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Digital Domain Talks Transformers 3 VFX Work

Returning to the Transformers franchise for a third time and completing 350 shots for Dark of the Moon, Digital Domain created and animated new characters including “Laserbeak,” “Brains” and an army of Decepticon soldiers called “protoforms”—as well as returning character “Wheels”—all under the guidance of visual effects supervisor Matthew Butler and animation supervisor David Andrews.

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Returning to the Transformers franchise for a third time and completing 350 shots for Dark of the Moon, Digital Domain created and animated new characters including “Laserbeak,” “Brains” and an army of Decepticon soldiers called “protoforms”—as well as returning character “Wheels”—all under the guidance of visual effects supervisor Matthew Butler and animation supervisor David Andrews.  “Each of these characters posed a unique challenge,” explained Butler, “because they have very different personalities.  Wheels has been Sam’s sidekick since TF2, but now Wheels has a sidekick of his own in Brains and together they provide a bit of comic relief at key moments in the film.  But Laserbeak is the exact opposite—he is an evil, sinister assassin and it was a lot of fun to play in that sandbox.” Working off original concept art from production designer Nigel Phelps and his team, Digital Domain modeled, rigged and animated Laserbeak to take full advantage of his serpentine characteristics.  “Laserbeak’s long, snake-like neck is the most obvious manifestation of this,” explained Andrews, “but during flight he seems to slither through the air, which is achieved through a combination of wing movement and thrust from the jet turbines that are part of his design.”  Wheels, Brains and Laserbeak also incorporate animation cues from the actors who provided dialogue for each character.  “Michael coaxed very specific performances out of the actors for these roles,” added Butler, “so we wanted to preserve those artistic choices onscreen as much as possible.”

Digital Domain also completed several outstanding set pieces, such as the “Bird Men” sequence with skydiving soldiers who dodge Decepticon fighters as they fly through the Chicago skyline.  “There were actual stunt men who flew through the city in wingsuits for many of those shots,” noted Butler, “and from there we created CG aircraft and digital environments showing the destruction throughout Chicago.  There are also digital Bird Men throughout, for anything that would have been too dangerous to actually shoot.”  Perhaps the most challenging shot in the sequence is captured from the inside of a V-22 Osprey as it is about to go down.  “Michael shot the plate at 120 frames per second, and everything that happens outside the Osprey is fully CG—the environment, the background skydivers, and especially the falling helicopter that drops through the shot in flames,” Butler indicates.  “It all happens in extreme slow motion and right in the audience’s face, so we greatly improved our CG fire pipeline in order to make the falling Osprey as ominous as possible.”  Digital Domain also realized “Moon Portal” sequence, where we see Decepticon protoforms rise from the moon’s surface and race towards a portal that sends them to Earth for an assault on human civilization.  “Naturally, all of these shots were CG since we couldn’t get any plates on the moon,” jokes Butler.  “Computer graphics supervisor Mårten Larsson and his team studied the moon in thousands of reference photos, in order to accurately display the topography and its surface composition.  Then when it came to animation, we had to consider the fact that gravity on the moon is one-sixth the gravity of Earth, so the protoforms had to move according to the laws of physics without appearing to run in slow motion. And of course there was the portal itself, which is a swirling mass of electricity, rocks and dust—overall a real triumph for Marten and his fx artists.”

On top of all the challenges inherent with a film of this magnitude, stereo 3D added an additional level of difficulty to the work.  “Michael called me early on and indicated that we would be doing this project in 3D, which was exciting and scary at the same time,” said Butler.  “But we planned it from the very beginning and stereo 3D was an integrated part of the digital production process, thanks in part to our close working relationship with our sister company, In-Three, which handled some of the conversion. The end result is a more immersive audience experience, and kudos to Corey Turner on the production side and Thad Beier here at Digital Domain.  As stereographers, their guidance was invaluable.”

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