What is your background?
I’m the Effect Supervisor at Mr. X. Inc. For THE THING, I was our in house CG Supervisor. I have 12 years experience in VFX work, the last 7 of which I have spent here at Mr. X.
How did Mr. X got involved on this show?
We’ve worked with Universal on a number of projects over the years. They approached us to bid on THE THING and we were really excited to get on board. Because we have a lot of experience with CG vehicles, digi-doubles and CG environments we were a great fit for the project.
How was the collaboration with director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and Production VFX Supervisor Jesper Kjolsrud and his team of Image Engine?
The collaboration with Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. was mostly through the VFX Supervisor Jesper Kjolsrud. We worked together in getting the look of the sequence to be what Matthijs wanted. Being in Toronto and Jesper in Vancouver we communicated mostly over phone with previewing tools to close the distance. It was a great creative process and working with both was exciting and rewarding when we could all see the shots building the story of the opening sequence.
What have you done on this show?
The sequence Mr. X. was working on is the opening sequence up to the title shot of the movie.
How did you recreate the vehicle?
Although many of the shots had an actual Spryte that we shot on set here in Toronto, we did make a digital double for some of the more harrowing moments in the sequence. We modeled the Srpyte in Maya, textured it with Mari, lit and rendered it in V-ray.
What was the real size of the sets?
The sets we worked with for our sequence were really only the Spryte itself, so in that case they were all real world scale.
Can you explain to us in details the ice breaks?
Ice breaking was something we always planned to animate by hand, with that being the driving force of our effects work. We had just finished out physic tool for Houdini that uses the Bullet solver and it was giving us very fast detailed results on other projects so we moved forward with a full physical simulation of how the ice would break away in real life.
The real challenge with the ice breaking away is that it was ice with a foot of snow on top of it. We had to try and sell the idea of a huge amount of soft snow under the Spryte’s treads and have it simulate in a direct-able and convincing way.
We had large chunks that were the driving simulation. Once we had the physics feeling just right, we broke up all the edges of them and did another simulation pass of the broken edges. Once these simulations were done, we added a pass of falling particles that collided with the two simulations. We then seeded this particle animation with millions of additional particle simulations to fill in the density needed for the amount of snow to fall with the ice.
How did you animate the ice breaks and the fall of the vehicle?
The Spryte was also simulated with our bullet solver and was actually used as a very heavy weight to begin the breaking of the ice. Once we had the initial simulation feeling right, we replaced the proxy Spryte object used in the simulation with the rigged Spryte and key framed it from there.
How did you create this huge environment both outside and inside?
Both environments are actually very tricky to make looking believable. On the top of the ice, the only details that could really give a sense of detail were very small things, such as, the wavelet patterns of packed snow that wind produces. How the light plays off the snow and sparkles as the eye moves across it. We spent a great deal of time texturing and lighting it. The treads were what helped us the most giving the feeling of scale in such a barren environment.
The ice crevasse itself was a huge challenge. Primarily because for a large duration of the sequence we could only use one light source, the sky. It was also very important to achieve that subsurface scattering effect that ice has. While we were tasked to mimic real world lighting conditions, we also had to exaggerate reality to produce shots that were frightening as well as beautiful, just like an actual ice crevasse. We ended up using Houdini to light the ice, snow, and chunks of ice with point clouds for subsurface properties and custom shaders for refraction and reflections. V-ray was used to light the Spryte and on occasion digi-doubles.
Can you tell us more about the digi-doubles?
The digi-doubles were scanned on set and modeled and textured based off those scans. Rigged and animated in Maya, then lit and rendered with V-ray. Considering the environment was so dark when digi-doubles were needed they ended up being a straight forward process, although one that added the violence of the situation they were going through.
How did you create the ice and the snow?
The ice chunks that fall though the crevasse were a mix of simulated rigid body dynamics in Houdini’s DOPs and our own bullet solver. We had them splash snow and trail snow whenever they made contact with a wall of the crevasse or the Spryte.
Did you develop specific tools for those?
We created an OTL to help distribution of all the chunks and direct their animation. We could then decide how fast, how brittle, or wet the chunks were, as well as when they would hit a wall and explode. Other tools we had were, the as mentioned bullet solver we developed, as well as our multi-particle simulator that we used to produce 100+ million particles per scene.
What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
I believe the lighting inside the crevasse was the most difficult. Often with simulations of practical events the heavy lifting is done with the physics behind the solvers, talent of your artists, and the directability of your tools. The look of the crevasse was such a subjective thing to each viewer that it was difficult to find the desired look.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
The entire sequence was a consistent challenge. Each shot had it’s own unique needs, as well they were all very meaty CG shots. The end result is something that I believe is convincing and unique glimpse into what it could be like falling into a crevasse in a glacier.
What do you keep from this experience?
The importance of craftsmanship, and the story of what you are trying to portray visually.
How long have you worked on this film?
Full production for our work was scheduled at 8 months.
How many shots have you done?
38 shots for the opening sequence.
What was the size of your team?
Throughout the production it would fluctuate with the other projects Mr. X is involved with but at it’s peak a team of 20 were working on this sequence.
What is your next project?
We usually have quite a few of projects on the go at one time. Currently we are working on RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION, MAMA, COSMOPOLIS and SILENT HILL: REVELATION 3D.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
For me the visually complex movies were always my weakness, as well as a huge inspiration for pushing me into an career of effects for film.
AKIRA – directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN – directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet
BLADE RUNNER – directed by Ridley Scott
GHOST IN THE SHELL – directed by Mamoru Oshii
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
– Mr. X: Official website of Mr. X.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2011