Having worked in all areas of visual effects at Prime Focus and Frantic Films, Chris Harvey become VFX supervisor and works on movies such as JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, GI JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA and THE A-TEAM. He also works as a stereo consultant for movies like AVATAR.
What is your background?
I am a VFX Supervisor and up until recently when I went freelance again, the facility supervisor in Vancouver for Frantic Films and Prime Focus. Years before I had sat in pretty much every role in CG both as an artist and technically as a TD, from modeling, LookDev, FX, animation, rigging, and compositing. I have also had the pleasure of being involved in a number of groundbreaking stereo projects, helping pioneer the tools and pipeline within Frantic Films and Prime Focus… and I guess in a small way the overall industry, in the terms of Stereo Visual Effects.
How was the collaboration with Joseph Kosinski and Eric Barba?
Great. Working with both Joe and more closely with Eric was a great experience. It was nice because they had a very clear vision for the film and the world of Tron, and yet at the same time were very collaborative and supportive of ideas we brought to the table. We would meet with Eric multiple times through the week via video conference where we could actually watch the large format screen they were reviewing on. Then during key full sequence reviews we would fly to L.A. and meet in person. But being such a big project and Eric having so much on his plate as both the Studio Supervisor as well as the DD facility supervisor, many vendors also got to work with an outsource supervisor from DD in order to help expedite answers to questions. We worked with Mark Rienzo and he and I have a similar approach to things so we had a lot of fun. I very much look forward to the next time I get to work with them all again.
How did Prime Focus get involved on this movie?
About a year ago we completed a test shot for the some of the outsource work Digital Domain was evaluating Prime Focus for. It was a test in both the art but also in the collaborative working experience between the facilities and the people who would be involved. It went well and we got the award.
Which sequences have you made?
The main sequence Prime Focus worked on was the Solar Sailer sequence, also known as the « train jumping » sequence, where the protagonists in the film (Sam, Quorra, and Flynn) escape by jumping aboard the large Solar Sailer (a sort of cargo train in the world of Tron). We were also given the bookend sequences to complete on either side of this main sequence which consisted of the Sublevel where they actually board the Solar Sailer, the elevator falling sequence, a number of exterior shots of the End Of the Line club (since we were handling them in our sequences it made sense to handle them in a handful of shots in some others as well).
Can you explain to us the creation of this magnificent aerial shot of the tower of End of Line club?
Hehehe, well lets say a lot of work went into that shot, by a lot of people. In fact we treated all of the exterior tower shots as more of a whole rather than single shots. I mean ultimately there were individual shots but our approach was more of a holistic approach. We received some initial geometry from DD as well as a DD internal lookdev shot for reference on style for the city exteriors. We then took this geometry and up-rezzed it, added detail to various areas and then created a series of very detailed and large projection paintings in the Matte Painting department led by Romain Bayle. These were rendered and re-projected in some cases in Nuke to add even more details and effects in comp. On top of that we added layer upon layer of intricate atmospheric simulations in packages such as a tricked out Terragen and the 3dMax plugin FumeFX. Being a stereo show everything had to be occupying actual 3D volumes, that meant all the matte paintings had to be re-projected onto actual geometry, all the atmospherics had to be true volumetric simulations… there was no cheating. After all that we looked for little extras we could put in, flying ships, pulsing lights, anything that could add a richness and life to the subtleness of the shot.
How did you create the sequence of falling elevator and in particular the impressive POV shot where we saw the different levels of the tower?
The falling elevator sequence really consisted of two types of shots, interior and exterior. The interior shots involved a live action plate of the actors and a practical elevator interior. Adding the digital tower and atmosphere was pretty standard. The only trick involved adding reflections to the glass. And the reason for that was of course the stereo nature of the film. By that I mean you couldn’t just paste on a reflection like you might normally do. The reflections themselves had to be reflective of a true stereo volume behind and around the camera. Otherwise they would just look like painted textures on the glass. The exteriors, including the POV shot were all CG and were essentially tackled in the same way, and in fact part of the holistic approach I mentioned in the previous question. The POV shot was the only one that was more or less a one-off in terms of painting re-projection and extra modeling as it covered an area of the tower not seen in any other shot in the film. And we actually got to have a fair bit of creative freedom in designing the shot and the look of it all and props to Susan Stewart who spent a lot of time painting on that one! Part of what really helped to sell the shot in the end was adding interactive atmosphere and lighting giving the sense that just behind the camera there was actually an elevator plummeting to its doom.
