CLOUD ATLAS: Florian Gellinger – VFX Supervisor – RISE

Florian Gellinger is in the visual effects for over 10 years. In 2007, he founded RISE with three friends and supervised numerous projects such as THIS IS LOVE, NINJA ASSASSIN or X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. In the following interview, he talks about his work on CLOUD ATLAS.

What is your background?
I started working as a compositor when I was 22 years old. But soon I got more and more interested in Maya and rendering. So I kept learning and moved on to becoming Head of 3D of the company I worked for. In 2005, I supervised VFX work on Roman Polanski’s OLIVER TWIST. That was my first job as VFX supervisor.

Can you tell us more about Rise FX?
RISE was founded by three friends of mine and me in 2007. Looking at our own skills we had the feeling that we were complimenting each other perfectly. One of us might have stronger business skills while the others contribute artistic or technical knowledge. So as a team we seem to have found the perfect balance. Our clients enjoy working with us on a personal level and we never miss a deadline. The confidence to get everything done in time while working on the highest technical and artistic levels generate a calmness that lets us rethink and judge our work daily rather than struggling with completion. We believe this is key to deliver high quality work, especially when taking today’s post production schedules into account.

How did Rise FX got involved on this show?
We first worked with Dan Glass, the senior VFX supervisor on CLOUD ATLAS, on NINJA ASSASSIN in 2008. Since then I met him in LA and at the FMX conference in Stuttgart and he gave us a call once he set up tent in Berlin for the shoot. We provided him with 3D artists and workstations for the previs phase, LiDAR scanning of locations and sets and when the shoot started I joined Stephane Ceretti, the second production VFX supervisor, on set of the Tom Tykwer unit for set supervision.

How was the collaboration with The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer?
It was amazing. The most mind blowing fact is how fast the three directors and their editor Alex turned the footage from the shoot into a movie, especially with a movie that is designed as complex as CLOUD ATLAS is. In terms of visual effects it was almost like working with just one director. All three of them shared the same vision and as a result they almost always shared the same opinion about every detail of the movie.

Can you tell us more about your work with Production VFX Supervisor Stephane Ceretti?
We did some work on X-MEN: FIRST CLASS in early 2011 and the production VFX supervisor who was responsible for our chunk of shots was Stef. The only time I had met him before was for two minutes on the Fox lot in LA when we started working on the show. On X-MEN we had a blast Cinesyncing every other day, it didn’t even feel like work. So the first time we met in Berlin for CLOUD ATLAS we knew we were in for fun times. Stef is a human whirlwind, constantly in motion while perfectly organized. I joined him on set supervising some of the shoot of the Tom Tykwer unit. During post Stef’s office was located just across the river of our Berlin office and to keep communication as direct as possible I would visit him or vice versa to discuss shots and to look at the latest iterations.

What have you done on this show?
We worked on a total 106 shots, spread out over five of the six stories in CLOUD ATLAS. We served as the main vendor for the Luisa Rey episode based in 1973 in San Francisco, did some thunderstorm shots for the South Pacific in 1849, provided sky comps, period cleanups, cars and set extensions for shots in 1936 in Cambridge, added a bionic CG eye patch to a doctor in Neo Seoul in 2144 and placed a Satellite Center on a mountain top on Hawaii in 2321. Our work on the 1973 episode required the creation of a nuclear power plant on an island for day, dusk and night shots including the bridge connecting to the island. We had to blow up a CG plane, crash a CG Volkswagen beetle off a bridge and create a CG environment for dry-4-wet underwater shots of the car. Also day and night shots of Glasgow and Düsseldorf had to be transformed to look like San Francisco in the 70s.

Can you tell us in detail the creation of the Swannekke Lake Power plant and its environment?
We had to create shots with the power plant at day, sunset and night. The helicopter shots of the power plant at daytime were shot on a real bridge in Scotland that was spanning a river. We scanned the bridge with our LiDAR scanner and used the 3D model to extend the real bridge, to render CG water underneath and to add street lights. We needed the street lights to later sell the lighting of the night shots on the bridge. Our 3D bridge was generated procedurally along a spline. That way we could modify the spline at any point in time to match the curvature of the real bridge as close as possible. For the island and the power plant we started with various concept paintings that we mapped onto a 3D card at the end of our CG bridge extension. After the directors chose their favorite design we started building a 3D model based on the concept painting. We had LiDAR scanned the main entrance hall of the power plant at the shoot and we could build on that. The island was then populated with CG trucks, cars and forklifts driving around.

The scene on the balcony of the power plant at sunset where Halle Berry and Tom Hanks talk was shot in front of greenscreen at the Babelsberg Studios near Berlin. Stef had already designed a layout for the editors to use in the cut based on the San Onofre power plant south of LA that the directors liked very much. We matched his layout in terms of placement and mood with high resolution footage and added smoke and CG water reflecting the sunset.

