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'Night Watch': Cold Hard VFX from Russia

Alain Bielik uncovers the secrets of the Forces of Light and Dark that dwell in the hyper-cool Russian horror/sci-fi sensation, Night Watch.

Night Watch has shaken up the Russian movie industry. The sci-fi feature is the highest grossing film ever released in post-soviet Russia. All images © 2005 Fox Searchlight.

Night Watch has shaken up the Russian movie industry. The sci-fi feature is the highest grossing film ever released in post-soviet Russia. All images © 2005 Fox Searchlight.

Russian cinema is certainly not known for its science fiction or fantasy movies. Yet, it did produce two minor “classics” of the genre. Both directed by Andrej Tarkosky, Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) were typical of Russia’s traditional cinema: tortured characters, convoluted plot, very slow action. That was until director Timur Bekmambetov decided to shake up the whole movie industry with a feature film that was unlike anything that had ever been done in Russia before. Night Watch (released by Fox Searchlight on Feb. 17, 2006) is the Russian answer to The Matrix, as much as Solaris had been a reaction to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The response of the Russian audience has been more than enthusiastic: boosted by a marketing campaign of unprecedented scale, Night Watch quickly became the highest grossing film ever released in post-soviet Russia.

The plot echoes the classic theme of supernatural beings conducting a secret war behind the curtain of human history, as seen in films such as Highlander (1986), Blade (1998) and Underworld (2003). In Night Watch, this secret war opposes two different kinds of vampires: the Forces of Light and the Forces of the Dark. Centuries ago, a truce put an end to the open war that had been raging between the two forces. According to this truce, the Forces of Light would secretly rule the daytime, while the Forces of the Dark would be free to roam at night. Ever since, “Watchers” with special powers have been monitoring the activity of the other side, trying to interfere with its schemes to seize complete power…

Building a Giant Virtual VFX Studio

The most unusual aspect of Night Watch — by Russian standards — was the exceptional scope of its visual effects. Producing several hundreds digital effects shots in an industry that had never produced any “visual effects movie” represented a major challenge for the director. The task of putting Bekmambetov’s vision on screen was assigned to visual effects supervisor Vladimir Leschinski. “It is true that we didn’t have much experience in terms of vfx for feature films, but when we started Night Watch, we had more than 10 years of experience of creating CGI for commercials, Leschinski says. “So, there was a real pool of talents out there. The problem was that there was no existing structure that could handle the whole project. So, we decided to gather 16 different vendors and several freelancers, all based throughout the country. The work was split among them based on the know-how of each studio and each freelancer in a particular technology or in certain types of vfx.

“We didn’t use the western approach of awarding complete sequences to individual studios. Instead, we turned the whole Russian effects industry into one giant virtual studio in which everybody was doing what he did the best on any given shot. It meant, for instance, that one artist in Saint Petersburg would rotoscope and match-move a shot, another one in Ukraine would do the character animation for the same shot, and the whole thing would be put together by a third artist in Moscow.”

VFX supervisor Vladimir Leschinski (left) and vfx producer Alexander Gorokhov turned the Russian effects industry into one giant studio. They managed 16 vendors and several freelancers, all based throughout the country.

VFX supervisor Vladimir Leschinski (left) and vfx producer Alexander Gorokhov turned the Russian effects industry into one giant studio. They managed 16 vendors and several freelancers, all based throughout the country.

With so many different studios and artists involved, virtually every software package available was used on the movie, sometimes simultaneously on a single shot. “There was one sequence with the subway in which the camera follows the train on a bridge while a flock of crows forms above it,” observes vfx producer Alexander Gorokhov. “For this sequence, we had one vendor using Maya to create the train, another one using 3ds Max for the bridge and the surrounding rocks, and a third one creating the crows in Softimage! Obviously, this created serious problems as we had to learn how to translate animation files from one package to the next.”

All the vendors and freelancers worked on Windows NT workstations, the standard in Russian vfx industry. With artists based in distant locations and with different time zones, communication and file sharing became a critical aspect of the project. “The main challenge was to establish a proper technical connection between the studios and the headquarters,” Leschinski adds. “We had to install a high-speed Internet channel in the main office, and a couple of servers with huge disk storage. All the work was done through the Internet. The vendors had all the data they needed to produce the work, including edited shots, references and animatics. After working on the shots, they uploaded dailies on the server.

Originally, the director planned on 200 vfx shots for Night Watch and Day Watch, but that number increased to 400 shots for the first movie only. Day Watch ended up with some 700 vfx shots.

Originally, the director planned on 200 vfx shots for Night Watch and Day Watch, but that number increased to 400 shots for the first movie only. Day Watch ended up with some 700 vfx shots.

The idea was not to wait for final renders on every shot, but to control the work of each TD in each studio on a daily basis. We also held daily meetings in which we discussed the tasks of each TD, and gave instructions for the next working day. So, by the time we got to the final render, we all knew what we would see in the shot, and we avoided wasting any time on bad solutions. Of course, we had a lot of problems with this “virtual” approach, as we couldn’t possibly be in all the studios at once. But still, we managed to make it work.”

Blending Multiple Tools and Software Pipelines

Adopting the cost-saving strategy used by Hollywood studios on several recent high profile projects (The Matrix 2 and 3, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3…), Bekmambetov decided to shoot the first two movies of his planned trilogy simultaneously. The second installment of the franchise, Day Watch, opened in Russia in January to record-shattering box office. Originally, the director estimated that he would need about 200 shots for both movies, but, during principal photography and editing, that number increased tremendously to reach 400 shots for the first movie only, including 20 shots featuring CG character animation. For the second movie, the demand for additional visual effects was even more intense as Day Watch ended up featuring some 700 vfx shots. This spectacular increase was a testimony of the director’s growing trust in the ability of his digital artists to deliver ever more complex imagery.

