SUCKER PUNCH: Bryan Hirota – VFX Supervisor – Prime Focus

Bryan Hirota worked for nearly 20 years in visual effects. He has worked at Rhythm and Hues, CIS Hollywood and recently at Prime Focus. His career includes numerous films such as DEMOLITION MAN, ARMAGEDDON or END OF DAYS. He oversaw films like MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, ERAGON or WATCHMEN.

What is your background?
I have a BS in Computer Science from UCSD, and have worked in the visual effects industry for a number of years. I started working for Video Image | VIFX, (a company that was merged with Rhythm and Hues in 1999/2000) at the end of 1992 and met John « DJ » DesJardin there.

How was your collaboration with director Zack Snyder and VFX supervisor John Desjardins of production?
You couldn’t ask for two better people to work for. Zack is an extremely creative guy, who is also very open to hearing and considering ideas as well. His ability to maintain his vision but also be collaborative in the process amazes me. John « DJ » DesJardin is similar as well. He brings a lot of creative enthusiasm to a project that helps drive it forward and also encourages collaboration – I can’t say enough about how enjoyable it is to work with the two of them.

Can you tell us how Prime Focus become involved on this movie?
Here is a quote that DJ gave about this project:
« I’ve been working on difficult projects with Bryan Hirota for nearly 20 years. As I started pre-production on SUCKER PUNCH, Bryan told me he was joining Mike Fink and Terry Clotiaux at Prime Focus. I knew Bryan’s creativity combined with Prime Focus’s powerful resources would be the formidable combination I’d need to execute Zack’s fantastic vision for the Bullet Train Sequence. « 

What are the sequences made by Prime Focus on this show?
Here’s a blurb I grabbed from Tony Bradley:
“Our talented guys and girls in Vancouver contributed some of the stunning VFX work on show in the movie – including the opening CG theatre shots, a dramatic scene that involved the camera traveling through a keyhole to arrive at a reflection in Babydoll’s eye, and the epic crane shot featuring the drive to Lennox House that includes a detailed CG environment. The bulk of the work however was done in the final, action-packed fantasy sequence on the train, which required the development of a CG helicopter and helipad, alien-like terrains, interior and exterior shots of the train, hoards of armed robots for the girls to destroy and the futuristic metropolis called “Bunny City”, which comes to a decidedly sticky end.”

Can you explain how you create the shot where the movie title appear on the car window?
The shot of Babydoll and her stepfather driving up to the Lennox House started out life as a shot of the two actors inside a car on a green screen stage with a crane move around the car. We took the footage and matchmoved the whole shot so we could replace the whole exterior of the car with our digital car. We initially considered just replacing the reflections on the live action car and adding water to it, but that turned out to be more difficult than render a whole wet car.

Once we had a good model of the car we matchmoved the car and started creating the environment around the car based on production artwork. The field of grass was created using Maya paint effect turned into geometry for rendering. The house was modeled based on a pre-production model which we then did conceptual stills of. Once they were happy with that we built the model and matte painted a sky dome to go with the 3d house, car, gate, and grass/trees.

The rain was done using Real Flow on the car and controlled to match up with production artwork for the logo and once we achieved the title shape it was released. We added rain/water splashing effects too as the car drove down the road. The model was created in maya. The car was animated in Maya. The various pieces were all rendered in v-ray.

What was your references for the environnement and the Lennox building?
Production supplied us with some artwork for their general concept of the Lennox House and we received a model from the art department as well. We took those assets and created additional artwork to present to DJ and Zack. Once we had something they liked in that form, we set about making the house/gate and hills. The hills were covered with grass created with Maya paint effect turned into geometry for rendering as curves. Some procedural trees were generated as well.

