Menacing trees, spaceships and the thing are brought to life via visual effects creativity

Feature film VFX: menacing trees, spaceships and the thing are brought to life via visual effects creativity

Christine Bunish

Audiences escaping the season’s heat by spending a couple of hours with an effects-filled summer movie have a rich visual menu from which to choose. Thanks to the talents of VFX supervisors and the VFX houses they’ve teamed with, superheroes, fairytale tellers, out-of-this-world adventurers and a new breed of top guns are wowing crowds from coast to coast.


As VFX supervisor on director Tim Story’s Fantastic Four, the tale of the Marvel Comics superheroes, which opened July 8 from 20th Century Fox, Kurt Williams marshalled the capabilities of 12 VFX houses. “The types of effects we did were pretty complex in nature,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of examples of these effects having been done well in other movies; we broke a bit of ground in several areas.

“The hard part was keeping all the work cohesive,” he notes. “We needed to pick the right vendors and have them talk to each other so they could share material and assets like models, body scans and textures, and all the shots could seamlessly fit in the movie,” he continues. “Early on, we had detailed discussions of file exchanges and platforms with four of the core vendors. Most were working in [Alias] Maya and we planned to deliver Cineon files; most were going to composite with [Apple’s] Shake so we could send Shake Script with files. We tested this hierarchy last November to make sure that, especially during crunch months, multiple vendor shots would flow easily from vendor to vendor. We had to work smart on this movie to complete it in the given timeframe.”

Reed Richards as Mr. Fantastic, with his superhuman ability to stretch his body, was a daunting character, says Williams. “He’s based on our conceit of relying on real-world physics and keeping the effects organic–he wasn’t going to turn to rubber. We established a set of physics to apply to him and stay true to his anatomical structure.”

Toronto’s Soho VFX (, using proprietary software and Maya, created Mr. Fantastic’s stretching sequences, heeding the mandate to, as Williams says, “not get into any grotesque or cartoony images but keep him organic and real. It hurts him to stretch in the beginning, and it was important to convey that. And Mr. Fantastic regenerates as he stretches, as does the fabric of his suit.”

Santa Maria, CA’s CafeFX ( created a key sequence in the climactic street-fight scene in which Mr. Fantastic transforms into a blanket, which envelops and restrains Dr. Victor Von Doom. CafeFX developed a proprietary rig for Maya to accommodate the blanket, which stretches the character’s torso, shoulders and arms without impacting his head and hands. The company also integrated the electrically charged Doom Bolts.

Johnny Storm, The Human Torch, was the second daunting character. “His flame effects needed to look very real; it had to feel like he’s burning from his inner core through his skin. We didn’t want it to look like his skin was burning,” Williams explains. “People have tracked actual flames onto characters for short periods of time before, but we needed Johnny’s flames to be interactive with his performance. All the characters started with capturing the performance of the actors on the set. It’s important for a director to be able to capture this on the day of the shoot and not have to wait for green-screen photography.”

Pete Oberdorfer and his team at Giant Killer Robots in San Francisco wrote flame-simulation software that “stayed true to the actual elements of flames, including the full color spectrum and the flames’ reaction to movement and environment around it,” Williams reports. Instead of relying on keyframe animation, GKR ( tracked Johnny Storm’s body and rotomated his face, putting a CG Johnny on top of actor Chris Evans’s performance.

During the design process, LA’s Stan Winston Digital ( tapped Softimage|XSI’s Realtime Shader technology for realistic on-set previsualization of sequences featuring Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman. The Syflex cloth simulation system, part of XSI Advanced, provided the key to realistic clothing animation while Animation Mixer and high-level XSI animation tools allowed Winston’s team to efficiently process and optimize vast amounts of motion capture data of the character.

“Sue was more of an artistic than a technical challenge,” says Williams. “To find her aesthetic was the most difficult thing. Even though she’s invisible or partially invisible we still see her in a rim-lit, ethereal version, like in the comic book. That makes for a more elegant presence than something unseen that’s just moving objects.”

Effects for Ben Grimm, the rock-hard and strong Thing, were primarily prosthetics created by Spectral Motion in Glendale, CA. Dr. Doom, initially thought to have been protected from the blast of cosmic radiation, which endowed the Fantastic Four with their powers, has his own VFX. Spectral Motion crafted the prosthetics, which show his body slowly turning to metal; the LA office of Kleiser Walczak ( also did some CG transformations of Doom’s arm.

