Alain Bielik chats with Framestore CFC and Double Negative about creating the character animation and environmental vfx, respectively, in Doom.
Once upon a time, playing an action videogame meant controlling the action of a character running, jumping and fighting on screen. It was fun, it was cool, but something was missing. The game experience was not really immersive. That all changed on Dec. 10, 1993, when id Software unleashed a revolutionary game that broke all the rules. Wolfenstein 3D initiated the First Person Shooter perspective, a game concept in which the player explored an environment and annihilated his enemies through the eyes of his on-screen avatar. You no longer played the character; you were the character.
The FPS concept then exploded with Doom. In the film version of the videogame (released by Universal on Oct. 21), a team of Marines is sent to a research facility on Mars to answer a distress call. When they arrive, they find out that an experiment has gone awry and that a portal with another dimension has been opened. Horrific creatures now run amok in the facility, picking off the survivors and soon the Marines one by one.
For director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Cradle 2 the Grave), it was clear from the beginning that visual effects should be kept to a minimum. He wanted to capture most of the action in camera, which included favoring special make-up effects to visualize most of the creatures. The suits were designed and fabricated by Stan Winston Studios under the supervision of John Rosengrant. When practical effects didnt suffice, Bartkowiak relied on the expertise of visual effects supervisor Jon Farhat (The Mask, Dr. Dolittle). The 350 effects shots were split among two British vendors: Framestore CFC handled character animation and creature work in 130 shots, while Double Negative focused primarily on environments, dimensional effects and futuristic weapons in about 200 shots.
Part of Framestore CFCs creature effects assignment was to digitally augment the make-up effects, which included animating the CG tongue of the Imps characters. However, no CG animation was used to create the characters themselves except for Pinky. This was a character that could not be realized by practical means. Played by Dexter Fletcher, Pinky is a scientist who has lost his legs in an earlier accident and had his torso grafted into a hi-tech wheelchair. The actor was shot in situ on a remote control wheelchair rig, Framestore CFC visual effects producer Tim Keene reveals. CG supervisor Laurent Hugueniot and his crew created a CG chair that was tracked to the action plate. We then painted up clean background plates, and rotoscoped the character off. After that, he was composited along with the CG wheel chair back into the clean plate. The scene was realized, like the rest of Framestore CFCs shots, using the facilitys customary Maya/RenderMan/Shake pipeline, with particle animation and fire effects being created in Houdini.
Pinky soon meets his fate when the Baron, the largest of all creatures, attacks him. For this scene, Framestore CFC used a CG double of the actor, as the character had to be violently swung around in a room. The Baron was shot in situ swinging an object, with the approximate length that Pinky would have been, into set objects, Keene explains. We created, animated and composited in the full CG Pinky double into the live-action plates, adding interaction sparks and debris as required. The main challenge here was to re-create Fletcher photorealistically, including clothes and hair.
When the Movie Meets the Game
Pinky makes a last appearance at the end of the movie, after he has mutated into a horrific creature that is still attached to a now battered wheel chair. The Pinky demon was an entirely computer-generated character that was designed, built and animated by Framestore CFC. Its confrontation with lead Marine John Grim (Karl Urban) takes place at the end of a much talked about groundbreaking sequence. Several minutes long, the sequence starts with the camera pushing forward into Grims pupil as he wakes up from unconsciousness. At this point, the movie switches to the characters point of view and remains so for the next seven minutes. This is the sequence we were all excited about when we first read the script, comments Mark Nelmes, Framestore CFC visual effects supervisor. It was really the point where the movie met the game.
The First Person Shooter sequence was shot on Steadicam, for the most part. The choreography of the camera moves had been carefully planned with the objective that the individual takes could be combined in post to create one seamless sequence, Keene observes. In total, lead compositor Jonathan Fawkner executed over 15 of these hook-up points using both compositing, 2D paint and 3D environment techniques. Some transitions were created by transitioning from a whip pan at the end of a plate to another whip pan at the beginning of the next plate. Other transitions required a more sophisticated approach. One transition takes place when the character jumps over a creature, Nelmes observes. We had two Steadicam plates that we had to connect via a jump plate that had been filmed wild with a Libracam. This required reconstructing the set as a two and-a-half D matte painting. Once the 15 transitions had been completed, the sequence looked like a 7,000-frames long continuous shot.
In order to manage the huge amount of data that the sequence represented, Fawkner broke it down into eight different sections, the final Pinky demon battle being a 2,000-frame scene of its own. Each section was then broken down into shorter segments that were handed over to animators for digital enhancement. Those included creating bullet hits, debris, sparks, blood splats, muzzle flashes, smoke, adding CG rats and performing CG head replacement on the Baron. Digital paint supervisor Bruce Nelson and his artists had quite a lot of paint work to do in order to remove pieces of equipment or light fixtures that couldnt be hidden during plate photography. The completed elements were then integrated into the live-action plates. At this stage, the segments were carefully graded in Framestore CFCs proprietary Baselight system to make sure that the entire sequence had a consistent look.
