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Luma Makes a ‘Covenant’ with VFX

Luma Pictures completed more than 75 visual effects shots for THE COVENANT, the new supernatural thriller from ScreenGems and Lakeshore Ent., and director Renny Harlin (opening Sept. 8, 2006). Included in the package are the films eerie opening sequence in which four teenage boys leap off a towering cliff, a mystical rite of passage sequence, as well as its climactic battle sequence. The studios work encompassed a broad range of visual effects techniques from CG characters and environments to groundbreaking particle effects illustrating strange otherworldly phenomena.

THE COVENANT marks one of the larger, more complex and challenging projects for Luma since UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, and it required its team of artists to strive for new levels of sophistication. I am most proud of the dynamic supernatural effects that we created for this film, said Luma Pictures senior vfx supervisor Payam Shohadai. Once again, our staff stepped up to a big challenge designing and executing high concept effects from scratch. Many will leave audiences wondering, How did they do that?

Lumas contribution to the film is on display from THE COVENANTs opening scene. The films protagonists are four teenage students from a private New England academy endowed, via a 16th century covenant, with supernatural powers. During the scene, the boys powers are revealed when they proceed to jump off a 400-foot cliff in a sequence of shots comprised of mostly CG environments. Each boys power manifests itself in a different way, but none is more impressive than Caleb, the hero, who leaps last.

For Calebs leap, Lumas role was to bridge two live action elements the beginning of the actors leap at the top of the cliff, and its end point where he joins the rest of his crew on the ground with a lengthy and wholly fabricated shot of him tumbling through the air. In addition to the CG double of the actor, this sequence required us to create a digital set for the top of the cliff as well as a CG environment encompassing the entire face of the cliff, the sky, ocean, beachfront and opposing cliff with a lighthouse, explained Luma Pictures texture and model supervisor Chris Sage.

The CG doubles fall is tracked by a sweeping virtual camera move that ties into a practical camera move as the artificial shot transitions back to live action. We created a small matte painting to serve as a digital handshake between the 3D set and the live-action plate, noted Sage. Animators also matched the action of the CG double to the actor at the beginning of his landing to create a seamless transition. 3D fog and other environmental effects were added to the shot to match the mood and depth of the practical scenes.

The unique way that the boys supernatural powers are displayed is best represented by the films Ascension sequence. In that scene, which occurs near the end of the film, magical powers are transferred to Caleb from the heavens. The transfer of powers is represented by what appear to be waves of energy particles that swirl through the scene and, in parts, seem to represent a kind of life form of their own.

As Harlin only had only a general concept for how various powers would manifest themselves (both those featured in the Ascension sequence and elsewhere in the film), Luma was given wide latitude in designing their look. Abstract ideas are inherently difficult to sketch or even describe, observed Steven Swanson, senior vfx producer. We went through a great deal of trial and error to arrive at a tangible starting point. Ultimately, we created 25 distinct types of effects that we categorized with quirky terms, such as wispies, floaties. waterbolts and super powerballs.

In the Ascension sequence which extends some 30 shots the powerful force that descends from the heavens undergoes a series of transitions as it interacts with, envelopes and ultimately transforms Caleb. The force initially takes the form of particulate matter that collects as shafts of light. Once it reaches critical mass, it strikes Caleb in a whip-like motion, leaving a wispy substance in its wake. This wispy energy itself becomes animated and surrounds Caleb, colliding with a shield that surrounds him. The shield bursts under the force and the energy field penetrates Calebs body briefly transforming him into a water-like state as he completes his ascension.

Luma employed a complex assortment of particle effects, fluid simulations and animation techniques to pull off the sequence. Dynamic simulations are difficult to control and producing them is a time-consuming, iterative process, noted Luma vfx supervisor Vince Cirelli. The 30 shots in the Ascension sequence had to cut together seamlessly and with complete continuity. In order to accomplish that, we needed to be able to precisely control each of the particle and simulation events. We developed a technique that allowed us to trigger simulations based on key framed animation. As a result, we were able to create aesthetically-sculpted simulations on a shot by shot basis that preserved the pacing and energy essential to the storys arc.

The films climatic scene is a showdown between Caleb and his nemesis Chase. Luma handled the culmination of the sequence (the opening segment of the fight was prepared by another visual effects vendor), beginning with the appearance of a super powerball, which becomes a decisive element in the struggle. Luma designed the look of the super powerball. It also created a CG double for Chase and a CG environment replicating the live action location.

For Luma, THE COVENANT was an especially satisfying project both because of the diversity of its visual effects and for the opportunity to aid in their design. Production was very open to our ideas and our key artists responded by grabbing the bull by the horns, said Swanson. They showed tremendous initiative and creativity and it resulted in some very aesthetically interesting work.

Luma Pictures (www.luma-pictures.com) is a leading provider of visual effects services to Hollywood with a reputation for artistic integrity, technical innovation and efficient production. The company served as lead visual effects provider on UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, one of the biggest hits of 2006 and widely acclaimed for its incredible creature and environmental effects. Some of the studios other credits include HOOT (New Line), THE CAVE (ScreenGems/Lakeshore), INTO THE BLUE (Sony), SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (Paramount), CRASH (Lions Gate) and RAY (Universal Pictures). Current projects include THE HOLIDAY for Columbia and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN for Miramax.

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