Blair Clark began his career on the film GREMLINS, then joined ILM, where he met Phil Tippett. He will work especially YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, WILLOW or INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. For nearly 25 years he worked at Tippett Studio, he oversees the effects of such films as BLADE 2, HELLBOY or SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES.
What is your background?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // Attended school at California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) in Oakland CA, I was hired by Chris Walas to join crew working on the first GREMLINS film. From there went to ILM, where I met Phil Tippett and began to learn the process of machining Stop Motion armatures from Tom St.Amand, who is still the undisputed master of the craft. I continued to work for Phil, creating armatures for several films at Tippett Studio, then went to Skellington Productions for NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS after which I returned to Tippett Studio in 1994 and have remained here since.
What are the sequences made by Tippett Studio?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // We were contacted by VFX Producer, Nancy St.John and VFX Supervisor, Adam Howard to assist in supplying Visual Effects for the portion of the third act, involving the girl (played by Claire Foy) transforming into the Demon and engaging Nicolas Cage, and Ron Perlman’s characters in a battle to the death.
How was the collaboration with the director Dominic Sena?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // The film was well in post production by the time we became involved, and we worked exclusively with Mark Helfrich (2nd Unit Director / Editor).
What references did he give you for the winged demon?
Nate Fredenburg (Art Director) // There had been no design work done on the demon when we became involved with the film so there was no reference. When we asked what kind of demon they were looking for, we were told, “you know, a demon.” So it was an open playing field. The demon is identified as Baal in the script, so we started there. We looked at both old engravings of Baal and more contemporary renditions to familiarize ourselves with the range of interpretations. We decided this demon needed to be a demon of old manuscripts to best support the story so we leaned toward a classic representation.
Can you explain how you transform the girl in the demon in particular in the closeup on her face?
Aharon Bourland (CG Supervisor) // The close up was actually the test bed for working out our technique. The first step is to build an accurate model of the subjects face. Once you have that you can get camera and facial match move solves. This has to be really accurate because we will be using this mesh to generate pRef data. pRef (position reference or texture reference) is used in a projection shader to stick a projection onto a deforming surface. We now take the girls face and build a set of blind shapes that will transform it into the demon face. Then the plate is reprojected back onto the newly transforming face and since we use pRef instead of P in the projection shader the plate is warped into the shape of the demon. Were about half way there now. we need to get the color and skin texture changes in. A procedural shader that used coordinate systems from maya to wipe on passes of veins skin erosion masks and other textures was used to animate and render these passes. And finally we have a light pass of a face painted like the demon but morphing from human to demon. All of these passes were then comped together to achieve the final effect.
How did you create the cart taking fire and starting to melt?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // Those were shots that we shared with UPP (Prague), who had the lion’s share of shots in the film and in these shots, they did all of the fire and melting cage work, and we did the integration and augmentation to the girl turning into the demon.
Can you explain the shooting of the final sequence? Did you use a stunt double dressed in blue to simulate the presence of the demon?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // The final sequence was shot in Shreveport, LA. Our VFX Supervisor, Eric Leven and Location Data Supervisor Eric Marko worked with the Director and the Stunt team to choreograph the fight between the actors and the Demon. There was a stunt double (dressed in gray tights) used for interactivity (eyelines, choking and grabbing actors, etc.) and was covered with the CG Demon. There were also a few shots that had been previously shot in principal photography with the girl (Claire Foy) acting as the Demon in which we covered here with the CG Demon, but closely followed her performance.
Have you encountered some problems with the wings of the demon? And how did you create them?
Nate Fredenburg (Art Director) // Wings are always tricky. Since we didn’t have much time to build the demon, we went with as simple a rig as we could, which really put it in the hands of the animators to make look good. When designing the demon, we decided to give it an extra wing membrane that was reminiscent of a collar. We thought it would help give the demon added visual interest and presence. The animators hated it and spent most of their time trying to find poses that just got it out of their way. Even when we work hard to design with performance in mind, we can’t anticipate everything.
What were your references for the animation of the demon?
