Jupiter Ascending - HD Trailer - Official Warner Bros.
Wachowskis = world building. At least that's what we're looking for when filmmaking siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski take to the screen. In a sci-fi landscape littered with endless reboots, sequels and adaptations, we look to the Wachowskis for almost stupefyingly ambitious feats of original storytelling, complex narratives based on big ideas, and outrageous visuals, set in gigantic worlds that span space and time.
Jupiter Ascending certainly has all of these in spades. After some mixed results with Cloud Atlas, Speed Racer, and the Matrix sequels, even the bum notes in the tale of Jupiter's ascent feel oddly fresh. We might perhaps agree to disagree on this point, but most important for our purposes here today, the whole enterprise looks stunning.
The matriarch of the most powerful of the houses among this ancient race dies, but her genes are identically reconstructed in the person of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who cleans the homes of rich people
The team was enthusiastic about building the VFX world.
Method was one of the smaller VFX studios working on the film – "only" 80 people on "only" 350 shots or so. spread across 11 months. From Method's perspective though, it was their biggest job to date, following shows like the Hunger Games pictures, Thor 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Wolf of Wall Street, and many more.
Method's original VFX lead in London (where most of Method's work took place, plus some in LA) was Stephane Naze, who had worked with the Wachowskis on Cloud Atlas. A few months in, he rotated onto Method's next project (sorry, can't tell you what), and Simon Carr rotated in for the Jupiter's last six months.
"I actually came into the project halfway through," says Simon, and was caught up in the team's enthusiasm. "Everybody was very excited about the prospect of world building: some of our artists had been working on concept designs for 2 or3 years by then, so we had some idea of the scale of the thing."
Now then, about the story. I put it only midway along the Wachowski xAD xADConceptual Density Index, which is still pretty dang dense. Like many other planets, it turns out that Earth has been "seeded" with the genetic material of an ancient, advanced race. Planets are harvested, ie, everyone on the planets killed, as the ancient race needs a new injection of youth serum to sustain their millienia-long lives.
The matriarch of the most powerful of the houses among this ancient race dies, but her genes are identically reconstructed in the person of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), who cleans the homes of rich people – the irony being that, because she is, genetically speaking, the actual head of the most powerful dynasty in this ancient race, her legacy did not pass to her children, but to, in essence, Jupiter Jones.
Mayhem ensues as the three heirs fight among themselves about what to do, and killing our girl Jupiter emerges as Plan A for the heir played by Best Actor Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, genetically modified ex-soldier-slash-werewolf Channing Tatum to the rescue, etc. etc. etc.
I'm skipping over some of the most engaging aspects of the movie, including other hybridized creatures (also a woman who's a chariot), among many others), and the destruction of Chicago yet again in a manner that outdoes both Michael Bay's mayhem in Chicago and Marvel's in New York, while also politely putting it back together.
There's also an extended riff on bureaucratic red tape that caps off with a cameo by the bard of bureaucracy, Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Time Bandits, Monty Python, and more). This is especially worth mentioning because I think humor is a crucial part of the Wachowski's filmmaking, and is rarely mentioned when talking about their movies.
I'm also skipping over some of the most critical themes that carry through all their films, starting with their 1996 lesbian film-noir debut, Bound. Those themes would be inquiries into the natures of time, identity, and reality, and the fundamental unreliability of what appears to be self-evident. In fact, the more self-evident a principle, the less reliable it is. Just a few of The Big Ideas that elevate Lana and Andy's films above your standard sci-fi epic, while also scooping up pop influences from Star Trek to Cinderella, from Blade Runner to Brazil, and beyond.
And then there's look of the world, since of course nobody builds worlds like the Wachowskis do.
Which is where the folks at Method come back in to our story. Method built some of the most important parts of Jupiter Ascending's otherworldly worlds – starting with the planet Jupiter, and a civilization hiding itself beneath the storm in Jupiter's red spot. We get the first hint of this ancient civilization in the spaceship that takes Jupiter to, uhm, Jupiter.
"We did lots of monitors," he smiles. "The monitors were on set, but we removed supports, enhanced graphics where we needed to, and also made them look lighter and more advanced.
A civilization hiding itself beneath the storm in Jupiter's red spot.
"The most ambitious work we did was a series of shots where we approach the capital city of this universe. It's very busy, with rings of 'suburbia,' so to speak, built up around the planet. Something like the rings of Saturn, but all manmade, of ships and other habitats. We go through the rings and to what they call the Commonwealth Building, which is where Jupiter will have her title bestowed on her."
(Assuming that Eddie Redmayne's Balem Abrasax designs on Jupiter Jones are thwarted.)
The "suburban rings" used a number of CG elements were then used to enhance the region's depth with stargates, traffic, and a huge junk ship in the shape of a fish – but "huge" is a relative thing. The environments were massive, but so were the things IN the environments. Some of the ships were a kilometer long, but relative to the scale of the environments, that's still pretty small. So it looked like a screenful of pretty small things. A LOT of them.
The challenge was to make it feel busy, without feeling like a mess.
"The challenge was to make it feel busy, without feeling like a mess. We needed to show that there were lines of traffic going toward the planet, or coming away, but as soon as we put too many ships, it looked more like plankton. You couldn't really see what was happening. Even if you view it from the top and it makes sense in concept, once you add a camera, perspectives change.
