Can you tell us more about Main Road Post?
Arman Yahin // Main Road Post was formed in 2006 as a six-person collective. Now the studio hosts more than 60, and by the end of the year we’re planning a significant expansion of our current work. The studio specializes in visual effects for movies and collaborates on large Russian films. In 2013, the studio was noticed by the global VFX community thanks to its work on STALINGRAD. Now this year we’ve abandoned our usual working structure and implemented Scrum, breaking down the company into small, cross-functional teams.
How did you get involved on this show?
Arman Yahin // We have extensive, productive collaborative work experience with director and producer Fedor Bondarchuk, who also directed Stalingrad. Together with the authors behind ATTRACTION, producers Mikhail Vrubel and Alexander Andryushchenko, we have excellent collaborative experience on their previous project, THE GHOST, in which Fedor Bondarchuk played the main role. ATTRACTION was their first joint project with Fedor Bondarchuk as co-producer and director. Together with these filmmakers, we have ample experience solving difficult, unconventional tasks, as well as positive personal relations.
How was this new collaboration with director Fedor Bondarchuk?
Arman Yahin // For us, it’s always easy working with Fedor. On the one hand, he trusts us and accepts a large number of our ideas and suggestions, yet on the other it is of course a great responsibility. But since we all love science fiction and have long dreamt of working on a project like this, the work was very productive, and we were constantly playing off one another’s energy. This was especially important at the very end, when we were running out of time but there was still a lot of work and the situation was quite stressful; even then, we felt both tremendous support and understanding in difficult moments from Fedor and the producers.
What was his approach and expectation about the VFX?
Arman Yahin // Fedor is a visionary. He gravitates towards unusual images and difficult angles. In ATTRACTION, he eased away from his usual style and hired a young director of photography for the project. Since ATTRACTION is a very emotional story about devotion, love and social relationships, the VFX served as a kind of a dagger that destructively cut its way into ordinary human life. This was shown literally in the scene of the spaceship crash that destroys part of Moscow’s remote Chertanovo district, where our characters live, some of whom are local thugs. Our task here was to make this as real as possible. We tried our best, now it’s up to the viewers to judge. But Fedor ended up pleased with the result.
Can you describe your work from preproduction, on-set and then during post?
Arman Yahin // In short, when it comes to the production company, producers and director of the project, our relations can be summed up in two words: complete trust. I believe they felt the same way about us too. They always helped resolve our technical issues the best they could, and placed a great deal of confidence in our ability to make good choices on our own. So much freedom, yet so much responsibility! We didn’t just work for the client, we did things for ourselves to try and make a film we’d enjoy watching. As for the VFX, everything was designed by our own artists. We had a fairly tight partnership with the project’s art department, which involved building green or blue on set props and constructions , which were then replaced by CG. This was our first time working with Zhanna Pakhomova, the production designer of the film, and it was simply amazing: she was very supportive, helped in every way she could and trusted us implicitly, for which we’re very grateful.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the spaceship and its rings?
Andrey Maximov // At one of the meetings, the director had this idea to make the ship in the shape of an atom, so we took that as our start. During several animation tests, we checked the feasibility of the design of a sphere with several rings around it. We adjusted the sphere size and decided on the number of rings and their relative sizes, so we wouldn’t face problems animating the flight and crash scene later.
At the same time, our concept artist Maxim Revin was hard at work on the frame and rings of the spaceship. He built a bunch of different prototypes, and was constantly tweaking them in search of the right feel based on the continuous feedback we got from the director. After developing an operational proxy model of the spaceship, we delved into the details and also started on the medium-size elements following the approved sketches. All the ship’s pieces were drawn out in detail and presented more in an engineering light so the modeler would understand exactly what needs to be done. Objects of modern architecture (by Zaha Hadid in particular) were the main reference material for detailing the spaceship.
In order to make the animation of the spaceship more profound and complex, we introduced a number of additional animated elements, including that the surface of the ship’s hull slightly changes its shape due to its “living” wavy texture. The edges of the hull plating next to the engine can also change their shape, just as mechanisms on modern airplanes change the shape of their wings in flight. The rings also have an interesting animation feature, albeit not very noticeable, as a kinematic sculpture. In addition to their integral outer contour, they consist of a large set of similar parts from the inner contour. These internal parts move like waves in two opposite phases with slight displacement from one another, creating a rather interesting visual effect.
