LOOPER: Michel Mielke – VFX Supervisor – Scanline VFX

When Michel Mielke joined Scanline in 2004, he first worked as a producer on such films as THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN, 2012, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES or THE AVENGERS. In the following interview, he talks about his work as VFX Supervisor on LOOPER.


What is your background?
I originally started working as postproduction supervisor on German features. During my work at a German production house I got to know Scanline and started to develop a keen interest for visual effects. In 2004, I started working as a producer for Scanline, I had the great opportunity to work on international shows such as NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN, 2012, GHOSTWRITER, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES and have taken over the role of vfx supervisor at Scanline VFX Munich a year ago.

How did Scanline VFX got involved on this show?
Karen Goulekas approached us and since it was a Rian Johnson movie, we just could not resist.

How was the collaboration with director Rian Johnson and Production VFX Supervisor Karen Goulekas?
Overall it was an exciting opportunity and Rian Johnson, and Karen Goulekas were very constructive, quick in their feedback and very nice to work with. Thanks at this point for this great project.

What have you done on this show?
On the LOOPER project ScanlineVFX had the great opportunity to contribute the telekinesis sequence. That sequence took place on a big open partially harvested sugar cane field and featured supernatural effects lifting debris, bits of sugar cane, dust and actors into the air.

How did you design the telekinesis effect caused by Cid?
The main idea we received from the production was that the effects were going into the telekinesis shots to convey a sense of drama. There was to be a progression of ever faster flying debris until finally something important happens and everything slows down again until the telekinetic effect falters and stops. The shots where the audience can actually see soil and sugar cane being lifted off ground were a lot of manual work. There were foreground elements in the plate that we turned into cg elements to make them lift off. There even were effects of part of the soil breaking open and chunks of earth being pulled up into the air, producing lots of little fractured pieces and sand. Again, the most prominent elements were developed first and then details were added. Manually animated debris pieces went together with Thinking Particles animations, Particle Flow animations and Flowline simulations used for some sand effects and dust.

The most complex effects were the pieces of debris that would break through the soil and rise upwards. We fractured the ground geometry to a high degree and then pushed bigger chunks from below ground against it so that some smaller pieces would rise but others would fall back down to the ground. We also created a version were we actually simulated a couple of million sand particles and pushed those upward with the fractured geometry. In the shots where the amount of dust, debris, sugar canes and dust clouds was really large, the approach was to layout the general motion of what happens with the bigger chunks of the visible debris using Thinking Particles. That way we could do really quick iterations of those shots until the overall animation got approved. Those bigger pieces were then reinforced by slightly smaller debris which in turn had trails of dust. Finally a fluid cloud sim was generated to tell the final transition from dust to clouds.

In order to be able to quickly react to changes, the effect elements were split in foreground and background elements. Those renderings were split up even further into bigger debris renderings, dust renderings and dust cloud renderings. The first couple of times we used too many debris elements to start with but since we could simply remove some of the elements whenever requested this was actually helping us in saving some time.

Have you created some previz to help the director?
Early on Karen gave us main gist of what Rian wanted it to feel like plus what kind of debris composition she had in mind. The main idea we received from the production was to convey a sense of drama that builds up through the sequence. They really wanted to have a visible progression leading up to the climax in the shots. Debris, dust and greenery was supposed to whip across the screen with more and more force until the unbelievable happens and everything quiets down again. So first of all we did some simulation and timing tests based on the first quicktimes we received of the filmed material. These first tests kickstarted the feedback cycle and from then on Director Rian Johnson and VFX supervisor Karen Goulekas were giving us constant feedback.

Can you explain to us the creation of the shockwave?
The initial blast and the subsequent shots of the blast radiating outwards, flinging the actors into the air and knocking over a van, were really individually executed shots. Each shot had to be treated individually because they were so different from each other. Top shot of shockwave blasting outward, shockwave rushing away from camera and flinging actress into the air, shockwave traveling from left to right and flinging actor into the air, shockwave seen from afar through the window of a van and finally the shockwave hitting the van. To make those individual shots into parts of the same shockwave we had to develop some concepts that would be carried over from shot to shot. The main body of the shockwave would consist of an atmospheric dust fluid simulation driven by controllable geometric helper objects. On the inside and surrounding the shockwave large numbers of debris would be carried along by the shockwave. Debris that would be able to both shoot forward with the shockwave and upward to explain why the actors also get lifted into the air by the passing shockwave. The debris mixture developed into a large percentage of greenish, eg sugar cane, debris elements. The greenish tinted debris was also responsible for integrating more easily into the plates.

When the shockwave finally hits the van, the action is experienced from inside a storm of debris raining sideways against the van. We had to find exactly the right amount and speed of flying elements to keep it from turning into one big mush hitting the van and also to keep enough elements so that the amount hitting the van could actually believably push it over. Effectively the amount of particles used was so high that we needed to split it into several particle simulations to prevent excessive simulation and caching times.

