Tara DiLullo discovers how Giant Killer Robots, Stan Winston Digital and Soho VFX pulled off the vfx wonders of Fantastic Four.
While translating comic books to the big screen has been all the rage for the last two decades in Hollywood, there have been plenty of titles that have proved to be too difficult to make the transition. One of those was Fantastic Four. Its been a blockbuster title for Marvel since Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created it in the early 60s. For more than 40 years, the books have charted the adventures of a dysfunctional family of ordinary friends that once exposed to cosmic radiation, now have spectacular otherworldly superpowers that help them protect the world. The characters of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) and the rock-like Thing (Michael Chiklis) were always amazing on the page, but how to make them just as fantastic on-screen through technology and visual effects was an entirely different problem. Its only been in the last few years that visual effects have evolved enough to actually rise to the challenge of a credible translation.
Enter Kurt Williams, visual effects supervisor for Twentieth Century Foxs Fantastic Four, originally a naysayer that also didnt think the movie could be done well. Ive been watching this project from afar for quite a while, Williams admits. Up until this most recent attempt at getting the movie made, I really was not interested. For one thing, I never felt we could make a convincing flame that would work on a character. Even the Reed characters stretch was a leap of faith and I wasnt sure how it was going to work with a photoreal movie.
What happened to change Williams mind were the advances in his field, a script that worked and a director that was like-minded to Williams in the adaptation approach. When I did come aboard, my biggest priority was to define with Tim Story, the director, a tool set by which he could develop these characters. In the beginning of the film, the four characters and [villain] Victor Von Doom are in space when they get hit by the cosmic ray storm. Once they return to Earth safely, their powers reveal themselves and my job was to give [Tim] the tool set to do that. One of the rules we set from day one was that the effects needed to be organic and extensions of our characters. In the film, each character has a specific power: Richards can stretch his body like rubber, Sue Storm goes invisible, her brother Johnny becomes a human torch and the Thing turns into a prosthetic rock monster. Tim wanted to have the actors on the set in the situations as often as possible, so we engineered how we approached our effects in order to allow him to do that, Williams continues. For instance with Johnny Storm, we captured his performance on the set and/or with greenscreen whenever possible. With the help of Giant Killer Robots in San Francisco and their visual effects supervisor, Peter Oberdorfer, we were able to rotomate his performance, putting our CG model of Chris over that and then applying our flame effects.
Considering the intensity and scale of effects needed for each character, Williams decided to give specific vendors the responsibility of an individual character. I started very early casting for facilities that would work economically with us, because we didnt have the largest of budgets, which was another problem. My determination was that we didnt need the biggest vendors, but the right ones. Part of what getting this movie done meant, especially at the budget level, was getting these people to deliver in the end. I went to Giant Killer Robots as an anchor vendor and they did the Human Torch and a good deal of the CG environments. I worked with them on the first Scooby-Doo movie and they did a lot for the last two Matrix films. It became important that I had a good technological base and they are a very technical facilityOnce we got that, I cast for two other facilities that would each take a character and they had to be really good. Not only did we have a short post, we anticipated a lot of edit changes in March, April and May.
In the end, Sue Storm was given to Stan Winston Digital and Reed Richards was handed to Soho VFX of Toronto. As it turns out, because we had additional effects, I spread out the work to 11 vendors in total, Williams adds. We had meetings with all the supervisors about compatibility. The one thing I said to every vendor was, Check your ego at the door, because we are not going to run into technical problems with each other because we are going to do practice runs. We didnt have the time or money for us to have technical issues based on compatibility. Most vendors were compatible to Maya. The main differences were mental ray rendering vs. RenderMan, with regard to the characters. We did have to make a jump to Inferno on a couple things, but all of that seemed to work out. For the most part, the Maya platform has really helped people to become compatible, which helped because originally, we had a rough life span of 12 weeks for a shot, but by the end of the movie, we had to produced full on CG shots in three weeks.
Flame on Johnny Storm!
In creating the brash character of Johnny Storm, Williams says his vfx team had one of their biggest challenges. Johnnys power is his ability to heat from within and burst into flame, along with flying. His development and execution was handed to Giant Killer Robots, who worked closely with Williams to tackle the credible flaming issues. Describing the initial stages, Williams says, In the beginning, Peter really pushed me that we would start with a fully torched version of Johnny, so then we would be able to draw back on that information for the earlier part of the film, where Johnny is just beginning to understand his powers. There were also a couple things that were really important with regards to the Johnny character, like interactive lighting on the set, which didnt end up being a one-stop shop; it was very specific to the situation. We had many lighting rings that had to be prepared well in advance. Once we got through a set day, it was in Peters court and they were able to come up with a recipe of flame simulations and layers that would allow us to create a computer-generated flame that was convincing.
