How was your collaboration with VFX Supervisors Guillaume Rocheron, John Dykstra?
They were both great! Guillaume is one of the clearest VFX supervisors I have ever worked with. He was always great at explaining various concepts and breaking down any notes or creative direction in a way that made it very easy to follow his lead. Guillaume was able to come by Atomic a couple times during the production and do in person reviews which were actually great. We’d sit down and discuss creative ideas on the shots, and he was open to ideas. We’d have conversations about what would work best, and he’d explain his thought process as he went.
Working with John Dykstra was also great. When we spoke with him, he pulled from a level of experience that is (understandably) really impressive. He is so decisive on what matters and what doesn’t, and breaks everything down into easy to achieve steps. It cuts rather large shots into little pieces, making it simpler to understand everything that needs to be done. I learned a lot from this opportunity to work with both of them, and would gladly do another project like GHOST IN THE SHELL again!
What was your feeling to work on the adaptation of this cult anime?
It’s really cool and really intimidating at the same time. There are so many fans that love the series that you want to do it justice. Luckily we have many of those fans here at Atomic, and they were able to bring a lot of their passion for the Anime into the project which only helps it be as good as everyone wants it to be.
What are the sequences made by Atomic Fiction?
We worked on the whole Hong Kong city as seen from the boat when Major comes out of the water. The Zen Garden at the end of the film. The Red Light district that Major goes walking through, and a couple sequences at the end with the Helicopter crashing around Major and Kuze after the battle. On top of that, there were a few one-off shots we provided, such as adding a moving robotic face to one of the characters.
How did you organize the work at Atomic Fiction?
Most of it was split into smaller teams per sequence. The entire sequence with the helicopter crash was handled by one team, under the supervision of Mike Janov, while the Hong Kong, Zen Garden, and Red Light sequences were supervised by me, each with a core team that had its own leads and artists. Our founder, Ryan Tudhope, supervised Atomic Fiction’s work overall.
Which references and indications did you received to create the Hong Kong environment?
The Hong Kong sequence was shot with the clear indication that it was directly inspired by the original Anime, so we had a strong reference from the start. On top of that, Guillaume made sure we were provided any references of what MPC was doing in their other city sequences, so we could maintain the overall feel. After that, our art director, Brian Flora, created a concept that really set the tone and the scale of what we’d see from the vantage point of the boat.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of this environment?
The first decision we had to make was whether we wanted to do this as a matte painted environment or a 3D build. We were fortunate to have several assets that MPC was able to share with us. After going through the entire cut a few times and thinking through what we could do, the final decision was made to make the entire thing in 3D. This was largely because we wanted to mimic the feel of what the actual plates had with the boat meandering down the waterfront and have shots filmed at slightly different angles and times. So, as the boat travels down the water during the sequence, we just lined up the cameras to match the real location in Hong Kong and rendered it all out. This was a little challenging on a few of the really defocused angles where you have no idea what part of the city you’re looking at, but our layout lead, Kenny Yong, did a fantastic job placing everything so that it felt like a natural progression of a sequence. After that, one of Atomic’s lighters, Francisco Robles, worked really closely with two lead compositors that built out the entire template for the sequence: Jed Smith and Antoine Wibaut. Between the three of them, the entire sequence was packaged into a template that allowed our comp team to jump in and focus on making shots look as awesome as possible, while avoiding technical hurdles. As we were setting the feel for that environment, there was an evening I was walking through the city as some thick low lying clouds started to move through and consume the tops of the buildings. It was so perfect, so I pulled out my camera started shooting photos. The next day I came into the studio and a couple other artists had shot the same photos! That reference quickly became a huge source of inspiration on how we could play the atmosphere in the city as the clouds moved through it. We took the clouds around the city and just bled all the lighting from the buildings into them and we realized we’d hit gold. The entire look just clicked!
What was the real size of the Zen Garden sets?
The entire set was about 40ft across, built on a blue screen stage.
How did you create the huge background environment of the Zen Garden?
