TOTAL RECALL: Richard Higham – VFX Supervisor – The Senate

Richard Higham worked at The Senate for many years. He has participated in projects like BATMAN BEGINS, THE DA VINCI CODE or STARDUST. As VFX supervisor, he take care of the effects for films like KICK-ASS, PRIEST or DARK SHADOWS.

What is your background?
I previously worked at a Media Production company during which time I developed skills using tools such as Discreet Logic’s Combustion and Adobe After Effects. I continued to develop these skills as a rotoscope and prep artist on several feature films. Working at The Senate gave me the opportunity to learn from senior digital artists and compositors with a wide range of backgrounds in 2D, 3D and photography. I worked as a compositor at The Senate and over time began to look after some projects as a facility VFX Supervisor. Throughout this experience, I’ve continued to learn new software and have been fortunate enough to also gain on set experience along the way.


What have you done on this show?
The Senate had three main sequences with differing aspects on each one.The major sequence was in Reed’s apartment where Quaid unlocks an interactive hologram sequence. Here we created the look and feel of the 3D hologram head of Hauser. The New Asia Streets sequence was a mixture of greenscreen comps, adding background DMPs, as well as a stylish video graphic display on a glass panel that Quaid interacts with. We also did prosthetic cleanup on his hand and arm. The New Asia Bank sequence featured more graphical displays on glass windows and panels, as well as a graphical display in the bank vault where Quaid is looking for clues to his memory.


Can you tell us more about the device in Quaid’s hand?
The hand was an on set special effects prosthetic concealed on Colin Farrell’s person. The display was always visible on his palm and when switched on, it illuminated. The idea was that we should not see anything until the device activates and lights up which meant the wiring and display had to be painted out.


How was the interactive light for this device simulated?
This was actually a part of the special effects device that was real, no additional lighting was required in visual effects.

Can you explain to us more about the video display on the glass?
The idea is that Quaid has an Agent telecom device within his hand which has extra technical abilities. One of these is that it can transmit video on any panel of glass if he presses his hand against it. Our aim was to show this, so that you really felt as if it had been transmitted to the glass and was displaying through and within the glass pane itself. We used a mixture of screening over the images, 2D and 3D tracking and then double layering so that the depth of the glass could be emulated, offsetting the tracking as the perspective shifted.



Quaid goes to a bank and watches another video. Can you tell us more about it?
Similar techniques were used on this sequence, adding additional scanlines and video noise to give it a sophisticated yet realistic look.


What indications and references did you receive from production for the video and graphic look?
We were provided an animated graphics image sequence as well as a single jpeg as a rough guide. The graphics themselves had to be broken up to make further animation possible based on Len Wiseman’s (the director) preference. For example, the hand did not always move as a single solid piece, so we tracked individual parts of the graphic to match his movements.


In Reed’s apartment, Quaid activates an interactive hologram. What did you receive from the production?
We received a cyberscan model of Colin’s head. The shape was slightly different to the greenscreen photography, so we had to rework the mesh to be more accurate and we created his shoulder and jacket collars by using the greenscreen plates. We also received all the different camera takes of the 180 degree array (featuring the Red Epic as the main front facing camera and then 18 5D Canon cameras to cover the range of angles).

How did you find this beautiful design?
Using the greenscreen takes of Colin Farrell, we began developing a look in 2D and 3D, differing the tonality and trying to find a level of transparency so that it would feel dimensional as well as video-like. We began to show examples to Len so he could have something visual to react to. He liked the idea that the image would not be perfect, that it would be a little noisy but most importantly, he wanted to really feel dimension. By diffusing and reducing the opacity of the edges slightly (though not losing detail) the hologram begins to feel dimensional depending on what viewpoint you are looking at — the central part feels like it comes out towards camera and recedes away at the sides. By object tracking the head from the greenscreen takes, we could then start experimenting with additional textures and FX in 3D. Eventually we opted for a spherical projection system. A simple animating scanlines image sequence was created and projected through the sphere and onto the 3D head so that the lines would contour over his nose, his cheeks, any features that would show off dimension. These were then rendered along with UV maps and delivered to the compositors.


Can you explain to us more about the activation / deactivation of the hologram?
The actual activation was quite challenging in terms of how this hologram would flicker into life. Our direction led us to once again the mixing of 2D and 3D disciplines. Len liked the idea of having a geometric style to it, so we created simple 2D animated quadrants that flickered on and off and applied them to a black and white shader in 3D. Using this shader on the head, we could then ramp up from the base with some randomization and give a progression of revealing through mattes that were informed by the geometric sections. The greenscreen head was then revealed using these mattes. Additional fractions of distortion were added with a random yet tech-like animation. As the hologram finally takes shape, the effects are dialed back until you see the final fully formed head.


Can you tell us more about your work on the final fight sequence on China Fall?
We had a mixture of work on this sequence. Production would provide fully rendered 3D environments as image sequences which would be the backgrounds for any greenscreen comps. In some instances, we were supplied the geometry and textures of these backgrounds and would re-shade and light them for other shots. We also received rendered CG elements of the Synth to comp over the actor. The Synths themselves needed to have moving parts and components so you could see though the exoskeleton gaps and therefore we had to paint in a continuation of background. Some of this was also supplied to us as precomps. As there was lots of CG going into these shots it was important to get a balance of contrast and brightness that would match the live action photography.


How did you work with other vendors?
Our main collaboration was to maintain consistency, especially when working on the same scenes.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
Probably on the hologram head sequence. When the live action camera tracked around the location of where the hologram should be, we needed to somehow transition from one camera angle to another of the greenscreen takes to keep the dimensional aspect correct. Different techniques worked on different shots — in some cases, we could project the actual greenscreen take onto the object tracked geometry head, but in other instances, we would morph through 4 or 5 different camera angles while carefully maintaining features in the correct place.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
The hologram head sequence was very challenging from getting the right look and believability to the technical aspects such as accurate object tracking. There was not a high level of tolerance, if any, in terms of accuracy and this could lead to many hours of fixing until it would look right.

What do you keep from this experience?
How you approach a sequence or style of effect can make a huge difference to its success from the very start. When developing a look, it is worth doing on more than just one shot — for example if there is a difference of angle, this can have an impact on the techniques. What works with one angle may not with another so working on both simultaneously can ensure consistency in terms of look as well methodology. Its also vital to maintain a constant dialogue with the director so work can be kept on the right path.


How long have you worked on this film?
We began working on some of the sequences toward the end of 2011 developing looks and 3D, etc, and we worked on the post through to the end.

How many shots have you done?
The Senate worked on approx 250 shots.

What was the size of your team?
We had a very talented team of approx 35-40 people working on it at various points throughout the show.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
I was always a big Sci-fi fan and grew up watching STAR WARS movies and I loved their invention as well as stunning special effects. BLADE RUNNER also had an impact with a dark vision of the future yet so beautifully lit. I was also stunned by the work of Ray Harryhausen on films like THE CLASH OF THE TITANS — you could literally lose yourself in another world. ALIENS also has a strong influence with incredible blend of tension and special effects.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

The Senate: Dedicated page about TOTAL RECALL on The Senate website.





© 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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