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CaféFX Tackles Three Holiday Films

CaféFX used its CG skills to recreate the 1935 world speed record-setting flight for THE AVIATOR, as well as additional shots of Howard Hughes reviewing a fleet of Lockheed Constellation aircraft.

CaféFX artists additionally used NewTeks LightWave 3D in the production of content and shots for FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX and BLADE: TRINITY.

"Our CG effects for Hughes' H-1 racer sequence are seamlessly integrated with live-action footage, a radio-controlled miniature and a set piece of the plane that enhances the storyline," said CaféFX producer Jonathan Stone. "Our collaboration with the picture's vfx supervisor Rob Legato and vfx producer Ron Ames couldn't have been smoother. They gave us direction and feedback and were very amenable to our input, allowing for suggestions from our team as to methodology and approach to creating the sequence."

Developed to be the fastest landplane in the world, the H-1 racer had a significant impact on high-performance aircraft design for years. Hughes flew the H-1 to a world speed record (352.322 mph) on Sept. 13, 1935, over a specially instrumented course near Santa Ana, California. His plane is now on exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C.

The CaféFX team collected reference material on the H-1 and its historic flight and visited a full-size mock-up of the fuselage, which was built as a set piece for THE AVIATOR. "We had to be very aware of the innovations Hughes introduced with this plane," noted CaféFX digital effects supervisor Danny Braet. "Hughes' rivets were absolutely flush and we had to do the same with our CG model. He also used a particular metal for the skin, and we had to mimic how it interacted with light."

CaféFX built several CG versions of the H-1: one for close-ups where only the glass cockpit was seen, one for medium shots, which was also used by the studio's vfx department, and one for the take-off, which shows the landing gear. The CG sequence begins just before the plane leaves the runway at Mystery Mesa. It takes off, does a turn to pick up speed, races then turns again beginning to trace a series of figure 8s, which lead to Hughes setting the new world speed record.

"Our 19 CG shots are intercut with live-action shots of Leo [Di Caprio] in the cockpit, distant shots of the radio-controlled plane and people watching from the ground," added Braet. The sequence culminates when, just after setting the speed record, the H-1's propeller gets blocked, the engine stalls and Hughes is forced to glide to a landing in a nearby cornfield. The emergency landing was a live-action scene.

Luke McDonald created the H-1 model in LightWave. "Our pipeline at CaféFX is different from the pipeline at some of the bigger facilities," Braet explained. For more compressed timelines, CaféFX multi-talented animators all have the skills to model, texture and light objects for maximum flexibility and fast results. They tapped the radiosity light engine to calculate light bounce and reflectivity for the plane's shiny metal surface and glass cockpit screen.

For the test area landscape, CaféFX employed LightWaves High Dynamic Range Imagery (HDRI) techniques. Braet visited the actual Mystery Mesa location and shot the environment, using a high-resolution digital still camera to capture multiple exposures. The CaféFX team used the images to stitch a landscape panorama with PTGUY software, which Braet termed "the best stitcher out there."

Although live-action scenic backplates had been shot, they were made on a cloudy day and the CaféFX team opted to return to the location for new helicopter aerials. "To save time in the air and get accurate shots, we went online before the shoot and grabbed some satellite data of the location from which we wrote custom plug-ins," noted Braet. "They enabled us to reconstruct a good bit of the mesa environment in 3D. Then we made a CG copter and mounted cameras to it so we could previs the shoot and decide what shots we needed and at what speed."

The CG H-1 racer was composited into the environment composed of the stitched landscape or portions of the live-action backplate mapped onto 3D geometry with Eyeon Digital Fusion. Speed changes demonstrating the record-setting nature of the flight were accomplished with the retimer in Digital Fusion.

To capture the effects of the sun on the plane, the CaféFX team crafted Bling Bling for Digital Fusion; the program allowed them to use the After Effects plug-in, Null's Lens Flare "for a nice play of glitter" on the H-1's metal skin, Braet reported. Close-ups of Di Caprio, which were filmed against greenscreen, were tracked with Boujou and composited into the CG cockpit, recreating camera moves as necessary.

While the movie's visual effects team had done a previs of the racing sequence, "it was hard to know for dramatic purposes how it would play," added Braet. "As it turned out, we made quite a few changes to the choreography to keep things interesting. The flexibility Rob [Legato] and Ron [Ames] gave us to do this made us feel like real filmmakers."

Additionally, CafeFX created three shots for a sequence in which Hughes and his colleagues walk onto the airport tarmac to review a fleet of new Lockheed Constellation planes, which Hughes has acquired for TWA.

Here, using reference material the CaféFX team modeled and textured a Constellation in LightWave, then cloned it to build a fleet, adding variations in detail to individual planes. "This plane had the American flag painted in reverse on it so we had to recreate that even though it may look strange," said Braet.

The crew used Boujou to track the live-action plate on the tarmac, which begins with an overhead shot and moves down to the horizon to reveal the fleet of planes, composited in Digital Fusion, behind the actors.

Meanwhile, for BLADE: TRINITY, CaféFX used LightWave in the creation of the climactic final battle scenes for the action adventure adapted from the Marvel Comics series. High Dynamic Range Intensity (HDRI) for lighting and texture mapping was crucial to the scenes involving an internal view of a deadly virus destroying vampires from the inside out, as well as the external CG-animated demise of the infected, which had to blend with real footage and convincingly match the live actors.

Scott Gordon headed CaféFXs team for FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, which created about 90 shots using a variety of production tools. LightWave was used for modeling a number of objects for this project. These included a C-119 and various debris that were critical in the crash sequence that sets up the desert adventure.

CaféFX (, a division of the ComputerCafe Group, is headquartered in Santa Maria, California, and has a studio in Santa Monica, California. The company was founded as ComputerCafé in 1993 by Jeff Barnes and David Ebner to produce broadcast promotions and television ID packages.

With headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, NewTek ( is a leading provider of full-featured video editing, animation and special effects tools, including VT[4] and LightWave 3D, winner of the 2003 Primetime Emmy Engineering Award.

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Rick DeMott
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