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'The Number 23': Painterly VFX to Creep Us Out

Ellen Wolff uncovers the beautiful yet chilling 3D effects created by Intelligent Creatures for The Number 23.

The vfx work in The Number 23 gives Intelligent Creatures a chance to shine. All images © 2007 New Line Cinema. 

New Line Cinema's thriller, The Number 23 (opening Feb. 23), may feature a serious star turn for the usually comedic Jim Carrey, but it also provides an opportunity for the Toronto-based effects house Intelligent Creatures to shine. That's evident from the start of the movie, which opens with a complex tracking shot that carries viewers through a children's pop-up book. It's the kind of unbroken camera move you could imagine Alfred Hitchcock doing if he'd had today's digital tools.

Intelligent Creatures visual effects supervisor Jamie Hallett sets the scene: "It starts over Jim's shoulder as he reads The Number 23 book. Jim's character narrates -- talking about his childhood. The camera cranes down to an image in the book that shows the exterior of an old schoolhouse, and it keeps moving closer until we transition into that world. The camera continues toward the schoolhouse, and through a window we see Jim's character at about eight-years-old, sitting in school with his classmates. The camera goes through the window, and we see that -- except for a live-action young Jim -- all the kids are still images. They have this motion blur effect, as if time had stopped.

"The camera continues past young Jim and goes out a window over his shoulder and into another environment. He's walking down a country road with his friends, and it's Halloween. The kids begin disappearing as the camera goes over Jim's shoulder and continues through a graveyard and toward the exterior of his house. Through awindow in the house, we see Jim's father working at a desk."

The camera then follows the father's gaze as he looks down at young Jim sitting on the floor, doing homework. Hallett explains, "The father catches the boy reading a detective magazine, and when he flips the magazine up, the camera goes right through it. The cover of the magazine shows a woman with a knife. In reality, it is Jim's mom, who'll be in the next scene. As we go through the detective magazine she turns into live action. Jim's mom then brings a birthday cake to the table where he's sitting. The camera goes past him, through a window and into a neighbor's yard -- a yard where Jim's character was never supposed to go."

In the final section of this non-stop shot, the camera picks up on a dog running through a fence toward the neighbor's vine-covered house. "We continue following the dog through the fence to the neighbor's door," says Hallett. "As we go through the door, we hand off the shot to live action." Director of photography Matthew Libatique used a Steadicam to follow the dog up the stairs and into a bedroom. "That is where," says Hallett, "we find a dead body on the bed."

Jim Carrey's character at about eight sits with his classmates. Except for a live-action young Carrey, all the kids are still images and IC uses a motion blur effect to make it seem as if time had stopped.

Setting the Style

Creating a shot that travels through time as well as space is always tricky, but in The Number 23 it provided a stylish way to summarize the background of Carrey's character. The metaphor of a book is central to this film, in which Carrey plans a man obsessed with a book that seems to tell his life story, and these opening effects reveal his back-story. "It was an impossible camera move for 3,000 frames," observes Hallett. "But it was so important we obviously wanted to nail it."

Fortunately, Intelligent Creatures joined the project early in development. As company president and visual effects supervisor Raymond Gieringer remarks, "We have a great relationship with New Line Cinema, and so we were given a copy of the script to read. It was immediately evident that certain elements of the movie would require visual effects treatments, so most of our efforts went toward flexing our design skills."

Director Joel Schumacher (The Client, Batman Forever, Phone Booth, Phantom of the Opera) clearly understands the role that visual effects can play in heightening suspense. He gave Intelligent Creatures the opportunity to test several ideas during preproduction, and one important test was for the children's book shot. The challenge, observes Gieringer, "was creating something that we hadn't done before."

Jamie Hallett, (whose credits include Matrix Revolutions and The Matador) recalls spending about three weeks on the film's initial storyboards. "We did complete storyboards and animatics for all the big shots, and we sketched out details for the smaller shots. As the storyboards got clearer and roughed in, we knew this was going to be a lot of work. The live-action elements in that opening shot would be filmed on complete greenscreen, so all the environments would have to be created."

Once Schumacher approved the boards, Intelligent Creatures created wire frame animatics using Autodesk's Maya. "It was just basic geometry to nail the camera moves, because there weren't going to be any lock-offs," Hallett explains. "I had worked previously with dp Matt Libatique on The Fountain, and our tests went well."

Children disappear as a young Carrey walks down a country road on Halloween. Intelligent Creatures tested several ideas for this important children's book shot during pre-production.