One thing that is true in the comic book that we had to bring to life was that Johnny heats from his core and heats up through his skin, Williams details. Its so hot in his core, that the extreme heat would not manifest itself in the form of flame until its exposed to oxygen, so that was one of the rules of physics that we first decided to help define our path. In the early stages, we looked at everything from molten lava to a standard ball of flame, to glass blowing and one of the elements that came to the forefront in our search was basically the sun. We based the flame that came off of Johnny loosely on solar flares. From there, Peter was able to create a skin layer, subsurface layers under the skin, heat signature and several layers of flame simulations. Some are baked in and some are adjusted in the composites to represent the full color spectrum of flame, which we found was another important aspect of making flame convincing. It also had to react to Johnny, so it was a simulation that was attached to his body and had movement.
Peter Oberdorfer, vfx supervisor at Giant Killer Robots, describes how they achieved that fluidity. In many shots, there was the need to transition seamlessly between virtual characters and a live-action performance, such as when Chris flies in and lands right in front of camera flaming off, so we relied upon our proprietary tracking software that we had previously used in several other movies that involved close facial and body matchmoving. We call our proprietary software Trackula, dont ask me why, he adds. We also knew going into this project from our previous experience that trying to replace a close-up human facial performance rarely pays off. Most audience members spot CGI when it involves close-ups on faces. Even though the Human Torch effect involves multiple layers of CGI, we could still use the original actors performance, and know that it would line up seamlessly with our 3D effects rig the best of both worlds!
To ensure more accurate body tracks, we used motion capture libraries with synchronized/time-coded video from multiple angles of each actor in numerous positions and motion cycles, he continues. This enabled us to create a tracking rig that could accurately extend and deform like the real actors would in various situations. That, combined with the fact that the rigs were derived from multiple cyberscans of the actor in various wardrobes, gave us a virtual character that we could seamlessly blend into any live action performance, and allowed us to do seamless transitions between the live action and virtual performances.
As to how Oberdorfers team technically created the flame layers, he explains, We took a multi-pronged approach that gave us a set of options depending on what action was going on in a particular shot or sequence. We started with research into various Fluid Dynamics systems and software, and decided that the best results for our pipeline was to enlist Alias software developers to help us create a souped-up version of their fluid dynamics system that fit our particular needs for this project. This helped optimize simulation time, cache time, our mental ray render pipeline and the like, and also gave us a set of controls that were suited specifically to generating fire effects. We also relied upon our own techniques in implementing this software, and integrating it with the Maya particle system that benefited the plus-side of both the fluid engine and the Maya particle system. For Johnnys trail, we used a combination of fluid simulations, sprite particles, emitted softbodies and a library of practical pyro elements that we filmed in Vancouver.
Another crucial component to the Torch effect was sun surface that Johnnys skin/body turned into when he was in full Human Torch mode. This involved the integration of multiple layers in the composite that we could build up, sort of an underpainting method that gave great variety and depth to the movement of the plasma along and within the Torchs body. The movement also corresponded to the generation and movement of the Fluid Dynamic Flames that emanated off of his body.
All of that work was tested in what Williams says was one of the key effects shots of the entire film. When Reed is testing [Johnny] in the heat chamber, we had our most challenging shot, I think, of the movie because not only is the expectation of this character gigantic to fans and non-fans, we had a close-up version that we had to sell the character. If we didnt sell him in those first two shots as believable, then we were in trouble. We took this shot and really worked on a recipe of many, many layers. It was a very special scene and it was one of our biggest hurdles.
The Reed Richards Challenge
For stretchy scientist Reed Richards, Williams says they faced another difficult set of issues, not the least being the screen competition. Reed was the second most daunting of our cast. We decided with all the characters that we would apply a set of rules and they arent our rules, but they are the rules of the Fantastic Four and thats particularly important with Reed Richards. We never felt he would inadvertently stretch out his arm 20 feet. We always felt, especially as he was learning his power, that it was kinetic. If he had to stretch out his arm, then he would have to throw it and it would spring out. We couldnt take the liberties of animated movies, like The Incredibles, because the effects are attached to our actual actors. We had to stay true to the set of rules that we physically set up for the characters. It was important to Tim and I that he stays true to his anatomical structure and his musculature. At the same time when he stretches, you essentially have to regenerate his body as he stretches and that was difficult thing to keep it organic. I enlisted the help of visual effects supervisor Allan Magled, who owns Soho VFX in Toronto. They were able to come up with a regenerating stretch effect for Reed.
In the beginning of the movie, they dont have their suits yet, so the first couple of times Reed stretches, he stretches outside of his suit, Williams continues. We had to create a full skin version of Reed in addition to applying all the things we had learned from stretching him in the suit to his actual skin. Once again, my promise to Tim was that we would give him at least one shot where we would absolutely set up the rules for the character and those were the important shots where we sold the powers. There is a shot where Reed is trying to rescue Ben Grimm. Reed cant get in the door, so he reaches under the door and his hand reaches up to unlock it. Its an important shot because it shows what we are physically doing to his arm in the movie and technically, it was quite a task to regenerate his arm in the stretch. It was coming up with the right balance of whats too gross and not looking like rubber. In that 1,000-frame shot, there are 25 layers of compositing and thats 25,000 frames rendered for one shot!
