Disney’s Creature Feature
Digital pixies, dragons and more were required for
ice in Wonderland,
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That would be crucial to transforming the human performances that drive the film’s two-foot-tall pixie characters, which Stromberg envisioned as buzzing like hummingbirds.
“We did a full performance capture of the actors in flying rigs,” says Digital Domain visual-effects supervisor Darren Hendler. “From that, we got a moving skeleton that we re-proportioned to their pixie bodies. We’d also captured markers on the actors’ faces and calculated them in 3D space as a moving point cloud. Then we did a facial solver, where we took those moving points and applied them to the facial rig that the animators would later use. For every single frame, our facial solver calculated the expression we needed to have on our facial rig to match what the actor was doing.”
move to live action. By Ellen Wolff.
“That solver is definitely a proprietary tool,” says Digital Domain CG supervisor Jonathan LItt. The system allowed the studio’s Maya animators to dial in expressions and see the results in nearly real time.
To create the characters’ flowing tresses and layered costumes, Litt says Digital Domain used its proprietary Samson grooming tool. “These were the most complex humanoids we’ve ever done. We used a new generation of Samson, which is almost like Nuke for hair.”
The rest of the effects work in Maleficent, which Villegas estimates totaled 1,500 shots, featured keyframe animation. Villegas tapped Digital Domain to animate digital doubles of Maleficent and to generate her huge, CG wings. In preparation, Jolie was scanned at the Institute of Creative Technologies at USC. But Maleficent’s wings couldn’t just react to what her body was doing. As Hendler explains: “Robert Stromberg’s mandate was that her wings had to have a personality of their own. If Maleficent was sad, we needed to read that in her wings. Every feather was modeled individually.”
The ebony feathers of the raven Diaval, Maleficent’s compatriot, also presented a challenge to the Motion Picture Company. “Black feathers are almost all specular, and really hard to make convincing,” says MPC visual-effects supervisor Adam Valdez. “They gave him a sheen that was tricky to control.”
Valdez’s lead team in London shared this animation with MPC visual-effects supervisor Seth Maury’s team in Vancouver. As Valdez explains, “MPC London was able to build creatures, do character test animations, establish the lookdev of those assets, and hand them to the Vancouver team. Some of the best raven animation was done there.”
Adding to the degree of difficulty was that Diaval was a shape-shifter, transforming from a raven to a man, a horse, a wolf and ultimately a monstrous dragon. “We received some really cool designs and commenced ZBrush sculpts to find his form,“Valdez says. “Dragons have been done so much. The issue was to do one that’s fresh. The main challenge was animation — how to put this giant dragon into a cramped space; create a sense of tension and make the audience believe he can’t simply overwhelm the soldiers he’s fighting.”
MPC created scores of digital soldiers for Maleficent by using its crowd tool, Alice. They handled their characters’ hair grooming with their proprietary tool, Furtility. MPC also animated a battle that features creatures made from roots and bark. As Villegas says, “They look like they’re made out of trees intertwined.”
The interaction of so many virtual characters was a key concern for Villegas. “It had to be strategically thought out so we could have Maleficent’s doubles from Digital Domain interacting with soldiers from MPC. That took some extra doing.” Villegas himself led an internal VFX team in Los Angeles that handled a few hundred shots.
Even by comparison to the big visual-effects shows that Villegas has done in the past, he considers Maleficent a huge undertaking. “Over 2,100 people from the visual effects world worked on this film.”
oped to create skin and muscles. An extremely high level of detail was used by MPC’s artists due to the close-up nature of the camera work on the 350-foot creature, particularly in texture. VFX Supervisor Nicolas Aithadi also worked with Edwards on design, previz and the first Comic-Con trailer where you see Godzilla emerge from the dust and rubble.
Designing Godzilla and then defining his performance was, of course, the centerpiece of the movie. The way Edwards plays the man vs. nature theme is like a thriller, teasing shots early on and building suspense before the full reveal and not overplaying the spectacle.
“We found that it was always efficient graphically to show the spikes on his spine,” Rocheron explains. “And when Godzilla looked toward the camera, we would pose him so he looked slightly down. You get that fairly aggressive feeling but, at the same time, we would position the back and the spikes so you would get that kind of Mohawk. If you look at him up close, you can see all of Godzilla’s expressions but further away you see him more as a silhouette that’s very graphic.”
By framing Godzilla primarily in silhouette (shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey), the experience is more intense. “We were using background environments and patches of light and fire to help shape the image as a strong composition,” Rocheron says.
Godzilla is a giant lizard. But lizards don’t emote, so they studied bears and other predatory creatures, relying on realistic body language, subtle facial detail and breathing to propel the performance. Godzilla expresses anger, sadness and triumph. “We spent a lot of time lighting Godzilla and (his combatants, the MUTOS) so they registered clearly,” Rocheron says. Bill Desowitz runs Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com) and is the author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), now available on Kindle with a new Skyfall chapter.