As often happens, we needed to minimize the use of familiar materials in the ship’s shading (iron, plastic, painted surfaces), and therefore had to try to “invent” some unusual, unfamiliar materials. In a certain sense, this gave us a lot of creative freedom, but in another, it was a rather difficult task due to the sheer expansiveness of the search field. In any event, we had the director’s vision of a dark gray, almost black ship to build on. In the end, we chose a black anisotropic material with a mixed metallic flare to use as the base. The anisotropy angle on the surface formed from its strict mosaic texture was our little trick to give the surfaces a more complexly detailed and technological appearance. Apart from this, we created a large number of additional textures to make the surfaces more plausible, such as abrasions, scratches, chips, small burn marks, etc.
The crash sequence involves a lot of destructions and FX. Can you explain in details about this aspect?
Andrey Maximov // The scene of the ship crashing in the city was one of the most difficult in the film, simulation wise. At the beginning of our work on this part, we thought through the geography and choreography of the crash, like where the ship flies out from, how fast it’s going and where it eventually stops. We came up with an original design for the crash area by positioning the houses according to which would be destroyed and which would survive, as well as roads and other elements of urban infrastructure. Then we made a previs with end-to-end animation of the entire crash scene. The previs also featured the main entertainment elements of crumbling houses, the stadium, flyover, and smoke from the saucer. Then, we shot the entire scene with several cameras (about 20 different angles) and edited the episode. As a matter of fact, it’s similar to the process of shooting a difficult movie stunt, complete with preparation, shooting from the largest possible number of angles, and editing.
The previs was the first iteration of the ship’s animation and cameras. As soon as we got it approved by the director, we set to work on the simulations. There are two basic groups of visual effects in the scene: RBD and Fluids. To render RBD, we followed the geometrical requirements in solvers like Bullet when designing buildings (and the stadium). Plus, all the apartment blocks have their own internal layout and stairways. In fact, any building in this film could be destroyed, as this capability was taken into account from the very beginning when creating the procedural generator of buildings (more on this later). This gave us the opportunity to change the number of storeys in the buildings and their entrance configurations at the finalization stage of the crash simulation, thus varying the scale of destruction.
The stadium, buildings and flyover were destroyed using Bullet Solver in Houdini. One significant complication in this task was the fact that the ship was a one-way collision object in the simulation. That is, the ship destroys the houses, but not vice versa. Thus, we immediately had the problem of unrealistic object acceleration, which does not happen in real life, as any material, especially a construction, has a certain degree of plasticity that dampers the initial impact as it deforms and breaks. In order to achieve balanced debris movement, we added a number of “soft” acceleration limiters.
In addition, all the destruction and contact of the ship with the ground kicked up huge amounts of dust, smoke and fine particles that were ejected into the air. All of them were also recreated using fluid simulations. The climax and most difficult part of this type of dynamics was the final phase of the ship’s crash, where in a single frame there was the pyroclastic cloud of dense dust from the impact, the dust from the collapsing stadium, and the smoke from burning parts of the ship’s hull after missile hits. In the end, we did not use a single stock sequence in this scene: all the smoke, dust and fire effects were made through simulations.
We would like to separately mention the scene of the fighter aircraft attack before the crash scene. While there are no large simulations in it, it nonetheless has a number of noteworthy elements. The atmosphere and lighting in this scene are part of a single physically correct environment, where everything is derived from the position of the sun. We used Houdini to reconstruct the basic model of cumulus cloud formations and created a library of clouds with its help. And of course, the full-CG fighter aircraft pilot as well.
How did you recreated the Moscow district Chertanovo?
Andrey Maximov // We developed a set of assets that helped us create city areas in a procedure-oriented manner. The asset kit included the residential housing generator, city infrastructure generator (trees, bushes, lawns, parked cars, footpaths, fences, lights, road signs, traffic lights, booths, billboards, communication wires between buildings, garbage containers and much more), as well as the traffic simulating system, which was based on the principles of traffic laws. It is worth adding that this algorithm also regulates traffic flow using traffic lights.
