In the past few weeks, how many people have you heard ask the question, "What do you mean those actors aren't real?" when referring to the Final Fantasy trailer? During the movie did you occasionally forget that it was all CGI? I shook my head at one moment and had to smile when I wondered what real-world parts a prop gun was made from. No question about it: Square Pictures' Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within contains spectacular visuals. The realistic skin and hair get all the glory, but don't overlook the incredible amount of detail found in the animation, scenery, props and effects. At a recent Alias|Wavefront sponsored event, Square Pictures' VFX Supervisor Remo Balcells gave a peek into the making of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.
The Gray Project
When the principals of Square Pictures decided that they wanted to take the themes and title of its massively popular Final Fantasy series of PC and console games to the big screen in an entirely CGI feature-length film, they first had to prove to themselves that it was possible. Eschewing the more stylized rendering of the in-game cinematics for a photo-realistic look, they knew that there would be some major challenges ahead. So they decided to create a proof-of-concept animation that showcased the ambitious level of realism in human characters they would require for the finished product.
The proof-of-concept, titled The Gray Project, was a way to focus on both the artistic feel of the film's design and the technical complexity of generating realistic hair and skin on humans. The scene shows two women inside a futuristic apartment having an argument. While far from a compelling story, the level of drama and realism hit the mark. Balcells showed the captive audience the never seen outside of Square Pictures animation, and it was quite amazing. Ultimately, The Gray Project was an internal success which allowed Square's R&D department to prove that their production pipeline worked and they could use Maya, Renderman and custom tools to make the movie.
Film By Layers
The film itself is composed of 1,327 shots. There are 141,964 frames, each of which took anywhere from 15 minutes to over 7 hours per frame to render. The average was around 90 minutes. Square Pictures stored 10 Terabytes of 3D and 5 Terabytes of 2D artwork. The roughly 200 people who worked on the film contributed about 120 person-years of work. All of this data needed to be carefully managed so that the creation process was collaborative and organized. This was the job of the sequence supervision department; they oversaw the work as it traveled between many departments including Storyboards, Layout, Sets/Props, Animation, Motion-capture, Lighting, FX, Rendering and Compositing.
By going through these departments a shot would be built with anywhere from nine to 498 composite layers! Balcells showed one shot, where the ground troops rescue Dr. Ross from a forbidden section of Old New York City, in a progression of layers leading to the final shot. The passes started with color and lighting then added fog, muzzle flashes, shadows, fog noise, glows, fill lights, specularity, more lighting, different fog, and so on. Suffice it to say that the whole was far greater than the sum of its parts.
Balcells is proud to note that when he began going through the many VFX shots needed for the film, director Hironobu Sakaguchi was always pushing him to generate everything in CGI. When it came to some very large explosions, smoke and fireballs, he initially planned on using composites of practical effects. But as his team of 20 artists experimented with CGI versions, Sakaguchi eventually was pleased enough with them to greenlight the project as 100% CGI. One trick they developed for making very lifelike smoke and fireballs was to render the RGB channels separately and then tint them each a different fiery hue before compositing them. The results are beautiful effects with many levels of detail and an organic nature.
Pursed Lips, Twitching Eyes
The character animation in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was almost always created through a series of refinements. First, an actor would be motion-captured for the broad movement and blocking of a scene. Next, an animator would tweak that performance in Maya using an optimized set of data that had been reduced from the original mo-cap data. If the character had flowing clothes, like General Hein in his trench coat, or long hair, like Aki Ross, these objects would receive secondary animation through dynamics and keyframing. Lastly, the facial animation would be implemented. Technical directors and lead animators would create a set of sliders to control each element of the face, such as "Left Lower Eyelid Twitch" or "Purse Lips" in order to animate the performance while following along with video shot of the voice actors' performances. For lip synching, Square created a Phoneme Library from which the different mouth shapes could be pulled.
The support staff for R&D on these hair, tool and queuing systems was 40 full-time employees. Not a small operation! Using the Maya API, they developed over 100 plug-ins for Maya. For the hair tools they created methods for the animators to control the movement of Aki's 60,000 strands of hair down to the lock that often falls in front of her face. So when you watch the film and are in awe of the subtle acting and great-looking hair, remember that each element was the product of a lot of hard work -- a labor of love for a few hundred artists and programmers. Visually, the results speak for themselves!
John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.