Luma Pictures Takes On The Avengers
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Debra Kaufman : Luma Pictures Takes On The Avengers
For the Santa Monica-based Luma Pictures, which had contributed VFX shots to both Thor and Captain America, working on The Avengers was another chapter in the company's relationship with Marvel. "They're a fantastic company to work with, from the top down," says Luma Pictures Visual Effects Supervisor Vincent Cirelli. "They're a very organized company and we seem to have similar company philosophies in that we keep the same core group of people and move from show to show with them, rather than rebuilding a team for each film. It keeps a level of quality and consistency in all their films."
Luma Pictures Senior Producer Steven Swanson agrees. "We started our interaction with Marvel with a 350-shot sequence on Thor which focused on the Destroyer and the Bifrost arrival effect," he says. "They were really happy with our collaborative process and the quality of the work, which led to helping out on a few shots in Captain America, which in turn led to our work on The Avengers."
"It's a great relationship," Cirelli adds. "They tend to carve out some meaty CG-intensive work for us."
For a VFX picture the size of The Avengers, it takes more than one visual effects house to get the job done. WETA Digital and ILM did a large amount of work on The Avengers. At Luma Pictures, artists worked on almost 200 shots, utilizing an Isilon SAN running Linux, with "heavily modified versions" of Maya and Nuke. "We have a large development staff, so we've built wrappers to extend the capabilities of both packages," explains Cirelli. "We also built our own Maya to Arnold interpreter and recently completed a FumeFX port to Maya with Sitni Sati, which we used to created most of the cloud simulations on The Avengers."
All those tools came into play for Luma Pictures' work on The Avengers, for which the company revisited the character of Thor and -- the majority of its work -- created the interior of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, a high-tech, flying aircraft carrier on which much of the movie's action takes place. The production built a set that consisted of the first level of the large bridge with monitors and some high-tech semi-transparent glass panel displays. Luma's job was to create a digital set extension and enhancement to the bridge. "The majority of our work was inside the bridge. We built everything above the first level," explains Cirelli. "However, we also did an exterior extension where the camera is in front of the Helicarrier at night, looking into the front bridge windows and focused on Thor."
"It was exciting because we got to do some design work as well when creating the catwalk and ceiling," he adds. "We ended up taking design cues from the rest of the ship and proposing some of our own ideas to [The Avengers visual effects supervisor] Janek [Sirrs] who would give us his notes and show them to [director] Joss [Whedon]."
In the interior of the Helicarrier, Luma Pictures created the ceilings, all the catwalks and the bridge extensions, as well as clouds and blue sky.
In the interior of the Helicarrier, Luma Pictures created the ceilings, all the catwalks and the bridge extensions. "Any time the camera looks up or through the huge bridge windows, we did that," says Cirelli. "That includes the sequence when Hawkeye is shooting arrows as he and other Loki-possessed agents try to take the Helicarrier. "It's a huge blue screen stage and in order to populate the upper level, we added crewmen on cards in Nuke using a Gizmo we created," he says.
When an engine blows up in the film, Luma Pictures animated the environment to make the ship feel as though it was lifting due to the imbalance.
When an engine blows up, Luma Pictures animated the environment to make the ship feel as though it was lifting due to the imbalance. To add to the chaos, Luma also animated the buckling structural elements and enhanced explosions. "We had a lot of fun with this sequence," adds Cirelli.
Nuke is Luma Pictures' compositing tool, and to help create the look of the monitors, the company developed a Nuke Gizmo that allowed the artists to populate the space where the monitors would be, as well as populate the windows with pre-rendered clouds. The Gizmo was also used to place controls onto the ship's helms, which appeared as touch-screen tables and navigational wheels, with graphic content provided by Cantina Creative.
The company also worked on the character of Thor, adding shots of his magical armor forming in the center of a tornado, with large-scale swirling clouds, dust, lighting effects and a field of plants. "When he claims his power, his suit of armor forms around him," says Cirelli. "We had done a lot of look development on how the suit would do that on Thor and we were able to replicate the procedure for The Avengers."
Executive VFX Supervisor Payam Shohadai says the most artistically engaging scene was the wide shot of Thor and Coulson on the Helicarrier bridge at night. "This shot encompassed every little detail of the bridge and required a lot of rigorous lighting and look development to capture a realistic look," says Shohadai. "The asset was 'heavy' and contained a lot of metallic materials with blurry reflections, which are notoriously difficult to render clean."
Cirelli says that one of the biggest challenges of the show was that the Helicarrier needed to be created in minute detail, especially since the camera roved over every surface and would reveal any less-than-realistic details. "It was one of the most elaborate sets I've seen," he says. "They did an incredible job in terms of paintwork, craftsmanship and detailing. Creating something as detailed for every corner of the interior was a daunting task."
To be able to create this high level of realism, Luma Pictures used Arnold to partition the ship into quadrants to reduce the render time and get the amount of detail on the screen "so it felt seamless with the set."
According to Luma Pictures CG Supervisor Richard Sutherland, this was the third full show for which the company used their Arnold interpreter to render. "To speed workflow during our look development phase, we developed an illumination caching system for preview renders, and tweaked the translation of large numbers of objects," he says. "For the large-scale volumetric clouds, we rebuilt and enhanced a cloud-building system based on Maya fluids. There were several shots of Thor summoning a Thor-nado, which gave us a chance to improve some of our FumeFX to Maya pipeline."
The most artistically engaging scene was the wide shot of Thor and Coulson on the Helicarrier bridge at night.
"Partitioning allowed us to turn around the simulations very quickly so we could get feedback," adds Cirelli. "We have spent a few years developing this specific pipeline and it has proven to be a practical solution when dealing with huge data sets."
Cirelli credits The Avengers's visual effects supervisor Sirrs for running a tight ship and orchestrating the complex work from many sources. "With so many visual effects houses working on it, it was shockingly seamless," says Cirelli. "Janek is meticulous and it was evident from the very first asset turn-over. Everything was prepped and streamlined. As we started up a sequence, the other facility was finishing up on the assets we needed."
Although digital visual effects have become commonplace, it doesn't mean that they're easy. The production of a huge action-adventure blockbuster like The Avengers could fall into chaos without the careful planning and choreography of the film's immense number of visual effects. The success in doing so is a credit to Sirrs as well as all the facilities he worked with to bring the movie to the screen.
The Avengers also underlines the importance of the mid-sized visual effects facility to take on crucial and not-insignificant pieces of the large VFX films. As The Avengers themselves have proven, teamwork is indeed the secret to success.