What was your feeling to be back with in The Hobbit universe?
It was great fun to be back! I think everyone always saw the trilogy as one long project, with breaks in between. So it doesn’t actually feel like we’ve left Middle Earth for too long.
How did you collaborates with the VFX Supervisors on this show?
I worked on a different team this year, under the supervision of Mark Gee. He’s a very talented, humble, and outright lovely man to work for. Google him; he takes some of the most stunning astro photography out there.
Eric Saindon and Joe Letteri would have daily catch-ups with us, which was similar to the first movie.
What was your role on it?
This year we decided to have two Compositing Supervisors for each team (of which there were 5). Me and my best friend Giuseppe Tagliavini were in charge of Team Mark, and it was fantastic working so closely with a good friend. Even though the deadline was tougher than ever, I actually felt more relaxed than ever because we could tag each other out.
Can you describe one of your typical day?
I aim to be in by 9am latest, so I have time to catch up on shots before we have dailies around 10am. We’d usually have a send-off review with Joe in the afternoon. In between that, we’d have rolling comp rounds where we’d go and catch up with compers at their desks, and Mark would also have a second set of rounds for all departments, in his office.
Add to that the fact that we both had our own shots to comp, and you end up with a pretty busy day.
On which sequences have you worked on?
Team Mark did the entire chunk in Mirkwood, as well as the party arriving outside Mirkwood. So lot’s of spiders, trees, matte paintings etc. It was a real good mix I think, and it was quiet a comp heavy sequence.
The Mirkwood environment is a very dense forest. How did you approach this sequence?
Layout/Environments provided us with pretty densely populated scenes, which we’d enhance with some far BG matte paintings, comp atmosphere and some selective grading to make the action pop off a bit more. Peter Jackson was very particular about the trees not looking too spaghetti like, so it certainly was a challenge at times to make it look dense and scary, but not too messy.
The forest have a huge amounts of trees. How did you handle it in compositing?
We’d render clusters/rows of trees as deep opacity passes, which makes combining them a breeze. It also meant that if Peter selectively wanted to remove individual trees, it was relatively easy for us to do so.
What was the real size of the sets for this sequence?
The main set piece was the spider web nest, which I’m guessing would have been 10×10 metres. It looked pretty amazing, lots of detail went into it on set! There were also a few sets built on ground level, for when the elves come rushing in.
There is beautiful moment when Bilbo is on top of the forest with butterflies. How did you handle this long shot?
This one was actually comped by Giuseppe, and it was a good few weeks worth of work.
The biggest challenge was getting accurate matchmoves, camera and layouts. They shot Bilbo on a rotating platform, surrounded by branches & trees. Rather than having the camera spin around the set, they rotated the set piece. This made it pretty tricky to accurately track the camera and build the piece in 3D. Add to that branches going over set lights, and guys in green suits running around spinning the platform; and you have a tricky shot!
Once that was all out of the way, it became a wrestling match because of the sheer size and length of the shot. Lots and lots of layers of dense trees, a massive matte painting that Peter was art directing very meticulously, and butterflies that had to be comped in and around the on set branches. A tough shot for sure, but it came out beautifully I think!
The heroes are confronted to an army of spiders. How was simulated their presence on-set?
They were simulated by a mixture of things; stuffed card board cylinders, guys in green suits wielding pool noodles, and sometimes nothing but thin air!
Can you tell us more about the webs spiders and the challenge with them?
The webs were tricky because they’re very dense and slow to work with, and our layout team worked very carefully to match PJ’s vision of how the main web and the cocoons should look. Add to that some very complex simulations where animation and the FX team had to work closely together.
Once in comp, the sheer data stored in the deep opacity passes for the webs, made working in Nuke a bit sticky at times.
What indications and references have you received for the color ambiances?
We looked at a lot of reference images shot in forests at dawn. It was hard to build up depth, without relying too much on fog to sell the scale of the environment, but I think it’s turned out really pretty. We ended up going fairly neutral on the grade at our end, so that PJ could get the most out of it in the DI suite.
How did you manage the work within your team?
Me and Giuseppe didn’t split out any specific teams as such, but we’d each focus on certain things in our sequence. That way we both knew where the team was going, what Mark’s notes from dailies were etc. If someone needed to know something specific, they’d come ask whichever one of us was more familiar with that specific chunk of the sequence.
We had a great core production team in form of Chris Egden and Cole Smith. It was great being able to focus on the work put in front of us, without having to think too much about the logistics and numbers of it all.
Can you tell us more about the use of 3D space in Nuke and Deep Compositing for your shots?
Because a lot of the action in Mirkwood centres around the spider web nest, we tried early on to set up some templates for fog/atmos, god rays and general comp treatments.
Being able to load in our deep opacity passes, and then turning them to geo, meant it was really easy for us to build scripts in 3D space that would work for a variety of shots and angles. We also added a layer of matte painting as a backstop to our shots, so it was great to quickly visualize the scale of the given shot’s forest.
Have you developed specific tools in Nuke for your sequence?
We made a lot of template scripts and gizmos for our team specifically, and we had some great custom tools built for us like the Ringworld effect. This was set-up by Erich Eder, and adapted for a variety of sequences.
We’ve also got a great comp-dev team in house, and they hook us up with any tool we need; that’s pretty amazing to have and has been a tremendous help!
What was your biggest challenge on this sequence and how did you achieve it?
For me personally; probably the first shot we see of Thauriel, where she jumps off a branch, does a roll on the floor, and then transitions from CG to plate.
The plate movement was very linear (and without the roll), and the CG version of her was rolling around on the floor like there’s no tomorrow. We initially were gonna cover up the transition some more with the FG spider, and I foolishly said that we should reveal her some more as I could get it working in the comp.
A lot of projections and grid warps later, and I think it came out looking pretty cool. But there was a time where I thought it just wasn’t going to work, and that would have set us back a good few days. And with this shot delivering in the last few days of our deadline, we didn’t really have that option.
Was there a shot that prevented you from sleep?
Not really; the combination of two comp supes, and a lot of very talented people on our team, made this movie a real pleasure to be part of. It was tough at times, but never looked too daunting.
What do you keep from this experience?
Even more respect for everyone at Weta Digital, for pulling off the impossible. We had a lot of incredibly tricky shots to get through in a very short period of time. And to do that while still all having a good time and creating such a great working environment; I think that’s pretty amazing. It’s the reason I love what we do; the people you do it with!
How long have you worked on this film?
I think I started in late March.
How many shots have you done?
Team Mark finish around 260 shots for this movie.
What was the size of your team?
At it’s peak, we had 30 compers and 14 TDs.
What is your next project?
Building a veggie box in my garden, playing as much golf as I can, and then starting on DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
A big thanks for your time.
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© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2014