How did you create the shot in which we cross the door lock and goes to the eye of Baby Doll?
The keyhole shot was created by using reference footage of the door/keyhole and building a cg version of the door to fly a camera through. On the other side of the keyhole we had macro photography of Emily’s eye. We stabilized her in that plate and mapped that to a card on the other side of the keyhole. There was another plate of the camera pushing in on the stepfather so the trick was to match up the hallway lights to highlights on her eye and the speed of the last plate’s push in to the camera travel through the keyhole. We applied some spherical distortion to the stepfather plate to appear that it’s mapped on her eyeball and as we transitioned into the stepfather’s world we ramped off of the distortion.

How did you create this incredible shot which shows the girls, the helicopter, the train and the sky with planets?
The sky/ground and planets were generated with Terragen2. We explored the idea of modeling the geometry in a traditional sense versus creating a large procedural environment and felt that going procedural gave us the freedom to have a world really large in scope. Another benefit of Terragen for us was how well it integrated it’s own atmospherics within the hard surface geometry it made.

How did you create an environment so big?
We used the Terragen software system… and in fact we ended up employing the author of the system Matt Fairclough to work on creating the alien planet and moons/planets in the sky. This allowed us to have a very large scale environment but since it was procedural we were also able to have a lot of small scale detail too. This also allowed us to have real volumetric clouds/sky-system that casted shadows back onto the surfaces too.

What references have you received for robots, trains and the huge environment of this sequence?
Much like the Lennox House we received some production artwork for these items which was a great starting point. We then built models and renders to show to Zack and DJ. We made a few versions of the robots/joints to explore the differences in joint configurations and details with the face masks/etc.

Can you explain to us the fight between the girls and the robots?
For the large continuous shot of the girls fighting the robots, we shot it for seven days on two stages simultaneously. You can actually see Zack talk a bit about it here: http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1660722/sucker-punch.jhtml

And DJ talk about it here: http://www.awn.com/articles/3d/stitching-together-sucker-punch

The action sequence was a big challenge to plan. The first step was that we received a verbal description from Zack what he thought the shot might be. Then it moved into previz to kind of plan it out. Meanwhile Zack and Damon Caro worked together to plan out the fight sequences using his stunt team. We then edited together footage of the stunt guys fighting with our previz for sections where we knew we needed cg girls. For the bits where the girls flew we had both girls on rigs/wires to pull them around but used digital girls also.

Their highly reflective surface had to be a nightmare. How have you managed them?
It was problematic because the robots needed to reflect everything around there. So we had to have girls/train interior placed in the shots even when they weren’t being rendered to see how they showed up in the reflections.

How did you created the digital doubles for girls?
We spent a couple months doing detailed work in modelling the girls in both max and Zbrush based on highly detailed photography of the characters. We shared the workload of building the characters with Animal Logic, MPC and Prime Focus exchanging digital assets based upon guidelines agreed upon at the start of the production.

Is the extreme slow motion shots of Zack Snyder have caused you some troubles?
Yes. In the robot battle specifically – the footage was all shot at 300fps or 150fps. And to provide Zack the control he wanted/needed to change speedramps/etc we worked on the shot at a high frame rate as well to block it out. This made our working version of the shot 18minutes long.

Have you developed specific tools for this project?
Prime Focus developed some very specific tools to help manage a shot of the length and complexity of the big robot battle. Attacking it with off the shelf tools just did not provide the data management.

What was the biggest challenge on this project?
Without question the big robot battle.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleeping?
The big robot battle.

How long have you worked on this film?
Worked on the film for about a year.

How many shots have you made?
I think we delivered about 180 shots VFX shots. We did another 200 or so « make up » type fixes.

What did you keep from this experience?
I really enjoyed the creative freedom offered by a movie full of such incredible ideas. Both Zack and DJ really pushed to develop the shots to be as remarkable as possible. The experience of doing the big continuous robot battle in the train is not one I will soon forget.

What is your next project?
I’m currently working on GREEN LANTERN at another facility (not Prime Focus).

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE ?

Prime Focus: Official website of Prime Focus.
fxguide: fxpodcast about SUCKER PUNCH.
VFX World: Article about SUCKER PUNCH on VFX World.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2011

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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