INDEPENDENCE DAY – RESURGENCE: Matt Aitken – VFX Supervisor – Weta Digital

In 2011, Matt Aitken explained to us the work of Weta Digital on THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN. He then supervised the visual effects of IRON MAN 3 and the trilogy of THE HOBBIT.

How did you and Weta Digital get involved on this show?
Weta Digital was awarded shots on INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE right around the time I was wrapping up delivering the work for the extended edition of the third Hobbit film: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. I was on a plane to the shoot in Albuquerque a day or two after the last Hobbit shot finalled. The sci-fi setting made a change from the more medieval setting of the Hobbit films.

How was the collaboration with director Roland Emmerich and Production VFX Supervisor Volker Engel?
This was our first opportunity to work with Roland Emmerich and Volker Engel. Having been a fan of Roland’s fx-driven filmmaking style for many years, back to STARGATE and the original INDEPENDENCE DAY, I felt this was a collaboration that was a more than a little overdue! It was great working with a director who is extremely knowledgeable and therefore very relaxed about the visual effects shot production process.

What was their approaches and expectations about the visual effects?
The nature of the collaboration between ourselves and Roland Emmerich changed as the work progressed. Initially we worked to honor the intention of the previs that Uncharted Territory, Volker Engel’s own vfx house, had provided for the movie. But as we got into the animation in more depth, we started to explore alternatives to some of the beats of action. Initially we would show an animation take that matched the previs quite closely, and include an alternative approach for discussion. But as Roland warmed to these alternative takes we were showing him we began to make more extensive changes. Ultimately Weta Digital re-prevised a lot of the action, working closely with Roland to block out the action and camerawork. Some action beats ended up with more shots than in the initial turnover, and others ended up with fewer.

What are the sequences made by Weta Digital?
Our work on INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE centered on the character of the Alien Queen. We delivered all shots featuring the Queen, primarily the third act battle scenes which took place out on the salt flats and then within the Area 51 base. Because we handled the build for Area 51 we also delivered sequences establishing the military base which play early in the film.

How did you work with the art department for the Alien Queen design?
The Alien Queen appears in two different guises in the film: the huge four-limbed Queen we first meet inside her chamber in the mothership, and the even bigger creature she becomes when she climbs into her biomechanical exosuit and heads out into battle. Like many aspects of the film she is massive, 140 feet tall as the ‘inner’ Queen and 220 feet tall in her exosuit. Early concept designs for both variants of the Queen were done during the initial stages of production at the Aaron Sims Company. We took delivery of 2D artwork and medium-resolution untextured geometry and worked that up to hero level geo, then textured and shaded her to our own concept art developed in discussion with director Roland Emmerich.

Can you explain step by step about her creation and her exosuit?
Roland Emmerich didn’t want the Queen to conform to a standard alien monster look. His brief was to make her strangely beautiful, very much not of this world, but not monstrous. The inner Queen has two surface types: roughly half of her exterior is made up of sections of a bony exoskeleton while in between that are regions of a semi-translucent gelatinous substance. Within these gel-like areas her organs can be glimpsed, we added a sense of fluids being pumped through her body and the play of an interior bioluminescence. The biomechanical exosuit was textured to establish continuity with the exosuit worn by the alien colonist in the first Independence Day movie.

Can you tell us more about the rigging?
Both versions of the Queen have tentacles, these were rigged so that they collided with each other to avoid interpenetrations. Complex armour movements around her multiple adjacent shoulders were also protected from interpenetration by the rig.

The Alien Queen is a massive character. How does that affect her animation and shader details?
When animating the Alien Queen, preserving her scale was always at the forefront of our minds. She had to feel massive, but still maintain an elegance to the way she moved to reinforce her regal status. We worked to achieve a balance in the speed of her movements, which had to be slow enough to play to her enormity, but not so slow as to grind the action to a halt. In the more subtle moments we wanted to show a character that was calculated and cruel, as if harvesting and destroying Earth is just another day for her. And in action mode we tried to create a feeling of relentless pursuit. Detail on the suit and armour had to be sufficient to withstand extreme close-up framing as she interacted with human scale elements of the environment. For example, in a shot where her foot comes down and squashes a Humvee we end up framing on just a part of one of her feet which fills the frame.

