VFX Soup: Luma Pictures Builds The Destroyer and Thor's VFX
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Debra Kaufman : VFX Soup: Luma Pictures Builds The Destroyer and Thor's VFX
Marvel Entertainment's epic adventure Thor has dominated the box office in the last few weeks, with a worldwide gross of $357.6 million. In this cinematic version of the super hero tale, the powerful but arrogant Mighty Thor is sent away from the mystical realm of Asgard to live on earth, in punishment of his reckless actions that have reignited an ancient war. Forced to live among humans, Thor's powers are tested when The Destroyer, a monstrous suit of armor, is sent to earth. In the process, Thor learns how to be a true hero.
This fantastical action-adventure was helmed by renowned British actor/director Kenneth Branagh and stars Australian actor Chris Hemsworth as Thor, the ancient Norse god; Tom Hiddleston as Loki, his chaotic brother; Natalie Portman as Jane Foster, Thor's love interest and Anthony Hopkins as Odin, the father of Thor and Loki.
The Marvel Entertainment feature "Thor" stars Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Natalie Portman as Jane Foster. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.
In the real world--or, at least, the world of cinema--there are no super powers without super effects, and Thor is an example of digital effects used as integral to story. The movie's climactic scene features Thor's battle with the fearsome Destroyer, a life-like suit of armor that brutally attacks Thor, starting with a powerful backhand slap.
Luma Pictures was charged with bringing The Destroyer to life, in a giant battle, as well as creating the Bifrost arrival effect, a mystical storm that is a portal to earth for the gods (and which scientist Jane Foster describes as the theoretical Einstein-Rosen Bridge wormhole). That includes the opening nighttime scene in Midgard in which Thor is delivered from the heavens via the Bifrost. Overall, the Venice-based VFX company provided over 310 shots to the film, which also included supernatural effects, creature work and set extension.
Luma Pictures was involved very early on in the development of the movie's characters. "The movie had a healthy development cycle," says Luma VFX supervisor Vince Cirelli. "We had input on the Bifrost arrival effect and were involved early on in the battle between Thor and The Destroyer."
Character set-up for The Destroyer was an early and significant hurdle. "Rigid metal slats coil around the character," says Cirelli. "It looks good in a static pose, but how do you animate it without separating the slats?"
Destroyer, "Thor," courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.
How Luma Pictures solved this problem--and any others that arose--within the demanding time constraints of today's motion pictures is key to the company's success.
For Thor, as with every film the company does, Luma Pictures relied on its parallel--rather than linear--workflow structure. "We run everything in parallel: modeling, rigging, animation, compositing," says Cirelli. "We take a very basic proxy model into rigging, which helps conceptualize the shot. Our first round of deliveries comes very quickly." Pushing shots through the pipeline in an efficient, quick manner is key to surviving today's tough VFX environment. "Expectations are high," says Cirelli. "We came to this way of working out of necessity, to service movies with greater ideas than their budgets often allow."
To create The Destroyer, Luma Pictures animation supervisor Raphael A. Pimentel says they started by pulling in as much reference as they could for how heavy creatures moved. "Anything that would help us sell the weight of The Destroyer," he explains. Luma had some motion capture of different walk cycles that director Branagh liked. The Luma animators also found footage of weight lifters and other bulky people to replicate basic walk cycles and acting.
"That way, whenever we got a Maya scene to animate, we wouldn't be flying blind but would have a clear direction on how Kenneth wanted the walk to be," says Pimentel. Branagh also decided that the showdown between The Destroyer and Thor would have a Wild West O.K. Corral feel. "We looked at a lot of Westerns to get the swagger right," he adds. At the same time, Branagh was clear that The Destroyer was not a metallic robot. "There needed to be a Godliness about him."
Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment
As soon as the rough geometry was ready, Luma animators started blocking out scenes. "While the models are being approved, all the departments except lighting are going forward full steam with rigging and animation," says Cirelli.
Rigging The Destroyer properly so the metallic slats wouldn't come apart was the job of senior rigger Thanapoom Siripopungul, who has been with the company since its founding nine years ago. "Although Maya is the base of our rigging pipeline, Luma has created a lot of proprietary scripts to move faster and get better results," says Pimentel. "Kenneth was very particular on how he wanted The Destroyer's slats to move. There was an aesthetic design to follow."