About the shot in which the elevator stops just in time. What is the share of real footages in the frame and how did you create this shot?
Oooh, that was a painful shot. The only thing that was real in that shot were the actors. And even they needed to have a lot of re-projection work done in Nuke in order to make the big transition from the extended digital camera move into the practical one. It would have been hard enough as a flat shot, but the stereo aspect really threw it for a loop trying to get the characters to not feel like flat cards inside the elevator. In terms of how we did this… heck we resorted to everything we could think of: redirecting the eye, heavy Nuke 3d tricks, lots and lots of matte painting and some pretty damn bit render times for the CG elevator. Because of course the next shot had a practical elevator that it cut to and they had to match.
How did you create the basement of the tower where the Solar Sailer is waiting?
This was a lot of fun actually. One of our modelers turned digital matte painters got to make designing this his baby. Jelmer Boskma spent a lot of time designing, painting style frames, modeling, and painting the environment. It was probably the least defined environment at the time of turnover; literally a single rough concept image that had more to do with color and emotion than details. It was a large build that consisted of models and paintings, atmosphere and lots and lots of comp love! Again Romain (matte painting sup) and Feli di Giorgio (2D Sup) did a great job with their teams as a lot of people sweated over these shots, trying to dial in the final results.
Have you created digital doubles?
Yes though they were usually pretty small in our shots, we did in fact have them in every digital shot. They included Flynn, Sam, Quorra, Rinzler, and the Siren… along with a whole crowd of frightened End of the Line Club patrons in the overhead tower shots.
About the Solar Sailer sequence, how did you create this ship and also the huge environment around it?
That’s a pretty big question since the sequence was almost 10 full minutes of the film. It required a lot of work. The ship we got as an initial 3D asset from the art department. We took that and basically rebuilt the entire thing, adding lots of little details to add scale, as it’s a pretty immense vehicle. Dimtry Vinnik our lighting lead spent probably 3 solid months on the build and look-development of it, and in some ways it never really ended, it just kept evolving as it was probably our most hero asset and the one that the majority of the sequence revolved around. It’s render times were almost as immense as the ship itself, even though we optimized the crap out of it, we needed it to maintain a realistic feeling, one with lots of subtleties and details to add scale. And the damn thing was reflective all over and often encompassed full frame coverage.
The environment was another huge challenge as over the course of the sequence we travel approximately 60 miles and often see out to the horizons; that’s a lot to build. So we had one of our TD’s (Bobo Petrov) write a procedural landscape generator that followed the specific « Tron » construction rules. This enabled us to build out vast areas of land very quickly, and then add in hero bits here and there for extra believability. And the large V canyon at the end of the sequence was entirely hand modeled by Jeff Tetzlaff. Then of course came the atmosphere in which we used Terragen and hired Matt Fairclough (the creator of the software) to write custom code in order for us to achieve the look and highly art directed look that we forced the artists to achieve. And again, since it was stereo all that volumetric atmosphere had to really be there in that volume. It consisted of layers and layers of rendered and simulated clouds. And for key shots we would run highly interactive FumeFX simulations to help integrate and sell that everything coexisted. One very important aspect of both the environment and the vehicle was in how we rendered it. We rendered specially created utility passes that allowed a lot of lighting adjustment and manipulation in comp to significantly reduce the need for re-render. It made the shader set-ups and render passes pretty elaborate but it really helped save us painful re-renders. And when you are rendering 13 minutes of a film in stereo (26 minutes) and some of those render times are 20 hours long… you really can’t afford to render it over and over again.
What references did you received for this environment?
We received a few great pieces of concept art from Digital Domain. To that we added some of our own to really help nail down the look and feel that Joe and Eric were after. And finally we completed a few keystone shots throughout the sequence and then just filled in the gaps.
What were the challenges with the Solar Sailer particularly for its sails?
Many of the challenges I already talked about. But in regards to the sails themselves, that was actually a lot of fun. The look and effect of the sails was something that wasn’t really covered in the concept package we received from Digital Domain, but we knew that they needed to « look cool and energized ». Anytime you get to put in your own creative ideas into a film its fun…and this was certainly one of those times. We rendered out a lot of various passes for comp and then just threw it at them with a bunch of ideas we had. Charles Lai was the compositor who really set the look for the fabulous pulsing effect that you see on screen.
What was the size of the actual set for the different sequences?
Elevator sequence: in some cases the interior of the elevator… in others nothing but he actors. The Solar Sailer sequence: only a partial set of the very top catwalk that the actors were standing or sitting on.
Have you received any assets from Digital Domain?
