Ar­ti­fact In­tel­li­gence

Dig­i­tal Do­main puts the tech and artistry into the VFX of By Tom McLean.

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects -

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.

Vac­uum-formed VFX

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.”

Into Escher

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.

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