ALIEN – COVENANT: Anthony Smith – VFX Supervisor – Rising Sun Pictures

In 2014, Anthony Smith told us about the Framestore‘s work on PADDINGTON. He then joined Rising Sun Pictures and worked on many films such as X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, GAME OF THRONES and LOGAN.

How was the collaboration with director Ridley Scott and VFX Supervisor Charley Henley?
Pretty much all of our contact was with Charley with a little extra with some of the key creatives at MPC. Because of the close collaboration between RSP and MPC we had regular calls to make sure our methodology and progress was well aligned with MPC’s. Charley is a fantastic supervisor who was always enthusiastic about the work and has a great ability to explain both what he wants to see and how it fits into the bigger picture of the movie, which was extremely important given that many aspects of it were shared between various VFX facilities.

What was their approaches and expectations about the visual effects?
The obvious requirement was realism. Whatever we did had to look as through it was physically there on set with the actors. For our shared shots we had a couple of different requirements for our deliveries. For the Michael Fassbender arm removal shots, along with our final shots we delivered mattes for our work to assist other facilities to do further work. While for the final sequence in the Covenant hangar we had to ensure that we provided everything MPC needed to easily complete the shots in comp.

What was your feeling to work on the Alien universe?
It’s incredible to have been able to contribute to such an iconic movie anthology. ALIEN and ALIENS are two of the movies that I watched often as a kid (even though I probably shouldn’t have been!) which makes our participation even more special.

What are the sequences made by Rising Sun Pictures?
RSP worked on a total of 144 shots. These included 2D and 3D augmentations to Michael Fassbender’s arm, and 3D smoke, ice particles and explosions for the interior of the Covenant hangar toward the end of the movie which were used in MPC’s final comps.

How did you organize the work at Rising Sun Pictures?
For the simpler arm augmentations the 2D team were able to complete many of the shots without any 3D assistance. Occasionally our matte painting department created arm images for the compositors to animate in Nuke. More complex shots where the arm was moving in ways and at speeds that made it more difficult to remove and replace in 2D required that we tasked our layout team with camera and arm matchmoves. Our builds department modelled and rigged a field bandaged arm asset which we textured and shaded in our lookdev department. This was lit and rendered per shot by the lighting team before being combined with the plate by our comp team.

For the effects-heavy Covenant end sequence, our FX team used ice and foil assets provided by MPC along with smoke and explosion elements they generated to create a range of complex simulations.

Can you explain in detail about your work on Walter and his hand?
It was important that the initial moments of Walter’s injury were striking to the viewer. We referred to many real world examples of bubbling and smoking white milk and chemical substances, while also combining those references with examples of android blood and alien saliva from the previous ALIEN movies.

The original plates of Walter had him wearing a stump over his hand. Some of this needed to be removed by our 2D team once we worked out how much would be covered by the CG stump. Our CG arm was built with an open wound and ripped fabric as a base and this asset was matchmoved into the correct position. The FX team then began developing various forms of acid reaction which was simulated to emit from the wounded area. We did extensive look development on the injury which included bubbling, fizzing, smoke and dripping acid and blood. We went through a few rounds of reviews with Charley and Ridley to discuss the impact of each of these aspects of the effect and how visible they should be, while each time making adjustments to the overall length of the arm removal to make sure it was as striking as possible.


How did you created the effects of the acid?
The FX team used Houdini simulations to create the various aspects of the Walter’s acid wound. Once the arm asset was built they painted on areas that would emit and proceeded to develop systems to create growing and popping gas bubbles, subtle fizzing of tiny acid particles, different styles of smoke, and an overall fluid simulation of blood and acid that would flow from and drip from the wound. Each of these had different shaders developed as we narrowed down the final look and feel of the simulations.

How did you handle the lighting challenge on the hand?
The lighting was challenging for 2 reasons. Firstly it wasn’t possible to get accurate on set lighting reference, and secondly we had to make sure the story point of the wound had the appropriate amount of readability in the darkness while not detracting from the great android reaction (or lack of) to having his hand removed.

The final sequence is full of smoke and explosions. Can you explain in detail about the FX work?
The FX team used ice chunk and foil assets provided by MPC and ran dense and complex simulations on them throughout the whole interior volume of the Covenant and out into space. Amongst these they also created many smoke layers of differing types (e.g. Co2, diesel and fog) which were carefully choreographed into place for each shot. The smoke was used to help drive the story throughout the sequence, hiding and revealing elements in frame at specific moments. A key example of this was the moment when Daniels’ view out of the Covenant hangar door gets obscured by the thick diesel smoke, so that she’s unable to see whether the Xenomorph made it back. Of course the smoke sims were then used a few shots later to obscure the Xenomorph just before it jumps straight at camera through the simulation, which was crafted to react to the dynamics of MPC’s animation.

We kept a close collaboration with MPC throughout the process. They kept us up to date with their animations by providing us with geometry caches and WIP renders and comps so we could continue to develop our sims around the motion of their animation, and we kept them up to date with WIP renders of our simulations so they knew what to expect in their final comps.

How did you enhance the various explosions?
The explosions in the original plates were minimal – often just very small scale sparks were set off at key moments. These emitted a good amount of light but didn’t have the required scale or motion for the scene. We added to these with much larger simulations which as well as flaming cores, emitted a large amount of smoke and debris trails.

The sequence is in zero-g conditions. How does that affects the animation of the FX?
Although the sequence is in a vacuum in zero-g conditions, we diverged a little from realism and took some creative licence with our simulations in some cases. The main reason for this was to emphasize existing movement that was occurring in MPC’s animations. To do this we hinted that there was some air in the Covenant that could be moved around. For example we added a subtle wind force to the general motion of the truck that is pushed out of the Covenant to gently move the ice and foil in front of it out of the door, rather than all gathering and bouncing unattractively all over the front of the truck. We also added attractive air vortices to our simulations both behind the truck as it falls out of the Covenant, and also around the Xenomorph as it jumps through the simulation.

Can you tell us more about the lighting and rendering part?
The lighting and rendering was heavily based on the plate lighting. We matched the location and timing of the main set lighting and the additional lighting added by MPC, specifically the downward spotlights int he ceiling, which flashed on and off creating dynamic cones of light through our simulations. We also projected out the plates (and then MPC’s comps) onto the set and animation geometry caches to use as an additional light source.

How did you work with MPC for the final compositing work?
We provided MPC with extensive amounts of deep renders of smoke, explosions, ice and foil, along with lighting AOVs and a selection of useful utility renders to make sure they had everything they needed to achieve their comps. As the deep data requirements through such thick volumes can sometimes be high, we worked with MPC to create a shot-by-shot specification for exactly the layers they required, and what needed to be provided deep or not. We sent our elements with example comps that served as very basic examples of how we thought the elements should be combined.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Luckily I didn’t lose too much sleep on this one!

What is your best memory on this show?
It was awesome to get to work on the shot of the Xenomorph jumping at camera out of the smoke! But my particular favourite is the profile shot of the truck falling out of the Covenant.

How long have you worked on this show?
We were on the show for roughly 5-6 months.

What is your VFX shots count?
144 shots.

What was the size of your team?
About 95 members of the RSP team contributed to the show.

What is your next project?
We’re currently hard at work on THOR: RAGNAROK.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Rising Sun Pictures: Official website of Rising Sun Pictures.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017

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Vincent Frei

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

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