It turned into a combination of matte painting and 3D layout. Originally it started as a spherical projection that MPC had provided to us, but as the needs of the sequence progressed, we had to take it much further. That opened up the opportunity for us to start creating more pieces for the puzzle. We started with some of the buildings we had in our Hong Kong cityscape and blocked out some of the backgrounds with those. Then we did any additional modelling required and matte painted in some details. In the end, it was put together into a single lighting scene built out by Sebastien Carrillo. To really sell the entire feel and atmosphere, we had a system for FX driven rain that we applied over some of our wider shots to create that feeling of a dense sheeting rain building up in the distance. On the comp side, everything was packaged into a template that one of our rockstar compers, Laurent Srey, built to maintain a consistent look and feel.
How did you create the CG versions of the Major and Kuze?
We joined the show in the latter stretch of production, so MPC already had both character assets in production. We ingested them into our pipeline, but had to recreate any lookdev to fit in our renderer. On top of this, we needed to adjust textures to reflect the needs of our sequences. Jonathan Fleming-Bock helped set some of the foundation for the lookdev, and then April Llanes took both characters and ran with them, making any texture modifications needed and really nailing the lookdev. Once it was in lighting, everything just looked great from the first renders. Bruno Gagne took lead for the lighting on this sequence and was faced with the challenge of rendering out a character (Kuze) which had multiple layers of subsurface and refractive materials layered over each other and a reflective metal skeleton under all of that. When we shot off our first full res render, it clocked in at over 24 hours per frame. In a matter of days, Bruno took that down to anywhere from 2-4 hours!
Animation was obviously also a huge part of all of these shots. For Major, we replaced everything from the neck down with a CG digi-double due to the fact she needed to have a decent amount of battle damage for this sequence. This allowed some things to be more forgiving, or even allowed the opportunity to take over a performance to enhance the scene a little. While Kuze also was practically replaced completely from the neck down, he was also heavily enhanced with CG on his face to show the more robotic nature of him. This was a bit of a challenge as it really required the motion to be spot-on in order to mimic of the actor’s performance. In the end, our animation team rocked it and managed to nail the performances!
This helicopter is getting shot and crash down after hitting a building. How did you handle so many destructions?
Our amazing FX team, led by Todd Dufour, took point on the destruction effects for the helicopter crash shots. It was especially challenging for them, since we were exploring different possibilities for animation pretty late in the game. That meant they had to build destruction tools that could quickly adapt to animation changes, and ensure development was moving forward even though the motion wasn’t 100% nailed down.
Did you share assets with MPC or the other vendors?
Since we joined the show in the latter stage of its production, there were a lot of assets going back and forth. There were about three companies that built different holograms for the film, all of which were shared with us. MPC shared many of their big assets and environments. The Zen garden started as an asset that was going to be provided to us, but it shifted as the creative direction developed. That allowed us to build a different environment which we then shared with MPC. There was also a desire to keep continuity with the Hong Kong look and the feel on of the sequence when Major is underwater, so we shared some of that work with Framestore.
Have you developed new tools for this show?
This show was a pretty quick turnaround, so we didn’t have much time to spend on tool development. One of the first things we dove into and setup was a system to manage the ‘Solograms’ (the large voxel looking holograms in the city). The actual holograms were large BGOs which were rendered out of Houdini, but out layout pipeline is in Maya. One of our developers, Marc-Antoine Paquin, setup a system to take low res proxies placed in Maya and ripple those changes into Houdini without needing to juggle things back and forth. It just streamlined the entire process and helped us turn changes around super quick!
What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
Time is always the challenge. For this show, really planning every stage out from the beginning was so critical. I was fortunate to get to work with a really solid production team on this show!
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Not really, it was a fun ride that never got too crazy.
How long have you worked on this show?
We came on pretty late in the project, from November to February. It was a nice 4-month sprint.
What’s the VFX shots count?
We completed around 100 shots.
What was the size of your team?
Around 75 artists and production staff.
What is your next project?
I’m currently VFX Supervising the season 2 of STRANGER THINGS for Atomic Fiction. The Duffers and everyone at Netflix have been crazy fun to work with. I couldn’t be more excited about it. That’s about all I can say right now!
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Atomic Fiction: Dedicated page about GHOST IN THE SHELL on Atomic Fiction website.
// GHOST IN THE SHELL – VFX BREAKDOWN – ATOMIC FICTION
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017