With a set of standard buildings, the building generator (as mentioned above) made it possible to create a building with any number of storeys or configuration type. Among other accomplishments, we achieved diversity through changing the parameters of balcony window style, the density of any attached equipment (satellite dishes, AC units), and textures. With this asset kit, manual work came down to simply identifying the main streets in the area, and the rest was generated automatically. Based on the film’s plot, we made three main areas where the action takes places, and in addition to the full-CG scenes, we also used them quite a bit for set extension in the shooting material. There were several additional districts as well, mainly there to serve as background. This helped us reduce the use of matte-paint to a minimum when working on the shots.
Plus, the caches of the destroyed houses from the ship crash scene were used again to create the assets of the destroyed areas. In doing so, we preserved the “natural” pattern of destruction and spread of debris, and considerably saved on resources as well.
The army is deploying a lot of vehicles. How did you created them?
Andrey Maximov // Most of the ground-based military equipment in the film is not CG (including the aircraft carrier). What we did have to recreate was the Flanker-E+ fighter aircraft, Werewolf assault helicopter and Tiger army truck. We made models for scenes where it was physically impossible to use real machinery. The interior in all models was also quite thoroughly designed. Some of our employees are aviation enthusiasts, so the interior of the fighter aircraft was recreated with absolute accuracy, for example, even down to the very inscriptions on the dashboard, steering wheel and cockpit surrounding the pilot. The helicopter, like the rest of the machinery made in such rich detail for close-ups and long shots, was based on publicly available drawings. The army truck was developed with close-ups in mind, as it was central in the final battle scene.
After the crash, the Aliens appears with the exoskeleton armor. Can you explain in detail about their design and creation?
Andrey Maximov // The extraterrestrial exoskeleton was the most sophisticated object for us in terms of design. It is almost always the case that viewers pay increased attention to the visual appearance of aliens, especially when they’re central to the plot. The exoskeleton we created isn’t actually a “creature” in the truest sense of the word, and the idea was that the viewer shouldn’t be able to figure out right away that it’s merely a shell with a person living inside. In other words, we faced the task of making a technological object that at first sight was recognized as an alien, or a living creature that may or may not be dangerous.
In search of the right form, our artists drew several dozen sketches, worked through a variety of anatomical schemes, mechanics and formations, from flexible tentacles as limbs to more fluid forms. The exoskeleton was designed to move quickly, climb walls and feature the same general design as the ship. This was another artistic challenge we had to solve in our work on extraterrestrial objects: their visual and stylistic similarity. In the end, we came up with our chosen form and proceeded to engineer it.
At this point, we needed to create a functioning model based on the approved sketches, at which stage we adjusted the length of the limbs and joint location, literally inventing a whole new internal anatomy. We integrated muscle and bone and carried out countless deformation tests, checking the ability of the exoskeleton’s body to make a wide range of animation poses. We were guided by the notion that well-thought-out internal mechanics (or anatomy) is an essential condition for obtaining a real and believable object, whether it is a living being or a complex piece of machinery.
The resulting working anatomical model featured some adjustments to the exoskeleton silhouette and designated secondary lines and shapes considered medium-size. Next, based on the sketches, anatomical model and key stylistic references, we proceeded to a more detailed modeling of the exoskeleton. First, we made a sculpt model to solve various design issue regarding small details, textures and materials. These details also demanded a lot of attention and a considerable artistic search, as usually it’s from them viewers glean the most about an object’s origin, its story, and what universe it’s from. Once all the artistic solutions were found, work on the model started to flow more naturally. First, the sculpting artist worked on the detailing, then several modelers performed retopology and UV mapping of the geometry.
As we mentioned before, the rigging process began at the early stages of work on the exoskeleton. The rig itself was divided into three modules: 1 — animation rig, 2 — deformation rig, 3 — shading asset. The animation rig was made “light” for computer calculations and provided interactive and real time work, which is a must for the animation stage.
The deformation rig was designed for the deformation of the highly polygonal geometry of the exoskeleton, and to deliver the caches ready for final rendering. The deformation rig was based on a muscle framework developed inside the company. One of the features of this framework is its softbody muscle dynamics, which we used in most of the shots.
The shading asset was designed to render the exoskeleton, from a technical perspective containing a library of shaders and a small preprocessor that prepared the geometry for rendering. Input data for the shading asset were the cache files generated by the deformation rig. Shading was carried out in two versions: black and white. According to the plot, the white exoskeleton is the only one and is controlled by a human, and the black one is a robot controlled remotely by the ship’s AI. In addition, this asset regulated the degree of “staining” on the exoskeleton’s surface. Since in quite a significant portion of the film the action occurs in the area destroyed by the crash, all the surfaces are covered with dust, ash, debris and dirt. Therefore, any object lacking these traces of interaction with the environment would look out of place.
