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'Day Watch': Russian VFX Comes of Age

Bill Desowitz speaks with Russian visual effects supervisor Vladimir Leschinski about Day Watch and the state of his country's industry.

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Day Watch (above) and the previously released Night Watch are watershed films for Russian vfx. Both titles have been blockbusters in their native country. All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. 

Vladimir Leschinski happened to be in town last month looking for work for his Moscow-based visual effects company, Dr. Picture Studios, thanks to the blockbuster success in Russia and Europe of both Night Watch and Day Watch (opening domestically June 1 through Fox Searchlight). The sci-fi adventures about the epic battle between the forces of Light and Dark to restore Moscow have obviously been a watershed for Russian vfx. Leschinski spoke to VFXWorld about Day Watch and other projects, including his country's first outsourced assignment with Hollywood.

Bill Desowitz: Tell us about the differences between Night Watch and Day Watch.

Vladimir Leschinski: Actually, we shot both movies together. Sometimes the action is in winter and sometimes in summer and we just combined our schedule. We then did post-production for Night Watch, and a year later we did post-production for Day Watch. And finished in January 2006. It got released in Russia and did essentially $34 million, the biggest ever for a movie in Russia, after Night Watch did $16 million, which was the previous record. Before that, the max was $3 million.

BD: There's a lot more 3D work in Day Watch. What did that entail?

VL: The final shots when the building is reconstructed from the ruins. We used a lot of 3D for wide shots of the castle in the beginning. Again, for the airplanes and for the red car, a Mazda. As far as character animation, again we have the spider doll from Night Watch. And we have a lot of castle guardians and a lot of riders who are taking the castle. Technology-wise, it was the same as Night Watch and the management was oriented around the headquarters in the production house where [director] Timur [Bekmambetov] was doing his cut. Again, we got together maybe 20 vendors to do the job and 180 people altogether. We had 800 shots compared to Night Watch's 400 shots. So it took about a year to finish the visual effects. Color correction was done here at Encore Hollywood. It was a large amount of work but pretty much the same challenge.

BD: But some more complicated shots?

VL: Sandman is a complicated shot. In a way, it's something new, some new software that allows you to animate the sand. So we didn't have anything like that here -- not yet. But visually it had improvements. The shots are cooler. We have a television tower in Moscow that had to explode and fall down, so we did that. And then we show the crowd of people running out. It's very powerful. I personally like the shot of the castle attack, which is pretty dynamic and has a completely 3D wide shot. And the Mazda is a photorealistic 3D car. And we see it drive through a corridor.

BD: Tell us more about the exploding tower.

VL: The effect has a toy that kids like -- a yo-yo. But it doesn't come back: it multiplies and has a lot of metal balls that fly like bullets. Finally, the whole city fills with flying bullets and they destroy everything in their way and the same happens with the television tower and it falls down. So, of course, we modeled all that and the exploding glass.

BD: You use the usual tools?

VL: Yes, Maya and XSI, RenderMan and some people use Houdini. And for compositing we use NUKE and Shake and Digital Fusion and After Effects. And we do some of our own lighting to make it more spectacular.

Day Watch used Maya, XSI, RenderMan and Houdini. For compositing NUKE, Shake, Digital Fusion and After Effects were used.

BD: Tell us about your company, Dr. Picture Studios.

VL: I am one of the oldest CG specialists in Russia and I usually work as an overall visual effects supervisor for projects. And my company takes a leadership role, but not always in terms of volume of work. We usually do character animation, which is the most complicated stuff. And what we're doing right now is Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium [opening Nov. 16 from Fox]. This is the first visual effects-intensive Hollywood movie outsourced to Russia.

BD: That's great news. What can you tell us about it?

VL: A couple of years ago, I met visual effects supervisor Kevin Tod Haug, who did Panic Room, and it doesn't have a large budget, so it was a way of using vendors from Russia, for example, as a way of getting more effects for less money than going here. And he decided to test us and we did a couple of shots -- they liked it -- so now we do four shots for the final scene, which includes about 40 characters. The movie's about a magical toy store and we did some toys: penguins, a camel, a lot of kites, airplanes flying around, book jackets. It's pretty intensive on the animation side. We did the test in August and we just started to do the final shots in May and we'll finish in August.

And then there's another project of mine: Captivity [the psychological thriller directed by Roland Joffe from Lionsgate, which opens June 22]. It's not a visual effects-intensive movie. But they did some shooting in Moscow and invited me to help on six shots.

Leschinski is one of the oldest CG specialists in Russia and usually works as an overall visual effects supervisor. His company is presently at work on Mr. Magoriums Wonder Emporium. 

BD: And you have another Russian project, The Wolf Hound?

VL: It's a fantasy that should be like Lord of the Rings, but it is not, and hasn't been sold outside of Russia. But the technology and effects are good. The highlight is the animated, photorealistic bat, which is the sidekick of the hero that always sits on his shoulder. And actually we wrote a special plug-in to make the fur on the bat and it looks pretty good. Also, the project is interesting because we had 1,600 shots, which is a lot. That's more than the third Lord of the Rings. So it was pretty challenging.

BD: How many vendors were on that?

VL: Also about 20. But we did more than half and the most complicated stuff. We did all the lead characters, matte paintings and the final scene, with 600 shots that was shot on a bluescreen stage. There is atmosphere in it and miniatures.

BD: Is there a third Watch movie in the works?

VL: A good question. I've heard rumors about it. In Russian, it's called Twilight. There was talk of Fox Searchlight making it with Brad Pitt, but since Night Watch only made $1.5 million here, I haven't heard any more about it. But on DVD rentals, they made $11 million.

The spider doll from Night Watch makes a return visit in Day Watch.

BD: What has been the impact of Night Watch on the Russian visual effects industry?

VL: Visual effects are getting better but it's slow. We don't have a lot of specialists. But we are a young industry and we don't have special schools for that. What the Moscow schools teach is software and how to push buttons but they can't teach how to be an artist.

BD: That's a big complaint here too. Dennis Muren of ILM is writing a book that addresses this problem. So where do you get your artists from?

VL: Most of them are self-taught like me. And we take the best of them. Some people come from animation, some from design -- usually art directors. Compositors are not a big problem because that's not as complicated. But renderers and lighters are a big problem. These occupations need to know everything. But we have five renderers at my company. But the movie industry is growing significantly in Russia. Four years ago, we had maybe 40 or 50 movies. But this year we have 300 movies, but not all of them with visual effects. But there is plenty of work: from removal to water simulation to character animation to particle stuff. I think we will grow in the next few years.

BD: How many visual effects companies are there in Russia?

VL: I think it could be 50-100. In Moscow, around 40. But if you're talking about real companies with their own pipelines and software development, there's around five to 10 in Moscow. We are the biggest one with 60 people. The next in size has 35. The next after that has 25 and the next after that has 15.

BD: You're here looking for more work?

VL: Yes, I looking for work in Hollywood for my studio. Producers are starting to look for vendors other than in America. Again, they can get more effects for less money without sacrificing quality. For us, it's very interesting because it gives us a different technical level of creativity. Because Russian movies don't have that variety of effects. And Emporium has been a good experience working with American studio, American headquarters and producers and supervisors. It's not a technological breakthrough, but it's a good start for us.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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