THE DARKEST HOUR: Hans Uhlig – VFX Supervisor – Polygon Entertainment

Hans Uhlig has worked for over 9 years at ILM on such films as STAR WARS EPISODE 1: THE PHANTOM MENACE, THE PERFECT STORM or MASTER AND COMMANDER. Then in 2007 he founded Polygon Entertainment. In the following interview, Hans discusses his work on THE DARKEST HOUR.

What is your background?
Before I founded Polygon Entertainment in 2007, I was giving the game industry a try. Before that I worked at ILM for about 9 Years, starting in 1996. Prior to that, I was doing commercials and an animated feature in Germany.

How did Polygon Entertainment got involved on this show?
We’ve worked with Stefen Fangmeier in the past.

How was the collaboration with director Chris Gorak?
We spent just a couple of times talking about shots during our cineSync sessions. He seems like a down to earth kinda guy with a clear vision. Even during those stressful weeks in post he had a great sense of humor. I would love to work for him again in the future.

How was the collaboration with Production VFX Supervisor Stefen Fangmeier?
I’ve known Stefen now for about 16 years. I worked with him during my ILM days on films like MASTER AND COMMANDER and PERFECT STORM. I like to work with Stefen a lot. He get’s things done and leaves you enough room to be creative. He knows what is important in a shot and where to spend the budget, but still tries to get the best out of it.

What have you done on this show?
We worked on 430 shots in the movie. Most of these shots were shots with smoke in the atmosphere and/or smoke in one of the cameras. Since the movie was shot in stereo, we had to make the left and right eyes match. It required some fairly sophisticated colorspace and contrast matching between the left and right eye. Also, since Moscow was supposed to be deserted, a lot of these shots also required painting out people, reflections, or other objects (e.g. moving cars) that weren’t supposed to be there.

A lot of shots also required various rig removals and such, and a lot of screen replacements (e.g. the content on the cell phone screens).

We did 12 shots in the opening « alien landing » sequence where the orbs descend upon Moscow. We created and animated the CG orbs that were entirely made of particles.

We did 18 shots in the « boat flip » sequence that was primarily background replacements. Some of that sequence was shot in a water tank, and the rest in a lake, so we had to replace the backgrounds to make it look like the Moscow River. Also, the stereoscopic camera rigs could not be used in or under water, so this sequence was not shot it stereo and had to be converted from 2D to 3D in post-production.


We dimensionalized (2D to 3D) the New Regency logo at the beginning of the film, and also did the final all-CG shot of the submarine sailing off into the sunset.

Can you tell us in details the creation of the aliens?
Other houses created the actual aliens, as well as the towering smokestacks, the alien POV shots, etc. In many cases, we needed these houses to provide their finished elements to us to put into our final composites.

The most challenging « alien » shots for us were the CG orbs in the Alien Landing sequence. Whenever you are creating something completely from scratch, something that’s never been seen before, and something that’s entirely made out of particles, you have to do a lot of experimentation to make sure you have the action, mood, timing, and overall look that the director is looking for.

How did you recreate Moscow for the alien landing?
We didn’t. The plates were shot in Moscow and we were provided with all of the elements except for the CG orbs that we created.

Can you tell us more about the CG water? How did you create it?
Polygon developed it’s own proprietary water pipeline for the Korean blockbuster HAEUNDAE (aka TIDAL WAVE) and we used that for all of the shots requiring CG water.

How did you create the final shot?
The shot with the Sub going out on the ocean? Well, that was a funny one. We did not even have that one on the list (shortlist) but Ivy Agregan (the VFX Producer) poked us and asked us if we could crank out a shot like that (in stereo) in a week or so. We got the basic layout and length of the shot, and at one point we even considered using stock footage of the ocean that we would have to convert to stereo. Time was running out and at some point you just have to say, « No way. », but we had our own water pipeline that allowed us to create pretty much any type of ocean: stormy, calm, or even a Tsunami. So we said, « let’s do this thing all CGI ». Stefen and I bounced the camera file back and forth for two days until we found the right angle. We did an ocean-sim with the sub in it, created a multi-layered sky, rendered all the elements in stereo, composted them, and got the final shot all within a week.

How did you approach the stereo challenge?
We did a lot of stereoscopic conversion on movies like THE GREEN HORNET and GLEE, and we have developed a number of in-house tools to facilitate that kind of work, so the conversion of the Boat Flip sequence was relatively easy for us. The rest of the film was actually shot in stereo so that was a piece of cake compared to stereoscopic conversion.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge was the « one eye blind » footage. When they where shooting in Moscow, there had been big turf fires around the city, so everything was pretty much hazed up. On top of that, one of the lenses of the stereo rig was not sealing properly and the image sensor got all smoked. We called it « one eye blind » and there were about 200 shots like this. On top of that the lenses did not match and the image sensors had a hue shift. We came up with a pixel-math based de-haze method and used the « good » eye to fix the blind eye. That included also a contrast and a couple of color calls for the high, mids and lows. We found that the biggest problem were things like reflections in car windows. they just started to have to much contrast compared to the « good » eye after the fix. It turned into one of those situations where you fix one problem that then leads to another bigger one. It made you sick watching it in stereo. So, we spend a lot of time balancing.

The final shots turned out so well that we got another 150 shots of the Red Square sequence that looked like foggy London but should’ve looked like « happy blue sky ».

Were there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Not really. I have fun with what I’m doing.

What do you keep from this experience?
Always check your stereo rig.

How long have you worked on this film?
We began work on this project in October of 2010. The final shots were delivered in June of 2011.

How many shots have you done?
430.

What was the size of your team?
At our peak, we had about 25-30 people, artists and production personnel.

What is your next project?
There are many! We have to finish the post production on a stop motion film. We are also working on a music-related television show, and because we frequently develop our own software we have a couple of projects in the works that would make our software available to the industry. Well, it never stops.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Ah, the classic question. The first one that hit me over the head when I was 10 or so, was a French film about a boy and a girl falling in love during a summer vacation in the Carmarque in the south of France. I’ve tried to find the title of that movie for the past 37 years. It’s still driving me nuts. Other then that, I would say 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, BLADE RUNNER, CITY OF THE LOST CHILDREN, and THE BIG BLUE just to name a couple.

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Polygon Entertainment: Official website of Polygon Entertainment.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2012

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Vincent Frei

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

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