Yes, we received a lot from them. In fact the overall project was a very collaborative process with all the vendors. For the assets that were primarily seen only in our sequence we usually received art department models that we then remodeled…and which once complete would be handed back to Digital Domain for them and other vendors to use in their sequences (the Solar Sailer was such an asset). Other assets like the Recognizer we simply had to ingest and « reconnect » to work in our pipeline but it remained essentially untouched the way Digital Domain delivered it to us.
How was the collaboration with teams of Digital Domain?
Like I mentioned there was a lot of collaboration, and while there are always difficulties in working and sharing assets and techniques across multiple facilities I think it was a pretty successful process on this film… certainly one that everyone was very mindful of and tried to make as smooth as possible… right down to the standardization of software, set-ups and some proprietary tools that were shared.
Did the stereo aspect caused you some troubles?
Not in the sense that it caused any unexpected trouble. I had already been involved in a number of stereo shows and we had built a pretty solid stereo pipeline already so we knew what was coming and so were not caught unaware. And we also had a set of tricks up our sleeves to deal with various stereo issues that did inevitably crop up. One issue we ran into relatively often was where on-set you simply do not know what you are going to see with so much of the shot being digital that the divergence and interocular are set in such a way that it appears fine when looking at the photography, but when you get the background or foreground in there things just become way too diverged…and in those cases we just resorted so some clever multi-camera solutions to reduce potential eyestrain and the inability to resolve a shot. The one issue that was unexpected was how significant the difference in the viewing environments was. We had a Dolby set-up at Prime Focus and Digital Domain was using RealD… and its amazing the differences in what you see and how you look at things is… and that definitely caused some issues, but at that stage its nothing that relatively minor tweaks can’t fix, you just need to be able to sort out what one group is seeing versus the other… so you know what you need to fix and when it is fixed.
What was the biggest challenge on this project?
Scale and the legacy it had to live up to. The original Tron has a legacy to it that few films have. It’s a pretty daunting process to attempt to try and create something in that world for a new generation that still lives up to and fits with the original. That definitely adds a lot of pressure, but also a lot of inspiration and excitement. And with scale, well any stereo film carries with it a different level of scale. Everything is doubled, you have double the source, double the tracking, double the roto, double the rendering, and quite frankly more than double the number of technical things to worry about. And on our sequence, even though it was only approximately 120+ shots it also equated to 13 minutes of the total film…those are long shots! And also the scale of the shots like the huge environments reaching to the horizon, large scale atmospherics etc… It was just a lot a data and artistic detail to wrangle. I gotta give serious cred to Jon Cowely (DFX supervisor), David Fox (PF Production Coordinator) and Laszlo Sebo (Lead TD) for helping control the madness.
Prime Focus has several branches around the world, which ones have worked on this show?
This show was handled almost entirely at the Vancouver facility, with a few extra people that couldn’t relocate in L.A.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleeping?
Hahahaha…yes, wait no I don’t remember having time to sleep, so I guess all of it. Actually I never have trouble sleeping, but that might have something to do with the fact that by the time I finally lay down I am exhausted (laughs).
What is your pipeline and software at Prime Focus?
Obviously there is a lot of custom code in the pipeline, but the commercial tools are: 3dsMax, Maya, Nuke, FumeFX, Krakatoa, Deadline, Terragen, and even some XSI in the matte painting department.
How long have you worked on this film?
If you counted the test almost a year…if you count only the actual production time then closer to 8-9 months.
How many shots have you done and what was the size of your team?
We completed approximately 120+ shots that equated to about 13 minutes of screen time with a team of about 60.
What did you keep from this experience?
I am pretty proud of the work that we did on TRON, and excuse the pun it was a legacy to work on. But you know what I keep most from this…and this might sound corny, but it’s the memories and friendships of the team. Regardless of how proud I am of the work, I am far more proud of the effort the men and women, and spouses and children went through on this project. Everyone without fail worked their asses off on this one. Lots of times it the supervisors or higher ups that get to have a lot of the spotlight. I tried to mention as many people as I could but obviously was not able to find a place for everyone’s name in this interview… and to all those whose name I did not mention, thank you!
What is your next project?
Unfortunately I cannot say yet, but I am pretty excited about it.
What are the 4 movies that gave you the passion of cinema?
The passion of cinema…there are more than 4 and it would likely change from day to day…but today: STAR WARS (the original), THE BLACK HOLE, FX, and CHARIOTS OF FIRE. But like I said, that could change from day to day (laughs).
A big thanks for your time.
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© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2011