Elysium: Insights From The VFX Supervisors
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : Elysium: Insights From The VFX Supervisors
Director Neill Blomkamp had turned to Vancouver-based VFX facility Image Engine for his breakout feature District 9, so it was a natural for him to return there for his first Hollywood feature, Elysium, starring Jodie Foster and Matt Damon. "We were the VFX unit for the film as well as the lead VFX vendor," says Andrew Chapman, Associate Visual Effects Supervisor, Image Engine. "We were involved from the earliest days with Neill and on the shoot."
On the Image Engine team, Peter Muyzers was the film's overall Visual Effects Supervisor, Chapman supervised the 2nd unit and acted as Associate Visual Effects Supervisor and Shawn Walsh was the overall Production Visual Effects Producer. According to Walsh, the total shot count was 822, 70 percent of which was produced by Image Engine. "We produced about 1,000 digital shots for the film, some of which were edited out of the film," he explains.
In addition to Image Engine, Muyzers worked with Method Studios, The Embassy and MPC (Vancouver). ILM contributed one important shot: the 3D "hero shot" of downtown Los Angeles in 2154. "We also had a collaboration with Whiskytree in California," he says. "We got them involved to help us out with some of the environment work on the Ring. It was partnering, not outsourcing." [Editor's note: Read about how Whiskytree created the beautiful mansions and foliage of the elite ring.]
The production shot in Vancouver for a couple of months and then went to Mexico City to shoot in an actual garbage dump on the outskirts of town. "This was the world's second largest dump in the world," says Chapman. "They did a toxicity report and as a result covered the dump with a foot of 'clean' dirt. Everyone was wearing masks. Most of the shots that look like gritty, messed-up Los Angeles are in-camera. There are many people who live in the dump, and we only had to put up with it for three weeks."
The "Earth" shots were done in Mexico City in an actual garbage dump.
Second unit followed up the work of the main unit, if it didn't involve the main actors or if it were a special effects heavy sequence. "It was a spill-over unit," he says. "We were shooting alongside main unit, but in different locations on different days. One of the great advantages of working with Neill is his VFX background so he appreciates what we need in being there. If there are any concerns from a VFX point of view, he appreciates us being there to have a conversation about the way he's shooting will be good for VFX."
"Neill knew the budget was tight and that any changes would result in an overage," adds Walsh. "He had an onboard knowledge of what would have cost implications. And there was always an open dialog about that. But cost wasn't the thing on our minds predominately. It was trying to achieve Neill's vision and working with the resources we did have to make things work for him, with Image Engine being the VFX engine on the film.
Being on-set during production gave Image Engine a leg up, says Chapman. In addition to taking thousands of photos, samples and measurements, he says, he could also answer any questions about the elements to be added in post, from how a futuristic weapon worked or how the droid functioned. "Having that ability to work collaboratively on the set is best, more effective way to approach a film with so many VFX," he says. "A lot of the work today is from afar, not working closely with the filmmakers but having to work with whatever they've shot. It's not as successful an end result and can be difficult."
Chapman's praised the director's effort to get as much as possible in camera. "There is this perception from the wider audience that VFX just wants to do things in the computer," he says. "But it's quite the opposite; we want to see as many things as possible being in camera. Neill is good at getting at least something in camera."
Two clear examples point to Blomkamp's strategy. First were the vehicles that take off from or land on Earth: Blomkamp filmed all of those scenes with helicopters standing in for the spacecraft. "Helicopters are an expensive line-item and they will get painted out with CG vehicles, but it is savvy filmmaking because it gives him something to edit with for a month while VFX is producing the CG vehicle," says Chapman. "It also gives reference for how the vehicles move. The helicopters also blow up dust and debris and we're getting all that in camera. A little bit of integration work and you get this great gritty reality of the frantic camera motions and the dust and dirt blowing up that is a signature part of Neill's films."
Using helicopters gives a realistic point of reference for CG replacement with the dust and debris and gritty reality. All images ©2013 CTMG.
And the shot after.
The second example is the droids: stunt people in gray lycra suits stood in for the entirely CG robots. "Neill directed them to get exactly what he wanted, and in post, we'd replace the gray suit stunt performers with the CG droids," says Chapman. "He's editing with the footage of the gray suit performers, and when we turn over our work, he'll be able to drop it straight into the film. The alternative is to shoot a clean plate and it takes a lot longer to figure out the droid performance plus it's a big slug in the edit."
The stunt performers in gray suits marked placement for the CG droids
And the completed shot with droid in place.
Walsh points out how this methodology also helped keep Elysium within budget. "Complexity drives cost, and trying to come up with processes that enable a more efficient process or methodology can control costs," he says. "Using the gray suit actors on set to stand in for droids was similar to what we did in District 9 and Battleship, and it enables us to know a bit more about what the result was going to be. We were able to get buy-in from key parts of the production with the assumption of how we were going to achieve that work, and that enabled us to budget that more aggressively."
In post, Muyzers concentrated on the big picture, liaising with Blomkamp and dealing with the outsource vendors, whereas Chapman concentrated on Image Engine's work on the film. "My responsibilities were taking the broad creative brief from Neill and turning that into a more concrete, achievable result from the artist at Image Engine," he says. "If you take the description 'space ship explodes', I'll break it down and come up with a plan on how to iterate towards the end result."
