Creating the Details of Elysium's Luxury World
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : Creating the Details of Elysium's Luxury World
In Director Neill Blomkamp's (District 9) Elysium, it's 2154, and everyone on impoverished Earth longs to live in Elysium, where all diseases are cured and life is beautiful. When Image Engine, the lead VFX house for Elysium, turned its attention to creating the detailed luxury world of Elysium, VFX supervisor Peter Muyzers knew that additional help was required. He turned to Whiskytree, a San Rafael, CA-based company that had worked on The Hunger Games and Captain America: The First Avenger, among other films.
Elysium is a ring-shaped space station, and the wealthy denizens live on the interior of the ring, a surface that, with its mansions, palm trees and glittering water, resembles an elite gated community in Malibu, a sharp contrast to the dilapidated Earth below. "It's got mansions sprinkled around as well as futuristic municipal buildings, and giant retaining walls and struts that attach to the spokes of the ring," says Whiskytree CEO and Creative Director Jonathan Harb. "Image Engine already had the super-structure of the ring created; generally speaking, whatever you see from outside the ring was done by Image Engine. From the inside, that's us."
Whiskytree created the inside elements of the ring. This and all images ©2013 CTMG.
Just how photoreal is Elysium? "We were creating the entire world, so all elements, all assets, everything you see on screen is a rendered element," says Harb. "That level of complexity required us to render 3 trillion polygons on screen, which is an enormous amount." That was an especially big number for Whiskytree, whose previous polygon record was 160 million polygons. "To go from 160 million to 3 trillion is an order of magnitude," says Harb. "We did around 100 shots, of which about 80 ended up in the film. Anytime you see the big sweeping environmental shots of Elysium's surface, that's our work."
"Anytime you see the big sweeping environmental shots of Elysium's surface, that's our work," says Harb.
CG supervisor Votch Levi enumerates what they created. "We had a tree library with dozens of trees, plants, structures and all these props, everything from garden sets, planters, and umbrellas as well as all kinds of human activity there," he says. "We went into great detail; we wanted to be able to look at any part of the frame and zoom in on it."
In this VFX shot for the film, delivered exclusively to Creative COW for this feature article, actress Jodie Foster stands overlooking the beautiful city in the outer ring of the space station.
The before plate.
Iterating to achieve this level of detail was an atypical workflow. "We used an interesting process that Pete and Neill embraced," says Harb. "Pete said he wanted the shape of the land, and we worked on four, five, six different versions to get the shape of Elysium right until he bought off on that. Then he said, distribute vegetation on the surface. We did half a dozen versions of trees, bushes until we got the right distribution of foliage. Then the mansions, then the municipal buildings, then the retaining walls."
"We went ingredient by ingredient to get all the relationships right between the different ingredients," he continues. "Then shots came together astoundingly quickly. Once everybody bought into the parts relating to each other in a way they liked, it really cut down on the amount of time it took to get this done for the movie."
Key elements in the VFX were foliage and a believable distribution of vegetation on the surface.
"Instead of composing each shot separate from each other, we set up the world and how it worked and then stuck to the design language of the world and then placed our cameras around," adds Levi.
When Whiskytree began work on Elysium, they already had a library of deciduous trees and conifers, such as old growth oak trees. "When we began putting together the landscapes, we used these old trees but they didn't work," says Levi. "Elysium is an environment that is all hand-made and tailored, like a big amusement park, with no erosion, no wind or storms that carve the landscape. A big wild old growth oak didn't work at all. We had to rethink our entire plant library."
Levi says they focused on building palm trees and tropical plants. "Palm trees are difficult to get to look right," he says. "They're very tall and they poke up above the surface way in the distance, so it was a challenge to get them to look realistic. We had another shot with animated palm fronds that was also a challenge."
The conversation on the omnipresent lawns revolved around which would be immaculately groomed lawns and which ones would be wilder. "Not so much the creation of the lawn but the complexity across the surface, so it didn't stand out as something that was too common," says Levi. "We wanted each property to be a little differentiated."
Whiskytree didn't stint on the level of detail; Harb points out that every tree has recognizable leaves. "Every leaf is geometry," he says. "It's trillions of surfaces. All of these details give life to the shot and make it more interesting to look at. And everything is accurately placed and positioned in this world so it makes sense and isn't randomly thrown together. There was an emphasis placed on not having a lot of repetition, which helped your subconscious believe it had been there for a long time."
The primary digital content creation package at Whiskytree is Softimage, with rendering in Solid Angle's Arnold and compositing in NUKE. "We did have some complexities in that software/technology area," says Levi. "One of them is that we were working very closely with Image Engine and they don't use the same platforms or packages: they're a Linux house, we're a Windows house; they use Maya and 3Delight."
The two companies initially shared data by using Maya as an interchange format, for sending assets back and forth. "As we started progressing through the show, we realized we needed a much deeper sharing of assets," says Levi. "Once Image Engine adopted Arnold as a rendering platform halfway through the show, we used Arnold assets to share renderable elements. That allowed us to have a level of collaboration and sharing of assets that I never felt was possible."
Whiskytree focused on creating palm trees and tropical growth to realize a more tailored look for Elysium's outdoor features.
"On this show, we started sharing assets at the very beginning and in every part of the project. We cross-compiled shaders so we could use them and render elements at both facilities. We found we were sharing elements so much that we joined our file system, synching up our directory structures to have immediate access to each others elements. It was a very deep level of collaboration."
Levi notes how atypical this level of sharing is. "VFX vendors never ever work this way," he says. "The idea of sharing source code and shaders, is very rare. Really taking on that challenge of this level of integration on a project is also rare. To be able to render the same assets here and at Image Engine was an incredible ability."
To accomplish this required new features in Arnold. "The people at Solid Angle did help us quite a bit to be able to handle this polygon level and add on efficiencies," says Levi. "Solid Angle rewrote a big chunk of the core that, specifically for this project, allowed us to take advantage of better memory use and multi-threaded expansion of scenes and loading of assets. At the beginning, we had scene creations that would take a few hours to load into memory and then a few hours of rendering. By the end, we dropped it down to well under an hour."
Each lawn was characteristically different in order to give a custom, yet manicured appeal to the imagery.
But Harb stresses the end result of the work Whiskytree was able to provide, in collaboration with Image Engine, over the technical evolution it took to make it possible. "Elysium is a rare combination of a great movie and great VFX," he says. "This was a cool opportunity."
Whiskytree's tighter-than-usual collaboration with Image Engine may presage more of the same for the future, benefitting VFX companies and the movies they work on. In the meantime, viewers will enjoy their visit to a fully realized Elysium in the sky.
Read all about how Image Engine handled the lead on the VFX for Elysium in our feature article, "Elysium VFX Created by Vancouver's Image Engine."