Seeing Sue Storm
The interesting conundrum for the character of Sue Storm was basically deciding how to make the young, gorgeous actress Alba disappear from the movie not exactly something the executives were interested in doing. For Sue, the task was as much artistic as technical. Sue Storms powers are based on emotion, even in the comic books, Williams explains. After watching Jessica for a bit, she plays Sue as a very ethereal character and her powers are directed by her emotions. She learns in the movie is that if she can control her emotions, she can control her powers. We had to ramp that up through the movie and Tim and I were very adamant about not just having her go invisible. Our conceit also as an audience member was that were always able to see a little bit of her and it was important to retain some of her features. Animation director Randall Rosa at Stan Winston Digital helped us come up with a direction for her. The theory around Sue is that she bends light around her. In our simplest technical terms, we mixed refraction and incident lighting on the set in order to give her a rim lit look to identify her performance and also to know she is there. We minimized it in a lot of shots, but it became very effective.
Detailing their methodology (which included such software as XSI, Shake, MatchMover, 3D Equalizer, PFTrack and Combustion), Andre Bustanoby, visual effects supervisor at Stan Winston Digital, explains, We knew going into it that her character would principally be a design issue. We had to look very broadly on what does invisibility mean for a character that goes back 40 years, but also what it means for an audience looking at a film circa 2005 given the their visual reference points. Invisibility has been done dozens and dozens of times nearly throughout the history of film from The Invisible Man in the 30s through Hollow Man and Predator. So we started with whatever design work the production team had already done, but they didnt have a whole lot of design reference except for three or four ideas of how to visualize Sue. We went back in the script for a description of her powers and it literally come down to Reed trying to explain to her not only what happened but how she does what she does. Shes not atomically and sub-atomically going invisible, its more that she is emitting a force field a nanometer beyond the extent of her skin that is literally bending light.
Theres actually some very good science to back that up in doing versions of that for stealth research. Anyhow, it allows the light to go around her and from anyones point of view they dont see her, but a disturbance, an echo, if you will. We took that and figured it was some kind of refraction and then figured out what materials in the real world do that, like glass and water. We did some early testing deciding that we didnt want glass or water, but we knew that they would be part of it to visually sell this bending of light idea. We ended up using a technique of taking incidence light coupled with refraction, which tells the story of the force field and it helps to form her shape and her face so the audience recognizes her. It was the balance of making her invisible enough and not too invisible. At the end of the day, its good filmmaking and it tells the story of her character and is beautiful and elegant.
Making the Four Fantastic
Despite his initial doubts, Williams admits, Im very proud of four things in particular, where I think we excelled with the movie. Number one was the space station sequence. I really wanted to put a Fantastic Four comic book twist on the cosmic storm. Tim and I were always on the same page, but we had resistance from others at the studio. We really fought to keep the storm as a menacing red storm. In the effect, when it hits the actors, we didnt feel we wanted to go into the DNA of it. We felt like we wanted it to be an impactful scene at the beginning of the movie and we didnt have a lot of money. We utilized supervisor John DesJardin, who did a lot of the Matrix stuff, and he pulled that sequence together very quickly. We were given a fiscal edict on that sequence because it just wasnt that important to the studio, but it was important to Tim and I. We created an impact scene. As far as bang for the buck, that wins the award.
Second, was The Human Torch, he continues. From the time that Peter and Tim and I looked at the many covers of Fantastic Four magazines to the end result, I think we achieved it. Johnnys fun and we went back and forth on him. He was a little more fiery and lava-like and we pulled back on it, because we didnt want it to feel like his skin was actually burning. We had to complete it in a PG way that would allow us to still be effective.
I was also really proud of the bridge scene. We had one sequence that takes place on the Brooklyn Bridge and ironically we didnt shoot one frame of film on the actual bridge. We built 200 feet of it in a parking lot in Vancouver, so I needed somebody just being dedicated to being the bridge people. I found I needed a vendor with a significant pipeline with the ability to supervise something like that, with creating a full CG bridge. They had to be a jack-of-all-trades for that sequence. The company up for that job ended up being Meteor Studios of Montreal, Canada. There were a lot of doubters from all levels of this film, saying, How are we going to do this on a 200-foot bridge? As it turns out, we had a 250 shot sequence that spans seven or eight minutes and there are literally six or seven real bridge shots and the rest is CG or aerial shots that I photographed of New York.
With regard to Reed, Williams concludes, We have a couple of shots that are in your face and you cant hide with compositing tricks. I think if there are future Fantastic Four movies, Im proud that we were able to open the door on a type of technology and look that will be convincing for Reed.
Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the Websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.