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Animal Logic Flies with Epic Hero

With the 2003 Oscar nominated film HERO finally hitting theaters on Aug. 27, 2004, U.S. audiences will get a chance to see the breathtaking visual effects work from Animal Logic.

"The visual effects shots create fantastical environments, underscore the strength and dexterity of the characters and enhance complex battle scenes," explains vfx producer Fiona Crawford of Animal Logic's role. VFX supervisors Chris Godfrey, David Dulac and Andrew Brown worked on location in remote regions of China in collaboration with the production team shooting the live-action.

The primary role of the team on location was to collaborate with the director and come up with concepts and solutions that enhanced the storyline. "With little more than 10 minutes notice we might be summoned to the set to deal with a spontaneous creative idea had by the director," said Brown. "Often this was outside the existing storyboards. We had to respond on the spot with workable solutions as to how an effect could be achieved."

"That's the way I work most effectively. This type of challenge is when my brain is functioning at its best," adds Dulac. "We (Brown, Godfrey and myself) worked in close collaboration. Each of us has different skills, which were complimentary when coming up with these quick solutions on set. Andy is from a design background and my expertise is in 3D animation. Chris is one of the most experienced VFX supervisors in the industry, that's why it all worked well."

For the amazing fight scene between Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, RUSH HOUR 2), the 3D crew animated an leafy whirlwind of yellow as Flying Snow, who has the power to summon the wind and the ability to turn leaves falling from the trees into a weapon, fends off attacks from her opponent Moon.

Director Zhang Yimou shot some of the leaf effects for the scene in camera, using large industrial fans to blow leaves across a given shot he was able to achieve some of the effects on set. The crew back at Animal Logic added fantastical 3D elements and events. The primary role of the CG elements was to seamlessly strike a balance between the leaves on the scene falling naturally from the trees, the leaves added by the production team and the otherworldly nature of the storyline.

3D lead Ian Brown said Yimou had specific ideas as to how he wanted the Animal Logic crew to interpret the CG leaf action, "The CG leaves still had to act like natural leaves, be believable and match their almost supernatural color. Yimou wanted the scene to be beautiful but at times also appear very ominous. It was our job to strike the right balance, which was a challenge as some of the shots had disparate lighting and leaf color conditions."

In the Library Brush sequence, which centers around a white calligraphy brush we find Nameless (Jet Li) in a library exhibiting his "quick sword" technique through which he claims to be unstoppable and precisely accurate. Nameless demonstrates this by destroying a single white brush, which has been flicked into the air amongst a sheaf of 500 black ones.

Using a combination of a particle system and hand animation the team also created the convincing vision of the 3D brushes bursting into the air. "I created an explosion that looked suitably interesting from any angle. Building a single animation of the brushes as they exploded upwards, I then cut the animation into sections and shuffled it around until I found an angle that matched the live action elements." Using motion-blur techniques and depth of field that closely simulated the live-action camera moves, the final animation appeared completely seamless.

In a pristine lake scene, Nameless (Jet Li) faces Broken Sword (Tony Leung) in an epic battle, where the opponents skip like dragonflies across. Brown said, "It's supposed to feel very light. When they touch the surface perfect, tiny 3D ripples and reflections occur." Senior vfx supervisor Chris Godfrey supervised the live-action and plate shoot and took a number of still images to use as reference for matte paintings to be created by the team at Animal Logic.

"It was quite difficult creating the water droplet", explains Brown, "It was a challenge figuring out exactly how the droplet should react when it connected with the swords because, of course, in reality it wouldn't happen. Our technical directors wrote a script that allowed particles to cling to the surface of a 3D mesh. We then used XSI's Blobby' Volume shader to merge together our 3D particles onto one surface, simulating the subtle surface tension found on real water."

For the palace exterior sequence, Nameless faces his execution by an army of a thousand archers. As they fire, the sky darkens with millions of arrows, which whistle through the air to bring about his inevitable death. For this sequence filmed at Hang Dien Studio City near Shanghai, the team at Animal Logic generated thousands of CG arrows being launched at Nameless from multiple angles. Yimou visited Animal Logic several times to view the animatics.

Animal Logics team includes:Senior vfx supervisor: Chris GodfreyVFX supervisors: David Dulac & Andrew BrownVFX exec producer: Murray PopeVFX producer: Fiona CrawfordVFX coordinator: Danielle Rubin3D leads: Ian Brown & Lindsay Fleay3D animators: Patricio Ducaud, Wayde Duncan-Smith, Howard Fuller, Tim Gibson, Ray Van Steenwyk & Jeff RentonSenior compositors: Aaron Barclay, Sonia Calvert, Saki Mitchell, Charlie Armstrong & Krista JordanAssistant compositors: Dan Breckwoldt, Andrew McDougall, George Zwier & Pheng SisophaConcept/matte Artist: Rowan CassidyHead R&D programmer: Chris BoneProduction programmer: Justen MarshallFilm I/O supervisor: Chris SwinbanksScanning/recording operators: Mark Harmon, John Pope & Frederick Wolff

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Rick DeMott
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