The proprietary rigging tools enabled Luma's riggers to create a rigid skin bind with flexible slats, so The Destroyer could get into very dynamic poses without losing the rigid feel of the metal slats. The complex rigging system amortized the separation among the slates but that, for some movements, they created a secondary rig in places where slats would penetrate each other. Inspiration for The Destroyer's energy beam came from watching reference footage of rocket engines from JPL. High velocity fluid simulations and dense particle renders driven by geometry created the blast.
Rendering and shading The Destroyer was another challenge. "One hurdle is that he's a big shiny object," says Cirelli, "especially given that in most of the shots, he's outside in bright sunlight."
Numerous customized shaders were used to create The Destroyer's textures. "We develop tools internally with our team of in-house programmers," explains Cirelli. "We think of how to extend existing tools, not building from the ground up. We've created lots of rendering and lighting plug-ins, some of which have been acquired by Alias. We also offer a sub-set of those tools to the public on our website, but keep the higher end tools here."
For Thor, Luma Pictures' shaders allowed them to control the reflection in such a granular way that they could change the reflection on The Destroyer's leg without impacting the reflection in any other body part. "We could art direct him as he walked down the street," says Cirelli.
The Destroyer also had a lot of interaction with the actors, points out Pimentel. "He not only had constant interaction with Thor and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) but he was always hitting something out of the way," he says. "For animators, the challenge of integrating and retrofitting those components into one is always fun."
Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment
Luma's skill at creating digital doubles also came in handy in these many interactions. "When Sif lands on the back of The Destroyer, they had a stunt double that landed on a platform controlled by hydraulics," explains Pimentel. "We needed to build a 3D digital double of Sif that is match-moved to the plate as she moves through space and lands on the back of The Destroyer. Then we also built a 3D version of the character that could be reflected in The Destroyer's armor. There were a lot of retiming plates to get it to work with the environment."
"Face it," says Cirelli. "It doesn't get much better for us geeks than to work on a big metal suit of armor going around blowing up a city."
The Bifrost supernatural storm simulation as it carries our heroes and their foes to Earth was the other big challenge for Luma, which came to the job with experience in creating dramatic environmental effects. The company has worked on the last four Coen Brothers' movies, and created the tornado in the end scene of A Serious Man, as well some commercial spots.
For the supernatural storms in Thor, Cirelli says the emphasis again was on how to keep the workflow parallel. "We figured out how to partition simulations into chunks into Maya, so we could get shot composition and previz lighting before rendering it," he says. "We wrote all the tools to do that, and it saved us a lot of time."
The rigs used for the Bifrost arrival on Earth were created from Luma Pictures' own effects artists. "The same way we don't compartmentalize our divisions, there is a lot of sharing going on," says Cirelli. "The rig was built in effects, given to animators for shot composition, speed and direction and then handed back to the effects team which rendered off that. It was a homogeneous process."
Courtesy Marvel Entertainment.
"The Bifrost arrival effect was a very complex element of the film," adds Pimentel. "The animators received a geometry and a rig of the Bifrost tornado and we placed it in the scene for the vortex to spin in the direction it needed to spin." More specifically, director Branagh composed the Bifrost effect, determining the direction and speed it would spin. "By giving the animator the rig, it allowed us to block out a rough geometry and speed to Kenneth's liking before going into heavy simulations," he says.
Luma Pictures' work on Thor, says Cirelli, was a sterling example of how working in parallel can increase efficiency and speed. "It really shines when we can develop an asset used across multiple shots," he explains. "Once we build systems and how every part of the pipeline will talk to the other, propagating that asset across multiple shots is easy. We already have the 'factory' built, rather than building it up all the way through the end of the film and then struggling to get shots out."
Thor is most certainly a fantasy film full of impossible deeds and incredible creatures, a world created by visual effects. Although the visual effects don't have to blend invisibly with reality, they have to create a reality that is believable and consistent, without drawing attention to how they're made, animated and composited. Thor fans are clearly entranced by the movie, and its climactic villain, The Destroyer, is a crucial part of the action and excitement. It's good to recall that the industry of VFX was born out of the desire to create extraordinary fantasy from Jason and the Argonauts to Star Wars. Let's hear it for a good old-fashioned super hero tale, well told and well constructed, thanks in part to the digital skills of Luma Pictures.