The villain absorbs electricity and expels it via Doom Bolts, originally designed and executed by GKR with CG electricity enhancements by Burbank’s Pixel Magic ( LA-based Hydraulx ( was also involved in dramatic bolt effects, including liquid metal effects at the end of the movie.

Hollywood’s CIS (, under the direct supervision of John Desjardins and Brian Hirota, was charged with devising the cosmic storm, which catches the Fantastic Four by surprise and rearranges their DNA at the start of the movie. “We wanted it to look a little like certain weather phenomenon we can relate to, but with an ethereal quality,” says Williams.

CIS used Maya to create the storm and Discreet Inferno to composite the wave of rays hitting the actors. “Because of a short post schedule, Inferno permitted more iterations of these shots more quickly,” Williams notes. “It had the right tool set for the job.” CIS also created the Space Station, CG versions of the characters seen during the storm sequence, matte paintings of Earth and 3D star fields.

Concluding the first act of the film is an eight-and-a-half minute sequence on the Brooklyn Bridge in which the Fantastic Four reveal their superpowers to the public. Montreal’s Meteor (, and its supervisor Paul Nightingale, handled the VFX shots, which consist of the bulk of the bridge and digital matte painting backgrounds. In New York, Williams shot aerial plates over the bridge for texture and environment; a 200-foot section of the structure was built on a Vancouver parking lot and surrounded by giant bluescreens for the live-action shoot. “Everything else was digital set extensions,” he explains. “Meteor created every bit of the bridge, every rivet and paint chip.”

Meteor built one side of the bridge, then created the return lane and filled both with CG cars and people; the company tapped Maya, Shake, Pixar’s RenderMan and proprietary software for the task. The lighting of foreground dailies, shot in sunshine, rain and cloudy weather, had to balance out across all shots and blend with CG environments.

The VFX house also crafted a CG fire truck, which, after an explosion on the bridge, flips and starts to take out the bridge’s girders as it slides over the edge.


Fairytales always have a dark side, but leave it to director Terry Gilliam to put his own unique creative stamp on the story of The Brothers Grimm, which opens August 26. The new film, written by Ehren Kruger (The Ring), is a Miramax release.

Will and Jake Grimm (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger) are folklore collectors and con artists who travel from village to village pretending to protect the inhabitants from enchantment. But when they encounter a real curse–vanishing young girls and a 500-year old Queen in a tower who will regain her beauty when she assembles 12 maidens–they need to summon genuine courage.

VFX supervisor Kent Houston has teamed with Gilliam on all of his previous films, including the early Monty Python movies. They launched VFX house Peerless Camera Co. ( in London in the mid-’70s as a way to fulfill Gilliam’s own vision and as a resource for other filmmakers.

“Terry’s film cutting rooms are a five- to 10-minute walk away from Peerless,” notes Houston, “so it’s easy for him to move back and forth. Terry is very closely involved in post, and a lot of VFX work for The Brothers Grimm has been quite evolutionary: We started going down one path and ended up on a very different one.”

Houston says the “best way to work with Terry is to show him things–bang something together, talk about it, see how it evolves. He has a very good imagination; he’s not going to get derailed by seeing something in a raw state. He’ll ask, ‘What if …?’, and we’ll go from there.”

Peerless created a broad array of effects for The Brothers Grimm, which was shot in and around Prague. “We had a phenomenal amount of complicated work done by a very small team that averaged about 65 people,” Houston reports. Peerless crafted numerous 2D and 3D digital matte paintings of complete environments “when we couldn’t find the landscape we wanted for the movie,” Houston explains.

A miniature of the medieval exterior of the Queen’s tower was constructed, but both a full-scale set and CG were employed for the vast interior: a ruined chamber which, when reflected in a mirror, appears to be a pristine room. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, “whose contribution to the movie is remarkable,” Houston declares, built the Queen’s chamber as two adjacent sets. Some complex bluescreen photography with synchronized cameras facilitated actors appearing to be reflected in the different environment, the supposed mirror being a digital element.

Unusually shaped prop trees on the soundstage transitioned to CG trees when the forest began to move. “Terry was very particular about how we articulated the trees,” says Houston. “They don’t have faces or personalities, but they are quite sinister. They walk on their roots, disturbing the earth and forest floor, and their branches and limbs reach out and grab things. One of the difficulties was getting CG bark textures to look authentic.”

