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Digital Domain Doubles Down on 'Ender's Game'

Digital Domain was a producing partner on the adaptation of Orson Scott Card's sci-fi classic, which provided more creative freedom.

Ender's Game. All images © 2013 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All Rights Reserved

As investor and co-producer, Digital Domain (now called 3.0 under its new ownership) had a stronger creative role on Ender's Game, the sci-fi adventure adapted from Orson Scott Card's sci-fi novel about the militarization of youth starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford.

"It allowed us to be a part of the process earlier on than normal because of the budgetary responsibility [$125 million] and we got to design quite closely together with director Gavin Hood," recalls DD VFX supervisor Matthew Butler. "The first day we went over to our watering hole and because Gavin was both writer and director, he opened his laptop and he was still writing the script and we just started talking. It's a good way to get the most for your money."

The challenges of this virtual production included creating the zero-g Battle Room and its four battles; the opening battle in the clouds (volumetric using the new cloud shader that approximated a physical light scattering effect); re-imagining the Command School Simulator and the final battle; the creation of the Mind Games; and animating the insect-like alien Queen (all Butler would say at this time is that they made her look both menacing and sympathetic through the performance, and conveyed through the large eyes).

There are around 950 total VFX shots, of which DD created 700, with the remaining 250 delivered by six partner companies in four cities and three countries. These include Vectorsoul & Post 23 (Mind Game animation), Method Studios, The Embassy, Comen VFX, G Creative Prods. (motion graphics) and Goldtooth Creative Agency (motion graphics).

"This movie is big but it had many different disciplines that made it hard for us to be efficient because there's a lot of asset building," Butler explains. "So we've got the earth-bound daytime clouds, which we had to achieve. Then they go off to Battle School, which is in a space station orbiting earth, which required us to solve zero-gravity. No easy feat. We wanted to shoot as much as possible to get the performance of the kids, but we need to feel realistic in terms of the motion, so we had to develop tools to help us capture it photographically but then to augment that to make it realistic for zero-gravity.

"That required us to take imagery that we shot and re-project it onto animated geometry and reanimate the content to be correct for zero-g. Obviously we also needed to create the environment around the zero-g room but the hardest part was emulating the right kind of dynamic physics."

Butler, who holds an M.A. degree in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, tapped his former college roommate, astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, who had flown on the space shuttle Endeavor and spent months in the space station, to educate the young actors and Digital Domain's animators on zero-g, physics, and movement in space.

As a result of Digital Domain developing CG versions of the actors' flash suits and re-creating the lighting environment digitally, they were able to keep the actors’ faces from the live action shoot and replace nearly all of the body motions with digital doubles. In the end, the only real elements in the Battle Room sequences are the actors’ faces and the gate where the Launchies enter. Essentially everything else is CG.

Because the Battle School has low ceilings, cinematographer Don McAlpine and the production designers integrated lighting into the sets. Everything was wired through a computer system so it could be customized and could change the mood within that space. They had 4,500 individual lights on set. They used an extensive LED lighting system (similar to Gravity's zero-g lighting approach) and the cinematographer's team devised schematics for thousands of lights wired through a dimmer board and controlled by a computer system that could lower, raise or pulse the lights.

In keeping with Hood’s direction that the sim cave should not look like imagery projected onto surfaces, Digital Domain created a holograph-like space in which Ender and his team are fully immersed in a photo-real version of the games. In a departure from typical approaches to shooting this kind of environment, the filmmakers lit the content of the displays and the environment independently, then deliberately took artistic license to break that pattern for the final explosion of the Formic planet.

The content displayed in the sim cave is a volumetric holograph that allows Ender to control his point of view of the game. The graphical readouts and control mechanisms he uses to drive his POV (created by G Creative and Goldtooth Creative) are integrated with the photo-real environment. As Ender moves through the grid, the graphics are entwined with his reality.

Throughout all of the battle sequences, Butler focused on maintaining physical accuracy in behavior, size and scale of all ships, planets and elements in outer space, and explosions that reflect the proper dynamics of space. The final battle is the most compute-intensive, geometry-heavy effect sequence Digital Domain has ever created, comprising more than 27 billion polygons in a single shot.

"Then you've got the really out there Mind Game, which, for me is quite refreshing because it's so different," Butler continues. "If you look deeply into this movie, it's quite disturbing. We're exploiting children for warfare. I think it's kind of nice to be able to depart into this dream-like fantasy world. It's stylized in a painterly way, so it's not your modern video game. And we partnered with Vectorsoul and they did the bulk of the animation, the lighting and the execution of design."

Digital Domain collaborated with Spanish-based Vectorsoul & Post 23 to create the Mind Game as a series of animated sequences where avatars in the game play out scenes that give Ender insight into his enemy and himself. To create the performance of the mouse (Ender’s avatar), butterfly/Formic queen (Valentine’s avatars) and giant, Hood directed and shot the actors in a virtual environment at Digital Domain’s virtual production studio, capturing facial performance as well as body motion. This approach gave Hood the opportunity to get a sense of the action and emotion of the animated sequence in a real-world environment. Hood even acted the part of the giant and was motion-captured along with Butterfield and Abigail Breslin.

Not surprisingly, it's the zero-g accomplishment that most impressed Butler. "We changed 80% of the shots. It was valuable to get actors up in the air and interact with each other and move through the lighting. And if you can get really close, which we did, the augmentation doesn't break the system. It was a marriage of practical stunt work with post manipulation of computer graphics."

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld and the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com). He's also a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and contributing editor of Animation Scoop at Indiewire. Desowitz is additionally the author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.