The Hunger Games is the latest movie phenomenon, judging by its killer box office results and wide demo appeal. But even though it contains 1,200 VFX shots (achieved in a mere 23 weeks and costing far less than the usual tentpole), you wouldn't know it. It's not a VFX-intensive project. Rather, the dystopian, Orwellian nightmare is more reality TV than superhero movie. As a result, director Gary Ross focuses primarily on Katniss' POV with a gritty, verite visual style. The VFX definitely served this plan without trying to call attention to the work.
However, the work is impressively spread around more than a dozen companies across the globe (including Hybride, Rising Sun Pictures, Pixomondo, ILM, Rhythm & Hues, Whiskytree, Digiscope, Clearcut FX) along with technical previs by The Third Floor, previs by Halon and postvis by Proof.
Indeed, VFX onset supervisor Sheena Duggal admits it was a tremendous collaborative effort in which sequences and assets were shared. So you had ILM (supervised by Scott Farrar) and Pixomondo (co-supervised by John Parenteau and Bjorn Mayer) sharing the exterior train and hovercraft sequences. With ILM having just done the Super 8 train work, this came in handy.
And you also had Rising Sun and Rhythm & Hues sharing the animation of the genetically-engineered mutts. Rising Sun gave Rhythm & Hues their basic assets for muscle deformation and fur and color and lighting and Rhythm & Hues took that into their own proprietary system, Voodoo, and skinned it and put muscles onto it and then rigged and animated it and then conducted the asset and gave it back to Rising Sun.
"There was tremendous pressure on us that we were constantly looking for creative ways to make up for the lack of time and money," Duggal explains. "And then we had to work really hard to come up with extra solutions and then sell these out, particularly things like the Tribute Parade, done by Rising Sun, which was a massive sequence [inspired by Hitler's Third Reich]. It had a limited set and space for only a 150-foot screen with a crowd of 400 and six sets of carriages. It required epic roto for ground replacement and fire wings [for Katniss' costume].
"We started out with a couple of vendors and temp'd the whole movie in the first 10 weeks; we then showed it to Lionsgate, which was so excited that they were willing to spend some more money, especially since they had just announced sequels. So we hired extra vendors to take the pressure off the existing vendors; and they all shared resources."
Other standouts include the Control Room (Duggal designed the hologram and desktops with Hybride, which was then shot green screen on desks); the Wall of fire (mostly CG, also by Hybride); full CG city shots of the Panem Capitol by Whiskytree); and the CG Tracker Jacker wasps, which was animated by Pixomondo, taking Proof's previs setup files in Maya and building on that.
But undoubtedly the most fascinating sequence was the Control Room. Hybride had done great tests and Duggal got together with Ross and he realized there was an opportunity to use the Control Room to help tell the story without having to explain events.
"We were ahead of Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence)," Duggal suggests, "and you can go to the Control Room and see a map of where she was in relation to the other tributes, so it was a way for us to show that the game keepers were in control and they could actually change any aspect of what was happening in the arena at any time. You see that in the fire sequence where they attempt to keep her from wandering too close to the edge.
"I was working with some established concept artists and wasn't getting what I was looking for and so I thought I'd try this young guy, Reid Southen, who was recommended to me. We came up a bunch of concept designs and I passed those onto Hybride because what I wanted to do prior to actually shooting the control room was to create some animation that had some information about the performances of the actors. So Hybride created these animations that allowed us to inform the actors even though we didn't know what the content was going to be at that time. And when we got into post, Gary had some very specific ideas about what the graphic content on those desktops looked like, so they worked with us in creating those holograms and their functionality. We went through the whole movie with them going through the whole story and what's happening during the games."
Duggal says in most cases you'd hire a motion graphics company or an expert such as Ben Procter who did the holograms for Avatar and Tron Legacy. "I spoke to him but it worked out well with Hybride," she continues. "They used a combination of 3D and 2D so the main hologram is a 3D model that represents the arena and then using the mesh from that in Flame they created some 2.5D effects and create this idea that the graphics are made up of data that's organic and alive.
"That aspect brings the movie into the future because the design that Gary wanted was a dystopian utopian. It has its roots in the Third Reich and the German World Trade Fair of the '30s. Gary was specific about wanting the integration of form and to see grandeur in the city. But I wanted to bring things that would take us into the future so I studied future EY technologies and screen technologies and tried to move the hologram into a different direction. I brought it to the desktop so they were manipulated by the gamekeepers. Hybride used an array of different graphics for the consoles and they used After Effects and Flame and 3D Equalizer and did a lot of roto even though we had green screens on all of the tables to put the holograms where we wanted."
Duggal reiterates that overall The Hunger Games "was a massive collaboration of all these people in order to achieve so much work in such a short amount of time.
Judging by the results and the phenomenal success of this new franchise, Duggal just might be back for more.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. His blog is Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), he's a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and he's the author of the upcoming James Bond Unmasked (Spies), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of the iconic superspy from Connery to Craig.