Houston emphasizes that Peerless uses off-the-shelf software such as Maya, Softimage|XSI and Matador Paint. “We feel it’s still the world’s best paint package for what we need to do.” Four Discreet Infernos and 30 to 40 seats of Shake are used for compositing. “We don’t want to be involved with proprietary systems,” he says. “There are enough good tools around.”

Mud Mimic, a blobby creature that lives in a well and takes on the features of the victims he devours, proved to be a challenge. “Flowing mud is a fairly difficult procedural,” Houston notes. Side Effects’ “Houdini was the best package for it, with a lot of special coding for the creature and its flowing skin.”


After creating all the VFX for the 14 episodes of Firefly, Joss Whedon’s space drama currently airing on the Sci Fi Channel, LA’s Zoic Studios ( took the leading VFX role for the featurelength adaptation of the show, Serenity, which opens September 30.

Set 500 years in the future aboard the transport ship Serenity, the big-screen adventures center on what happens when the ship takes on two passengers, a young doctor and his telepathic sister who are fugitives from The Alliance, a conglomerate that controls the galaxy. Whedon wrote and directed Serenity, which will be released by Universal.

Zoic’s approximately 270 VFX shots run the gamut, from futuristic exteriors, stars, planets and spaceships to a huge, climactic battle sequence. “We’d done work on features before, but this was the first time we delivered an entire feature,” notes compositing supervisor Patti Gannon.

Working extensively with NewTek’s LightWave and Discreet Combustion on many projects, including the Sci Fi Channel series Battlestar Galactica, Zoic knew those tools “could deliver on this [feature film] scale and more,” Gannon says.”

Serenity opens with digital matte paintings depicting a megalopolis where spaceships fly over gleaming metal spires. Jarrod Davis used LightWave to add CG buildings and ships to aerial shots of Michael Lloyd’s landscape of hills and water. The compositing team tapped Combustion to add motion to the water. For another digital matte painting, Davis crafted a terraform station, tasked with conditioning the air to make the planet habitable. Compositors added lightning and icy elements to the frozen wasteland environment.

The open also shows the brother and sister fleeing The Alliance. He rescues his sibling with the help of a baton, which releases an knock-out energy wave crafted in Maya. Then they climb through a smokestack-like vent shaft, which was partially a giant set piece. Zoic extended the set in CG with compositors creating hologram effects for an Alliance operative.

Zoic also crafted the main title sequence, which, with a moving camera looping almost 360-degrees around the ship, shows a CG Serenity afire as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. “We had existing models of Serenity from the TV show,” explains Gannon, “but TV isn’t film so all the models and textures were redone in LightWave for the feature. We were able to show much more detail and more defined textures for the film.”

The final battle sequence pits Serenity against The Alliance and the cannibalistic Reavers. “For maximum flexibility CG lead Chris Zapara broke every ship down into five basic layers and then added interactive lighting on top and whatever else was necessary for the scene. Many composites had hundreds of layers.”

Under LightWave lead Aram Granger, Zoic “reaverized” the cannibals’ ships, ripping apart the normally pristine models to show leaking nuclear reactors, battlescarred metal and the bloody carcasses of their victims. Zoic also added CG pyrotechnics, including missile firings, to the battle, “all with moving cameras,” Gannon emphasizes. All of Zoic’s work was done with the guidance of its VFX supervisor Randy Goux.


Being lead VFX house for Stealth, the Rob Cohen-directed thriller, which opened July 29, was a two-year process for Venice, CA-based Digital Domain ( The Sony/Columbia release concerns the struggles of three pilots in a top-secret military program to bring under control a fighter jet piloted by an artificial intelligence computer intent on launching the next world war.

“Our work alone, almost 660 shots, comprises about 50 of the film’s 90 minutes,” notes Kelly Port, digital effects supervisor for Digital Domain. “We completed a broad range of effects, including miniature and model work on a pretty big scale.” In Downey, CA, effects photographer Erik Nash and miniature supervisor Alan Faucher and his team devised the collapse of a 25-foot tall building mounted on a platform 25 feet off the ground. They also created crashing and exploding miniature planes and lots of miniature pyro elements.

Digital Domain personnel were on hand at Fox Studios in Sydney, Australia, to supervise greenscreen work and any VFX work happening on 2nd and 3rd unit photography, including helicopter and Lear jet aerials with VFX supervisor Joel Hynek.