To be able to light the night scenes on the bridge to the power plant more easily we shot the VW beetle on a dressed runway of a closed airport in Berlin with five practical street lights. That way DoP Frank Griebe could set up his lighting rigs all over the place without the limitation in space that a real bridge with a river underneath would have caused. We added CG railings, street lights, sidewalks and extended the bridge using the LiDAR scanned bridge from Scotland. We also rendered CG water that would give us nicely ray traced reflections of the power plant. The CG water is basically just a displaced plane but Stephane Ceretti suggested to have some turbulence in the water from the pillars of the bridge caused by the current. We simulated 2D fluids in Maya that we added to the displacement shader of the plane for each pillar resulting in really nice swirls in the water.

What references did you receive for the Power plant?
Just for reference we relied heavily on images of San Onofre that we found on the Internet. But production supervisor Stef Ceretti also traveled around Germany to take pictures of nuclear power plants and all sorts of industrial compounds that served as the foundation of our matte paintings. The problem with San Onofre itself was that it was practically impossible to get a shooting permit for the site, not even with a still camera. So although our design of the Swannekke power plant is inspired by San Onofre it’s a composite of many other places.

How did you manage the day/night aspect for the Power plant?
We built the Power Plant for a soft daylight matching the helicopter shots of Luisa Rey driving towards it. For the night shots we took the daylight Power Plant and relight it in 3D and Photoshop, Lead Compositor Jonathan Weber and Petter Idestroem would use a very subtle moonlight to emphasize edges and to give it some volume and tons of industrial lighting all over the compound to give it scale and complexity. The industrial lighting also helped in pushing the water surface and making it visible by having the individual lights reflect nicely in the individual wave peaks.

Have you created previs for the Volkswagen beetle crash?
Yes – our artists worked at Studio Babelsberg with Dan Glass, Stephane Ceretti and the directors to get the previs done before the shoot began. The previs was reverse engineered into distances and camera moves and later adjusted to match the real bridge’s dimensions.


Can you tell us more about the impressive shots for the crash seen from the inside?
Halle Berry was rotated upside down on a gimble at Studio Babelsberg and from what I heard she had a great time. The car was not only rigged to be rotated upside down – half of the car was missing to give the camera enough space to move from the assistant driver’s seat to the back seat, to frame from Halle’s face to the windshield showing the water surface coming towards us. Stef and I thought in the editing room that the shot might sell the idea of the car falling off the bridge better by having some zero gravity elements inside the car tumbling and spinning through frame. These CG props would also have to be be violently catapulted forwards as soon as the car hits the water surface. So we painted out all physical props that were just falling to the ceiling inside the car because they didn’t sell the idea of absolute weightlessness. The CG props were in part simulated as rigid bodies and also key framed to give us more control over their placement by Alexander Schumann. The entire environment around the car is CG as well – including the CG bridge, the water surface and the car that slams into Halle’s beetle. Actually the car that slams into the beetle was only usable in one take that we shot – but the directors preferred the car’s action in another. We match moved the car in the preferred take – and textured it with the footage of the usable take. Oliver Hohn did all of that in Nuke’s 3D space to have more control over framing as well as timing. That way they got exactly what they wanted – and we were still able to move the car around in frame to make slight adjustments. Oliver also did an amazing job in selling the overall lighting of the shot and gave it exactly the right amount of camera shake whenever necessary.

Can you tell us more about the shots under water with Halle Berry and the Volkswagen?
We wanted to create an underwater environment that has very naturally moving particles and bubbles that could be manipulated by the turbulence the VW beetle causes by moving through the volume. So our Head of FX Simon Ohler started researching very early on using Houdini to create fluid containers big enough to contain all the plankton, bubbles and murky water particles. We then pushed the beetle through the fluid containers resulting in nice swirls in the volume, giving us exactly what we were looking for. The bubbles needed a little more work, though. As bubbles get bigger they are less affected by the current in the water around them. Also the displacement of their surface is different. That needed a lot of tweaking before we got it right and Lead Compositor Gene Hammond-Lewis did an amazing job keeping the look consistent over the entire length of the sequence.

The cracks that slowly build in the car’s windows are also procedurally generated in Houdini. A couple of years ago on a German movie called THIS IS LOVE we did a car crash and shattered the windshield in CG. Back then the cracks in the windshield worked great once we displaced the background through the cracks and built the cracks as geometry. Now, on CLOUD ATLAS, the cracks were visible in more than just one shot and we needed to come up with something more flexible. But we wanted to keep the physically correct refraction of the background. So Simon and Andreas Giesen built a tool in Houdini that would let us draw the individual cracks in the glass as splines and then animate them over time with key frames. That way the crack geometry was built along a curve that we could change at any time at the speed we wanted it to build. Later we even added a procedural emitter for bubbles that would start emitting bubbles from the cracks in the windows once they passed a certain threshold. Those bubbles were then affected by the current in the volume around the car… and so on… and so on…

