Weta Un­leashes New Ren­der­ing Power for The Hob­bit Fi­nale

New tools Manuka and Gazebo help con­clude Peter Jack­son’s pre­quel tril­ogy re­turn to Mid­dle-earth. By Bill De­sowitz.

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects -

To com­bat the in­creas­ing de­mands of VFX com­plex­ity, Weta Dig­i­tal re­cently cre­ated a new ray-trac­ing ren­derer called Manuka along with a pre-light­ing tool called Gazebo. Th­ese not only came in handy for The Hob­bit: The Bat­tle of the Five Armies — the fi­nal chap­ter in the tril­ogy — but will also be cru­cial in ad­dress­ing the chal­lenges of the up­com­ing trio of Avatar se­quels.

“It’s hard to think of the ex­tra light that you craft onto the scene and then make it work in a be­liev­able and ef­fi­cient fash­ion,” says Joe Let­teri, the four­time Os­car win­ner and Weta’s se­nior visual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor. “It takes a lot of time and ef­fort to do that. And you do it in a bulk fash­ion.

“The idea that we could start look­ing at path trac­ing ev­ery­thing and do­ing proper light trans­port — and then just fir­ing the rays off and let­ting them go — has al­ways been an ideal sce­nario. But the com­put­ing power needed to make that hap­pen was tremen­dous. You re­ally need some­thing that’s a lit­tle more pre­dictable when you turn the lights on. We de­cided to crack this over a four-year pe­riod. The ideal sweet spot would be if we could get the soft­ware ready at the same time the hard­ware’s fast enough.”

Weta first tested Manuka on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which was tai­lor-made for bounc­ing light all over that com­plex fur for so many CG apes in the heat of bat­tle.

“What we can do with Manuka is take the guess­work out of it and have mul­ti­ple artists work­ing on the same scene and know we are get­ting the cor­rect re­sults. That re­ally helped on the bat­tle scenes (for The Bat­tle of the Five Armies) be­cause we could take in and block the light­ing for what the en­vi­ron­ments would look like, and we could look at it in the wide shot and light the ground and all the grass and the moun­tains and see how it all fits. And we could put a character in there and see if he fit in with the same light­ing.”

Big Start, Big Fin­ish

The Hob­bit fi­nale is brack­eted by two of the most am­bi­tious bat­tles in the Peter Jack­son canon: the open­ing de­struc­tion of Lake-town by the dragon Smaug and the third-act war that takes place on mul­ti­ple fronts (in­clud­ing above Lonely Moun­tain with ea­gles fight­ing bats). Weta used its in-house fire sim­u­la­tion en­gine called Odin along with the Synapse soft­ware for vol­u­met­ric ef­fects.

“We ran all the build­ings through four dif­fer- ent lev­els of de­struc­tion,” Let­teri says. “It was like drop­ping a ball on them and let­ting them get crushed. It gave us a re­al­is­tic de­stroy field that we could use as back­ground dress­ing at any stage, and then any of the hero ac­tion where Smaug came in and touched the build­ings, those were cus­tom sim­u­lated to work with his de­struc­tion. And then we tied the flame ef­fects in. In other words, we used big pres­sure to de­stroy the build­ings, fig­ur­ing that was close enough to what the flames would do, and then as the flames burned away, they stayed at­tached to the bro­ken pieces. That way it looked more re­al­is­tic with the flaming em­bers. We had lat­i­tude to play with the flames.”

Weta did a top-down view of the area and asked Jack­son to start sketch­ing where ev­ery­thing hap­pens. “And early on we got him to go on the stage with a vir­tual cam­era and have a look at the en­vi­ron­ment. And while he was there, we took notes, tweak­ing things around, try­ing to ad­just the height of the sad­dle where the Dwarves come over, for ex­am­ple.

“It was all based on the one shot where Thorin (Richard Ar­mitage) looks up and sees them crest­ing the hill. So it was a com­bi­na­tion of what lens do we want to use? How high are we go­ing to be? How close do we need to be to read the sil­hou­ette to get the forms of the Dwarves? And then as the bat­tle pro­gressed, we looked at the stages of how the armies were form­ing and where the Orcs were at­tack­ing.”

Man­ag­ing the Bat­tle

To man­age the enor­mity of the bat­tle se­quence, Weta wrote a new tool called Army Man­ager, which side­steps pre­viz and takes you right into vir­tual pro­duc­tion by al­low­ing you to lay­out bat­tle ma­neu­vers.

“It was great be­cause we could put thou­sands of char­ac­ters in real-time on stage so Peter could do his vir­tual cam­era work and see th­ese guys in the back­ground, some­times even in the fore­ground and use it for chore­og­ra­phy,” Let­teri says. “Then we’d dress in the close-up ac­tion: the beats of how the two front lines would clash, how the Elves leapfrogged the Dwarves to con­front the Orcs, where we got into the hand-to­hand or the de­fen­sive mo­ments. We had very spe­cific chore­og­ra­phy for each of them and we al­ways went back and forth be­tween the spe­cific bat­tle ac­tion and wide es­tab­lish­ing shots so you could un­der­stand the flow of the bat­tle and the chore­og­ra­phy.”

As Let­teri points out, The Bat­tle of the Five Armies rep­re­sents Weta’s con­tin­ual re­fine­ment of vir­tual pro­duc­tion, which has now be­come part of the main­stream of moviemak­ing. Bill De­sowitz is owner of Im­mersed in Movies (www. billdes­owitz.com), au­thor of James Bond Un­masked (www. james­bon­dun­masked. com) and a reg­u­lar contributor to Thomp­son on Hol­ly­wood and An­i­ma­tion Scoop at Indiewire.

