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Rising Sun Pictures Makes Time Stand Still in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’

VFX studio recreates the Pentagon Kitchen in ultra-slow motion for the mutant Quicksilver.

Adelaide, South Australia -- Rising Sun Pictures’ contribution to X-Men: Days of Future Past, the latest entrant to Twentieth Century Fox’s mutant franchise, centered on a time-bending sequence in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters)—a new addition to the cast—displays his hyper-speed abilities with spectacular effect. The young mutant accompanies Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) on a mission to free Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who is being held in a vault beneath the Pentagon. The mutants enter a large, institutional kitchen where Magneto has startled guards by using his magnetic power to raise all of the metallic objects in the room into the air. The guards draw their weapons and fire at the intruders.

It’s at this point, that Quicksilver goes into his act. He begins running about the room at lightning speed. As he does so, the camera enters his world so that everything around him comes to a virtual standstill. Guards and mutants appear frozen. Cooking gear, cutlery and vegetables hang in midair. Sprays of water droplets from an overhead sprinkler system fall in surreal slow motion. Bullets inch across the room toward Xavier and Wolverine. Capering gleefully along walls and over cooking stations, Quicksilver alters the scene, repositioning and disarming guards and plucking bullets out of the air.

The slow motion sequence is a blend of live action, computer-generated objects and visual effects of astonishing complexity. The process from previsualisation through to the shoot was an extensive collaboration between all departments to ensure that the key moments of the story could be captured on a variety of formats to pass on to post-production. RSP collaborated with VFX Supervisor Richard Stammers and Director Bryan Singer to realize the creative vision of the sequence with the production of scores of CG props, including frying pans, knives, pots of boiling soup, carrots and bullets, as well as the omnipresent cascades of water droplets. Each of these elements needed to be rendered in near microscopic detail, placed precisely within the geometry of the kitchen and choreographed to move and react realistically to lighting, other objects and characters.

RSP also aided in integrating the speedy Quicksilver into the near frozen environment. That illusion was accomplished through a combination of live action, a stunt double, green screen photography, a partial CG body replacement and a shimmering “rain tunnel” that forms around Quicksilver (caused by his swift passage through the near motionless falling water). All of this had to work properly in 2D and stereo 3D—and, of course, dazzle the eye.

Singer describes RSP’s contribution to the film as “Truly! Amazing! Work!” “It’s not easy to be ground-breaking and funny,” Singer adds. “The work turned out incredible. I’m so proud of the sequence. I really believe that what you guys have accomplished is something truly special Thanks for being Super Stars!”

“The kitchen sequence is undoubtedly the most memorable and awesome sequence in the movie,” adds Stammers. “Every nuance from the plastic bullet emerging from the gun barrel to the bell pepper rolling out the door has been crafted with an attention to detail so high, that people will watch this sequence with wonder for years to come.”

As part of its initial preparations, RSP was provided with a LIDAR 3-dimensional scan of the practical kitchen set from the production. Artists used it to create a detailed 3D model of the set to serve as a guide in the placement and choreography of CG assets, as a tracking tool, and for plotting lighting.

“There was a big emphasis at the outset on the design of the room—we needed to control and manage that world,” says RSP Visual Effects Supervisor Tim Crosbie. “We received principal photography reference of the set in depth, every counter, every prop, every situation, and from there we came up with a list of what we needed to build.”

The animation team ultimately built nearly 100 unique items for the sequence (many of which were employed multiple times), a number developed from cyber scans and texture data derived from practical props and set pieces.

Placing objects in the room and choreographing their movement was a major challenge. Numerous factors required careful scrutiny including continuity, lighting, camera position, camera movement, stereography and how each object was affected by Quicksilver’s passage through the room. “The first thing was to establish continuity,” notes DFX Supervisor Adam Paschke. “We went through the scene and made copious annotations to familiarize ourselves with the characters and where they were in every single shot.”

“Once we established all of the assets, we did a number of rounds of layouts of the room to get a sense of the density—what sorts of compositions would work…what activities did we expect to see. We needed to factor all that in and establish it early.”

The team then began working through individual shots, comparing the 3D model with scans of key frames of production footage to see how the CG objects would integrate with the actors and practical elements. “That gave us clues as to what our default layout was doing in camera and what issues we were likely to face, such as knives passing through the camera,” says Paschke. “We wanted to plan for those things before they became problems. Out of that, we ended up with a coverage map indicating which zones of the room were most concentrated in terms of shot count, which areas required the most attention.”