Jim Brown (Animation Supervisor) // We shot a lot of reference of ourselves acting as a demon. There were many takes to figure out how this demon would walk, move, and fight. We started with a more feminine movement, but shifted to a more classic demon character with powerful masculine poses and actions. The wings were a big challenge because of the amount of physical weight they would put on a demon’s back. We had to ask ourselves how much of that weight would we see in the demon’s movement. We looked at bird reference as well as bat reference for poses and postures. In the end having the wings affect the demon’s walk and movement too much took away from the performance of the character. However, they were great for a number of shots when we needed some exciting action. Overall the demon was a mixture of a birds, bats, and animators jumping around like they were possessed.
How did you create the death of Felson (Ron Perlman) who falls in ashes?
David Schnee (Compositing Supervisor) // The idea behind Felson’s death brought to screen over the course of just a few shots was that once he was wrapped up by the demons wings, a spark would ignite sort of furnace that would quickly warm up moving into a super heated blast furnace by the end, engulfing Felson in heat, flame, and fire. The demons big reveal left Felson in a momentary statue like state of ash. Once she drew her wings back disrupting the air, Felson’s remains came toppling down the heap of ash with bursts of ember, smoke, and flame. We actually referenced some of our previous work from the burning vampire deaths from BLADE II, and Samuel’s death in HELLBOY.
We needed many elements to pull this off, and we did so using a combination of elements from the FX department as well a slew of practical elements shot on stage. We shot a variety of flame elements (think a propane burner cranked up way over high) that we made dance around using flags to fan air at them. This gave us more interesting performances from the standard horizontal flame in a calm environment. These elements worked out well when licks of flames spilled out from the edges of the demons wings and arms. Senior Compositor Satish Ratakonda used these elements along with creative 2d distortions in Nuke to sell this wrapping around for the close up shot. We shot burning twisted up newspaper that we physically beat against a household fan giving us rising embers, which was a lot of fun. Padding the CG with the right practical elements seems to alwasy give you a truer sense of reality, so one of the elements we shot that really worked out for us was burning steel wool. Another of our Compositing Supervisors, Chris Morley mocked up a sculpt Felson in his final pose built entirely of steel wool. When he light this on fire, it gave us a great organic burning look that we were able to composite to some degree in all 3 shots, but primarily used across the entire shape of FX driven ash at the beginning of the reveal. Articulate hand animated regions of burning Felson steel wool was achieved in the composite matching timings from the FX ash toppling down, but offset for a more organic feel. The FX department provided us with great elements for the ash and embers that had an almost Brownian motion quality to them, the rising and swirling, caught up in the pull of air from the animation of the demons wings, it was great. The lighting department also provided us with great interactive lighting across the shots, along with a vital SSS (sub surface scattering) AOV, that we used in the comp to achieve the look of internal lighting inside the membranes of the wings. Again we padded all of this with 2d smoke, dust, fire, embers, and heat distortion elements making it as interesting and real as possible.
Can you explain how you create the impressive death of the demon?
David Schnee (Compositing Supervisor) // The death of the demon starts subtly over the course of a few shots as the reading of the passage in the book begins to inflict pain and damage to her, for the earlier shots leading up to the death, we used Color Codes painted up from our Art department as well as some AOV’s for the wing membranes used to create levels of a leading edge burning quality (think burning paper) the look created in the composite. We would animate intensities across the panels of wings driven to flare up more intense when the demons wings moved more (as if the moving air fueled it with more oxygen), and then become more tame when they didn’t move as much, all the while trying to ramp up the intensity over the series of shots. The compositors tracked in 2d smoke elements that we turned black as sort of an negative ‘evil’ smoke element that burned from markings inflamed by the reading, padded with some heat distortion.
