Since its passage in The Art of VFX for SUCKER PUNCH, Bryan Hirota worked on TREE OF LIFE and then joined Pixomondo to oversee the effects of films such as GREEN LANTERN, JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and WRATH OF THE TITANS.
How was the collaboration with director Rupert Sanders?
Most of our collaboration with Rupert came through Cedric and Phil (the film VFX supervisors), however we did speak with him a couple of times. Rupert had a fantastic visual sense and ability to express it.
It’s his first feature film. How was his approach about VFX?
While it might be his first feature he’s had extensive experience directing commercials so he’s familiar with the VFX process. His approach was to have a fantastical component and/or idea and then aside from that conceit execute it in as realistic a manner as possible.
Can you tell us more about your collaboration with Production VFX Supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan?
Cedric was great to work with. He was very straightforward and would quickly let you know if something was working for him or not. His long tenured relationship with Rupert gave him great insight into what Rupert was after and his own background as an artist allowed him to provide meaningful feedback.
What Pixomondo have done on the show?
The prologue battle which required aside from the shattering knights, modifying the terrain so that it had a scorched earth look, extending the dark army to be many times the size of the dark army photographed, extending the kings army including the calvary.
The assault on the castle at the end of the movie, we again extended the size of the attacking force, modified to beach and cliffs to ensure visually it didn’t repeat. Cleaned up the beach so it looked untouched… Added in fireballs and firery sand explosions and then arrows as they got closer.
Once they approached the castle and breached the portcullis we composited the beach exterior and added arrows and in a number of instances increased the size of the queens army.
There were a few other odds and ends like some additional arrow work like William’s introduction where he attacks the convoy, and when the dwarf gets shot. Also we created Snow White riding on a horse for Rhythm and Hues and Bluebolt and we animated a digital Snow White and Huntsman for the wide shot of them crossing the stream.
Can you tell us more about the filming of the prologue battle?
The prologue battle was filmed over a variety of days. This complicated post as the weather conditions varied. We had to modify the plates to unify them. On days where it’s was sunny, we had to downplay the sense of direct light and add the overcast feel from the other days.
For the shattering knight shots generally we had a clean plate without a dark soldier and one with so we always had good reference for what we waned the knight to look like.
For extensive shots of the dark army they were by and large digital as was the dilapidated terrain.
How did you create the various digi-doubles?
We built them from scans and photographic reference. The models were then constructed in high detail to allow for secondary movement via cloth simulations of the chain mail and cloth flaps, hair simulations for the pony tails. We compared the detail of our model against live action soldiers lit with the same lighting and revised until we couldn’t tell the difference of the digital knights from the live actin ones.
Can you tell us how you create the huge knights army?
Once we had a good looking soldier, we created reduced complexity versions of them to allow us to put hundreds of them together. For the wide views where you see the army in it’s full extent, we used Massive and arranged the agents in their desired configuration. They are ostensibly supposed to stand still but if they had no movement they looked like statutes. So we gave them a little bit of weight shifting/shuffled/etc. The line of calvary in the back were also done in Massive. For the lower angle shots where you saw a large army, we put our additional soldiers in max and applied some motion capture or hand animation as desired.
How did you manage the tracking challenge for the prologue battle?
Tracking markers were laid out on the terrain and certain trees. Also the area was extensively surveyed and lidar’d. We gave this information to our tracking team who did a fantastic job of solving for the camera.
Can you explain to us in detail the creation of the impressive effect of shattering knights?
Based on the description and artwork of what was desired, we knew from the start we weren’t going to be able to approach this with just a run of the mill rigid dynamics system. It was important for the art and gravitas of the event that the knights shatter in a very specific characteristic while also accurately preserving it’s volume and at the same time have a very specific type of shard shape for the final component. After the initial cut which breaks the knight along the force vector, the pieces have secondary and tertiary fracturing until the knight is reduced to it’s smallest shard components. It was important to the design of the system that the shatter be flexible enough allow the animators to change the animation of the knights or the strikes and then return a simulation in a reasonable amount of time to allow us to run iteration after iteration. Dynamic simulations are unpredictable by nature and without something like the shattering system Pixomondo developed inside max with thinking particles we wouldn’t have been able to convey the shattering in such an interesting and stylized way.
Can you tell us more about the final battle on the shore?
For the final assault on the castle, we started by extending the live action photography of Snow White and her army by extending the soldiers and riders to look like a large force. As they rode towards the castle, we added digital horses and soldiers as well to keep the size and scope of attack on a grand scale. We digitally redressed the beach to make it seem like a wider expanse. Bluebolt provided us precomps with the castles and we then also added arrows and fireballs launched from trebuchets.
Additionally, Pixomondo contributed to the final assault on the Queen’s castle toward the end of the film. Sharing work with BlueBolt, who created the castle, Pixomondo enhanced the battle by adding arrows, archers and fireballs. It digitally redressed the beach to make it seem like a wider expanse and supplemented the armies with digital soldiers and horses that amassed on the cliff overlooking the castle. Blending the digital VFX with practical effects, Pixomondo augmented real-life explosions in the sand and fireballs thrown by the trebuchets with CG simulations that matched their practical counterparts, blending in pieces of the practical elements wherever possible.
How did you augmented the explosions on the shore?
We augmented the real-life explosions with simulations of sand and fire/explosions. Also the fireballs would trail some light smoke that needed to be blown out of the way by the explosions.
How did you collaborates with other vendors on this show?
We needed our shards to match with Double Negative’s. While they didn’t have to be absolutely identical as they played out slightly different in each scene you needed to know it was part of Ravenna’s dark magic. Double Negative had created some turn tables of shards that demonstrated their shading characteristics which was that of a black shiny obsidian glass, and their sharp dangerous shapes. We took care to ensure as our soldiers devolved they broke down into those component shapes.
Since we were already doing horses, Cedric and Phil thought it made sense for us to create an element of Snow White riding on her white stallion. We create one element for Rhythm and Hues to use in their shot of Snow White approaching the dark forrest and another for BlueBolt to use when Snow White first escapes the castle and rides towards the village.
The were a handful of shots where we needed to incorporate work from Lola. We would use their work as a replacement for the scan when it was approved.
BlueBolt created the digital castle so on shots with our work and the castle we would receive their precomps with the castle integrated and we’d add out effects.
Lastly there were a handful of shots where we received a plate from Lola where they replaced snow whites face. We took that plate and digitally hid the huntsman and then handled those comps to Baseblack to extend the calvary.
What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge was creating the dark army and implementing their shattering in an manner that was both pleasing artistically but also realistic in it’s physical behavior. Implementation detailed above.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
I don’t know if anything prevented me from sleeping, but we did spend quite a bit of time working out variations and tweaking the look of the shattering before we converged on a solution.
What do you keep from this experience?
I enjoyed very much the experience of collaborating with Rupert/Cedric and Phil Brennan. They all brought unique ideas and this movie has such a strong aesthetic running through it, that I’m really pleased with both the final results and the working experience.
How long have you worked on this film?
We worked on the movie for about seven months.
How many shots have you done?
About 270 shots.
What is your next project?
I am not in a position where I can talk about it yet, but I am very excited about it and can’t wait until I can.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Pixomondo: Official website of Pixomondo.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2012