CG work was extensive. “CG supervisor Markus Kurtz with Brad Herman and his team did a considerable amount of development on our proprietary EnGen [Environment Generator] software and pushed it forward to create vast areas of photoreal terrain,” Port explains. “The terrain was very sophisticated, going way beyond simple fractal height displacement. It had to provide a context in which we could present tremendous speed and intensity of action with radical turns, banking and other maneuvers. That’s difficult to achieve in a plate shot, even if it’s an undercranked Lear jet shot.”

The terrain also had to reflect a variety of locations, including Alaska, Tajikistan and Russia with craggy mountains, desert, tundra and icy landscapes.

CG supervisor Vernon Wilbert and his team were in charge of modeling, animating and lighting the hero planes, planes in the dog fight and a refueling dirigible. “A pretty sophisticated lighting pipeline enabled us to utilize our proprietary 2D compositing software Nuke,” says Port. “We rendered extensive passes out of Maya and RenderMan then the lighters were able to combine passes in Nuke and hand them off to the compositors.”

David Niednagel and his team, under compositing supervisor Bryan Gill, tapped Nuke to add visors to pilots’ helmets, canopies to planes’ cockpits and reflections of the environment.

Digital Domain also crafted pyro, debris and afterburner effects. Using the company’s proprietary voxel rendering software, Storm, a large array of clouds was created with internal light scattering to make them very realistic. “We developed an extensive cloud library to use in various sequences,” says Port. Director “Rob [Cohen] was always pushing us on the idea of visually indicating speed and power. Having various types of clouds and atmosphere in the background, midground and foreground enabled the characters to live in scenes that had great depth, providing the necessary visual cues Rob was asking for.” In addition, lift condensation, which appears on top of wings and along wing tips when the planes are flying fast was crafted in Storm too.

The integration group, with Swen Gillberg and David Niednagel as leads, used Digital Domain’s proprietary Track to track hundreds of shots in a short time. They included shots of a 20-foot cockpit, built to scale and lensed on a huge motion-control gimbal in Sydney where it could pitch and roll with the actors inside. The integration group could temper the live-action movements if they looked too extreme, reanimate them in a more subtle way and re-project the photographic plate onto the new animation using Nuke.

RELATED ARTICLE: Cutting the Dukes

LOS ANGELES — A career of editing television shows (two seasons of The Shield, the pilot and first season of Arrested Development) as well as features (Meet the Fockers), made LA-based Lee Haxall the perfect choice to help the vintage series The Dukes of Hazzard transition to the big screen. The Warner Bros. film, directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, opened August 5.

The new action comedy really put an emphasis on “action,” reveals Haxall, who served as lead editor on the film. “The main editing challenge was that the 1st and 2nd units were shooting simultaneously, so I was getting two full sets of dailies every day most of December and January. The 2nd unit, under director Dan Bradley, was extensive and awesome with all those cars. The 2nd unit often shot before the 1st unit, so I’d cut and create the story with 2nd unit footage, fill in the slots with the 1st unit and re-edit to accommodate.”

Haxall and her team worked on location in Baton Rouge, LA, in edit rooms carved out of a car dealership that had been converted into a workshop for the film’s many vehicles. The edit rooms were outfitted with four Avid Film Composers V.11.2.6 linked via Avid Unity. Assistant editors Tom Dailey and Tom Scully used Avid’s Scripter program, “a very labor-intensive process but it really helps on the back end,” Haxall reports. “It saves an enormous amount of time when you’re making final cuts. You can find every line reading in every shot instantaneously.”

At Warner Bros.’ suggestion, The Dukes of Hazzard was one of the first films to receive dailies over the high-speed broadband Aspersoft network, which Dailey likens to “a giant FTP site.” Aspersoft enabled Haxall to get dailies into her computer the night after telecine was performed by Warner Bros. “There were very few bugs, and it was an absolute godsend when I needed to cut 2nd unit right away so the 1st unit could see what they did before their own shoot,” she says.

There are no CG cars in the action sequences, she points out. “All the car stunts are real; they were done by stunt and race car drivers.” Warner Bros. Animation was charged with camera and rig removals, enhancing smoke and comping actors into the driver’s seat for the jumps.

When the production moved back to LA editor Myron Kerstein and his assistant, Rachel Goodlett, came on board.

Dukes previewed in HD on April 7. “We telecined dailies to HD and onlined to HD like a TV show, did the color correction and temp mix. Film is beautiful, but with an HD preview you don’t see the splices going through, and you don’t worry about the film breaking,” she says.

Mid-July found the picture going through the DI process at TDI, North Hollywood with color timer Jill Bogdonawicz.

–Christine Bunish


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