Artists also used lighting data derived from the production to create HDRi lighting maps that then could be applied to the CG kitchen set. That enabled them to arrive at a generalized lighting for the room that simplified integration later on. The HDRi maps were further enhanced with a technique RSP referred to as GeoLights, which produced more nuanced effects, showing the effect of light on individual objects in relation to their environment.

“There was pool lighting in the room, there was lighting from overhead range hoods, lighting from localized fire, even bounce light from the white tile floor in certain zones,” observes Asset Supervisor Dennis Jones. “Due to the complexity of the scenes, our render times were pretty hefty, but it allowed us to gain a much more believable lighting set up from the get go.”

Adding the falling water and interaction in slow motion was also extremely challenging. In the scene, the sprinkler system has been set off and water falls from several sprinkler heads mounted to the ceiling, with droplets distributed in wide circular patterns across the room.

RSP used fluid simulations to create these sprays. “It was challenging because the rain falls in slow motion or is partially frozen in time so you see every single detail,” explains FX Lead Prema Paetsch. “You can’t hide anything with motion blur or camera shake. Everything has to look solid and detailed…no popping, no artifacts in the surface. That is incredibly difficult to generate.”

The falling water lands on everything and everyone in the room and all of those interactions had to be depicted realistically. Production shot a variety of high speed test footage to see how droplets react when they strike various types of objects. “We investigated a lot of rain interactions to see what sort of effects were convincing,” says Paetsch.  “We needed rain crowning, rain impacts, rain dripping from bench tops.”

One extreme close up shows a bullet impacting water droplets, which explode like balloons. RSP used high speed ballistics tests as reference. “The water ‘atomizes,’ as it comes in contact with the bullet,” Crosbie notes. “That is something that is happening throughout the scene, whenever Quicksilver comes into contact with water. He is moving at such an incredible speed that he is not simply splashing water about; he is literally vaporizing it.”

“Ideally, you would have a drop fall from a sprinkler that, when it collides with a surface, creates a splash, but that was impractical,” Paetsch adds. “Instead we pre-built flavors of these events that could be distributed across the room and animated independently from each other, and progressing ever so slowly.”

The “rain tunnel” that appears around Quicksilver is a factor of his speed; he moves so quickly through the falling water that a cylinder of empty space appears behind him. Creating a negative presence is tricky as it needs to be defined by its surroundings. “One of the hardest aspects is that everything that defines the tunnel is small and discreet,” says Paetsch. “It’s a super fine balance between seeing the effect and the consequence of that effect.”

“The tunnel was composed of multiple components that are different in different shots,” says Paschke. “When we began to break it down, we realized it could become visually noisy very quickly. In some cases, we needed to create an arc to expose the negative shape. In other cases, we needed to leave an almost positive shape. The tech had to be flexible depending on the field of view.”

When Quicksilver begins running, his incredible speed allows him to defy gravity. At one point, he runs sideways along a wall. That illusion was created by shooting actor Evan Peters on a treadmill against green screen and compositing him into the kitchen scene. To make the composite convincing, the actor had to be precisely aligned with the physical environment.

“There were certain spatial connections that had to be made,” says Crosbie. “When he strikes a guard’s hat with his hand, his feet weren’t quite anchored to the wall.” Artists solved that dilemma by replacing the actor’s legs with digital models that could be precisely controlled for the complex move. For the live action plate, actors also required extensive digital stabilisation to sell the feeling of them being frozen in time.

With more than 100 features under its belt, RSP has developed a rock solid workflow that enables it to manage large and complex visual effects projects with peak efficiency. The strength of that workflow was put to the test as the Quicksilver sequence passed through successive stages of refinement. “We build on what we’ve learned from previous shows,” says Crosbie. “We’ve been challenged in the past in terms of asset management and through those experiences we’ve built systems to manage complexity and revisions. It’s one thing to create a lot of assets; it’s another to be able to control them and know that nothing is going to break.”

Crosbie adds, however, that pulling off a sequence like Quicksilver’s romp through the Pentagon is more than a matter of managing data. It also requires a flair for the dramatic. “This work is grounded in realism," he says. “Even though it’s a fantastical event you still want to feel as though you are there. The biggest challenge is to find that balance between an exciting, magical event and one that looks real.”

Source: Rising Sun Pictures

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Jennifer Wolfe is Director of News & Content at Animation World Network.