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'Eagle Eye': Rendering with Arnold

Sony Pictures Imageworks tackles Eagle Eye with the aid of a new in-house renderer called Arnold, and Thomas J. McLean finds out how it helped with attaining a real-world look.

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For Eagle Eye, Sony Pictures Imageworks seamlessly integrated fantastic elements into a real-world setting. A tunnel had to be created and combined with practical elements. All images © 2008 DreamWorks LLC. 

Technology is less than friendly in DreamWorks' new thriller Eagle Eye, but it was more than helpful when it came to creating the film's visual effects.

The film's vfx work, by Sony Pictures Imageworks, was distinguished by the need to seamlessly and believably integrate the more fantastic elements of the film's premise into a real-world setting. Imageworks Visual Effects Supervisor Jim Berney and Digital Effects Supervisor Dave Smith say that was accomplished by integrating digital effects with practical equivalents shot on the set and with the help of a new renderer named Arnold that the company has been co-developing in-house.

Berney and Smith say they got the project because of their previous work with Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Jim Rygiel on such projects as The Lord of the Rings. Rygiel was the one on-set, working with director D.J. Caruso to ensure that what was shot would work out for the later effects work.

Berney says Caruso's primary direction for visual effects was that they support the story. "He didn't want the effects to steal the show," Smith says. "He would always have a name for a shot, and if we weren't telling the story, he'd say the name of this shot is '[whoever] exits the tunnel,' so we had to tell the story in the shot." The first sequence Berney and Smith worked on epitomized the challenges they faced on the film. The scene involved the mysterious overloading of some high-tension power lines in a remote desert location that snap, swing to the ground and electrocute someone. "That sequence, effects wise, wasn't over-the-top tricky -- it was more conceptually tricky," adds Berney. "We had to make it work in a way where it felt like there's some kind of intelligence behind it."

That intelligence is eventually revealed to be Aria, a military supercomputer connected to and capable of controlling every cell phone, web camera and networked electronic device in carrying out its mission of protecting the nation from terrorism. As often happens in such films, Aria believes it can only do so by seizing total control, and it uses all the tools at its disposal to blackmail a smart slacker and a single mom, played by Shia LeBeouf and Michelle Monaghan, into doing its dirty work.

For most of the film's vfx work, there were what Berney calls practical elements -- elements of sets, vehicles or shots that were captured on the set, miniatures shot at Kerner Studios, with digital effects used to supplement shots or create shots that were otherwise impossible to film.

Most sequences were a mix, such as a scene in which LeBeouf is freed from an FBI office tower when a crane smashes through the side of the building. The building seen in the film is fictional, with practical effects shot on a stage and placed digitally in a specific location near Quincy Station in downtown Chicago.

Another highlight was a chase scene in which small military aircraft, including Wasp and Reaper drones, pursue LeBeouf and Monaghan's vehicle into a long tunnel, resulting eventually in the explosion of a large tractor-trailer. When a real tunnel long enough to match the scene couldn't be found, Imageworks had to create one and combine practical elements shot at the El Toro Marine base in Orange County into the final shot.

"I think one of the Wasp shots and one of the Reaper shots used practical versions, and then when it was impossible to get the action that they wanted, or just impossible to shoot, we provided a CG version," suggests Smith.

The El Toro shots also provided their fair share of technical difficulties. "It was shot outside at night and it was raining. So trying to pull those mattes and get rid of all the rain and whatnot was really tricky," Berney adds.

Another challenge came in extending the set of Aria itself. Designed as a giant cylinder with tens of thousands of glowing spheres, the practical set featured about 75 degrees of the overall design, up to a height of a few stories. Imageworks was responsible for extending that set to a full 360 degrees, which was difficult because the complexity of the set meant it was shot without a greenscreen or bluescreen.

"There was just a ton of roto to put the actual CG environment behind it, as well as painting out any lens flares and things that were bleeding through," Berney says. "There was just a lot of front-end work that needed to be done to track, roto and paint out on those shots."

On the backend, the new renderer Arnold was a big help. "We used it in the past on Monster House and it is being developed for future shows," Smith says. "But it was at a state where, because we had mostly hard surface models, that kind of thing -- buildings, tunnels, airplanes -- that we could take advantage of it and it really helped us match the kind of lighting we had on set here."

"With the Aria set, it's conceptually very straightforward: It's a cylinder and it's got 30,000 hemispheres that are glowing," Berney says. "My first reaction is, 'How are we going to achieve this in the rendering, do multiple layers, try to get the timing and the pattern and all that stuff?' We brought the Arnold developers in and I explained to them what we wanted, and they said, 'Yeah, just model it and just run it.' And I go, 'OK, will it take all day to render?' And they said, 'Not at all.' It's a pretty efficient renderer. You just basically model what you want in the real world and it's basically spot-on."

Berney goes a bit further, explaining: "It's actually calculating the energies around a scene and it's calculating pixels that way. So how that helps us now in our business and on Eagle Eye, as I said, you can actually model your lighting environment more toward the real world and you'll get better results."

"We had a lot of these pieces, and we had to match those right-on because they had to blend together," he continues. "Using this type of renderer let us get to those results more quickly."

Arnold supplemented Imageworks' use of Maya as its base tool, which is augmented with tools developed in house. Compositing is done with a number of tools, ranging from an in-house compositor to Shake and Flame suites.

Work on the film began in February and finished in August, with Imageworks doing around 280 shots. A base crew of about 30 people worked on the film, but they were frequently joined for short periods by specialists from Imageworks' talent pool, as needed.

Another difficult sequence involved inserting backgrounds in shots where a car is lifted up by a crane and in which the city skyline needed to be visible in the background. Berney says getting believable static tiles was a bit tricky.

"You don't have a lot of resources to pick up the kind of stuff you might want for an environment," says Smith. "What we end up doing is trying to do the best with [what we're given]."

The solution was to add some dimensionality to the background, enhancing it with various techniques, including reprojection, to get a believable result.

Smith says working on a project like Eagle Eye offers a nice balance to films where the effects are more visible to the viewer.

"It's nice to kind of balance it out with things that are subtle and people don't really notice," says Smith. "Then you know you've done your job."

Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comic book blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.

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