VFX supervisor Boyd Shermis takes us to Mysterious Island for the sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth.
VFX supervisor Boyd Shermis found the notion of shooting Journey 2: The Mysterious Island in 3-D very enticing along with the prospect of fully embracing creature animation for a Jules Verne-inspired adventure.
"Not only was this my first foray into native stereo 3-D photography [using the Pace rig], which was thoroughly embraced and exploited by the entire design of the film, but also a first for me in the area of creature animation," Shermis explains. "I've done bits and pieces of creature work, and certainly lots of full screen human action animation and digital extras, etc. But for me, this was a new animation directing challenge spanning a dozen different types of creatures. There were plenty of digital doubles, too, using cutting edge scanning and texturing techniques from Paul Debevec's USC Light Stage 6. Plus, of course, all the usual massive underwater and above water virtual environments and simulations, including a hurricane, an exploding volcano and a sinking island. Throw in three exciting chase sequences taking place in real (Hawaii) and virtual environments, and you've got a pretty interesting roller coaster of in-your-face 3-D that is a beautiful and fun ride."
Although there are 430 VFX shots, it seems like three times as much. Indeed, Shermis suggests that working natively in 3-D adds 2.5 times the complexity when you consider that you have to reconcile both the left and right eye tracks and make sure they work together.
The work was divided primarily between Pixomondo, which concentrated on the underwater world during the collapse of the island and the daring escape of Captain Nemo's legendary Nautilus sub (including all the sea creatures); Scanline, which upped its vaunted water simulation and added volcanic work as well; Method Studios in Vancouver, which handled the above ground environments for the mysterious island as well as the City of Atlantis, the Centipede and the Butterflies; MPC Vancouver, which did the lizard chase; Rising Sun Pictures, which tackled the bee chase and a spider; and Trixter, which handled the elephants. Overall, the array of giant creatures includes a centipede, a bird, ants, fireflies, bees, elephants, lizards, butterflies, an electric eel and schools of fish along with beautiful jelly fish.
Meanwhile, digital scanning reached new heights on Journey 2. "We worked with Paul's Light Stage 6 (available commercially for the first time and part of USC's ICT Lab) in conjunction with the Light Stage LLC, which is the commercialized spin-off of the original Light Stage, which captures just the heads," Shermis continues. "So what we ended up doing was capturing the heads independently at very high-resolution and then put the characters into the Light Stage 6, and one of the interesting things that was new technology was that we also had the Icon Studios laser scanner set up in the Light Stage itself so that you could scan the performers and capture all the lighting imagery in perfect registration. It was quite an achievement getting these three companies (USC's ICT Lab, Light Stage LLC and Icon Studios) working together with their pipelines. They got one batch of data per character and then distributed it."
In terms of breakthroughs, Shermis first points to Scanline's water work, getting better white water foam than ever before. He had worked with them as far back as Poseidon. "I asked Stephan Trojansky to improve his code so that when we did the big splashes of white water against the rocks as the island is breaking apart, that the droplets wouldn't fall as big, heavy droplets, but they would atomize and spray away. But in addition to extra special white water they created, Scanline also came up with interesting ways of lighting their internal volumes of water, which they had never done before. It has more luminosity that makes it all the more realistic-looking. And for the hurricane they spent six months coming up with custom code that creates all the swirling and atmospherics and rain."
For Pixomondo, which created the sequences in which the mysterious island collapses into the ocean as the characters race to find Captain Nemo's submerged Nautilus submarine, one of the biggest challenges was the electric eel. Shermis says the idea of visualizing the eel was difficult enough, but then pulling it off was just as hard. Pixomondo's VFX supervisor Bryan Hirota says they designed a semi-bioluminescent, giant moray eel crossed with a dinosaur. "We ended up concocting a tesla coil meets Jacob's Ladder effect that conveys what is needed but isn't completely outrageous."
Shermis agrees: "The weight and fluidity of the predatory creature make it really feel like it is on the prowl and the characters are in imminent danger."
While Method only did 50 shots, VFX supervisor Mark Breakspear says it was varied and challenging work. "The big challenges were creating spaces that were 'amazing never seen before,' but also look believable, and grounded in reality," he suggests. "And adding in all the nuances that make something look real. It was a real study of nature and how far you could amp things up to make a fantasy location, but one that felt that it might just be somewhere on Earth we haven’t found yet."
But Shermis was initially apprehensive about the bee chase, which he says Rising Sun pulled off very convincingly in the end. "It could be a fun and cool thing or the most ridiculous thing you ever saw. But The Third Floor, which did our previs (all in 3-D), worked on it for several months, and I needed to make sure that what we were designing was going to maintain the speed and excitement and movement so that it looked right. But along with everything else, the guys at Rising Sun created a digital jungle that matched and extended our real jungle. And then just to make sure that the actors looked like they were moving properly, and to get the bees to have the right weight, wind velocity on their fur and all that other fun stuff."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.