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'The Fountain': VFX in a Petri Dish

Bill Desowitz gets closer to The Fountain with director Darren Aronofsky, vfx supervisor/designer Jeremy Dawson and Intelligent Creature's vfx supervisor Raymond Gieringer. Includes Quicktime clips!


The Fountain brings the feel of 2001 to 2006. All images courtesy of Intelligent Creature. © Warner Bros. Pictures.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

The story behind the making of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (opening Nov. 22 from Warner Bros.) has become legendary. Shut down in 2002 when Brad Pitt bowed out (he was cast alongside Cate Blanchett as eternal lovers in three parallel stories spanning 1,000 years), the project later re-emerged in 2004 with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz and a budget slashed from $75 million to $35 million. But what stayed constant was Aronofsky's vision of the vfx as timeless, organic and less CGI driven than other contemporary sci-fi movies. That's because after viewing The Matrix as an epiphany, the indie director believed that it was time to return to 2001: A Space Odyssey for the next trippy, metaphysical journey into time and space.

Utilizing his New York-based Amoeba Proteus visual effects company, with Jeremy Dawson and Dan Schrecker serving as vfx supervisors/designers, Aronofsky hired Peter Parks of Imagequest 3D to shoot special vfx microphotography for space elements in a Petri dish. One fundamental component of the movie is a futuristic voyage that Jackman undertakes through space on a spherical ship. He moves through a series of astral backgrounds, ultimately heading toward a dying star.

"We got Peter to shoot different chemical elements and globules floating [as star fields] and we had more size and density variation than you usually see in space movies," Dawson suggests. "He used yeast and curry powder but was cagey about everything else. All we knew was Peter was doing some new tricks specifically for our film. We shot with him for a month and brought back footage before principal photography. We designed the look and feel of the nebula based on this footage because the cinematographer [Matthew Libatique] wanted to light the set in a way that it would blend together and feel seamless. We liked using something so small to illustrate something so massive and the whole cyclical nature of the film being about life and death. I thought it worked metaphysically. And we set up some rules and it gave us something that we probably wouldn't have thought of on our own."

"I remember when all the footage would come in and it would be like Christmas morning," Aronofsky recalls. "For me, the visual effects are really, really complicated, amazing and totally mysterious. I'm proud of the work that Dan and Jeremy pulled off because I truly [believe] that it's unlike anything that's been done before. There are lots of shots where the effects are on their own in their full screen glory, like the dying star, and it looks very psychedelic and very new and very different.

"And I think it's going to be looking really good for a very long time because it's real particles in real physical space. It's not like the technology that was responsible for it is going to change and we're going to start to see through it, which I find in a lot of CGI work sometimes six months or a year down the line. As an audience member, you start to see the magic trick."

Because the subject matter was about disease and nature taking its course, the filmmakers also thought it would be best to use natural elements and organic technology in making the correlation between the look of space with what was going on inside the bodies of Hugh and Rachel. "So then we had this philosophical discussion with Darren and decided not to use anything computer-generated and whenever possible shoot something and combine it," Dawson recalls.

However, Aronofsky was perfectly fine with compositing and layering, though some 3D elements were unavoidable, according to Dawson, including the exploding star (courtesy of Giant Killer Robots) and the blooming of the tree of life through Jackman's body. Amoeba Proteus also prevised the entire space sequence and fully rendered out in 3D in Maya. This allowed Aronofsky to cut together the sequence using animatics.


Here, we see the focus on an organic feel toward the visual effects.

Toronto-based Intelligent Creatures, under the supervision of Raymond Gieringer and Jamie Hallett, was responsible for designing and creating a variety of space backgrounds that would serve as the backdrop for the trek. "We had a whole language that we spoke with [Intelligent Creatures] based on descriptions of Peter's work," Dawson adds. "We liked using something so small to illustrate something so massive and the whole cyclical nature of the film being about life and death. I thought it worked metaphysically. And we set up some rules and it gave us something that we probably wouldn't have thought of on our own."

Part of the design challenge was to create a sense of space that would be as timeless 20 years from now as it was today. To accomplish this, Intelligent Creatures drew from Park's library of macro-footage of various liquid chemical reactions. These practical elements were then split-apart, warped and displaced to become a series of naturally progressing space backgrounds. There were a multitude of scenes, 234 shots in all, in which these backgrounds were ultimately utilized.

"The first stage was to develop various 'Hero' backgrounds that would serve as the backdrops for Jackman's voyage to the dying star," Gieringer explains. "Each environment was modular, yet connected, so we had to discover what each would be comprised of, and ultimately how they fit together. These discoveries took the form of repurposing many of the elements, both large and minute that existed within Peter Park's macro-footage into a much larger and controllable canvas.

"The techniques that we used such as grid warping, displacement and defocus are somewhat standard in our industry, much like traditional paint, brush and canvas. However, the real accomplishment in the creation of the environments lies with the ways in which the artists utilized this toolset. In the end, the artists' imagination was the key to the cosmic jigsaw puzzle that lay within Peter's elements. In technical terms, our tool of choice in the construction of the space backgrounds was Digital Fusion. It was built for film use many years ago and has proven invaluable to us in the design and execution of high-end film work.

"In terms of there being no CGI at all, it is really a matter of perspective. Traditionally, many or all of the elements that we utilized to create our backgrounds would have been computer-generated. But it was very important to Darren that the look and feel of the film was timeless, not just the best we could do in 2006. So we went down a different road in creating the elements... we generated them organically instead of in a computer. So, yes, technically there is no CGI at all in our creations. However, the various tools and techniques that we employed to ultimately create our master canvases were computer-centric. So in simple terms, the elements we used were from the real world, but the ways in which they were combined were CG-based. Our team consisted of about 35 crew members, and if you include the initial time we spent designing the environments we worked on the film for the better part of a year.

"Darren had a vision for the film. Dan and Jeremy were partners in the evolution and design of that vision. We worked closely with both Dan and Jeremy to see that Darren's ideas took form. We created many works in progress to test their ideas and offered as many of our own as we could. They spent a lot of time sitting with our artists to flush out concepts in the early development phase and to eventually tweak the final backgrounds. It really was a collaboration in the finest sense of the word. And Darren was kind enough to visit us himself on a couple of occasions, which thrilled all of us."

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.