LLuc Besson’s long-term plan for enabled top VFX artists to bring to digital life his vision of an alien-filled epic for the ages. By Tom McLean.
uc Besson is ready to introduce the world to a new kind of hero with the release July 21 of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a lush, effects-packed sci-fi feature adapted from the French director’s favorite childhood comic.
For Besson, director of such iconic features as The Professional, The Fifth Element and Lucy, the movie was a labor of love that he began working on in 2000, hiring ten artists to come up with designs for a movie that didn’t even have a script.
“I wanted creativity, totally, without frontier,” says Besson. “I wanted them to come back with the weirdest things they can (create). And then I received more than six thousand drawings and I started my puzzle.”
Throwing a wrinkle in the process was James Cameron’s Avatar, which so impressed Besson that he threw out his nearly finished script for Valerian and started over.
The final version of the story is adapted from the long running Valerian and Laureline comic book created by writer Pierre Christin and drawn by Jean-Claude Mézières. The comic debuted in the pages of Pilote magazine in 1967, with a total of 23 albums published in France through its conclusion in 2013.
Besson says his boyhood love of Valerian prompted him to hire Mézières as an artist on The Fifth Element, but it took until now for visual effects to make possible the kind of adaptation the director envisioned. The feature stars Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline, two government agents in the 28th century tasked with stopping a plot against Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets, where the universe’s best and brightest live in peace.
Visual-effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk says he was thrilled to collaborate with Besson, years after working as a digital artist on The Fifth Element. But the scope of what Besson wanted to create with the movie was at first overwhelming. “It seemed like the scale of what VFX would have to do was going to just barely be possible if everything on the movie went as planned,” he says.
Making It Manageable Besson’s forethought and planning, however, allowed Stokdyk and visual effects producer Sophie Leclerc to break down the massive task into manageable chunks. Stokdyk says they were able to divide up the effects among a number of top-notch companies, with Weta, ILM and Rodeo FX reliably leading the charge.
Leclerc says they played to each company’s strengths. For example, the complicated Big Market sequence, comprised of some 600 shots, required a really large asset and alien build that was tailored for ILM. The Alpha station and space battles were handled by Rodeo FX, while Weta handled some 1,300 shots, including a large amount of motion capture for the Pearl world as well as very diverse aliens and habitats inside the Alpha station. Also
FWeta Digital continues to push the envelope of realism by mixing mo-cap and animation to create convincing nonhuman characters for By Tom McLean.
ew sci-fi films are as iconic as the Planet of the Apes series, which first exploded onto screens with a thought-provoking and thrilling story nearly 50 years ago. While the rubber masks and makeup used for the apes was innovative at the time, Fox’s modern-day reimagined trilogy has pushed visual effects to a new level of realism that culminates with the July 14 release of War for the Planet of the Apes.
Directed by Matt Reeves, War begins with the apes trying to live away from humans, peacefully in the woods. But when human mil- itary forces lead by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) intrude, the apes’ leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) suffers a personal loss that raises the stakes to the ultimate level as the unavoidable conflict flares to deadly life.
Much of the film is set amid woods and mountains, shot on location in British Columbia, with extreme locations offering a real-world test for the motion-capture system Weta Digital uses to create the digital apes’ performances. But capturing data of the actors on set — using water- and weatherproof housings for cameras as well as wireless technology to re- duce the number of cables running through the mud — was worth it, says senior VFX supervisor Joe Letteri. “It just really lends a lot of validity to the performance when everyone’s in the moment and working together,” he says.
Among Weta’s new tools on the show is a renderer called Manuka, which was first used for background work on the previous film in the series, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but came to the forefront for War, especially in the detailed rendering of the apes’ faces in the movie’s many closeup shots. “By really being able to throw a lot of data at the face detail in
Sony Pictures Imageworks assembles the climactic battle of wide range of VFX techniques. By Trevor Hogg.
After joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: Civil War, the famous wallcrawler of New York City gets his own movie with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Tasked with assembling the climatic third act was Sony Pictures Imageworks VFX Supervisor Theo Bialek, who looked after a fight between the teenage superhero (Tom Holland) and the Vulture (Michael Keaton) that commences inside a warehouse, shifts to the top of a transport plane and concludes at a Coney Island Beach crash site.