The spider doll was created after the director spotted the prop on the set. Depending on the shot, the spider doll was either CGI-created in Softimage XSI, or a real prop photographed on the set with CG legs added later.

The spider doll was created after the director spotted the prop on the set. Depending on the shot, the spider doll was either CGI-created in Softimage XSI, or a real prop photographed on the set with CG legs added later.

An interesting aspect of the project was the mix of low tech and high tech approaches that was used to create some of the effects. This included an impressive battle scene set on top of a stone bridge in the Middle Ages. The main shot featured an extensive pullback that combined live-action and CG animation. “We started with live-action captured on a real set where the camera went as far back as it could,” Gorokhov explains. “Then, we match-moved the motion of the camera and extended it backwards in the computer. The valley was created in CGI, as were the warriors falling down the bridge. There again, we had to combine data and files produced by three different studios in Moscow and by another one in Ukraine…”

At one point during the bloody confrontation, the leaders realize that the conflict opposing the vampires cannot be settled via force, and decide to negotiate. Using a powerful spell, they “freeze” the battle scene, and walk to each other in the midst of hundreds of soldiers and weaponry frozen in time. “We didn’t use the traditional approach of shooting the plate with an array of still cameras,” Leschinski reveals. “Instead, we simply asked the actors to “freeze” in the middle of the shot, while the film camera continued its motion. The resulting images weren’t satisfactory enough though, as none can remain completely still for several seconds. So we complemented the illusion of frozen time by adding many CG objects and elements in the shots, like arrows, dirt, swords, fog, axes, crows, etc. The eerie stillness of these elements helped to detract the viewers’ attention from the imperfection of the live action.”

The same combination of live-action elements and CG animation was employed for shots featuring a huge flock of crows. “In most of the shots, we used two types of crows: real birds shot against blue screen and composited in, or CG models,” Leschinski comments. “For the shot of the “crow twister” above the apartment house, we built the flock of birds in three layers. The background animation was generated with a particle system; the mid ground featured hand-animated 3D crows with photorealistic rendering; finally, the foreground crows were real birds shot against blue screen. By using real crows in the foreground, we focused the attention of the audience and created the illusion of an impossibly large flock of birds.”

A mix of live-action and CG animation was also used to bring to life the most striking and imaginative character of the movie, an old broken doll that a huge spider calls home. Not included in the shooting script, the spider doll character was created on the set by the director. Originally, it was just a prop in the old witch apartment, Leschinski recalls. But when he saw it, Timur fell in love with it, and decided to turn it into a real character. Conceptually, it was a real doll with the spider living inside it. Whenever the spider needed to move, its legs popped out and carried the doll around. Depending on the shot, the spider doll was either an entirely computer-generated character created in Softimage XSI, or a real prop photographed on the set with CG legs added later.

For truck crash sequence, the filmmakers used three different trucks: a real vehicle, a full size replica that could be lifted easily, and a full 3D model.

For truck crash sequence, the filmmakers used three different trucks: a real vehicle, a full size replica that could be lifted easily, and a full 3D model.

A Truck Goes Airborne

CG animation was selectively employed in one of the most spectacular sequence in the movie. As the three main characters rush through town in their truck, they encounter another Watcher crossing the street. Using his magical powers to avoid being run over, the pedestrian makes the massive truck turn over him and safely land on the other side We had three different trucks, Leschinski comments. There was the real vehicle; a full size replica that could be lifted easily; and a full 3D model. On location, we shot it step by step, varying the technique in almost every shot: the real truck approaching; the man on the street being lit by a rig simulating the approaching truck lights; the full size replica for the final landing and bouncing; and a partial set for the point of view on the pedestrian from the truck cabin. Only the shots of the truck tumbling over in the air were generated in 3D.

Leschinski and his artists also used CG animation to visualize many effects related to the vampire characters. This included the vampires ability to visualize the blood vessels and arteries of the humans, as if the rest of their body had become invisible. The innovative effect appears when a little boy becomes the target of a vampire in the subway. It was all carefully planned before shooting, Leschinsky recalls. First, special makeup artists created a headless copy of the boys torso. Then, in the subway, we shot a plate with the boy, and a second plate with the headless mannequin in the same position. It gave us two plates featuring the boy with and without his head. Later, we created a complex network of CG veins and vessels, and synchronized its motion with the real head. Then, we composited this animation into the plate of the headless boy, and finally dissolved it into the real boy. The headless mannequin helped us get a real clean reflection of the body on the door glass, and allowed us to add reflections of the 3D veins too.

For the Russian vfx community, the Night Watch trilogy could very well do what Star Wars did for its American counterpart in the 70s create an unprecedented boom in the industry and initiate the production of many more entertaining vfx heavy movies. Clearly, Night Watch has marked the beginning of a new era for Leschinski and his colleagues. None of us had ever done anything of this kind before this movie, he concludes. This first experience came handy when we set out to create the vfx of Day Watch. They are more complicated and technically innovative. Since we benefited from a higher budget this time, it allowed us to concentrate on the technology and to achieve the best possible results, instead of having to work on small parallel projects in order to cover the expenses of the main one

Alain Bielik is the founder and editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinéfex. Last year, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.

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