Playing Peek-A Boo in Super 8
The train crash recalls The Fugitive's realism with a dash of The Greatest Show on Earth's theatricality with the flipping trains. It was shot in an L.A. hillside community, where they laid down track, put in a train station and seeded some grass. ILM did visual extensions from HDR panoramas of West Virginia, where the town was actually shot (a stand in for Ohio). Libreri suggests it was a combination of computational fluid dynamics, CG models, digital environments (using assets from the teaser trailer), CG explosions and inserts of the kids running through the environment. There's also the impression that the carnage goes to infinity.
For the bus attack, Earl says it was all about "working with lighting across plates and striking a balance between keeping [the creature] dark and scary, and blending into the CG bus for destruction and trying to match the original set photography and lens flare, and then bringing in dust, debris and smoke."
The finale, in which a space ship is reconstructed with the help of millions of tiny cubes acting as a fabrication force, proved to be the most difficult VFX challenge. The head of computer graphics at ILM, Hilmar Koch, worked out how to wrangle around 15 million cubes along with Digital Production Supervisor Brian Cantwell and CG Supervisor Dave Weitzberg. Stanford also helped ILM to develop custom code for complex dynamics simulation because none of the off-the-shelf software could handle it. ILM then used its global illumination image-based pipeline and RenderMan. It made use of its point cloud indirect illumination; and the ship had some 24-hour renders on a 12-core machine. Plume, ILM's proprietary volumetric, GPU-based system, also came in handy for atmospheric smoke during the superheating of the cubes.
But, of course, the mainstay of Super 8 is the creature, dubbed Cooper: a spidery humanoid. We're always kept guessing because Abrams plays his own game of peek-a-book, with fleeting glimpses and plenty of misdirection with its movement until the final reveal. According to Paul Kavanagh, the animation supervisor, they were originally going to make it more upright, but a series of early MoCap tests with Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek's Capt. Pike) at House of Moves revealed that this was just too familiar and not mysterious enough. They decided to scrap the MoCap approach at the last instant and go keyframe along with having it move more on all fours to make it creepier and more mysterious.
"This is the visual effects template for the future," Libreri suggests. "It's not about pure innovation, but more about finding interesting ways to support the narrative from a creative perspective."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.