After working several years at IMAX on projects such as BATMAN BEGINS, V FOR VENDETTA or 300, Eric Robinson joined the team of Mr. X in 2010. He will participate in such films as RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE and HANNA.

What is your background?
I come from an artist background in both animation and compositing. I joined Mr. X as a Production Manager 2 years ago after spending the previous 4 years learning everything about 3Dstereo at IMAX. I am now a Digital Effects Supervisor and resident stereographer at Mr.X and was Digital Effects Supervisor on THE THREE MUSKETEERS.

Mr. X is used to work with director Paul Anderson, how was this new collaboration?
The growing rapport with Paul has been terrific for us at Mr. X. Over the years we have grown to understand his vision and now he trusts us to take his ideas and run with them. With both Three Musketeers and Paul’s most recent project, Resident Evil: Retribution, we have been pulled in from the very onset of pre-production helping to establish the look and feel of his films from the initial concept design stage. Paul and the producers, Robert Kultzer of Constantin Film AG and Jeremy Bolt of Impact Pictures have been tremendously supportive through so many projects.

What was his approach about visual effects for this show?
VFX were paramount in telling this story. From the fantastical airships to 17th century Paris, this was a story that couldn’t be told without visual effects. On the other hand we needed to achieve a level of realism, so that the VFX complemented the story, rather than being the story.

Can you tell us more about the main title and this big camera movement?
At one point when reviewing a version of the opening title shot with Paul, he said that, « This is every boy’s dream come true. » The idea was to create a stylized treatment that would complement the narrative storytelling and set the tone for the film. Paul wanted to start with a 17th century parchment paper styled map that would implement a dynamic use of 3Dstereo. As we open the shot, the camera drops into the map bringing to life the stereo feel with text that first appears to sit on the surface until the camera move reveals that is actually hovering above. Topographical details of the map begin to emerge out of the parchment paper and as we fly through the scene the camera begins to reveal the battling soldiers, ships in the harbour and palaces scattered across the landscape. We see the Spanish army advancing towards France, then we pass over a burning village to a gauntlet of musket and cannon fire between the English and French armies until we end up at the golden effigies of King Louis and Queen Anne being confronted by Cardinal Richelieu and his guards. As the camera pulls back up, the screen is filled with 3D smoke and then the 3D Three Musketeers logo bursts through the haze.

Initially we began by blocking out the camera move so we would know where everyone should be placed. Utilizing the soldier assets that were created for the film we tweaked the levels of detail down and swapped out their uniforms to give that old school led painted toy soldier look. We also repurposed the assets of the ships, Louvre, Notre Dame and Tower of London. The countryside was modeled in 3D using displacement maps of actual European landscapes and bump maps were used to increase the realism of the parchment paper textures. 2D and 3D rendered FX elements of cannon blasts, explosions, smoke and fire were also created. Then all the elements were brought into Nuke utilizing its 3D capabilities. Setting up a shallow depth of field through Nuke gave the miniaturization effect that sold the toy soldier look that we were going for.

How did you recreate Venice?
We started by going to Venice and shooting aerial plates on RED. It’s such a beautiful city that almost plays as period today. Changing modern lights to lamps and torches goes a long way to making it look right. Projected matte paintings were used extensively here so that complex camera moves could be utilized and the parallax to work correctly.

What were your references for the recreation of Paris?
The production designer, Paul Austerberry had numerous period maps and books with etchings of 17th century Paris. We used this as a starting point for our layout.

How did you take your references for the different locations in Paris?
We sent a team to Paris for a photo reference shoot, concentrating on Notre Dame.

The movie features a lot of set extensions. Can you tell us more about their creation?
The three main set extensions we had to do were for the two airships and then the roof of Notre Dame. These were all treated as highly detailed assets. Our team was responsible for creating seamless set extensions and entirely digital environments. Specifically for the Notre Dame roof fight sequence, which was shot green screen on a small set piece, our team was responsible for creating a CG replica of Notre Dame and the surrounding 360 degrees vantage point of Paris below.
We started this process by taking a lot of photo surveys. We sent a team to Paris to build a photo library containing thousands of meticulous pictures of Notre Dame for texture and modeling purposes. We created a 17 million polygon model of the cathedral that adhered to every single spec, down to the centimeter. The level of texture detail that was used to achieve the perfect amount of weathering, lead oxidization levels in the roof and soot induced damage was immense.
To accommodate for the amount of RAM required for each asset our team developed a texture caching system that would allow us to choose very specific resolutions for each portion of an asset ensuring that we were not wasting RAM space unnecessarily. We also implemented a proxying workflow system, which allowed for an efficient use of memory by re-using assets in multiple shots without the need to re-translate for rendering.

Can you tell us more about the creation of the air ships?
There were three paths of design we had to work with for the airships. There were initial concepts to work from that the art department created, lead by Paul Austerberry. From these drawings a team of model builders began creating scale models of the two airships. With the aggressive schedule on the film, the airship set piece was built concurrently with the model builds. We did extensive photo surveys of both the scale model and the set pieces.

What was the biggest challenge with the air ships?
Sheer size! There are so many moving parts which are connected and need to interact with the various motions of the airships. The rigging needed to influence the balloon when the airship was turning or in high winds. We wanted to be able to get really close to the CG airships. To achieve this, a tremendous amount of detail went in to their texturing. The balloon on the Cardinal’s airship had over 60 4k textures. The final poly count was in the 50 million range. With the airships playing in about 100 shots, they needed to work from many viewing angles, which didn’t allow for any shortcuts or compromises with them.

