R!OT Santa Monica created a massive and richly detailed digital replica of 19th Century London as part of its VFX package for Fox's new THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. The R!OT team also concocted a roomful of missile silos inside a giant submarine, impaled a man on a rhinoceros horn and came up with a unique way of visualizing the voices on an old phonograph recording.
"Our artists were charged with helping the filmmakers to create an alternate past, a vision of Victorian England that looks real, but filled with amazing creations," said R!OT exec producer of Visual Effects Andrea D'Amico. "It was a wonderful opportunity for the team to apply their imaginations and their talents in creating a series of unique visuals."
R!OT's most spectacular accomplishment was an 854-frame shot panning across the horizon of Victorian London. The shot begins on a horse-drawn carriage rolling along a cobblestone street in a rundown section of the city. The camera then lifts into the air and travels quickly across rooftops before dropping down into a prosperous commercial area, the site of a handsome museum.
In the entire 35-second expanse of the shot, only the carriage and roadway seen at the opening, and the museum and its immediate environs at the end, are practical elements (some of the rain that falls in the scene was also shot live). Everything else -- other buildings, rooftops, the sky -- was produced digitally using a combination of 2D and 3D digital matte painting techniques.
Buildings seen in the foreground on either side of the carriage at the opening of the shot are full 3D creations (modeled after period architectural drawings and photographs), as are foreground structures in the rooftop pan and the buildings nearest the museum at the end. Mid-ground structures were produced by mapping 2D paintings onto the surfaces of 3D models. Background elements, including the sky, were produced as multi-plane 2D matte paintings. Horses and carriages that appear in the background were also CG animations. Additionally, artists extended and enhanced the practical rain and added interactive lighting and other environmental details to fulfill the illusion. Digital matte painter Laurent Ben-Mimoun designed the sequence, and animator Marc-Andre Samson was the lead CG artist.
"Our team built the entire environment," said R!OT Santa Monica visual effects supervisor Kenneth Nakada, adding that the "team" included only a half dozen artists. "Normally, it would take an army to do a shot like this: texture painters, modelers, lighting specialists, renderers. We did it all in a very short period of time with a small, but exceptionally talented group."
The most challenging aspect of the shot lay in linking the practical camera moves used to shoot the carriage and museum elements at the beginning and ending of the shot with the artificial camera applied to the middle rooftop section, and to make it appear to be a single, smooth motion. In order to accomplish this, artists had to "overtake" the two practical camera moves and alter them, adding an artificial bend to their paths.
In overtaking the camera moves, R!OT artists needed to force a perspective shift on the practical film elements. "Everything in the shots that would have shown a perspective shift had to be modeled and replaced," noted Samson. "That included people, props and foreground architectural features."
R!OT matte painters created artificial environments for several other scenes in the film. One shows Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah) striding through a section of his enormous submarine, Nautilus, and passing by a series of towering missile firing mechanisms. In that case, the only practical element is the actor. The missile batteries on either side of him, the walkway, ceiling and instrument gauges were all matte paintings. The camera eventually pans seamlessly from the digital set to a practical stage set. Artists designed the firing mechanisms to be appropriate to missiles used in other scenes in the film.
"As an interior, it was a difficult matte painting to pull off. Not only was it necessary to create the entire environment, there were foreground objects very close to camera, which required a tremendous amount of detail," explained Nakada, who also served as matte painter on the shot. "Marcus LeVere modeled it entirely, and from those models, eight scope matte paintings were generated to cover the camera boom and dolly move. The mood lighting and gritty textures from the paintings were then projected back onto the 3D geometry."
LEAGUE employs an unusual visual device to indicate a flashback sequence that occurs when an old phonograph recording is played. Characters whose voices are heard on the recording are shown in black and white with the image degraded by grain and scratches as if it were an old film. R!OT artist Don Greenberg created the effect on a Discreet inferno system by desaturating the color from the production footage and applying grain and other "defects" to the imagery.
R!OT's shot list also included a sequence where Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery) shoves a villain against a wall, impaling him on the horn of a rhinoceros head. The horn that pops through the man's chest is a 3D element.
R!OT's team also included digital artists Don Greenberg, R. Edward Black, Kelly Bumbarger, Vanessa Cheung, Shuichi Sizouki and Ashlee Wismach.
R!OT Santa Monica is located at 702/730 Arizona Ave., Santa Monica, California 90401. For more information, call (310) 434-6000.