Step back in time to 1979 for J.J. Abrams' ode to super 8 movie making, his mentor Steven Spielberg (the film's producer) and creature features. Basically, it's E.T. meets Alien in a Deer Hunter-like mining town, only wrapped in Abrams' most personal story about scary adolescence. And in keeping with this old-school, guerilla approach, Industrial Light & Magic had four months to churn out 400 cutting-edge VFX shots (in collaboration with Scanline VFX, Pixomondo, Evil Eye, Base FX and Abrams' Bad Robot).
So, to pull off Super 8, ILM played tag-team vfx supervision with Kim Libreri (the onset supervisor), Russell Earl and the legendary Dennis Muren .
"It was so strange being on the set of the movie because I'm the same age as the kids," Libreri admits. "It's really about Joe and his friends and his dad; and we just tried not to get in the way. J.J.'s very organic in the way that he shoots: multiple cameras, really going with the moment. There wasn't a lot of previs [from Pixomondo], a lot of the major scenes were in J.J.'s head and we took every day as it came. And I think it actually helps the movie be real, especially when you're dealing with kids. You know, many of them weren't super experienced actors, so the fact that everything was new for all of us, added to the energy level and spontaneity on set.
"Our visual effects strategy was to use as few bluescreens as possible, plenty of roto, lots of image-based lighting, which everybody does nowadays. J.J. wanted to keep the nature of the creature [designed by Neville Page] quite secret to the very end, so when we were shooting the creature scenes there was no maquette -- there was only a pole for how big the creature was to make sure we shot everything correctly. But other than that, it was a lot of make believe for the kids."
The major sequences involve a train crash (done mostly by Scanline under ILM's supervision), a showdown in a bus, the discovery of the creature in its underground lair and a fantastical finale.
The train crash recalls The Fugitive's realism with a dash of The Greatest Show on Earth's theatricality with the flipping trains. It was shot in an L.A. hillside community, where they laid down track, put in a train station and seeded some grass. ILM did visual extensions from HDR panoramas of West Virginia, where the town was actually shot (a stand in for Ohio). Libreri suggests it was a combination of computational fluid dynamics, CG models, digital environments (using assets from the teaser trailer), CG explosions and inserts of the kids running through the environment. There's also the impression that the carnage goes to infinity.
For the bus attack, Earl says it was all about "working with lighting across plates and striking a balance between keeping [the creature] dark and scary, and blending into the CG bus for destruction and trying to match the original set photography and lens flare, and then bringing in dust, debris and smoke."
The finale, in which a space ship is reconstructed with the help of millions of tiny cubes acting as a fabrication force, proved to be the most difficult VFX challenge. The head of computer graphics at ILM, Hilmar Koch, worked out how to wrangle around 15 million cubes along with Digital Production Supervisor Brian Cantwell and CG Supervisor Dave Weitzberg. Stanford also helped ILM to develop custom code for complex dynamics simulation because none of the off-the-shelf software could handle it. ILM then used its global illumination image-based pipeline and RenderMan. It made use of its point cloud indirect illumination; and the ship had some 24-hour renders on a 12-core machine. Plume , ILM's proprietary volumetric, GPU-based system, also came in handy for atmospheric smoke during the superheating of the cubes.
But, of course, the mainstay of Super 8 is the creature, dubbed Cooper: a spidery humanoid. We're always kept guessing because Abrams plays his own game of peek-a-book, with fleeting glimpses and plenty of misdirection with its movement until the final reveal. According to Paul Kavanagh, the animation supervisor, they were originally going to make it more upright, but a series of early MoCap tests with Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek's  Capt. Pike) at House of Moves revealed that this was just too familiar and not mysterious enough. They decided to scrap the MoCap approach at the last instant and go keyframe along with having it move more on all fours to make it creepier and more mysterious.
"This is the visual effects template for the future," Libreri suggests. "It's not about pure innovation, but more about finding interesting ways to support the narrative from a creative perspective."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.