Have you created digi-doubles of the actors especially when they are hit by the shockwave?
There was no need for digi doubles, since Karen had planned the shots meticulously, all shots with actors were live action shots.

How did you manage the slow-motion shots with the actors?
The actors were lifted off ground by wires in the original material and the production wanted to keep as much as possible of the original plates. This meant that everything that happens effect wise in the shots is timed according to the original filmed plates. Only after the most work was done there were some modifications to some of the actors that were done in comp.
Some slight retimings or repositioning were done to fit the actors better into the action if possible.

Can you tell us more about the various elements such as dust or sugar cane creation?
In the shots where the amount of dust, debris, sugar canes and dust clouds mattered, the approach was to layout the general motion of what happens with the bigger chunks of the visible debris using Thinking Particles. Those bigger pieces were then reinforced by slightly smaller debris which in turn had trails of dust. Finally a fluid cloud sim was generated to tell the final transition from dust to clouds. In order to be able to quickly react to changes, the effect elements were split in foreground and background elements.
The first couple of times we used too many debris elements to start with but since we could simply remove some of the elements whenever requested this was actually helping us in saving some time.

Can you explain to us more about the animation aspect of the elements?
The shots where the audience can actually see soil and sugar cane being lifted off ground were a lot of manual work. There were foreground elements in the plate that we turned into cg elements to make them lift off. There even were effects of part of the soil breaking open and chunks of earth being pulled up into the air, producing lots of little fractured pieces and sand.
Again, the most prominent elements were developed first and then details were added.
Manually animated debris pieces went together with Thinking Particles animations, Particle Flow animations and Flowline simulations used for some sand effects and dust.
The most complex effects were the pieces of debris that would break through the soil and rise upwards. We fractured the ground geometry to a high degree and then pushed bigger chunks from below ground against it so that some smaller pieces would rise but others would fall back down to the ground. We also created a version were we actually simulated a couple of million sand particles and pushed those upward with the fractured geometry.

How did you manage the huge amount of elements in these shots?
Especially the shots where the van gets hit by the shockwave included huge amounts of elements. Since the shockwave consists of debris accelerated through a psychic force, the real punch comes from all the flying debris. In real life the punch is usually delivered by the air itself being forced outwards. Therefore the story was to tell that the van is hit by an extreme amount of debris. A lot of back and forth happened until the visual qualities defining the shockwave were pinned down.
Essentially the shockwave consisted of a dustcloud filled up with debris when seen from afar. Close up the shockwave would consist of a lot more debris. Because of the sheer amount involved we split up the separate distances into manageable chunks to be rendered and simulated individually.
In this case one of the main difficulties was to maintain the visual mixture of the debris while seeing it mostly with a very strong motion blur applied. Therefore keeping it from looking like a big mush was hitting the van was important.

Have you developed specific tools for this show?
As mentioned before, we used a mixture of Thinking Particles animations, Particle Flow animations and Flowline simulations for this show, but we did not develop any specific tools.

How have you divided the work between the various Scanline branches?
The individual Scanline branches often collaborate on larger shows such as 2012, IMMORTALS, BATTLESHIP or AVENGERS. Usually we determine specific sequences and according to resources and talents split the work between the studios. LOOPER was a Munich only show, since we were rewarded the telekinesis sequence and it did not really make sense to split it up.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The integration of the flying debris elements into the plates took us a while to figure out. Usually cg effects need to connect with what is visible in the plate at one point. In this case we had many shots where our effects did not interact directly with the plate which made it more difficult to get the feeling of full integration.
The solution was to actually try and push the effects more into the plate and not making them stand out. Karen Goulekas, the vfx supervisor for LOOPER, had a lot of very constructive back and forth with us and fortunately she knew what she was looking for. In the end we made the effects as unobtrusive as possible and specifically removed elements that popped and were drawing too much attention.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Not really. Even though the shockwave and the shots with the van getting hit by debris were quite challenging.

What do you keep from this experience?
We really enjoyed working with Karen and Rian. Due to very fast feedback we knew exactly what Rian wanted to see and did not loose valuable time heading in the wrong direction. Communication is really a very vital point in the entire process and this worked really well. It was a great experience and LOOPER is a great movie.

How long have you worked on this film?
All in all it took us 4 months from start to final.

How many shots have you done?
In total we finalised 86 shots.

What was the size of your team?
Approximately 30 people.

What is your next project?
Our current projects are SNOW PIERCER, WHITE HOUSE DOWN and various other German movies

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
LOST HIGHWAY, NEVERENDING STORY (1st movie I ever saw in a theater), BRICK, THE HOST.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Scanline VFX: Official website of Scanline VFX.





© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2012

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Vincent Frei

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

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