As we can’t see her face, how did you handle the animation challenges for her feelings?
Opportunities to create facial animation were minimal because of her design, and because the exosuit mask had to be played quite rigid to preserve her scale. So we had to resort to other aspects of her animation to denote her mood, emphasising her body language to tell the story of each shot. Her multi-limbed design allowed us to get her into some dynamic, expressive poses. And her many tentacles played a crucial role here, we could use them to enhance her silhouette and also, like a cat’s tail, have them indicate her mood. We ran gentle waves along them when she is calm and in control, and had them thrashing and whipping around wildly when she is angry. The design of her dominant legs lent themselves to spectacular destruction and huge impacts into the salt flats, whereas her smaller arms and hands could be used to protect herself or pick up objects such as the sphere that is at the centre of her motivations.

The lighting on this white desert is particular. How did you manage it?
We went with a high-contrast bright daylight look for the salt flats desert environment. A tight back-three quarter key light was used in every shot, we maintained a base level of lighting continuity by playing this either screen-left or screen-right as required. Ground bounce was flagged down as you would do if you were shooting practically, to reduce the fill level and maintain the high key-fill contrast ratio. Our in-house path-trace renderer Manuka includes a physically based combined sky and sunlight light type based on the Hosek Wilkie sky model. This light supports atmosphere scattering and turbidity with 0 equating to an alpine sky on a clear day and 10 being dense smog. We set the turbidity low to model a high-altitude desert environment. Matching the grade of our sky domes to this light gave our images an overall authenticity that they would otherwise have lacked.

Can you tell us more about the ground interactions?
We treated every footstep the Queen takes on the salt flats desert as the equivalent of a mortar blast going off. These ground interaction sims had to be tweaked away from physically correct settings to find the correct balance between selling her scale, while still being dynamic. Our fx pipeline was extended to efficiently handle delivery of the many shots requiring these complex simulations.

The Alien Queen is using a big gun. Can you tell us more about the FX work for this weapon?
We put a lot of detail work into the Queen’s gun that you might only really see on a second or third viewing of the film. We created a telescoping mechanism to assemble the gun that plays just once, in the shot where she pulls the gun out of her armour and starts shooting at Patricia’s squadron of human/hybrid fighters. This was important because it made it believable that she could keep a gun the size of a small ship in there. When animating the gun, we added a big slow recoil as each shell is fired to help sell the scale of the weapon. And we included a glow in the barrel that builds up before each shell can be fired, that gave us a justification for including a pause between the shots she fires. This delay makes it believable that the bus can dodge her shellfire and survive the attack.

The Alien Queen is chasing a bus. How did you recreate the bus and the people inside?
For the bus chase sequence production shot plates of the school bus swerving on the salt flats at Bonneville, using a helicopter-mounted camera rig. But the plate bus motion lacked the dynamism that director Roland Emmerich was after, and the way the camera framed the bus in the plates often made it difficult to include the Queen in the frame and efficiently tell the story points that the shots had to convey. So we ditched the plates and went all-cg for the bus exteriors. We had a great cg bus asset that held up to a very close level of scrutiny, and medium-res digi-doubles for the characters inside the bus which were mainly seen as silhouettes.

How did you create the various lasers and explosions?
We utilised Weta Digital’s tracer fire system on the show for all the gunfire. This system operates from the gun puppet used in animation through to lighting, and ensures that the low-res proxy tracer blasts that Roland was seeing in the animation submissions we reviewed with him would be matched by the hero rendered tracers, created as emissive geometry to ensure that they illuminated any surface they came close to. Pyro elements were simmed in our fx framework Synapse. When the heroes blast their way out of the vortex of alien fighters they do so in the largest, most detailed and complex pyro event ever created at Weta Digital.

What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
The thing we kept coming back to was selling the scale. Everything in this movie is huge, the spaceships, the Area 51 base the size of a city, and our Alien Queen. For the Queen it was a case of finding the balance between speed and dynamism, and using details like the complex ground interaction sims to communicate her scale.

What do you keep from this experience?
It would be great to work with Roland, Volker and their team again, I would like to think that this show established a relationship between Roland and Weta Digital that will see us doing more great visual effects together on future Roland Emmerich movies down the track.

Was there a shot or sequence that prevented you from sleep?
In this case no, I’m happy to say. A combination of an experienced client with a clear understanding of what they were after, and the great team at Weta Digital, meant that this show was one of the smoothest, most enjoyable of my career.

How many shots have you done?
Weta Digital ended up with 230 shots in the final cut.

How long have you worked on this film and what was the size of your team?
I was on the show for 1 year, including some weeks with the shoot in Albuquerque. We delivered the last shots less than a month before the film opened, so my hat goes off to Stereo D for doing such a great job of converting our work to stereo in a very short amount of time!

Nearly 400 people at Weta Digital contributed to our work on the film in one way or another. There was a core crew of around 100 people when we were running at full speed on shot production.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Weta Digital: Official website of Weta Digital.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2016

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Vincent Frei

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

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