“Tom Holland would go into motion-capture sessions and do all of these crazy stunts that even stunt men had trouble doing,” says Bialek. “What we could gather from that were snippets like when he lands and loses his balance, he favors this kind of leg. Our animators went to our local stage, acted things out and used a XBox scanner (which captures footage in real-time). Those takes were brought into Maya so they could see a geometric version of themselves acting out the motion. We also found a subculture of people who jump over moving cars that are going between 60 to 80 miles per hour, and tried to incorporate their posture and what their legs do because it’s not what you would imagine.
“The homemade Spider-Man suit is sweatpants, sneakers, sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, a hoodie and drawstrings, and a long sleeve shirt,” says Bialek. “Then he has got goggles that are a low-tech version of the ones he got on the Tony Stark suit (which function like a camera shutter). The more-difficult thing was setting up the simulation so that it could be automatic for us because we didn’t have the time or personnel to hand simulate the outfit on every shot. There were a couple of components to our shading models that helped with the rim lighting. The two biggest contributors would be a bit of sheen and the actual hair (fuzz) we have on the suit to simulate loose threads, pilling and fibers.”
On-the-Fly Changes No motion-capture was viable for the Vulture, who went through a major design change. “Initially, Vulture didn’t go down during the plane crash, but as it evolved, he and Spider-Man tumble through all of the debris, so naturally he needed to be damaged,” says Bialek. “That’s one of the instances where we went back to our Visual Effects Art Direc- tor Dan Cox. He designed all of these wires and pieces of dangling metal. We showed six or seven iterations to the director (Jon Watts) and got him to sign off relatively quickly. That was a last-minute challenge. How do we get this done? We setup a good animation system where the animators can do most of the secondary motion and, when it couldn’t, our simulation department would simulate the wires and pieces of debris.”
The Vulture warehouse fight stayed true to the previz. “The Vulture wings fly autonomously, clipping these concrete pillars one at a time, weakening the whole structure that falls on Spider-Man,” says Bialek. “Because they had these practical pillars that were going to explode on-set, there needed to be accurate planning. We had a lot of plate shots but there were a couple that needed to be all CG. The biggest challenge was keeping the animation conservative. Spider-Man is jumping on and off of the columns so it was easy to have him leap off in an unrealistic trajectory or velocity. Outside of the warehouse there are scenes that needed to be all CG and those were a challenge to develop the assets (as it was not shot practically).”
Cloaking added an extra level of complexity to the plane battle. “Janek Sirrs (production VFX supervisor) gave us a good head start with a bunch of reference material,” says Bialek. “We found a technology used on tanks, where cameras shoot from all kinds of angles looking for other heat signatures, which are then projected on ceramic tiles, which can heat and cool rapidly. If you’re looking through infrared or a heat-signature type of system, you see a car instead of a tank. You could use that same technology on billboards that have electronic LED panels. At certain distances, the cloaking is really effective, but up close you would want to be able to see the system, so it looks like you’re crawling on top of a billboard.”
Overlapping Techniques Principal photography, greenscreen stages, and full CG shots were intercut during the Coney Island Beach battle. “The art there was to always overlap as much of the CG so that you can feather that blend,” says Bialek. “It was decided not to add tons of practical smoke, embers and ash as that would make the greenscreen keys we would have to do difficult. You always have to make sure that you have the right amount of atmospherics in front and behind the characters so that we’ve placed them in depth. The fires that they shot on-set were useful. They were all flame bars, so you would typically add additional fire to hide the line that you would get.”
NASA footage came in handy. “We modeled our plane crash off of a real passenger airliner going down into the desert, so it couldn’t have worked out better.
“We had assets from previous films of Avengers Tower from ILM and did a set extension, cityscape of Manhattan and the plane being loaded,” says Bialek. “It’s high up so we didn’t’ have to do any CG buildings. It was all matte painting. There were a couple of wide shots of the plane where we’re doing digital doubles of the crew, which were reused at the end of the beach battle sequence when they’re recovering all of the crash debris.”
Bialek adds: “I’m excited to see the plane battle realized on the big screen. Someone could walk away and you’d say, ‘By the way, that was all CG.’ And they would say, ‘What!?’ There are over a 100 shots and a lot of close-ups of Spider-Man.” [