“Ask any VFX artist about their worst shot and I bet they can tell you the shot name. On Event Horizon, M255 was that shot for me.” – Sue Rowe
Now a visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, Sue Rowe was back in 1997 a sequence supervisor at Cinesite (Europe) on Paul W.S. Anderson’s sci-fi horror space adventure, Event Horizon. Here, one of her tasks included a challenging composite for a shot – named M255 – that melded motion control plates of a miniature Lewis and Clark ship in the film with live action principal photography.
For the film’s 20th anniversary, Rowe dives back into that monster of a shot and how she managed to pull it off, thanks to hours of work and sleepless nights. And she recalls a few other key memories from the production, one of which involved the clever use of cornflakes.
I recently listened to this interview on BBC’s The Film Programme between host Francine Stock and Christopher Nolan on the director’s latest project, Dunkirk. It’s a great interview, in which Nolan discusses how he constructed the time-bending narrative in the film, how he used sound and score, and his thoughts on – and this is what interested me the most – shooting with photochemical film and the use of visual effects.
I loved Dunkirk. Everything about the way it is told and the way it was produced makes it such a fantastic cinema-going experience. I feel like I know a lot already about Nolan’s desire to keep using film, and to shoot things as practically as possible, even though of course his movies do rely on plenty of digital visual effects. But I’d never heard him talk about these desires quite like this, so I transcribed the relevant section below (apologies right now for any errors in my transcription).
I feel like there’s a slight conflation in the interview of the idea of shooting on film and the use of ‘CGI’ in filmmaking, but I absolutely get what Nolan is saying about the ‘feeling’ from what you see on screen. And in terms of visual effects, by shooting so much practically, any visual effects artist will have a very obvious target to match in anything that needs to be generated digitally, or composited from multiple plates, or cleaned-up with digital tools. In fact, that’s why the VFX in Nolan’s films are so seamless, I think. They have to match what was shot, or what’s the point of including them?
Digital Arts asked me to round-up the recent events at SIGGRAPH 2017 – you can read that here. Also coming is a look at some specific super-cool things I saw there. It was truly an awesome event, so much more to say than there is time in the world!
ILM and VFX partner Hybride collaborated to produce a high-energy bus chase scene in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Here, Valerian and Laureline race to board a bus that is then attacked by a menacing Megaptor creature. ILM visual effects supervisor Philippe Rebours runs down the work involved.
On-set shoot: When they’re outside the bus we shot that on the set where it was a school bus that has been set-dressed and you see them jumping into it. Then we swap to three shots where it’s fully CG where he transforms into this armour bus, and then you see them driving away. At that point, we’re inside the bus. For that, we shot it completely blue screen.
The interesting aspect is, because a school bus is pretty small, they built another bus that was slightly bigger, but using the same seats and the same stage and they recreated the front with the wheel and all this kind of stuff, except that there was a little bit more space so the mercenaries who were helping Valerian and Laureline, they could stand up and shoot.
So, we are on this blue screen and with this open-cut bus. The actors would shoot pretending that the creature is arriving and little by little we would remove some elements as if the creature is punching through the roof. So, we’d remove a portion of the roof that we replace with CG, and then we remove some of the seats because the creature was going to throw them away. By the end of the sequence, the full interior is CG interior.
Crafting the creature: From the artwork we saw that there was a sort of shell on it that looked very much like a crab, but he had other areas that move freely and he has these spikes as well. What we did is, for on the look itself we took photos of elements and we say, ‘Okay, the shell looks very much like crab. Use the foot of the crab as reference,’ but we had turtles for the skin in between.
Animating a Megaptor: We had a professor, Dr. Stuart Sumida, who is a biology professor at the California State University, who came and he gave a talk on how animals move and why, based on their skeletons. We looked at the Megaptor skeleton physiology and then the way he has to – his front legs are really strong, really heavy, and the back legs are a bit smaller, let’s say. That told us that we wanted to go towards hyena moves because they generate power from their front limbs, but the posture was very much like a bull dog, so it’s a mix of those two for the movement.
The Doghan Daguis are a trio of comical characters appearing in Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. They were created in CG by Weta Digital. On set, full-sized maquettes were filmed and then scanned to help craft the digital versions. Three performers also acted out the roles in performance capture marker suits.
One of the characters’ interesting traits is the ability to finish each other’s sentences, but it was a challenge for Weta Digital to differentiate between each speaker and make sure the audience knew who was talking. Weta Digital’s visual effects supervisor Martin Hill discusses how they pulled that aspect of the character off.
Martin Hill: To really read the vocals rolling across from one character to another, we generally, rather than amping up the character who was actually talking, we commuted the characters who weren’t talking. We generally closed their mouths down a little bit more and would not move their head around so much. It made it very much more clear who was performing at any one time.
Quite often, to make the characters more fun, to make them within the comic book world, we would alter their jaw during a shot so we could get the dental fricatives sounds, the ’th’ sounds so we can actually see their teeth.
Now, obviously, they’ve got these really long snouts. When they are facing one way or another to camera, they would generally talk on the side of their mouth that was facing camera, which is kind of an unphysical contrivance, but the trick there is always making it look natural, not making it look cartoony, making it feel like you are not noticing that you’re putting all of these cheeks and they’re not obvious things that they’re just all these nuances build the performance and make it more fun to watch.