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CafeFX Swims with the Fish for Evan Almighty

Feature film visual effects facility CafeFX arguably created a scene-stealing school of CG tropical fish for Universal Pictures' EVAN ALMIGHTY.

In the film, Evan Baxter (Steve Carell), newly elected to Congress, leaves Buffalo behind and shepherds his family to suburban northern Virginia. Once there, his life is turned upside-down when he is summoned by God (Morgan Freeman) to build an ark.

Evan discovers it isn't easy being the new Noah as animals, sensing the impending flood, flock to him in the most unnerving ways and vie for his attention wherever he goes. When Evan visits the office of Congressman Long, played by actor John Goodman, the fish in the legislator's 100-gallon tank are no exception. Their response to Evan's animal magnetism is one of the film's most clever and amusing sight gags.

"The director, Tom Shadyac, told us we'd be playing a big comedic role in the sequence," recalled CafeFX visual effects producer David Van Dyke. "He asked us to sell the scene and we appreciated him giving us the freedom to express his vision."

To create the aquarium sequence, CafeFX modeled and animated 60 CG salt-water tropical fish that exhibit some extremely fishy behavior in Evan's presence.

CafeFX ordered 10 different varieties of tropical fish through a local shop, so that its digital artists and animators could observe their appearance and behavior, which they then captured with digital cameras and camcorders. "The reference material provided an aid for textures and lighting purposes," added CafeFX visual effects supervisor Jeff Goldman. "Early in the sequence, we mimicked the actual behavior of the fish in our animation, but as the scene plays out, the fish are a counterpoint to Steve Carell's comedic timing."

As Evan and the congressman enter the office, the fish are meandering realistically around their tank. "People can't even tell they are CG fish," Goldman noted. "But when they spot Evan, they move toward him in a flash as a fixed unit. He tries to get them to disperse, but much to his dismay, they are almost worshipful of him."

The prop fish tank was photographed in locked-off shots, filled with water and coral, and wrapped in greenscreen material. "We replaced the greenscreen area with the actors in live-action plates and put our CG fish into the tank," Goldman explained.

"It was pretty straightforward to rig the fish," Goldman continued. "But fish don't really move the way you think they do. Smaller fish don't use their tail to propel them; they use their lateral fins and the tail acts as a rudder. Some species of fish don't move much and some are constantly moving their fins. What really makes fish look like fish is their movement, and it's trickier to capture than you might expect."

CafeFX wrote automation scripts to allow the animators to set up the scenes where the fish hover, swim, meander and school. The animators tapped all the shaders in mental ray to deal with fish scales and iridescence. "A lot of salt-water fish don't look like they have scales," Goldman pointed out. "It's almost like they have a velvet texture, and we wanted to simulate that velvety look. Translucency was also critical as a lot of light is transmitted through their fins."

CafeFX cloned bubbles from the actual tank of water and added bits of CG debris and fish food suspended to the water. "Those minute particles help to ground the fish, otherwise they'd look like they were floating in air," Goldman noted.

Some of the wide shots with the tank in the background are from the perspective of the fish looking out at Evan from inside the aquarium. "The fish occupy 80 to 90% of the screen and we had to figure out how to deal with a really wide-angle lens, ironically a fish-eye lens, which warps their world. To simulate that warp in 3D requires long render times, so we ramped up our speed greatly by recreating it in 2D using Krokodove plug-ins for Digital Fusion," Goldman said.

CafeFX employed Autodesk Maya for the animation and lighting of the fish, Maya and ZBrush for modeling, mental ray for rendering and Digital Fusion for compositing.

Credits include:

* Visual effects supervisor: Jeff Goldman * Visual effects producer: David Van Dyke * Character animators: John Nguyen, Kris Costa, Neil Lim Sang Ron Friedman * Lighting td: Steve Arguello * Compositor: Nabil Schiantarelli * 3D model and texture artist: Miguel Ortega * 3D matchmovers: Kevin Hoppe, Andrew Byrne* Visual effects managing editor: Desi R. Ortiz * Visual Effects Editor: Kevin LaNeave * Data I/O: Leopaul DeGuzman, Bernardo Rodriguez * Software development supervisor: Rob Tesdahl * Software developer: Paul Hudson * Render manager: Brian Openshaw, Say Rintharamy

CafeFX (www.cafefx.com) is an award-winning feature film visual effects facility offering visual effects production and supervision, CG character creation, and 3D animation. Founded in 1993 by Jeff Barnes and David Ebner, CafeFX is located in a 36,000-square-foot studio on an eight-acre campus in the heart of Santa Barbara County. CafeFX is in production on visual effects for THE KITE RUNNER, THE MIST and JOHN ADAMS and recently completed FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, SPIDER-MAN 3, GHOST RIDER and PAN'S LABYRINTH.

Its commercial and music video division, Santa Monica-based The Syndicate, is a creative design, branding services and digital production studio, specializing in live-action direction, visual effects, animation, motion graphics and telecine.

CafeFX and The Syndicate are held by umbrella corporation the ComputerCafe Group, which has also established Sententia Ent., a long-form production company. With a focus on both live action and animated projects, Sententia is poised to capitalize on years of experience in the feature film market while developing a catalog of properties utilizing the proven strengths of sister companies CafeFX and The Syndicate. Among Sententia's credits are PAN'S LABYRINTH and DANIKA.

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