Zombies Brought to Life For Warm Bodies
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Debra Kaufman : Zombies Brought to Life For Warm Bodies
How Levine found LOOK Effects is a classic Hollywood story. Levine, who shares an agent with director Darren Aronofsky, was impressed by the effects in Black Swan, which were done by LOOK Effects. One call to his agent got him connected to LOOK Effects visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker.
"Jonathan contacted me and we hit it off," says Schreker. "Picking LOOK Effects was a leap of faith on his part, as well as on the part of the studio, because we hadn't done creature work. But I think he was confident we could get it done based on our track record."
According to Krentz, LOOK Effects' Vancouver studio opened in November 2011, right about when the film finished shooting. "I was working with LOOK Effects in New York when they landed the Warm Bodies project," he says. "I was happy to be headed back to where I grew up to get things up and running."
Krentz says the first step was to break down the project to know how much work they'd need to accomplish in the time frame, and then hire key positions to overlook the creature work in particular. Producer Brenda Ilic also filled in some of the open positions, to reach a total of 45 artists.
When it came to animating the Boneys' jerky erratic movements, originally, LOOK Effects went with motion capture but quickly realized the results weren't working. "It looked strange and unique," says Krentz. "But once we put that motion on the Boneys, they weren't very scary looking. It made them feel weak. The jerkiness of the movement on top of a skeleton looked too pronounced."
The animation team relied on Z-Brush for modeling, Autodesk Maya for animation, and The Foundry's Nuke for compositing and Mari for texturing. "We paid a lot of attention to the pipeline," he adds. "We tried to minimize repetitive tasks that take artists away from working on their art, such as having to wait to upload the latest version." Mark Stewart and Ren-wei Yang, a couple of TDs, focused on creating tools for the pipeline that talked to Shotgun, LOOK Effects' asset manager, and automatically downloaded the right shots and know where to save them.
Krentz also made sure that the pipeline incorporated numerous tools that enabled animators to do shortcuts and work in a streamlined fashion. "We made sure everyone had easy access to the latest version of the tools," he says. "If an animator started on a brand new shot, he'd click a button and it would import the latest camera angle; he wouldn't have to search for it. Same thing with lighters. If they were working on a shot, they didn't have to scan through directories but would get the latest camera and animation, all built. People didn't have to worry about the technical side of things because it was all set up for them."
The experience of creating the Boneys has now pushed LOOK Effects into a new realm of potential work. "Now we do creature work, and we're ready and excited to do it again," says Schreker. "You learn so much when you do it, and usually it's the same lesson: figure out some things early in the process, as much as you can and get a jump on it. We also had a great team that was experienced with character animation and everyone was able to roll with the changes that came at us from external forces."
The Boneys were just part of the visual effects that LOOK Effects contributed to Warm Bodies. Halfway through production, the company was assigned an unexpected shot: a full CG city. "It had two live-action plates on either end, flying in and out of our environment," says Krentz. "It starts off with the regular zombies walking through the city, then the camera pushes through a reflection into this city. The director wanted an establishing shot showing key places throughout the city and wanted to show how far away the zombies were to the "Green Zone" where the people were. The CG camera flies up along a street, above the wall and into the human encampment. We created the full city and wall and connected these two live action plates to the CG city environment."
The movie was shot in Montreal, and on the set, LOOK Effects' team took lots of reference photography, placing them on CG in a kind of photogrammetry effect. "Then made sure our CG camera matched the camera used on set and smoothed in that transition," says Krentz. "We re-projected those buildings on the plate, so we could have that seamless connection."
Because the movie was not supposed to take place in Montreal, LOOK Effects very roughly based their CG city on it. "It was up to our discretion," says Krentz. "We had certain elements that represented real live city blocks so we knew our scale would be like a real city, but we changed buildings for locations. We built everything up from scratch and made everything rather run-down. We had garbage littered throughout the city, broken streetlights and signs, abandoned storefronts. We put vehicles mashed together -- whatever we could do to give life to this abandoned city with zombies wandering around."
One of the elements of the city is used throughout the movie: the wall that surrounds the human encampment. "There were a few scenes that showed how large it was, with patrols on the top of the wall," says Krentz. "There are a couple of scenes where there was an actual half-wall that was built, and we digitally extended it to fill in the gaps. But for a lot of other shots, we built the entire thing from CG."
There were a few scenes that showed how large the wall was, with patrols on the top. Below, scenes from the airport.
Warm Bodies was one that relied heavily on remote viewing with cineSync. After production finished in Montreal, the director Levine was in Los Angeles, visual effects supervisor Schreker was in New York, and the LOOK Effects facility was in Vancouver. "Jonathan and sometimes his editor Nancy Richardson, visual effects producer Tom Ford, visual effects editor Shannon Olds would all get on to cineSync to review shots," he says. "At the end, when we did the DI at Technicolor, I went into a DI suite here and we looked at the same finaling shots via SimulView. That was great; we were able to work together and we were never in the same place."
Having established the Vancouver facility to handle Warm Bodies, Schreker notes there's something to be said for starting from scratch. "Bringing in new people with fresh ideas let us get into new things when we needed to and not get stuck in old ideas, and especially a show this size with creature work," he says. In the meantime, LOOK Effects has also opened an office in Stuttgart, Germany, to work on The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's next movie, while the New York office is busy with Aronofsky's Noah.
Tip of the hat to LOOK Effects, a mid-sized visual effects company that has managed to stay open and apparently healthy in tough times in the industry. In the current environment that favors the few big companies and the smallest mom-and-pop shops, it's the mid-sized facilities that have been closing their doors with disturbing frequency. Schreker himself pointed to Pixomondo as a mid-sized company with a similar modus operandi: keeping the facility technologically nimble and opening up new locations whenever necessary to serve a big project.
Adding character animation to its toolset has increased the number and kind of projects that LOOK Effects can handle. Although the model it uses to stay in the black is too statistically small to prove a trend, the company may just be onto a way for mid-sized companies to survive in the 21st Century.
Jonathan Levine: Director JONATHAN LEVINE on the set of WARM BODIES. Photo by: Jan Thijs. ©2012 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
Evolution: NICHOLAS HOULT stars in WARM BODIES. Photo by: Jonathan Wenk. © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
Citywalk Zombies: NICHOLAS HOULT stars in WARM BODIES. Photo by: Jonathan Wenk. © 2012 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
Polaroid: (L to R) ROB CORDDRY and NICHOLAS HOULT star in WARM BODIES. Photo by: Jonathan Wenk. © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
Zombie Driver: ROB CORDDRY stars in WARM BODIES. Photo by: Jonathan Wenk. ©2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
Preparing to fight: NICHOLAS HOULT and TERESA PALMER star in WARM BODIES. Photo by: Jonathan Wenk. ©2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
Sports car zombie: NICHOLAS HOULT stars in WARM BODIES. Photo by: Jonathan Wenk. ©2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.
Title graphic: NICHOLAS HOULT stars in WARM BODIES. Photo by: Jonathan Wenk. ©2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.