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'The Brothers Grimm': A Gilliam Fairy Tale

Alain Bielik enters director Terry Gilliams fairy tale, The Brothers Grimm, to uncover the vfx wizards who brought the world to life.

Digital effects supervisor John Paul Docherty oversaw the creation on The Brothers Grimms fairy tale world. All images courtesy of Peerless Camera Co. © Miramax Films.

Is it plain bad luck or is he the new Orson Welles? Once again, acclaimed director Terry Gilliam clashed with a studio over final cut and saw the release of his movie postponed by several months in the process. After his much publicized fights over Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (abandoned in 2000), Gilliam experienced yet another hectic relationship with a studio, this time with Dimension Films. Starring Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, The Brothers Grimm (opening Aug. 26) follows the adventures of the famous brothers who, after performing bogus exorcisms for years, end up facing a real witch and her minions. This encounter plants the seed of the many fantastic tales that will later become their literary trademark.

To start with, principal photography was halted for almost a week when cinematographer Nicola Pecorini was fired by Dimension. Later on, post-production was severely delayed when Gilliam disagreed with the producers on the final cut. The conflict lasted so long that the director had the time to shoot another feature film Tideland in the meantime. The hiatus affected the visual effects unit too. As usual, Gilliam had awarded the shots to Peerless Camera, the esteemed London-based effects studio that he founded in the 1970s with visual effects supervisor Kent Houston. I started the project in January 2003, working with Terry to develop the concepts, Houston recalls. Peerless came on board in June 2003 and we started serious visual effects work around August 2003. In August 2004, we ran into a number of major issues with the project and with the studio.

The main problem was the fact that the number of effects shots had dramatically increased, mainly because of issues that arose during shooting with the physical effects. When we started the show, we were planning on just under 500 shots, but that number kept increasing until we reached 800 shots, explains digital effects supervisor John Paul Docherty. The problem was that we were expected to deliver many extra shots without adapting the original budget, or the schedule, Houston adds: At that point, I had no choice but to shut the project down. We then went off to do other shows, including The Legend of Zorro. In January 2005, after six months of negotiations, we agreed to open the project up again with additional funds and a new cut. The show was finally completed in June 2005, two-and-a-half years after I had started.

In Your Face CGI

As if the political aspects were not difficult enough for the effects unit, The Brothers Grimm turned out to be the toughest project ever tackled by Peerless. It involved ambitious set extensions, highly complex CG animation and effects shots that often exceeded 800 frames. Most of all, Gilliam insisted on handling CGI in a different way than what is usually the norm in mainstream Hollywood movies. California-based effects companies often handle shots that feature CGI on a very large scale, Docherty comments. They deliver large shots, signature shots. Terry didnt want any of this. He wanted the CGI to be three feet away from you. It had to be seen up close, in a disturbing manner. Terry envisioned a dirty claustrophobic world with a dark age feeling, very European in its approach. In terms of the look, we often referred back to the work we had previously done on Roberto Benignis Pinocchio (2002) for the visual density of its shots.

Indeed, the many matte-paintings and digital environments of The Brothers Grimm were created at 10 bits and even 16 bits. Each one of these shots featured an awful lot of layers, Docherty notes. Given this amount of detail, an 8-bit image would have looked like a dupe Featuring many set extensions created in Photoshop, the forest sequence was shot on stage in Prague and more often than not, the studio lights and rafters appeared in the frame. The forest was then digitally extended up in 2 1/2 D, with some shots necessitating the creation of CG trees and sky to complete the set. Jim Bowers was the senior digital matte painter for Peerless.

The building in the climactic scene was actually 1/7-scale miniature built by Robbie Scotts Cutting Edge Models.

More complex was a climactic sequence in which a huge tower plays a central part. The building was a 1/7-scale miniature that was built by Robbie Scotts Cutting Edge Models, Docherty comments. We first shot the actors on partial sets or on bluescreen and then used SynthEyes to track the camera moves and import them into a Milo motion control system. The creator of SynthEyes, Scott Andersson, actually rewrote the program twice to help us do this. The original camera files were scaled down to 1/7-scale, which allowed model unit director Steve Begg to shoot the model with the corresponding moves. The plates were then combined in Inferno or Shake, our main compositing tools, with some shots handled in Digital Fusion. There are more than 70 shots in which what appears to be a set around the actors is, at least partially (and in some cases completely), our model. Richard Bain, Paul Round, John Swinnerton and Janet Quen were our senior compositors on the show.

The creatures in this grim tale also included this CG mud creature.

Of Wolves and Teddy Bears

Although the set extensions were very demanding, the most challenging aspect of the project for Peerless definitely was character animation. Four different creatures were required: a wolfman, a mud creature, the mirror queen and a living tree. Each necessitated extensive research and development from the CG unit headed by Ditch Doy. When Houston and Docherty found out that they had to tackle their very first CG wolfman animation, their first move was to study previous attempts in other movies. In all honesty, we were not all that impressed by some of the current CG wolves in films, Docherty notes. On the other hand, I really liked the wolves that ILM created for The Day After Tomorrow. This sequence became our reference. We also looked at the animation of the CG Morlocks in the Time Machine as a nice mix between human and animal behaviors.