Did you create some previs for this show?
We created all the previs for the show! We initially started with the ASxseq, the first reveal of Buckingham’s airship. This had both technical and artistic requirements as we needed to see how the airship scale played with regards to our « Louvre » (in fact, Herrenchiemsee). We start off from storyboards and then make shots that have a good feel to them. From there we need to make sure it’s shoot-able, refine lens or framing, so that the DP, Glen McPherson would have a guide of how to accomplish the shot. There was one shot in particular where D’Artagnan is arriving in Paris, it starts on D’Artagnan with rural France behind him. We then do a 180° pan as the camera rises to show Paris. This was shot on a small bridge in Bavaria. We created a virtual 50′ Technocrane, placed this on a mockup of the actual bridge so that we could work out an elegant move within the confines of a very small bridge.

Can you tell us more about the big storm in the air battle?
The storm was place for the Musketeers to hide from Rochfort and his stronger airship. It had to be scary enough for a helmsman to refuse to fly into it! Which resulted in his summary execution. We had to use this storm as both a dramatic storytelling device and a clue to the geography of the route the airships were taking. Our skies began as a hemispherical dome that could be rotated to properly align to the CG set. Inside of that dome we have midground and background clouds that were modeled and then converted to volumes to be rendered out of Houdini. In addition to those layers, we felt that to properly immerse the audience in the shot, hero foreground layers of mist were needed.

How did you create and manage the huge environment of Notre Dame and the two air ships?
We had to render the elements for these shots in multiple layers, with holdout mattes so the compositing artist could seamlessly blend the elements together. Notre Dame and the island it resides on was a huge endeavour. We really wanted a rich, detailed environment. By laying on more and more detail, like birds, laundry hanging from windows to apple carts, barrels, sacks of cloth we were able to get a fully formed world that helped sell the scale of 17th century Paris. Creating the stained glass for Notre Dame was a particular challenge. In the modern world, massive stained glass windows are protected by Plexiglas or metal grating as well as being illuminated from within by electric light. In our Notre Dame we had none of this! We approached this by using very subtle colour and amounts of light to transmit through the windows. Bump maps and reflections provide the feeling of relief in the window surface.

About the final sequence. What was the real size of the set for the fight on top of Notre Dame?
There were three main sets for the Notre Dame fight. This included two levels of roof height for the actors to work on. There was a lower level, about one meter high for the bulk of the sword fighting. In part this was for actor safety. Rochfort, played so villainously by Mads Mikkelsen, wears an eye patch, making the complex fight sequences and sword work even more dangerous. The second area had a 5 meter drop from peak to ground. There is action where D’Artagnan, played by Logan Lerman, falls from the peak to a lower roof-line. The third location was where the end of the sword fight takes place. This was basically a 2×2 meter patch of landing. We did a set extension here for a shot that looks up at Rochfort and D’Artagnan fighting.

How did you split the work between Toronto and Montreal?
The Montreal office is a branch of Mr. X that specializes in compositing work. They did the lion’s share of work that didn’t require large amounts of CG. The Toronto branch has an extensive render farm and was more suited to handling the massive amounts of data required for many of the all CG shots in the film.

Did you develop specific tools for this show?
Our cloth pipeline was completely overhauled for 3M. The sails for the airships had to perform realistically so that the audience would believe in their flight. The same pipeline was used for Milady’s hair and dress over multiple shots. We also developed our own GPU based fire tool called Torch to allow for real time fire simulations, a custom physics solver, Bullet to help with real time destruction simulations. Also, our VRAY pipeline was significantly expanded and the introduction of Mari to handle the sheer volume of textures required.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The Paris environment was killer! At the start of production various locations were scouted as possible stand-ins for Paris but nothing was found that really suited the needs of the film. It was established that the city of Paris had to be created as a full 3D environment to allow flexibility for the unpredictable camera movements. Due to the stereo nature of the film we were unable to use many projection cheats to create the city. Instead we projected Matte Paintings into a true 3D space rather than a traditional 2.5D space. All the paintings were baked down and brought into lighting where they were augmented with specular and dirt textures supplied by our texturing crew. In addition we had 40 extremely hero houses that were mixed into the landscape of the scenes. These assets had to share the same look and style of the deep background matte paintings.
Adding ground level details such as trees, puddles, and people milling around gave a sense of chaos and complexity, while flags, banners and smoke billowing chimney stacks that riddled the cityscape helped sell the authenticity of 17th century Paris.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
The airships’ approach to Notre Dame was extremely involved. It was a massive collaborative undertaking with all departments working together to a unified goal. From water sims for The Seine, which included boats and boatmen, matte painted sky and countryside, CG buildings, thousands of people on the streets, birds in the air, there was no limit to how much we felt we needed to add to make this environment come to life.

How long have you worked on this film?
It was about 15 months of work on the film. Starting with script reads with Paul Anderson and the production team, through previs, shooting, editing and final DI. Mr. X. was involved in this project from start to finish!

How many shots have you done?
The final shot count of 274 doesn’t speak to the volume of work that was needed to final the show. There were many full CG shots, with huge environments.

What was the size of your team?
At peak production we were just over 100 staff on the show. This was split between, Assets, Animation, Lighting, Effects, Cloth and Matte Painting, TD’s, with various production support staff and technical support.

What is your next project?
Another Paul Anderson movie, RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION. It’s filming now in Toronto Canada. It opens September 14th 2012.

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?

A big thanks for your time.


Mr. X: Official website of Mr. X.


© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2011


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