A few months ago, Nikos Kalaitzidis explained the work of Digital Domain on ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. He talks to us today about his work on SHADOW.

How did you and Digital Domain get involved on this show?
Samson Wong is the VFX supervisor on the studio side for this project working with Director Zhang Yimou. Samson happens to also be a Digital Domain alumni. For the sequence we were awarded, they shot men on-set in umbrellas rolling down a hill on small dollies which was difficult to fix in post and make it look real. Samson felt confident that if he brought this work to Digital Domain that we’d be able to execute the effects the way they’d envisioned.

How was the collaboration with director Zhang Yimou and VFX Supervisor Samson Wong?
While we worked primarily with Samson, one thing we really enjoyed about working with Zhang Yimou was the fact that he gave us a locked edit during turnover. He is a director with vision and execution in mind and because of that, his ideas did not change throughout the lifetime of the project which is rare. It was a pleasure to work with a filmmaker such as Zhang.

What was their expectations and approaches about the visual effects?
The production gave us an edit of all shots as plates and a fully locked edit. What they shot on set wasn’t quite working as well as they’d hoped. We knew that we needed to ensure that the rebels would be able to use the umbrellas in a particular way. Also, the director wanted the film to look like an old Chinese painting and have the mountains stack against one another in a silhouetted way.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer and at the Digital Domain offices?
We split the work on this project across our three studios including our India location. The majority of the work was handled by our Vancouver team.

What sequences was made by Digital Domain?
We worked on a full sequence that involved armored umbrellas with heavy environment work as well as rain, shooting arrows and splashing water effects. In the film, the rebels need to travel from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley through a village occupied by an army–all in heavy rain and thick mist. These rebels used the steel umbrellas to propel themselves downhill via rain and to protect themselves from the arrows that they’re being attacked with. We created the village, the hills, the roads, the valley, digi-doubles of rebels and the umbrellas. We also replaced all on-set people in umbrellas with CG digi-doubles with up to 200 umbrellas in total in a given shot.

Your sequence takes place in a massive village. How did you extend this place?
The extension of the village could not have been done by matte paint on its own due to moving cameras. Instead, we built 3D environments, houses and trees as well as created 3D rain and mist FX. Our environments department would kit-batch X amount of houses and we’d multiply and extend those to create a large village.

Can you tell us more about the vast mountainous environment around the village?
The mountainous environment including houses, trees and the village itself was 3D leading up to the far distant 2D mountains silhouetted as specified by the director.

The heroes are using metallic and spinning umbrellas. How did you create these umbrellas?
We based the metallic umbrellas on set photography and modeled our assets to match that in texture, lookdev and rigging. Then we needed to make the blades larger to ensure that the actors would be cradled within the CG umbrella as they’re spinning down the mountain. Some of the team was hot off Ready Player One, and we were able to tap into that skillset and tools in-house for instancing hundreds of animated objects in a given scene.

How did you create the digital doubles?
We did a variation of several digi-doubles that matched the rebels in umbrellas. We implemented cloth and had several hair grooms for the medium and close up shots. The umbrellas and digi-doubles were rendered using V-Ray.

It’s raining really strong during your sequence. How did you handle this aspect?
We added 3D rain rendered by our FX department. Rain on cards were created for compositing and our FX department also provided atmospheric mist. Heavy rain was needed to justify the umbrellas moving down the hill.

Can you tell us more about the water FX simulations?
There had to be enough rain to justify water coming down the mountain for the spinners to slide towards the bottom of the hill. There were a few shots where we had to run a fluid sim to visualize these umbrellas sliding on top of water over the road. At times some of the rain confused matters in close up shots because there was so much happening within a tight field of view of CG umbrellas, rain, flying arrows and splashes. These tight shots were the most challenging of the sequence.

The heroes are using weapons against the soldiers. How did you create these various weapons?
To create the bows and arrows used by the many soldiers on set, we needed to track all of the actors’ hands in 3D and then add 3D arrows. Our FX team would procedurally aim the arrows at the road where the umbrellas were located. With regard to the umbrellas used by the rebels, this was more complicated than we initially thought it would be. The band of rebels needed to go from point A to point B while getting past the Chinese army to defend themselves from the flying arrows and then form an attack at the end. The director informed us that the umbrellas were used to propel the rebels downhill while shooting out machete-like blades at the soldiers as they spin.

The movie is almost monochromatic. How did that affect your work?
The director had a certain vision in mind and wanted our backgrounds of silhouetted mountainscapes to feel like an old Chinese painting. In the end, we executed the backgrounds with 3D environments with village houses, roads and trees along with matte paintings as a combination. The use of volumetrics for fog helped a great deal for all of our 3D holdouts. We also received color grades from the practical footage given to us and we used that to match our CG shots to the practical.

Which shot was the most complicated to create and why?
Selling the visuals of an army of people sliding and spinning within a steel umbrella, down a mountain while fighting an army. This visual itself is complicated to understand let alone execute.

What is your best memory on this show?
We had teams on multiple time zones, and VFX never sleeps! We had some funny hours to review shots via cineSync. One of my favorites involved one side–shall remain nameless to protect the innocent–in a hotel room laying in bed under the sheets, giving notes via tele-conferencing.

How long have you worked on this show?
About 3 months.

What’s the VFX shots count?
60 shots.

What was the size of your team?
100 artists.

A big thanks for your time.


Digital Domain: Dedicated page about SHADOW on Digital Domain website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2018


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