic comp effort to marry it all together. The room design and FX were supervised by Sven Martin in Frankfurt and a lot of the comp and execution were supervised by Simon Carr in London. A surprisingly insane amount of work for a “guy in a room” sequence. But we were killing Kirk, so we all agreed it was worth it.

During the whole show, the shots are constantly moving. How did you manage the tracking challenge?
That was a pretty epic challenge because the days of “you lock a cut, and then we start vfx” are gone. Gone, dead and buried. The edit is alive until the delivery. We would get edit changes right up until a couple days before final delivery, which was only a couple weeks before the movie was coming out.
I can’t begin to describe the chaos that is.

You do the best you can until time runs out, which it eventually does. Our VFX editor Brian Miller worked like a madman to keep up with what was going on, and published out edit changes in Shotgun to the artists around the world could see what was happening. Far too frequently, it wasn’t “heads and tails trims and extensions”. It was shots being moved around to create a new story, which usually meant changing some part of the VFX for continuity, so there’s a ripple effect. Sometimes an edit change in one shot would actually affect 4 other shots story wise. And we shot the movie on film, which made everything exponentially harder in that regard. Basically if you have to do a rescan, you can throw out roto, paint and matchmove work that’s been done and start over, just to add a second to two to the head or tail. In digital, you can just add those frames and extend your work.

Its unfortunately a very manual process when an editor changes a shot to get it broken out for the VFX team, and shown in context with changes, and get the new material, and try to recover any of your lost work. It’s just a consequence of the departments being so separated, and the time frames being so compressed with changes happening until the last minute. Gone are the days where you basically lock your cut and then wait for your VFX to fill in.

Can you tell us more about the assets sharing with ILM teams?
We had similar pipelines so we shared things we built with them, like the jump ship, Knormian ship, SFHQ, and digi-doubles and they’d give us some background San Fran of the future buildings. It was pretty pain-free, but Roger tried to keep the sequence work as separate as possible with little overlap.

How did you split the work amongst the various Pixomondo offices?
On HUGO, I got a sense of the natural abilities of the various offices so I tried to give start-to-finish sequence work by facility. Sometimes we had to adapt that plan based on sequences growing or changing turnover dates so that multiple facilities were collaborating on one sequence.
Shanghai (under supervisor Saku Partemies) generally did Enterprise interiors, Frankfurt generally did the Warp Core with London and some alien character work; LA handled much of Kronos with some fly-down interiors handled by Baton Rouge and a little Kelvin Optical; Beijing worked with ILM on the Nibiru planet doing some of the coverage of the chase through the red forest and cleanup of wardrobe and make up, plus a phaser battle on the bridge of the Vengeance; London did San Fran at night shots in several sequences as well, and Munich (under supervisor Urs Franzen) did a lot of window comps with cities and ship animations, plus holograms in places like Marcus’ office and Pike’s Office.

How did you work with each Pixomondo VFX Supervisors?
I’ve spent a lot of time with them all, so it was like working with friends again. We talked all the time on Skype and they would send shots through shotgun for review. The pipeline made it able to be very informal. We rarely had “dog and Pony shows and big Cinesyncs. Those guys are all capable supes so it was nice to be able to hand things off and get a great shot in return with minimum hassle

Can you tell us more about the stereo and Imax aspects of this show?
This was one of the more complicated mysteries of the show and was the most difficult I’ve ever seen it.

Shots that were shot in anamorphic, were redelivered that way, plus mattes and layers and full rendered elements with a recombine comp for all shots for the stereo conversion guys, which I’ll be frank, was an expensive nightmare. Some sequences that were shot fully in IMAX needed to be redelivered that way of course, with the same stereo breakout renders. Any shot that was fully CG was redelivered fully in stereo and IMAX (regardless if the surrounding shots were anamorphic or not), which means that all the heavy shots got four times as heavy. Any shot that was mostly CG, but had a footage element that needed to be converted was delivered in “hybrid” we would render full CG for both eyes, and comp with a placeholder for the footage that would be converted to get added later by StereoD.

So it’s like doing a full CG shot, with even more added complexity. The advantage of all this is that the final stereo result is as high quality as it can be. The disadvantage is that it is a technical headache and anyone who tells you how much it “should cost” should be completely ignored unless they’ve personally done it before at the facility level.
It’s not as simple as anyone says it is with “oh yeah, you just have to deliver some roto mattes that you might have created.” It’s very complex and involves a lot of additional work, coordination, and quality control. If anyone out there is about to embark on this type of work, I caution you, you’re already underestimating how much effort it is.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The budget and the changing edit were the biggest challenges. It’s natural and good for the film to be changed throughout the process to be it the best it can be, and we try to do everything we can to support the creative side of the film, but the limitations of the finance are not moving in a direction that supports that level of free-flowing creative.
“Digital” makes it easier to change things because you don’t have to necessarily go through the process of arranging re-shoots, and you’re more likely to craft the film based on what you shot. But when you’re creating the film digitally, anything is possible, but the budgeting doesn’t recognize that fact and is more oriented towards “filling in the blanks we have from production” rather than “those blanks from the production are really big parts of the story and can be anything.” Being stuck in the middle of those two opposing forces has been the challenge of filmmaking since the 1900s and it’s even more so today I think. I’m frankly not sure that our industry will be able to continue to address these trends successfully.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
All of them allowed very little sleep as a simple matter of logistics, but I would say that the shot of the ships landing in Kronos was one of the longest and most complicated. An amazing amount of choreography went into that shot and the resources to create it, and render it were pretty epic right up until the last minute. It was sort of a “tour de force” shot with everything from Kronos all in one shot.

What do you keep from this experience?
I really enjoyed working with JJ, he makes the experience more fun than work.

How long have you worked on this film?
It was more than a year from when we started shooting to when we delivered the final finals.

How many shots have you done?
About 380, plus an additional 40 or so that were trimmed to make the film tighter.

What was the size of your team?
At various points in time people would ramp on and ramp off, so there might have been 350+ different people on the film, but with a much smaller number at any given time.

What is your next project?
My daughter, Scarlet, needs to be potty trained.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
I like FIGHT CLUB for its subversiveness; the INDIANA JONES trilogy, and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK for the adventure and spectacle, and FORREST GUMP because it’s just a damn fun movie.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Pixomondo: Official website of Pixomondo.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2013

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