How did you manage their interaction on-set with the actor and the crew?
Dmitry Kuznetsov // In the final battle, there were two main blocks: the line of the main characters fighting (the first line), and the line of the group of ultras fighting the aliens and military (second line)
We did not create any special on-set instruments for the first line, where there were interactions between the protagonist and antagonist in the CG exoskeleton. Rinal Mukhametov, who played the real alien, masterfully handled difficult moments during close-ups with amazing plasticity, like when the antagonist grabs him by the shoulders and lifts him into the air, so all that was left to add was the rotoanimation and CG character. The medium and long shots with stunts that couldn’t be performed by real people were made full CG, and both characters were animated manually.
For the second line, together with the stunt group, we created metal structures based on prearranged techvis. These structures acted as the alien’s limbs and were controlled by a cable system, thanks to which we ended up with fairly realistic interactions between real actors and CG characters on close-ups and medium-range shots. On long shots and in the background, everything was done full CG.
How did you work with the stunt team to enhanced their work especially on the slow-mo shots?
Arman Yahin // The slow motion shots were all completely CG, but our work with the stuntmen was pretty close in the battle scene between the thugs and the alien bot team. The stuntmen made several rigs for their guys in gray suits, who were replaced later by the aliens. This helped everyone during the shooting, and gave us an understanding of what it would turn into later. Plus, it gave the right physiology to the stuntmen playing the thugs. In a couple of frames, we had to completely replace the stuntmen with digital doubles, as we kept failing to achieve the desired choreography in the shot.
Can you tell us more about the gravity effects on the water in the shower sequence?
Dmitry Kuznetsov // This sequence was not as complicated technically speaking as, for example, the ship’s crash sequence. But it nonetheless required a lot of manual work, including the restoration of cameras on close-ups with the actress, and then incredibly precise rotoanimation. But the main challenge here was the artistic component, where the general picture of the frame and droplet movement dynamics made the viewer feel what we wanted them to. We kept going through different versions until the director and we all realized we had finally hit the nail right on the head. After this, the sequence was finalized rather quickly.
What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
Arman Yahin // The main difficulty was that we didn’t have experience with such intricate work in such quantities and with razor-thin deadlines, as we had only about 5 months to work after the editing was finished. Plus, it was our first time with a character as sophisticated as an alien with so many close-up shots. We were familiar with all the other tasks, but almost all of them now were more complicated and bigger, including the destruction scenes, digital doubles and digital environments.
One of the most important decisions that helped us meet the deadline on this project, in my opinion, was the studio’s transition to a more flexible work method, and more specifically, one of the Agile frameworks — Scrum. This allowed the studio to work more efficiently and resolve the numerous unplanned issues that emerge during the work process, as well as be much more flexible following changes in the plans.
How long have you worked on this show?
Arman Yahin // One year for preparation, concept art and RnD, and 5 months of a packed schedule for creating shots.
How many shots have you done?
Arman Yahin // In total, the film had about 1,100 shots, 700 of which were made by our studio, and the other 400 were handled by other vendors.
What was the size of your team?
Arman Yahin // At the time, 50 people were working in the studio, including the entire management team. A total of 255 people worked on the film’s VFX, which is the same number of people in the final credits.
What is your next project?
Arman Yahin // At the moment, the studio has finished work on the major film FURIOUS (THE LEGEND OF KOLOVRAT), and is currently working on three films: Hong Kong’s WARRIORS OF FUTURE, the large Russian fantasy film with the draft title COSMOBALL, and the military/history film FRONTIER. On top of that, we’re looking forward to the start of work on ATTRACTION 2.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Arman Yahin // For me personally, Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK completely turned my life around. This film gave me true insight into what I wanted to do with my life. Another one was FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR, and of course, TERMINATOR 2. As a kid, I used to watch a lot of VHS tapes of Hong Kong action films, as well as films with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.
Dmitry Kuznetsov // From my earliest childhood, STAR WARS has continued to inspire me with its stunningly expansive universe and incredibly cool visual renderings of characters and locations.
A big thanks for your time.
// ATTRACTION – MAKING OF – MAIN ROAD POST
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Main Road Post: Dedicated page about ATTRACTION on Main Road Post website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017