Without a doubt, the Ring, or torus, was the biggest challenge. "It was always going to be a gargantuan task," says Chapman. "It's not that massive - 2 km across and 125 KMs around the diameter - but it is a world and all the details that entails. You start designing with broad strokes - how big is it from earth, how many spokes - and you end up drilling down into more levels of details until you get to the lay-out of the houses and municipal buildings and how is the vegetation laid out. And before you build it, you have to design it. Nothing about the computer does this magically for you."
The ring, or torus, was the biggest challenge, with houses, municipal buildings, rich vegetation and landscaping, besides creating the hazy fading of the ring into the distance.
The basic design went through a few steps. Sci-fi/futurist art director Syd Mead, who had drawn some iconic sketches in the 1970s of ring orbital stations that inspired Neill, contributed, as well as WETA Workshop, which designed other aspects of the film and built one of the physical props. Image Engine also contributed. "We put together an in-house VFX design unit at Image Engine," says Walsh. "It included key designers who worked with Pete and Andrew and Neill on a daily basis to discuss aspects of the design and the finite detail on how something like Elysium could be constructed, with current day engineering and future construction technology, so there was a plausibility to things."
Chapman points out the design of the spacecraft as a particularly interesting exercise. "It's the first time we've seen ships in a film covered with graffiti," he says. "It was fun to get reference photos of rusted-out car hulks, and graffiti-covered buses and to bring all these references together to create a run-down repurposed space ship that the smugglers got their hands on."
The smugglers get their hands on a repurposed space ship.
Image Engine's pipeline, based on Maya for 3D, also includes a number of custom-developed tools. "Despite being a mid-sized facility we have a large R&D facility so we punch above our weight," says Chapman. "We had to build a whole level of new tools to handle the complexity. Our bread & butter work is more on the creature work as in RIPD and District 9. That's the work we know, love and can do with one arm behind our back. Our challenge was this large-scale environmental work - rendering it efficiently and moving it through the pipeline. We ordinarily render in 3Delight but, on this project, we transitioned to using Arnold because we worked so closely with Whiskytree and they were an Arnold facility. It also allowed us to throw huge amounts of geometry with the ray-tracing on, which was important for glossy architectural things like the Ring for realistically rendered reflections."
How to portray the sky and atmosphere on Elysium was a bit of a dilemma. On a real orbital space station, the sky would be black; Elysium's 2-kilometer wide construction isn't enough for an environment to form. Yet many of the foreground plates were shot with blue skies, and there was a desire to have Elysium look like a 'normal' human environment. "If it's a utopian environment, you want it to look like earth," says Chapman. "We struggled with how much black sky we should bring in, and how space-like it should look, especially given that we had to integrate these foreground shots, which of course were shot on earth."
Careful thought went into factors such as how much black sky to bring in.
The compromise was to tint the sky towards black in a few shots where the camera is looking straight up. "It's there to punctuate the shot, to remind you you're in space, a foreign environment," says Chapman. "We were always treading the line between familiarity and space. On earth, things get hazier, the farther away they get, a classic VFX trick to make things look real. But on Elysium, as things get farther away, they curve up, which means there is less atmosphere. If you look straight up, you're looking up at the Ring. So things get a little hazier when they get a bit further away and then less hazy as they curve up." To achieve that "slightly strange and different depth hazing in this curved world," Image Engine's R&D division wrote custom shaders.
Things on the ring get a little hazier when they get a bit further away and then less hazy as they curve up.
The Image Engine team also considered how to keep the reality of Blomkamp's signature camera work on the Ring. "Neill's work is very gritty and these space shots are completely CG/synthetic," Chapman says. "We were struggling how to keep that reality. What we came up with was bringing rough animated versions of the spacecraft, approved by Neill, to Animatronic, a mocap studio in Vancouver, where they filmed the ships with a virtual camera, to capture the motion of that camera. Instead of a carefully animated camera we had a real camera with all the camera shakes." Chapman notes this is a trick that director Peter Jackson originally did for Lord of the Rings. "In mocap, we could pan around with a camera-like device to look around that CG scene of the ship's flying by, as if we were filming them for real," he says. "We were able to get some real bouncy-floaty camera motion back into the shot."
In the end, a VFX-savvy director helped achieve the film achieve its goals of a gritty, photoreal futuristic Earth and Elysium. "A big part of controlling the budget is a close collaboration with the filmmaker," says Walsh. "Being able to clearly communicate with the filmmaker and allowing him to choose the moment when cost overages might be elective choices of a creative nature is ideal. Neill's background is definitely a blessing when it comes to that. Having that background and inside knowledge spoke volumes at certain times. For example, if a new shot that was complex came into the system and we told him it would be difficult to fast track it, he'd ask why, and we could go into a dialogue about the component parts. He won't shy away from that dialog."
The results in Elysium speak to this fruitful collaboration. Although Blomkamp in his interview admits he's got a distance to go when it comes to writing and directing, his judicious and creative use of VFX can't be faulted. Perhaps not every VFX artist is suited for a career as a full-fledged filmmaker, but filmmakers have come from much less likely departments and backgrounds (you fill in the blanks). Blomkamp's next film - Chappie - is another smaller, lower budget film, with The Creative Cartel's Jenny Fulle as Visual Effects Producer. I, for one, am hopeful that his skills as a director and writer continue to evolve to catch up to his abilities in visual storytelling.
ELYSIUM - Official Full Trailer
All images ©2013 CTMG.
Action shot with Matt Damon: Matt Damon stars in TriStar Pictures' ELYSIUM. Photo By: Stephanie Blomkamp Copyright: ©2011 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.