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'Legion': More Than a Wing and a Prayer

Joe Bauer and Jeff Campbell discuss wings and a strange cloud in Legion.

Check out the Legion trailer on AWNtv!

The wings proved very challenging for Spin VFX: they had to look and feel like real wings but also serve as a weapon. All images courtesy of Screen Gems.

The premise of Legion (which opened Friday from Screen Gems) is that a biblical apocalypse descends on the world to destroy mankind. Mankind's only hope is in the hands of a fallen angel (Paul Bettany) and a group of strangers in a remote diner in New Mexico.

Directed by Scott Stewart (Priest), Legion was originally in the vfx hands of The Orphange before the San Francisco-based company disbanded last year. Then Spin VFX of Toronto, which was originally assigned the angel wing shots, took over as the main vendor, with Look FX contributing major 2D and 3D work as well. Joe Bauer (Get Smart) served as production visual effects supervisor.

"I came aboard early in the process when there was some R&D but still had a lot of shots to generate," Bauer suggests. "Spin did everything involved with the angels and final matte paintings of the tent city, the full CG shots and digital doubles in the final battle between Michael and Gabriel [Kevin Durand]. Look's work included The Ice Cream Man [Doug Jones] and the insect cloud."

Modeled in Maya, the wings at times have an armored surface.

The wings, of course, proved very challenging because these were no ordinary wings but a weapon. "They have an armor purpose, but, despite what anyone said during R&D, nobody was happy until they looked and acted just like feathers," Bauer continues. "Even though they repelled bullets, they still blew in the wind and had a certain kind of reflection/refraction, softness and a layering quality. I thought Spin did a spectacular job. They did angel wings on Max Payne for Everett Burrell and that's why they got the job. And it's funny to think that originally they had built prosthetic wings that the actors were supposed to wear. Those are the kinds of decisions that made sense in pre-production when the studio is just crunching numbers and not really thinking. And then when they got to the set after the first day's dailies, they trashed the practical wings and it became all-digital after that. There are probably 150 angel wing shots. At first, only Gabriel, because Michael cuts his wings off at the beginning and he returns in the new, re-shot ending and these wings just don't hang there. So there's a lot of performance animation that got easier as the animators got into what Scott expected of them for the wings."

Jeff Campbell, visual effects supervisor for Spin VFX, says there was a fine line between armored and traditional wings, which even contain a sword edge on the primary feathers. "The wings were all done in Maya and traditionally are very tricky because every feather has to be rigged," Campbell concedes. "And it's difficult to have them completely fold and cascade upon each other. And you expect them to be fluffy and that was one of our dilemmas, so some of the hero-like shots we made softer-looking and the fighting shots we made tough-looking. At first, they were giving us something leathery, but it looked too harsh, too shiny and too metallic, but we were able to control that in comp and didn't have to reinvent the wheel. Since our pipeline contains so many different layers, we were able to control all aspects of the element and didn't have to retexture, so it wasn't a bad process for us."

Spin additionally worked on a shot where an old lady goes crazy in the diner, which was challenging because it was a full-CG human and she can climb walls like a cockroach. "We had to rebuild the whole environment of the diner because of all the damage she does. And she's got cloth simulations and hair."

Look FX handled the insect swarm, which also required a lot of R&D and ended up resembling an attacking Talon hand.

Spin also used Digital Fusion for compositing and Inferno, which Campbell personally used for the "granny shot." He remains a hands-on artist and supervisor.

The other challenge was the climax, which was reshot in October. "I thought we were going to go back to the desert," Campbell continues, "but we ended up doing it on the Sony lot. Basically, the whole end was shot on a stage involving another 100 shots of greenscreen set extensions and, of course, more wings."

Look, meanwhile, had the challenge of the insect cloud. "From the farthest distance, it's a 2D-manipulated matte painting," Bauer explains. "The mid-ground is a 2D-manipulated matte painting with a few layers of 3D particles on top of that. And then as they get really close, it transitions to full 3D. The most difficult thing about the inside cloud from a distance was the design because Scott, usually very articulate about what he wants, kind of went around in circles with this one, and they had already been in R&D for two months with the look before I started. And I would say the look continued almost to the end of post. Part of it was Scott was prepping Priest, so his attention was really split, which worked out nicely for me because I was pretty confident that I knew what he wanted and just ran with it. And we would make things available online for him to look at.

"It sort of looks like an attacking Talon hand, and that was something that he had mentioned a long time ago, and they had gone down some bad roads with it and they abandoned that and went back to a cloud, but it only looked like a cloud, and we ended up getting rid of all of the clouds in the sky, so it was only the one and there were tweaks beyond that. Look Effects had hired the lead matte painter from The Orphanage, Mayumi Shimokawa, and she's a matte painter and a helicopter pilot. At any rate, she worked on this with Scott until they were able to establish the look. It's as subjective as it gets and some shots had 70+ iterations. "

A legion, you might say.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.