Mister Gun, Get Ready For Your Close-Up
The graded file was then given to animation supervisor Kevin Spruce who created John Grims CG gun and hands for the full First Person Shooter effect. Just like in the videogame, the weapon is seen at all time in the foreground, while the characters hands occasionally appear in the frame to change the magazine. We shot a test with real hands and a real weapon in front of a greenscreen, Nelmes says. It worked fine we actually used it for the very first magazine change but we found out that it would be extremely difficult to match the diverse lighting conditions of the sequence. By creating the foreground elements in CG, lighting supervisor Ben White was able to crucially match the lighting of the background plate onto the gun. Plus, we could have full control over the choreography of the weapon.
The 2.35:1 image aspect ratio made it difficult to create interesting compositions with the gun in the foreground. In the videogame, the regular aspect ratio is 1.33:1, which leaves a lot of room in the upper part of the frame to animate the targeted creatures. In the movie, we couldnt use the same framing, as the gun would have completely blocked out the things the character was shooting at! Nelmes continues. It became a real exercise in animation. One solution was to place the gun on the side of the frame; the other one was to slightly lower it as soon as Grim had shot something. Using a greyscale animation of the gun, we then added the muzzle flashes in the right places, ensuring that they appeared in the right frames. This element was then composited over the background plate. We utilized that to set up the lighting model for the gun, taking into account both the real environment and the digital muzzle flashes. The CG gun was then rendered and composited in the shot. The last step was to run the sequence though a final grading tweak.
The First Person Shooter sequence concludes with a head-to-head battle between Grim and the Pinky demon. From the early stage, we opted to create the room that the section takes place in as a fully CG environment, Keene explains. While raising the challenge bar, it gave us the control over the lighting, architecture and objects within that room that our Pinky creature needed to interact with. The first stage was to block out and look down the overall animation of the creature along with the arms and legs of Grim and any weapons that he utilizes. Originally, we had planned on a 2D shoot of the live-action portions of Grim hands, arms, legs but, again, it proved better, despite the additional challenges, to create these in CG as well. Once we had the animation approved, we embarked on finalizing the room, the objects within and the lighting. Finally, we composited the whole scene and bolted it onto the end of the First Person Shooter sequence. As such, it was a 2,000 frame continuous, fully CG sequence that came after a very 2D, live-action visual effects sequence and, therefore, we had to make sure the look was right.
Now You See It, Now You Dont
While Framestore CFC focused on creature animation, artists at Double Negative were busy visualizing the facility and its futuristic technology. The main security feature of the facility is the nanowall technology, a system that turns a solid wall into a liquid surface and allows people to pass through. The concept took several months to nail down. CG supervisor Jesper Kjolsrud explains: The director wanted more than a Stargate water effect. After exploring many different options, we opted for a concept in which particles in a wall formed hexagonal cells that could transform from fluid state to opaque and back. The rippling, liquid surfaces were created with displacement maps, using the fluid simulation program that we had written in Maya for Below and further developed for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The elements were then rendered out in our proprietary volumetric renderer, DNB, and composited with Shake.
Although the CG animation worked perfectly in close-up, showing great detail, the effect appeared completely mushed together in wide shots. The shots that we thought would be the easiest long shots of the nanowalls turned out to be the most difficult, as we didnt have enough pixels to generate an equivalent of the animation that worked so well in close-ups, visual effects producer Steve Garrad recalls. It took a lot of tweaking to make this work. The same is true for the wormhole droplet an interplanetary transportation system and the plasma gun. These shots were very difficult to nail down from a design point of view. If you have to create a CG helicopter or a CG creature, you know when it looks real. You have real life equivalents to match to. However, when you are working on a nanowall, a wormhole or a plasma ray, there is no real life reference. Should it be greener or bluer? It all becomes completely subjective. We ended up working on those shots until the very last minute, just to make sure that they worked.
Derived from the look that had been established in the game, the plasma ray gun effect was created (and rendered) in Maya in different layers. The core was a basic geometry that was surrounded by swirling fluid simulations and particle animations. Although interactive lighting had been created on set during plate photography, Double Negatives artists added many extra light effects to ensure a better integration of the plasma ray animation in the environment. For the shot of the plasma gun destroying a room, we shot two versions of the same set, one intact and one in which the walls and furniture were completely melted, Kjolsrud recounts. We then created a wipe between the two sets that was timed to the progression of the plasma ray in the room.
Double Negative also created the opening shot of the movie. It begins with the traditional Universal Pictures logo, except that planet Earth has been replaced by a NASA photograph of Mars. The camera then flies down to the surface of the planet until it reaches the research facility. For the first part of the shot, we used high-resolution images from NASA on which we applied displacement maps to created a three-dimensional effect, Garrad observes. As the camera went down, we switched to several layers of matte-paintings before arriving on a CG model of the facility. Using CGI instead of a practical miniature allowed us to make modifications and to improve the shot until the very last minute.
For Nelmes, as for Kjolsrud and Garrad, Doom was a particularly fun project to work on as they all had played the game before. Studio executives now hope that those artists wont be the only ones to enjoy the movie, and that Doom will soon join Tomb Raider and Resident Evil as a successful videogame adaptation, rather than fall into oblivion like Wing Commander and Alone in the Dark
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 at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.