How did Elefant Studios get involved on this show?
The production company Claussen+Wöbke+Putz hired a team led by VFX Supervisor Nils Engler from Keller.io and VFX Producer Sinje Gebauer to do the pre-production planning and to complete most of the VFX work. We have worked with both on previous projects like WE ARE THE NIGHT so we were asked again to contribute to this project, which we gladly did.
How was the collaboration with director Alain Gsponer and the production VFX Supervisor Nils Engler?
It was a pleasure to collaborate with both of them. Despite this being Alain’s first visual effects heavy movie, he understood the process really well. He gave us great guidance for the character performances, so the iterations were kept at a minimum. Nils allowed us quite a bit of freedom when it came to look development, while making sure everything worked in the context of the movie.
What sequences were done by Elefant Studios?
We worked on the talking owl sequences, tower set extensions, the living paintings and some additional look development and compositing on various shots.
What was your role on this show?
I was VFX supervisor for Elefant Studios and did some of the compositing.
What was your approach for the head replacement for the owl?
We’ve decided quite early on to go with a full CG head replacement. There were several reasons for this. First, the real owl’s head in the plates looked different in every shot, depending in what mood he was in during the shoot. This posed a continuity problem. Second, head movement of the owl in the plates was not lining up with the action of the main character. Third, we had to show the head in close ups, so this ruled out any pure 2D or 2.5D projection solutions. Deciding for a full CG approach early on saved us a lot of time and trouble down the road.
How did you handle the facial animation?
We were provided with footage from a head-mounted camera of the voice actor and footage from several witness cameras, which were used as a reference for our animators, saving us a lot of time. Animation lead Patrick Graf and animator Vivien Guiraud completed the task in about 2 months.
Can you explain in details about the feather creation?
Our CG supervisor Vladimir Jankijevic led the efforts for creating a feather system that was able to handle the variety and the detail required. It consisted of two parts: a tool to create a library of single feathers and a placement tool to arrange the feathers on the geometry. Both were implemented in Softimage with ICE.
With the first tool, named “Ikaros” we were able to create the feather’s shape interactively and define all the necessary surface attributes, like the curvature, width, density and the splitting between the barbs. The feathers consisted entirely of Arnold Curves so we had to develop a method to texture them using UVs generated from 2D vector data from the ICE setup. Textures were then painted in Nuke. All feathers were exported as archives and loaded at render-time to keep the scenes light.
The second tool was used for placing the feathers. We quickly realized that it would be difficult to place most the feathers with a traditional method (growing them from the skin below) as we had to achieve a very specific shape to match the outline of the real bird. So for most feathers we did the opposite and attached their tips to a mesh that was representing the outline of the bird. This gave us the precise control we needed.
How did you manage the shading, lighting and render aspects?
For the shading of the feathers we implemented a hair shader similar to the Marschner model, that relies on a very diffuse reflection component for light coming from the front and also provides the necessary translucency. This was very important in our case as the night scenes had a lot of rim lights to give us a well-defined silhouette. All shader attributes were rendered as separate AOVs for additional control in compositing. To create a seamless transition between the CG head and the plate, we exported the outer mesh as an Alembic cache to Nuke where we could project additional texture patches onto it.
Can you tell us in details about your set extensions work?
One of the main tasks was to place a tower on the top of a building. This asset, built by sequence lead Daniel Guimard, was used in many shots, from up close to far away. A full-size set piece was built by the production for a sequence where the kids decide to climb on the tower, including a scene where one of them was hanging from the hands of the tower clock, Harold Lloyd’s style. We used this set piece as a reference, including LIDAR scans and texture reference provided by Nils, to build an exact replica in 3D. We have also created many backgrounds for the owl sequence, which was shot in a bluescreen studio. We used a series of HDRI stills provided by the DOP which we enhanced with lights, added stars and lots of atmospherics.
Can you tell us more about the design and the creation for the characters in the paintings?
Compositing Supervisor Stephan Schweizer’s task was to create a look that reminded of an oil painting but which worked with moving footage, without any nervous edges or other distractions. We first experimented with optical flow methods to get the desired look but went back to a much simpler, filter-based approach to keep as close to the original footage as possible.
The base of the look was a combination of a few filters, with a median being the most dominant. Different sizes of these filters were used to create three distinct “brush” strokes which were then mixed with mattes, to create areas of different levels of detail. Several textures were than used to emphasize the slightly damaged, aged look of an oil painting. To add to that, Nils came up with the idea to put a black canvas into the frames that were shot on the set, which was then painted on with a glaze. We screened this additional texture on top of our look as an additional layer.
Have you shared some assets with the other VFX studio?
There was a constant exchange of assets during the production of this project. Keller.io provided us with caches of the animated ghost as a reference for our owl animations. They also sent us extensive LIDAR scans and texture references of the sets. We on the other hand provided them with caches of the owl and the tower as a reference for the ghost animations.
What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
It was getting the CG owl head look the same as the real one, even in close-ups.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Not really preventing me from sleep, but making my days even more exciting, was the R&D phase of the owl feathers. We did push through all the problems though, which is a great achievement of my team.
What do you keep from this experience?
For me, this was one of the most enjoyable projects so far. A great example what you can do when having the full support of the production supervisor and the director.
How long have you worked on this film?
Fall 2012 to summer 2013.
How many shots have you done?
111 shots, with about 10 minutes of screen time.
What was the size of your team?
There was a core team of around 6 people (our VFX producer Anna-Lena Carl and me included) that were working on the project for the whole duration. Another 6-7 artists were involved for three months or less.
What is your next project?
We’ve started working on a Swiss feature film with another one ready to go around January. We’re also heavily involved in the commercials side of VFX, where we continue to work in the areas we focus on, namely characters and set extensions.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Elefant Studios: Dedicated page about DAS KLEINE GESPENST (THE LITTLE GHOST) on Elefant Studios website.
// DAS KLEINE GESPENST (THE LITTLE GHOST) – VFX BREAKDOWN – ELEFANT STUDIOS
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2013