"The way we actually got to it was working in Houdini, and color coding each lane of traffic, and I could see which was which. When I saw that there were too many, because they were color coded, I could quickly choose which to keep, and which to delete.
"The first place Jupiter is taken is Kalique, a palace in an opulent garden landscape. We had to build a huge environment – very rocky, with rich colors. Channing Tatum has been tracking Jupiter, and flies down into that environment wearing jet boots. For his actual flight, Method shared cameras with Framestore, and were supplied with rendered elements from Method LA.
The first place Jupiter is taken is Kalique, a palace in an opulent garden landscape.
"Another major sequence is where Jupiter wakes up in that palace, with a beautiful dress that's flowing as she lies floating in an anti-gravity beam. Mila Kunis is lying on a rig wearing the top half of the dress, and we added the rest to simulate floating.
"We also added her hair. We couldn't do straight anti-gravity, where her hair would frizz out, so we created something beautiful and flowing that we developed over a series of months of research and development."
Quite a bit of the work that Method performed was detail-oriented. For example, artists in Method's Los Angeles office added tattoos to characters created by other companies. They also developed a sequence in a corn field, building on work Method had done to develop tree tools for Into the Storm enabling the work to move much more quickly for Jupiter Ascending.
Around 120 characters were created and/or refined for the area around the landing pad where the ship first delivers our heroine to the planet. (I could have said "delivers Jupiter to Jupiter" again, but decided against it.) One example of Method's refinements, says Simon, is that "someone at the landing pad was spliced with an owl, and the feathers were provided by another company. Then we added CG gun arms and plasma bolts to other characters.
"We also had to match a shield that Double Negative VFX had made for one of the characters, and quite a bit of other work of that ilk."
Method was going for a beautiful, opulent look.
Simon started at Method in March 2013. "My first project was 60-65 shots with a brand new team, a dozen of us who came on at the same time, getting to know each other while not getting in the way of Hunger Games, which we were working on at the same time."
Jupiter Ascending is his largest project for Method yet – and also Method's biggest to date. "When we started we were about 30 people, and at peak, we were at 89, so a big expansion.
"Shortly before Jupiter started, we were on a single floor, very tight. We then moved to a space that had previously been a lab, with room to expand up to 130. We'd like to do that. After Jupiter, we did some shots for The Purge: Anarchy, and probably 150 for Exodus: Gods & Kings. We shrunk down for a bit after that, but we're recruiting to get back up to 100 in the next week and a half."
Simon notes that coming into Jupiter Ascending midway through Method's work brought some very specific challenges. "The main challenge for me was obviously picking up the story and getting up to speed with design decisions that had been made, and which design decisions were open and needed continued discussion."
The strategy the team developed was split the work among groups, but within each group, having an individual artist do as much of the work as possible. The problem was that this had been relatively hand-crafted work. A few generalist 3D artists would build the assets, and build the tracking themselves, or working with someone sitting right next to them, and little more.
Building on their ongoing R&D, Method developed software tools for not just tracking assets, but rapidly redploying anything from a tattoo to a texture. "We call it Meth Lab, and it offers a menu list of everything that should be in your scene, and a list of objects, lights, camera tracking, object tracking, and various renders are available."
From there, the work is automatable. Meth Lab enabled them to build all the matching shots in a few minutes, rather than an hour. When applied to 50 shots in all, the savings in both time and money was considerable.
The shots still called for intensive prep and roto – removing an actor's neck to replace with machine or animal components – but also a lot of CG work. Simon and his team felt that it worked out better to have a single artist responsible for refining the CG performance to a single actor for a much more organic result.
WORKING WITH WACHOWSKIS
Knowing how deeply Lana and Andy are involved with every part of their movies, and that their attention would naturally be being pulled in many directions, I was curious about Simon's opportunities to engage with them.
"I definitely felt part of it," says Simon. "They're very easy to work with. There were a number of times that we presented directly to Lana and Andy, in the middle of them working on other sequences, but they were always friendly and open to suggestion.
"I get the feeling that what they like is for things to be very beautiful. You follow the brief, but sometimes you find something unexpected. Because we have an art department in the company, and Method had been working on concept art for so long, we understood the concepts. But we were working out HOW opulent we wanted to be.
So if there was something that turned out more beautiful, or more elaborate, or that went further than the brief, it seemed they were very open to those possibilities.
The city had to acquire a look of intelligence, beautiful design and be organized in structure.
Needless to say, Simon couldn't tell me about Method's next project, but he was able to talk to me about how he sees Method's next steps.
"We did slightly more shots for Exodus, which was also in stereo, but those were largely supporting. The scale of Jupiter was just massive though, and a wide range of work, and each sequence of which was on a very large scale.
"One of the interesting challenges for any small-to-medium sized VFX company is, when you grow that rapidly, how to integrate everybody in a way that you'd hope. It all went well for us with Jupiter, but we realized that we needed to arrange things to make working together easier.
"On the compositing side, we had some quite junior artists, and on the CG side, some relatively junior ones, but we had very organized supes who were able to establish communication in ways that we can reuse. It was worth taking the time to set up channels of communication correctly, to give us more flexibility at the end.
"In general, it was just knowing that it was possible for us to do a lot of very complicated work to a high degree of success. There may be some limits to what you can do based on the artists you have, but you can push those limits."
Pushing limits. A principle that can guide the building of a VFX company, and the building of worlds.
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