Achieving a Grittier 'Conan'

Friend Wells tells us how the new Conan the Barbarian is more of a barbarian.

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The visual look of Conan's world was created by Dylan Cole. All images © 2011 - Lionsgate.

When director Marcus Nispel (Friday the 13th) decided to take on a reworking of John Milius' Conan the Barbarian from 1982, he returned to the nihilism of the original comics. A revenge story in which a young warrior hunts the villain that killed his family and wiped out his village, the VFX contains an assortment of CG characters and environments.

"Marcus wanted a realistic-looking film," recalls Friend Wells (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), supervising VFX producer/VFX supervisor. "The notion that it was very gritty was very important. But the fantasy elements had to be believable and inhabitable.

"We brought in Dylan Cole (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland) very early to conceptualize matte paintings and environments and set extensions. And then a whole list of creatures. The challenge was the script was being rewritten even through production. But it was smart in terms of discarding what wasn't achievable."

The actioner features more than 1,200 vfx shots.

The production company, Millennium Films, has its own in-house VFX facility in Bulgaria, Worldwide FX, and a smaller division in Shreveport, Louisiana. Kevin Tod Haug (Quantum of Solace) came in to evaluate their capability and then hired other vendors to augment the work, which grew beyond 1,200 shots, including Base FX, Dr. Picture Studios, Crazy Horse, Reliance, Arcadia SFX, Pangon Digital, Gradient Effects, among others.

They split up the creature and environmental shots and worked in parallel with the vendors doing the 3-D conversion (supervised by Evan Jacobs), setting up a Shotgun database for asset sharing.

They went to Base FX in Beijing for the Dweller. It's a 100-shot sequence involving the villain's pet that lives in the basement torture chamber. It's squid-like and creepy with tentacles. But since Nispel likes to improvise, there wasn't room for MoCap. The stunt work, therefore, was planned and prevised by Proof in Bulgaria, and the director jazzed it up.

Crazy Horse did benchmark shots for every environment.

Then there are the elephants that carry a CG ship with the villain. This was handled in Russia by Dr. Picture. Benchmarking was important along with communication. "We spent a lot of time with illustration and design work and doing things visually because we were working in multiple languages," Friend continues. "Also, the in-house facility didn't have a lot of experience with big environmental compositing, so we hired a local company, Crazy Horse, at the recommendation of Dylan Cole, and they did benchmark shots for every environment. We had around 50 major environments for the movie and they provided benchmarks for about half of them.

"We let Crazy Horse establish the wide shots. In one case, you'll see the villain's palace on a sea coast from a distance and a big 3D tracking shot. The remote fortress where the sand warrior attack happens is also along a coast. A ritual cave is another environment. That would set the bar and set the look for the in-house facility to finish the sequences."

Creatures were another big element in the film.

The other big sequence is where Conan fights the above-mentioned sand warriors. Conan lures the villain by holding a woman with great powers that he wants to possess as bait. The villain sends his witch daughter to the designated location and she has the ability to turn dust into warriors.

"We created complicated particle systems and trailing dust particles on top of Parque stunt men wearing elaborate makeup. They appear and disappear into sand in a non-clumping way. This was done by Reliance. We used several techniques but the most complicated one was with Krakatoa. We used cyber scans as a base. We tracked the cyber scans onto the Parques. On some occasions they were pure CG and you trailed particle systems in Krakatoa to create constant erosion of their bodies."

Truer to the roots of Conan, perhaps, but the remake has a lot to live up to when compared to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.