How did you recreate the San Francisco 1973?
Daytime shots of San Francisco were shot in Glasgow, night was either Düsseldorf or entirely matte painted. Stef Ceretti researched a couple of streets and houses in San Francisco that matched the architecture we were looking for. Production then dispatched a team with a proper DSLR and a tripod to shoot tons of stills in SF. From these stills we created a couple of layouts. Once we had a versions the directors preferred David Salamon started building the houses in 3D, matching the scale of the LiDAR scan of the location. In addition to the houses we placed telegraph poles and connected them with wires. Using these 3D models to dress the LiDAR scan with “virtual set dressing” enabled us to just track our cameras into the LiDAR scan and hit render for all of the shots in that particular location. We would get renders with perfect hold outs of the real set because the LiDAR scan was used as a perfectly aligning matte object. For all shots looking downhill Lead Compositor Rayk Schroeder added the Oakland Bay Bridge and Treasure Island in the background plus, an brilliant idea of Stef’s, added the reflection of the Transamerica Pyramid to a glass facade. That way the Pyramid wouldn’t block the view of the bay and it would still help sell Glasgow as San Francisco.


For the night shots of San Francisco we also used stills shot at night as the foundation for our matte paintings. While shooting we scanned all vintage cars on set with the LiDAR scanner – and turned them into low resolution models to populate backgrounds. We used the vintage cars especially for the night shots in San Francisco to populate the backgrounds. Traffic lights and flickering of neon lights were animated in comp.

How did you create the plane explosion?
The plane explosion was entirely done by Simon Ohler in Houdini, the model being built in Maya. We chose to pre-fracture the geometry by hand while modeling to have more control over the individual pieces of metal and wires sticking out. The explosion itself was simulated as a fluid sim with Pyro in Houdini and rendered in one pass with the plane to get the real color and brightness values of the CG fire reflected in the plane’s surface. We also added tons of details like juice carts, seats and other things you would find on planes as rigid body sims being sucked out of the shell once it cracks open. The night time clouds in the sky and the wisps of fog in the headlights of the plane were also rendered using Houdini. Only the matte painting of San Francisco was done using Photoshop, added in Nuke by Jonathan Weber mapped on a 3D card. All flares and glows were of course also added in comp following closely a huge library of reference stills we researched over time of production.


Can you tell us more about the creation of the thunderstorm shots with the ship?
The thunderstorms were all done in 2D. We used amazing time lapse clouds and added lightning matching photographic reference. We graded the action plate from sunny daylight to look like night and especially suppressed the highlights of the sun. That way we could turn the highlight suppression off every time we animated lightning to strike and we would get these neat little highlights all over the ship selling the change in lighting better.

Can you explain to us more about your work on Edinburgh monument shots?
We did some work on the sky to match other shots more closely and also added vintage cars that we shot close by as elements.

How did you create the bionic eyepatch of the doctor in Neo Seoul 2144?
Our matte painter Tom Hiebler created 5 different layouts for the eyepatch. He further created 3 alterations of the version the directors preferred. Once they signed off on the design we built the eyepatch as a 3D model including a filthy surface with lots of scratches. Lighting was achieved by David Salamon by texturing 3D planes with HDRs of the physical lights on set.

Can you tell us more about the Satellite Communication center?
The art department provided us with some concept art of the Communication Center. Lead 3D artist Oliver Schulz turned it into a massively detailed 3D model. We generated the topography of the mountain from the match move of the helicopter plate. First we used the “generate pointcloud” tool in Nuke to get a dense cloud of surface points. We then transferred the pointcloud into our LiDAR tools to generate a mesh that would match the mountain for every camera angle. Like that Oliver Schulz was able to model the Satellite Communication Center right on the mountain top adding a lot of detail wherever the structure was supposed to rot. He removed tiles from the facade, painted rust and added cracks in the concrete to later populate the cracks with grass, nature slowly claiming back it’s space. Clouds were modeled and rendered in Houdini taking advantage of the micro voxel rendering nicely scattering the sunlight in the cloud’s volume. When the dish of the center starts to move we animated all sorts of debris and dust coming off in Maya.


Can you explain to us more about your work on-set?
It was a great experience working with Stef Ceretti. He is just amazing and also very well connected to everyone on set. All you could possibly wish for on set is that everyone sticks to the plan or at least asks when the plan changes. Stef manages to always stay on top or ahead of everything that’s going on. I never felt safer on set in my whole life (laughs).

What do you keep from this experience?
That we can be extremely thankful for getting the chance to create such high profile work on a movie. Also having been on board from the very start was extremely helpful in organizing manpower and hardware. We rarely worked overtime and only one weekend when the final deadline draw near. Also it’s extremely helpful to have a producer as good as Kerstin Kensy on board who can always tell you how long something is going to take to get done. Thanks Kerstin!

How long have you worked on this film?
A little more than a year.

How many shots have you done?
106.

What was the size of your team?
At peak times more than 40 artists worked on our shots.

What is your next project?
I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you (laughs)!

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
T2, JURASSIC PARK, BACK TO THE FUTURE and GOODFELLAS.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

RISE: Official website of RISE.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2013

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Vincent Frei

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

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  1. John 28 October, 2013 at 23:17

    Cloud Atlas, takes such a different path, you feel connected to past and future. Inter twine the life cycle, over and over, learning every thing good,bad, along the way. It leaves us all connected. Sharing the blue planet as one ! Amazing !

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