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Toronto-based Mr. X was the lead visual effects house tasked with creating the look of the menacingly beautiful Antarctic setting for Whiteout , the mystery/thriller directed by Dominic Sena shot in Quebec and Vancouver and starring Kate Beckinsale as a U.S. Marshall who must solve the first murder in the region before the start of the dreaded six-month winter.
According to Mr. X Founder and Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Berardi, "that meant a lot of environment work on things like the ASB base that they're living in, which was essentially digital (including the outlining buildings). This is something I'm very proud of because I think the effects are very seamless." Overall, Mr. X provided 414 shots. Other vfx vendors that contributed were Hybride  and CafeFX . Richard Yuricich  was the overall visual effects supervisor.
"The very first thing that Dominic Sena said was that he wanted to make the storm feel like a creature," Berardi adds. "And that was our big task. Anytime you saw the storm, whether it was inside of the storm or from a wide angle mountain view, that was obviously digital. And it was an interesting challenge because how do you make a weather system feel very scary. Inherently they can be with tornados and hurricanes and blizzards, but he wanted it to feel like was a ticking time bomb that was going to come and devastate them.
Mr. X created a complex particle system in Houdini to design the look of the storm. Not surprisingly, there was a scale issue because the mountain ranges have a short field of view. "And you're dealing with white on white, which makes it difficult to introduce the storm layers and the storm front and not just have it look nondescript. It needed dimension and scope and it needed to travel. Again, it needed to feel like a creature that was going to envelope everything in its wake."
Mr. X had a few false starts during the early testing. The scale was off, and it appeared more like a miniature. "But when we slowed things down and got the scale worked out in the simulation, then it felt more like a natural phenomenon weather system."
The particle system had several elements: there was the snow layer that was particle-based that interacted with the ground plane (with a turbulent level picking up snow); there was a middle section that was like a curtain wall of dense snow that had a misty component to it. "We took inspiration from a lot of the sandstorms that we referenced; we had a surrounding cloudy element; and we had a top layer connected to the upper clouds ahead of it.
"And the other thing was trying to come up with a lighting design where you could see it and have self-shadowing and feel the dimension of it. All those things were challenges, but in the end we achieved a look that was effective.
"And we had to redo all the plates to get them darker and brooding and stormy, where we painted out all the highlights and shadows and created the landscape and matchmoved that landscape and created the virtual landscape to exactly match. We have all the standard geometry of the CG snow particles to interact with."
Mr. X spent a lot of time focusing on the behavior of the particles: "How they were doing, what the turbulence was. Because there are two kinds of movement: internal motion, which is turbulent and moving in all directions, and a global forward momentum, and it looked kind of odd if you were seeing too much internal motion or if you weren't seeing enough forward motion. It looked like it was hovering in space. Those were all of the creative and technical challenges we had to overcome."
In terms of tools, Mr. X typically uses Maya  for modeling, rigging, UV and animation; Houdini for shader work, lighting and rendering in Mantra or RenderMan ; and matchmoving in PFTrack from The Pixel Farm.
Meanwhile, CafeFX was charged with the opening sequence of Whiteout that features a CG cargo plane flying through a stormy CG arctic sky. A gun battle takes place on board as the plane descends through the CG clouds and snow with an aurora borealis formation moving through the sky. The plane crashes into a snowy mountainside, sliding to its demise for hundreds of feet along matte paintings of mountains, snow and icy terrain. Jeff Goldman served as visual effects supervisor and Seth Lippman was the CG supervisor.
For the in-flight sequence, CafeFX created muzzle flashes, glass breaking throughout the plane, snow flying through broken windows and enhanced practical effects. The look of the aurora borealis lighting up the sky outside the plane was designed in collaboration with the CafeFX art department through matte paintings.
CafeFX used rigid body dynamics to break the mountain top off its foundation for the crash. Volumetric snow and debris were used extensively as the plane hits the top of the mountain and the engine comes off in a controlled movement. Big impact snow, clouds, fire and smoke are all elements as well as the reflective plane dripping fire as it plunges through the snow.
Maya was used for fire and impact particle effects and Houdini for snow impact, flaming engines, smoke and fire. CafeFX also created custom effects solutions for flame, smoke and big impact snow using both Houdini and Maya. XSI (now Autodesk Softimage) and mental ray were used for the 3D modeling, texturing and lighting of the plane in the sky. Digital Fusion was used for compositing and 2D effects such as muzzle flashes.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.