By the time we get to her death, the atmosphere in the room was full of 2d smoke which gave us something to light up when we needed to support the internal forces that broke out in intense beams of light from her body, or ‘God Rays’ as we call them. Often times this is a cheesy 2d effect only, but due to the need for interaction with all the moving parts we were provided a few volumetric lighting passes from our CG Supervisor Aharon Bourland to achieve the look. We continued the same 2d burning wing effect into this shot, but was taken over by an FX Simulation that eroded and dissolved away her wings, arms, and legs using a similar leading edge burn effect. The FX guys orchestrated a series of cracked panels on the demons chest and torso that for a moment tries to hold it all in, but ultimately breaks apart opening up to release our seasoned witch in a burst of light and energy. In the comp we used some 2d distortion techniques making a concussive wave that helped sell the energy during that moment. We padded the naked witch (which was shot as a green screen element) with 2d Schwap! or blood elements made to look like a gooey glistening slime.
After this event, more violent demon animation ensues as we are left with a eroding shell of the demon and a soul like energy getting ripped apart from it’s shell. There is now a slew of swirling debris, ash, bits of demon from FX, as well as this animated ball of particles that tears off and shoots up out of the Scriptorium. It’s here that things started to become a bit abstract in the composite. Using the raw FX passes we created a series of interesting throbbing, swirling, and orbiting passes as pre-composites,and then heavily processed them together animating fits of distortion and bursts of light and energy in 2d using Nuke and Shake.
The original idea for very end of the shot was that the ball of energy was to exit through the oculus at the top of the Scriptorium, and up until the eve of delivering this shot for final, the client changed their mind… why would it know to just leave through the hole they asked? So the new plan was to have the ball of demonic energy miss and smash into a blast of chaos at the top of the celling. This turned into a very fast paced science experiment on how the hell are we going to do this and what exactly this should look like. In less than a day and a half, we took a number of quickly generated FX passes from our Lead FX Animator Joseph Hamdorf, and using Nuke heavily processed the exploding particle simulation renders that blasted across the curvature of the ceiling. Using time offset and re-timing tools on the raw FX elements helped us quickly generate a much more complex looking array of elements. Using every trick we had in the book we built on this using tons of layers with glows, distortions, displacements, ripples, 3d projections for concussive shock waves, 2d smoke and dust for atmosphere, and in the end trying to make a few frames look that of distant galaxy with veins of antimatter shot from the Hubble helped get the job done. It was a very collaborative effort in the end, multiple compositors joined in to help generate bits a pieces, pulling off the finale conclusion to the demons death together in pretty much one day. I have to also mention that this would never had come together so quickly with out the compositing speed and strength of Nuke.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleeping?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // There were several shots, but the death of the demon section was a pretty challenging one.
What is your pipeline and your software from Tippett Studio?
Aharon Bourland (CG Supervisor) // Our primary 3D packages are Maya, Mudbox, and Houdini. For 3D paint we use photoshop, and our in house tool shallowPaint. We do a mixture of geometry caching to gto files and translating maya scenes to ribs, so we can render them in Renderman. For Comp we use a mixture of Nuke and Shake. Nuke was used on the transformation shots in SEASON OF THE WITCH.
How long have you worked on this film?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // After the Demon design was approved and ready for production, we started working on shots in early September and finished mid-November 2010.
How many shots have you done and what was the size of your team?
Lee Hahn (Visual Effects Producer) // 60 people, 75 shots, 80 days
What do you keep from this experience?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // What’s not to love about a show with a Demon in it?!?
What is your next project?
Tippett Studio is currently in production on PRIEST (Screen Gems), THE SMURFS (Columbia Pictures), THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN (Summit Entertainment), IMMORTALS (Relativity), HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN (HBO Films), as well as a commercial for Busch Gardens. In our spare time some of our employees, under the guidance of Phil Tippett, are working on a stop motion project called MAD GOD. You can see a trailer for it on our YouTube page : www.youtube.com/PhilsAttic
What are the 4 movies that gave you the passion of cinema?
Blair Clark (Visual Effects Supervisor) // Just 4? That’s a tough one. I grew up on a steady diet of Universal and Hammer Horror films, and those gave me a combination of being a creepy little kid, and a desire to be involved in film making. I know as soon as I answer this, I will remember 30 other films that were just as influential, but BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, STAR WARS and GOLDFINGER.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE ?
– Tippett Studio: Official website of Tippett Studio.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2011