Warner Bros.' GOTHIKA, the contemporary ghost story starring Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr. and Penelope Cruz, marks the debut of new digital fire effects created by CafeFX. With fire a central motif in the movie, CafeFX was challenged to develop custom software for fire shading and motion in key sequences, and with creating effects that heighten the impact of other frightening scenes.
CafeFX was the primary house for GOTHIKA, completing almost 60 vfx shots for the thriller whose provocative tag-line is "Because someone is dead doesn't mean they're gone."
"We haven't seen extensive use of digital fire before," noted Jeff Goldman, CafeFX's digital effects supervisor. "It's usually 2D fire composited onto a moving stunt man. But with that method you can't adjust what you get; the performance is fixed. GOTHIKA director Mathieu Kassovitz wanted the fire to have a specific look and to use it in close-ups. Our approach provided an underlying structure we could control and enhance with live-action elements in strategic places for a more realistic feel. We were able to offer all the benefits of reality with all of the control of CG."
"Digital fire has never been done at this level before," echoed David Ebner, CafeFX senior digital effects supervisor. "These aren't quick shots of a running man on fire but close-ups of bare skin, with the fire moving in slow motion and the skin blistering and charring. We were confident we could develop the software," notes CafeFX's vfx producer Vicki Galloway Weimer. "Our artists really hung in there during an extremely intense R&D process and pulled it off."
The most extensive and dramatic use of digital fire came in the climax where the killer is revealed. While shooting at his pursuer, the murderer hits a computer monitor that explodes in a shower of CG glass and sparks, which were created with LightWave 3D. Another shot ruptures a gas line, spraying liquid propane into the room in a practical mist effect to which CafeFX added animated noise patterns and real smoke to drive distortion tools in eyeon's Digital Fusion compositing program. Finally, the killer shoots out a TV screen, which sparks and ignites the room in a fireball, setting him ablaze in the process.
"Our digital fire had to track to the actor as he moved and the flames envelop him," Ebner added. "Although burn make-up was applied to the actor, it couldn't grow with the progression of the burn. Eyetronics scanned the actor and provided a model and textures, which we modified and created maps of skin burning and changing color as it charred." The maps were applied to the CG model and match-moved to the actor's performance so audiences could see the burn's horrifying progress.
"One of the hardest things to do was match-move the fire to the actor," recalled Ebner. "We had to track rigid parts of the body as well as soft tissue. We had to be really accurate because the fine details of the flesh burning and blistering couldn't slide around on his skin."
"This was the first time I had the pleasure of working with CafeFX," says Richard Mirisch, who co-produced GOTHIKA with Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis. "One of the hardest tasks we could have put in front of a visual effects company was to make a man burn believably. CafeFX came through…"
CafeFX demonstrated its versatility by creating a number of other stunning effects shots. In one sequence Berry joins inmates in a communal shower where the ghost manifests itself in the faces of the other women. CafeFX employed Digital Fusion to create facial distortions from Berry's panicked point of view. Rachel's spirit is indeed in the shower, but only Berry can see her. The ghost moves toward her and begins to slash her upraised arm. CafeFX used LightWave and Photoshop to craft the blood and scars, which were tracked in Digital Fusion. A pool of blood was later added under Berry's body where she collapses onto the shower floor.
"We had to stay away from a straight morph approach as these are more stylized morphs and image manipulation," Goldman explained. Different elements of Rachel's face and head were tracked and warped with Elastic Reality then composited over Berry's moving head with Digital Fusion. Photoshop was used to paint areas of blood which pool in Berry's eyes and drip down her face. During the scene lightning flashes reveal a smoky, atmospheric background, which was also painted in Photoshop.
CafeFX finished the job by pulling off a moody sequence at the beginning of GOTHIKA, which gives audiences their first glimpse of the exterior of the asylum. Matte painter Robert Stromberg designed the shot and CafeFx animated it in LightWave and composited in Digital Fusion. The shot opens with cars driving on a rain-slicked street as the camera rises from the road over the tops of bushes, signage and a forested hill to the illuminated building.
"All of the foreground elements are 3D because there was a lot of perspective moving from one foot to 300 feet off the ground," Goldman explains. "We were given a plate with two vehicles driving by the camera and a dolly move over an existing parking lot filled with production trucks and equipment. We discarded about 80% of the plate and rebuilt the environment in 3D."
Looking ahead, CafeFX is exploring the further development of its digital fire shaders. "Everyone is interested in seeing our fire effects," Ebner reported. "Our goal is to be able to use digital fire as another tool in our tool box," Goldman concluded.
GOTHIKA served as a virtual test bed for the technology of Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD), "a physics-based simulation now moving into the effects world," said Goldman. "Previous methods for creating digital fire were 2D or particle simulations."
CafeFX R&D supervisor Taron didn't really like the particle approach to creating the complex patterns of fire simulations. "We felt there was a good chance we could come up with a principle to visualize heat," Taron says. "We initially did 2D research then attempted to make our first results three dimensional. During the course of doing that, we found papers in SIGGRAPH supporting the principle. The major advance we were making was putting it into 3D. Then it was a matter of how to apply the fire shaders to geometry."
Chris Reid developed an interface allowing artists to control color and motion behavior on an intuitive level, Taron explained. "We were using fluid dynamics not to create a physically-correct fire simulation but an artistically-convincing fire simulation. We needed to be able to serve the ideas of the director and be flexible in the creative visualization of fire." Heat distortions could also be fabricated using the results of the fluid dynamics calculations.
Since fluid dynamics are time dependent they can only be calculated on one computer, posing a problem for an effects-intensive motion picture. "When you want to render high-resolution sequences you need to render on several machines simultaneously," Taron noted. "So we developed a unique way to do network rendering for large sequences that was powerful and fast."
Sr. Digital Effects Supervisor: David Ebner
Executive Producer: Jeff Barnes
Digital Effects Supervisors: Jeff Goldman, Danny Braet
Digital Effects Producer: Vicki Galloway Weimer
Digital Effects Coordinator: Phillip Moses
R&D Supervisor: Taron
Programming and Development: Chris Reid
Digital Effects Artists: Akira Orikasa, Minory Sasaki, Gabriel Vargas, Votch Levi, Steve Arguello, Greg Jonkajtys, Everett Burrell, Toby Newell, Jeremy Cho, Lee Carlton
Digital Compositing: Mike Bozulich
CaféFX, a division of the ComputerCafé Group, is headquartered in Santa Maria, California, and has a studio in Santa Monica, California. The company was founded as ComputerCafé in 1993 by Jeff Barnes and David Ebner to produce broadcast promotions and television ID packages. Today CafeFX (MASTER AND COMMANDER) attracts clients from all aspects of the entertainment world.