Digital Domain puts the tech and artistry into the VFX of By Tom McLean.
Making history fun is one of the joys of watching the films in the Night at the Museum series, with the third installment — Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb — using some advanced visual effects to bring that joy to life.
The threequel reunites director Shawn Levy with leading man Ben Stiller, who again plays night guard Larry Daley, who finds the exhibits coming to life after dark at New York’s Museum of Natural History. This time, Stiller and his now-familiar cohorts — Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt; Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as miniature cowboy Jedidiah and ancient Rome’s Octavius, respectively; Rami Malek as Ahkmenrah; and Patrick Gallagher as Atilla the Hun — head to London’s British Museum to find out why the ancient Egyptian tablet that gives the exhibits life is losing power.
Animating the proceedings required visual effects from Digital Domain, Gentle Giant Studios, MPC, Method Studios, Zoic Studios and Cinesite, all under the direction of production visual-effects supervisor Erik Nash.
Digital Domain handled several of the key sequences, under the supervision of Lou Pecora, a 15-year veteran of the studio, starting with a scene of Jedidiah and Octavius escaping an exploding volcano in a miniature recreation of the famous 79 A.D. eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the city of Pompeii.
“The nice thing about this job, and in particular about this show, is you get a nice blend of technical challenges and artistic challenges,” says Pecora. “And I have fun with both of them, equally.”
With Wilson and Coogan photographed against green screen with no other live-action elements, the entire environment was created digitally, Pecora says. That left a lot of editorial decisions to be made in post-production in the effects stage, starting with figuring out ways to make the lava move in a convincing and threatening way.
“If you look at real lava, it moves ridiculously slow,” says Pecora. “It’s not at all terrifying for the most part. It’s black blobs with little fires coming off it. ... You could get away from it if you’re in a wheelchair, I’m sure.”
Setting the simulations to make the lava move faster than in reality but not so fast as to seem watery was a “a bit of a nut to crack,” Pecora says. It was complicated by the scene intercutting with another sequence done by Method of characters fighting a snake-dragon creature, so there would be long cutaways from the lava sequence that required figuring out how much time had elapsed and how much further the lava had progressed.
“There was a lot of working back and forth with the edit to make sure we’re not ping-ponging your eyes too much,” Pecora says.
The environment required for the sequence ran against the grain for most effects work, too. “It’s supposed to be a diorama, a miniature scale of Pompeii the city. So you have to
make it look like a real fake thing,” says Pecora. “You have to make it look real enough so it feels like something you can touch, but fake enough where it looks like a scale model.”
They found that difficult with so much of visual effects and the tools used to create them focused on creating items as realistic as possible. “Things like the stones in the street — you’re tempted to make them look like separate stones in the street,” he says. “It starts looking like a real cobblestone street, so we took it back and realized what we were trying to match were those vacuum-formed plastic streets where all the stones are one piece of bent plastic and try to tackle it from that standpoint.”
Another element of the sequence was right up Pecora’s alley, involving the on-scene arrival of the capuchin monkey Dexter in a kind of homage to King Kong. “I’m a big monster movie nut and our direction was to make it look like King Kong coming out of the fog — and it’s only after the fog that you realize, oh, wait, it’s Dexter the monkey!” says Pecora.
For those shots, a real monkey was photographed with Phantom camera at high frame rate to give the finished shot an appropriate slow-motion sense of scale. But even that was more complicated than it seemed, as monkeys are surprisingly well-balanced creatures. “It didn’t have any of that totter or bounce you’d expect from a giant monkey,” says Pecora.
Digital Domain ended up “manhandling” the digital monkey, as Pecora puts it, rotating him around the waist and using other subtle techniques to make Dexter look like a larger primate.
The final element of the sequence involved animating a bust of Augustus that is trying to warn Jedidiah and Octavius of impending danger for which Digital Domain used its Direct Drive facial animation system.
“When you do performance capture, there’s muscle clusters that end up getting missed and then you have to go and override those with key frame animation and you end up with this sort of Silly Putty face,” he says.
Pecora says he was skeptical about using the new tech at first, but was won over by its ability to effectively and realistically transfer the subtleties of a motion-capture performance to a digital model.
“I figured that if this thing was going to move like a real face that we were going to have to put quite a bit of time into it,” he says. “But it didn’t take nearly as long as I thought. That first transfer had a remarkable amount of that performance in there with all the subtle jiggles and warps.”
Another major sequence Digital Domain tackled was one in which the various characters pursue each other into artist M.C. Escher’s famous lithograph Relativity. “For the most part, this was an artistic challenge. It was a lot of fun to make this respectful to Escher,” says Pecora.
To make the characters look like they were a part of the artwork, Pecora says Digital Domain created a series of interlocking patterns of cross-hatching that resembled the way ink on paper creates shading. That was used to emulate the way light appears to behave in the art, which is not at all the way light works in the real world.
With characters moving in and out of the sequence in ways that are logical within the world of the lithograph but not in the real world, the actors were shot with wider framing and at higher resolution and frame rate than normal. That made it possible to isolate them for placement at any size in specific places in the artwork without inherent motion blur that can’t be removed.
Additional Digital Domain work — the studio did about 340 shots on the movie — included animating a frieze in which the characters came to life. Many of the friezes had decayed to the point where the figures were missing limbs, making it one of the odder sequences in the film. “The photography itself was super creepy, like Cirque du Soleil meets Walking Dead,” says Pecora.
Finally was a sequence in which Stiller’s character interacts with a caveman named Laa, also played by Stiller. The sequence used a number of long and intricate motion-control shots. Pecora says for this sequence, he revisited the 1996 Michael Keaton cloning comedy Multiplicity — and found it offered a bit of a challenge.
“I was expected it to be dated, but those effects still held up, so we really had to step it up,” he says.
LHewlett Packard z640
ast year, I was a gushing fool about Hewlett-Packard’s monster workstation, the z820. This year they introduced the new Z-series: z440, z640, and z840. I decided to go with the mid-tier z640 this time around because the z840 might be a few more horses under the hood than you might need for your production needs – and a little more cash.
So the z640 under my desk right now is so quiet that I continually forget that it’s there. It takes a slow render on my 5-year old MacPro to think, “Oh, maybe I should try this on the HP.” And then I ask, “Why am I even using this Mac anymore?” It’s a testament to the engineering of the workstation that it can run so deep and silent. And this engineering extends to the internal design, which is completely toolless, so upgrading hardware is a breeze.
With four USB 3.0 ports on the front, and another 4 on the back, with a couple more USB 2.0 ports for good measure, you have plenty of room for peripherals. Additionally there are SD ports to grab the latest data from your cameras, audio devices, etc.
Internally, I’ve got a couple eight-core Intel Xeon E5-2667 v3 processors clocking at 3.2GHz threaded up to 32. Super fast for any purpose, but for lighter applications like print design or character animation, you could start much smaller. Or there is enough room on the motherboard to get to a beastly 18 cores per processor.
I’m also situated with an NVidia Quadro K5200 for graphics, but the HP hardware is calibrated to work with AMD as well. And, for memory, I’m capped out at 128GB for RAM. Now, keep in mind … this is the Hewlett-Packard mid-level workstation. And it’s rippin’ fast. With the ability to configure your own system within a vast range of components and pricing, one can quite literally design a workstation around the artist who is going to be using it. The demands of a concept artist and an FX artist are vastly different. With Hewlett-Packard’s recent announcement of creating two separate entities – one for enterprise level stuff, and one for personal systems, the idea is that they can provide more focused support for each demographic. So with this promise, compounded with customizable hardware that just kinda … works. It’s not a hard sell.