The great thing about the movie ver­sion of Into the Woods, of course, is that we ac­tu­ally get to go into the woods. And di­rec­tor Rob Mar­shall ( Chicago) has struck the right bal­ance be­tween nat­u­ral­ism and the­atri­cal­ity in serv­ing up an im­mer­sive ver­sion of Stephen Sond­heim’s beloved mu­si­cal fairy­tale mash-up.

But when it came to the visual ef­fects, Mar­shall wanted to steer clear of fan­tasy. He wanted pho­to­re­al­ism, re­quir­ing the look be trans­par­ent, be­liev­able and el­e­gant. This was the man­date with which MPC was tasked with un­der the su­per­vi­sion of Christian Ir­les, who is based in Mon­treal.

The cen­ter­piece is the Woods, shot mostly on stage at Shep­per­ton in London. How­ever, there were var­i­ous lo­ca­tions mixed in to give it a sense of re­al­ity and scale.

“Most of the ap­proach we took through­out was, if they shot on stage at Shep­per­ton, we did sim­ple dig­i­tal ex­ten­sion,” Ir­les says. “When­ever the cam­era tilted too high up, we would see the scaf­fold­ing and the foot­lights. We had to ob­vi­ously do a lot of re­place­ments. And for a lot of the wide shots, we had to rely heav­ily on 2½-D matte paint­ings.

“We didn’t use any 3D as­sets per se; it was all re-pro­ject­ing onto very sim­ple ge­om­e­try with the paint­ings and pho­tog­ra­phy that we did.”

Seam­less Work

At the be­gin­ning, when we see all the char­ac­ters go­ing into the Woods, the cam­era

cranes up and we see the ex­panse of the for­est. Mar­shall wanted it to be dark and mys­te­ri­ous. But MPC wound up hav­ing to stitch to­gether mul­ti­ple plates.

“Orig­i­nally, the plates were shot with the ac­tors and the trees sep­a­rately with­out the in­tent of hav­ing the cam­era travel above the for­est,” Ir­les says. “They shot a sec­ond plate in the U.K. in a he­li­copter with a Red cam­era at­tached to it. So we had to line up both cam­eras to make sure the tim­ing and the re­peats lined up and not break­ing up the per­for­mance of ev­ery­one run­ning into the woods.”

For a fi­nale in the woods, they had to shoot another plate in the north­ern U.K., where the cam­era rises above the for­est to­ward the moun­tains. Again, MPC had to stitch both plates to­gether, but then, once the cam­era gazes high above, they had to add all of the paths of de­struc­tion.

“The brief from Rob for that par­tic­u­lar shot was he wanted the film to fin­ish in a slightly pos­i­tive note with warm col­ors and a sun rise with god rays. It’s just a sense of hope,” Ir­les says.

As far as the beanstalk, Mar­shall def­i­nitely wanted to avoid the look of the one in Bryan Singer’s Jack the Gi­ant Killer (which MPC also worked on). This beanstalk was more nat­u­ral look­ing and less vi­o­lent, even though it fe­ro­ciously erupts out of the ground. The third stage con­sists of the fully grown beanstalk when we see es­tab­lish­ing shots of Jack climb­ing up or rush­ing down.

Scale and Scope

The most com­plex CG character of the film is the fe­male gi­ant who storms down the beanstalk seek­ing ret­ri­bu­tion for the death of her hus­band and the theft of the golden eggs by Jack.

The gi­ant’s scale and weight and mak­ing her look pho­to­re­al­is­tic were the big­gest chal­lenges. “At first, climb­ing down the beanstalk, the gi­ant’s scale didn’t look right. We also had to go through a few it­er­a­tions of get­ting the weight right. It was a mat­ter of comp­ing the shot and get­ting the right depth and the amount of lay­ers of clouds.”

Then there were the black­birds that com­mu­ni­cate with Cin­derella (Anna Ken­drick). “The birds had to have the right weight for when they land and chirp,” Ir­les says. “We looked at a lot of ref­er­ence on­line, even to the point where we found video of birds eat­ing seeds, which we used as the ba­sis of the mo­ment they eat the lentils and drop them on the bucket. Rob had to be happy with their chore­og­ra­phy and hav­ing so many birds in the shot, so an­i­ma­tion had to get flight cy­cles and ev­ery­thing be­hav­ing anatom­i­cally cor­rect.”

Another character was the dig­i­tal dou­ble for Jack’s beloved cow, Milky White. This was tricky be­cause Mar­shall didn’t want it to look funny or vi­o­lent. So MPC worked hard find­ing the right look. MPC built some pretty com­plex mod­els to match the var­i­ous cows that they had on set. Some looked chubby while oth­ers looked thin. Shape and an­gle went through sev­eral it­er­a­tions.

“We con­stantly had to be look-dev­ing and test­ing new method­olo­gies for the for­est and the pro­jec­tions, and I think that was the hard­est chal­lenge be­cause of how dif­fer­ent ev­ery sin­gle shot on this movie was,” Ir­les says. Bill De­sowitz is owner of Im­mersed in Movies (www.billdes­owitz.com), au­thor of James Bond Un­masked (www.james­bon­dun­masked.com) and a reg­u­lar contributor to Thomp­son on Hol­ly­wood and An­i­ma­tion Scoop at Indiewire.

Di­rec­tor Rob Mar­shall’s brief for the visual ef­fects on Into the Woods was to cre­ate a re­al­is­tic en­vi­ron­ment for the mu­si­cal fan­tasy to play out against.

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