Raising the Bar on Bringing Animated Characters to Life
Even computer-screen shots, often considered trivial these days, were complicated when the production chose the Atlanta Aquarium to serve as the location for the Plumbers’ communication center. “When we were planning the film, we imagined a typical tech center room full of flat screen monitors,” recalls Jacobs. “The Aquarium has this permanent lighting installation that’s like a wall of backlit light-ribbons that Alex wanted to use as a gigantic monitor wall.”
“There are four long scenes in the comm center and the ribbon wall plays quite prominently,” said McPherson. “We tried several approaches but ultimately, we decided to bite the bullet and build and track the wall in 3D. Then our designers had to fill it with content!”
Meanwhile another team at Turner Studios was working on the Humongosaur sequence, the centerpiece action scene in the film. The chips’ capabilities have evolved since the Big Chill opening and now are capable of forming solid geometric masses. The chips chase Kevin and Gwen down forming progressively more daunting shapes from spheres to spiked balls and ultimately a gigantic spiked sphere. Just in the nick of time, Ben arrives and transforms into Humongosaur, an eighteen-foot tall dinosaur-like alien.
“I spent the early part of my career working in miniatures and practical effects and I always like to find ways to do things as practically as possible to keep things grounded in reality,” said Jacobs. “In a film like this, you often don’t have those opportunities, however. The Humongosaur sequence was particularly troubling because it’s really a CG hero fighting a CG villain.”
Storyboards and pre-visualization proved invaluable in the planning and execution of the Humongosaur battle. Turner Studios’ animators provided pre-vis as well as ‘post-vis’ temps for editorial. “Since we were mostly working with empty background plates, Alex and Evan had a lot of options in editorial to re-work the fight choreography,” recalls McPherson. “The sequence continued to evolve throughout post-production as we found the most effective way to tell the story. Still, that early pre-vis we did, served as the backbone of the storytelling.”
Turner Studios was also responsible for bringing Ben’s new alien form, Nanomech, to the screen. Turner Studios animation Supervisor, Derald Hunt, oversaw the finale involving an intense microscopic battle between Nanomech and the biomechanical Queen inside the neuron forest of Validus’ brain.
“Alex really wanted the brain environment to be chaotic almost like a fight in a tornado,” recalls Hunt. “We worked on the choreography for quite a while to get the energy he was looking for. We wanted to match the style of the live-action photography with our CG cameras and keep things messy and imperfect. It was important that the all CG sequence feel like part of the same film.”
The last company to come on board was Denmark-based, Ghost VFX. “In the finale of the film our heroes find Validus hooked up to hoses, surrounded by ‘chip zombies’ – he’s basically become an alien chip factory,” said Jacobs. “We hadn’t intended to see the chips inside the hoses but once we got into editorial it was clear that the shots would need some kind of enhancement. Since both Zoic and Turner Studios were booked up at that point, we turned to Ghost.” The Ghost team also took on shots of an alien chip infecting Max.
Spreading out the visual effects effort across different cities and time zones meant 24-hour-a-day productivity. “Ghost would deliver shots for review overnight,” Jacobs recalls, “Then mid morning we’d get shots from Turner Studios out of Atlanta and finally Zoic would send their shots at the end of our day in Los Angeles.”
With all that material flooding in, it could have been very difficult to keep track of everything so the production utilized online collaboration tools. “We used a system called Invisually for most reviews and notes,” said Jacobs. “This allowed us to get almost immediate feedback to the vendors from the director, editorial and myself, even when none of us were in the same location. Then we’d schedule Cinesync sessions to go over things in more detail when necessary.”