The wolf sequences presented two main challenges. First, the wolfman needed to be lit in the most believable way, but still had to be rendered in an acceptable time. The creature was modeled and animated in SOFTIMAGE|XSI, Peerless software of choice for character animation. Maya was used for everything else from falling rocks to explosions to particles to webbing. Since the wolfman actually is a lead human character, the CG model had to retain some of the actors features. To this purpose, Eyetronics scanned the performers head and the resulting mesh then became the basis for the skull of the wolf.

As for most of the CG animation, the render was carried out in mental ray. Developing the fur was one of the trickiest parts of the project, Docherty explains. We actually had a [mental ray] R&D technician on staff at Peerless to refine the hair renderer and also to write an interface with XSI. The problem was that it was incredibly easy to make our wolf look cute, but very complicated to make it look scary We found out with lead technical director Raffaele Fragapane that the best way to light it was to use high contrast rim lighting. However, this meant that the hair had to really work because, otherwise, you would get crackle and break-ups in the highlights. We ended up rendering seven to 10 passes per wolf. The sequences lead compositor Dennis Jones did a fantastic job of making the lighting work with the layers that we gave him. Every shot required its own approach. We would develop a lighting technique for one shot, but when we applied it to the next one, our wolf turned into a Teddy Bear! If one light was off or if the camera angle was different, it looked fake We basically had to start from scratch for every single shot and all of them required endless revisions. It was very frustrating.

The wolf work had to balance between time and realism.

The second challenge of the wolf shots was the animation. In every move, we had to decide where the man stopped and where the wolf started. It took a lot of fine-tuning to get it right. It was actually done on a shot-per-shot basis. Luckily, Terry used to be an animator before he started directing movies. So, he was able to direction the animation in the minutest way, working with Ditch Doy and lead animator Steven Read to add an extra frame here or to remove two frames there.

Coming up with a New Pipeline

Applied successfully to the wolf shots, the XSI/mental ray pipeline didnt work for the most unusual creature of the movie, a living mud thing whose favorite activity is to swallow children. For this creature, sequence supervisor Dominic Parker opted to use Houdini, a choice that necessitated the build of a unique pipeline. Houdini is very good in procedural animation, like making mud ripple, for example, but its not the animators tool of choice. Most of them tend to work in Maya or XSI and we didnt want to lose this expertise. So, we built a Maya pipeline in which the animators could work in a normal fashion on a polygonal mudman model. The animation was then lifted by Dominics Houdini system where all the procedural services were generated. Basically, the character was first animated in Maya and all the mud interactions and gravity and ripples were added procedurally in Houdini. This was then rendered out in Mantra, Houdinis built-in renderer. Interestingly enough, at the time when we were developing the effects, we attended a SIGGRAPH presentation of ILMs work on Terminator 3, specifically the sequence where the female Terminator melts down in a particle accelerator, which was very similar to our mud creature. We found out that our approaches were very analogous, although they used a different set of tools. They even warned us on a couple of problems that we did hit in the end.

In a certain way, the death of the mirror queen (Monica Bellucci) was probably the most complex effect of the whole movie. In the sequence, the queen turns into hundreds of shards of glass and shatters. In a photoreal world, this couldnt happen, as the 3D volume of the body suddenly turns into 2D pieces of glass, a paradox that created a serious problem. Since CGI tends to emulate reality, lead animator Linda Johnson had to do a huge amount of manual work to pull the technology away from what it was built to do All the shots were hand-retouched literally hundreds of times.

From CG creatures to elaborate set extensions, The Brothers Grimm proved an expansive experiment in wonder making.

Establishing a New Record

After two years of work, on and off, Docherty looks back on The Brothers Grimm with a mix of pride and exhaustion: It was an enormous amount of work. Given that we did a lot of versions of each shot, sometimes as many as 60 or 70, this movie must now hold the record of the largest amount of effects shots ever created by any European company. We often worked late at night and over weekends to pull it off. Plus, the political context made it difficult for all of us. It was also quite frustrating to have one great sequence deleted from the final cut. It featured more than 70 shots of fantastic CG animation of a living tree thats attacking the lead characters. Apparently, it was a climax on its own and it came too early in the movie. Fortunately for the artists who worked so hard on it, we are told that the sequence will be included on the DVD.

Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinéfex. He recently organized a major special effects exhibition that opened Feb. 20 at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France (www.mimlyon.com). Displays include original models and creatures from 2010 Odyssey Two, Independence Day, Ghostbusters, Cliffhanger, Alien Vs. Predator, Alien 3, Pitch Black and many more. The exhibition runs through Aug. 31.

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