Prime Focus World serves as solve visual effects provider for director Mark Waters’ Vampire Academy, delivering over 500 VFX shots for the film.
If you were pressed to pick a couple of movies that perfectly capture the often funny and sometimes terrifying cliques and pecking orders of teenage girls in high-school, the chances are that genre classics Heathers (1998) and Mean Girls (2004) would spring to mind. Who better then to helm a new movie on the subject than filmmaking brothers Mark Waters (director - Mean Girls) and Daniel Waters (screenwriter -Heathers)? And this new movie has a twist – these teenage girls are vampires.
Welcome to the world of Vampire Academy, a new action comedy fantasy based on the New York Times best-selling book series from American author Richelle Mead. The film, released in the U.S. on February 7 by The Weinstein Company, stars Zoey Deutch, Danila Kozlovsky and Lucy Fry.
Prime Focus World became attached to the project early in the production as exclusive VFX partner on the movie, and worked closely with director Mark Waters and producer Deepak Nayar throughout the production. Prime Focus World’s Marc Jouveneau was the VFX Supervisor for the film, working with Senior VFX Producer Piers Hampton and the PFW VFX team to deliver 511 VFX shots for the movie. Marc led PFW’s work out of its London studio.
“Working with Mark Waters was an amazing experience,” said VFX Supervisor Marc Jouveneau, who supervised the shoot and led the PFW VFX team. “I have never worked with a director who so clearly knows, and is so specific, about what he wants. He’s very open to creative input, but you know that he has already thought about and planned out every aspect of his film.”
There was, however, one aspect of the film that changed significantly during production – the psi-hound sequence. In the books, the psi-hounds are magical wolf-like creatures with brown fur and glowing eyes, and the original plan was to shoot real dogs on set, then enhance them in post with a mixture of 2D and 3D techniques. A range of breeds were considered and tested, but there were a number of issues – the safety concerns of having the dogs interact with the actors, issues of scale for the creatures in relation to the humans, and the fact that the psi-hounds burst into flames at the end of the sequence.
“Mark could see that he would spend a significant amount of time trying to shoot these animals with no guarantee that he would get what he needed,” observed Marc Jouveneau. “Eventually the decision was taken that we would create the psi-hounds as fully CG digital creatures.”
Work began immediately on a furred creature pipeline – something that the London facility had only produced in tests before. VFX Art Supervisor Neil Miller was briefed on the requirement, and began designing concepts for the beasts, based on an outline sketch provided by the production.
“Once the decision was made to go fully CG, we were given the opportunity to create something that was really menacing and scary,” said Neil Miller. “The body of the beast was similar to that of a hyena, and we looked at lots of reference of wolves and Alsatians in developing the creature’s head, and the look of the face and muzzle when it was growling.”
The approved concepts were then realized by the London CG team, under the supervision of Lee Sullivan.
“Once we had Neil’s concepts for the animal, our job was to create a skeleton and musculature that worked in movement,” explained Lee. “Once this was worked out and rigged, we then had the fur and lighting interaction – another level of pipeline complexity. There was lots of interaction between our art, CG and animation departments throughout the development of the psi-hounds.”
At the end of the sequence, the psi-hounds burst into flames, interacting with the live action characters and environments. Marc Jouveneau supervised the on-set interactive lighting effects, bringing in the SFX department to assist with gas burners, and the CG flames were added to the fully digital creatures in post by the PFW CG team.
“The flames were created in Houdini, but we were rendering the psi-hounds in Arnold from Maya,” explained Lee Sullivan. “We needed the fur to burn with this magical fire, so we developed a system to export the fur out of Maya and into Houdini so we could comp them together. This added complexity to the challenge.”
Other CG work on the movie included a raven, stakes, set extensions, mountains, magical fire, earth and water effects, blood and, unsurprisingly for a vampire movie, fang extensions. There was also a huge pullback camera move at the end of the film, starting close on the academy itself, and pulling back to reveal its spectacular fictional setting in the Montana mountains, which required close collaboration between the CG and matte painting departments.
In addition to the VFX work delivered for Vampire Academy, Prime Focus also contributed the Digital Intermediate from its London facilities.
“Being the exclusive VFX partner on a show is very rewarding,” concluded Marc Jouveneau. “We were involved earlier in the process, and saw the show through from concept to final delivery. We were also more involved in the creative and decision-making process, allowing us to be more pro-active and to deal with any issues which arose quickly and effectively.”
“Most importantly for our clients, Deepak (Nayar) and Mark (Waters), we were able to offer a huge amount of flexibility throughout the filmmaking process,” said Senior VFX Producer Piers Hampton. “Being able to scale up or down quickly allows us to respond to new requirements and sequences. Combine that with a new creature pipeline and a seamless workflow between VFX and DI, and Vampire Academy has really laid fantastic groundwork for future shows.”
Source: Prime Focus World