A Dimensional Blend

Merging 2D and 3D elements was critical, especially to sell the sense that we were moving through a pop-up book. "We shot 5K textures of the essential environments that we travel into. We didn't really want them to be total 3D. We treated them as cards that pop up. Anytime you see something go by camera, it's got incredible details on the front, but it's actually flat. There are facades everywhere you look. But it got more and more complicated as the camera went through the windows. We had to build geometry for the windows and project textures onto them. The tricky thing about the children's book shot is that we're always moving on the Z-axis. So we were stuck with huge textures because we're always moving over somebody or through a window into another environment."

Hallett notes that the matte painting team at Intelligent Creatures, led by Tim Warnock and Dan Wheaton, had their work cut out for them to create these textures. They had thousands of digital stills to use as raw material. "When you don't have the essential elements, you have to look through stock libraries to find what you need," Hallett remarks. "We took the time to shoot stills at various locations. Because these stills had 5K textures, I knew the matte painters had enough resolution to work with."

"The matte painters sifted through the stills, and then we'd select hero pieces to use for high-res style frames of every environment. We used camera projections, so they weren't painting textures. They used Adobe Photoshop to create the elements that were projected onto rough pieces of geometry. We did basic lighting, but a lot of the lighting was built into the projected elements, which gave things a surreal, painterly feel."

Once Schumacher approved the style frames, they became the visual template for the project. Hallett asserts, "We followed those style frames all the way through compositing, to keep the shots from going down the wrong path." Raymond Gieringer singles out Intelligent Creatures' matte painters for these crucial contributions. "We certainly consider matte painting one of the areas where we excel."

Complete storyboards and animatics were created for all the big shots. It became clear that the live-action elements in the children's book shot would be filmed on complete greenscreen and the environments would to be created. 

Fields of Green

Once the style frames were completed, Hallett recalls, "We knew what we'd need to get ready for the live-action greenscreen work. We shot with a crane on a dolly. We filmed the boy and even the dog surrounded by green, with each one running on a treadmill painted green. The dog was trained to do this, and he just ran and ran. It's such a stylized-looking show that we didn't need to go out and film him in a field."

Hallett credits Libatique "for taking the time to light the visual effects as carefully as anything else. It's one thing to light a greenscreen evenly. But if the elements in front of the greenscreen weren't lit properly, then we wouldn't have anything to cue off of when we put environments behind them. When you have moving lighting, it's even more complicated to tie everything together."

The greenscreen camerawork then had to be 3D-tracked so Intelligent Creatures could import the camera into Maya. They used 3D Equalizer from Science-D-Visions as well as Pixel Farm's PF Track. "PF track is relatively new," notes Gieringer. "We traditionally use boujou tracking software, and have had great results on many projects. In this case, we wanted to test PF track and we were very pleased with the result."

Once they got the tracking data, the camerawork was imported into Maya. Because there was a string of live action and digital elements, it was attached to Intelligent Creatures own animated camera. The resulting hero camerawork was then assembled for the director to approve.

Digital Finesse

The next stage -- with 3D artist Dominic Cheung in the lead -- involved building the 3D geometry onto which textures could be mapped. Hallett notes, "Everything had to be rendered separately and then assembled in Digital Fusion as typical compositing layers. We rendered complete CG grass for all the exteriors, using the grass-rendering engine in Maya's Paint Effects. We were going for photo quality, but we weren't going for photorealism. We wanted something that had a little 2D feel to it, but when the camera moved over it along the Z axis, it still had some depth."

Laurence Lok and Greg Astles, the compositing leads on the children's book shot, used Digital Fusion 5. Hallett notes, "It has a 3D space as well as 2D, so we could import some of the camera data into Fusion. It's getting to be a gray area between 2D and 3D packages."

"It was cool," he adds, "because the pop-up book wasn't supposed to be completely 3D. Doing some of the moves in 3D space in Digital Fusion helped us block a lot of stuff out. The compositors got a real chance to be creative."

Gieringer points out that Intelligent Creatures has been using Digital Fusion since the studio's inception in 2003. "It was designed as a compositing package for film from the beginning, and it has served us well."

Once the boards were approved, Intelligent Creatures created wire frame animatics using Autodesk's Maya. The camera moves had to be nailed down because there weren't going to be any lock-offs. 

A Shocking Effect

While the children's book shot was the most intricate one to achieve, it wasn't the studio's only visual effects challenge. "There's shot where Jim Carrey is walking down an alley," says Hallett. "It's one of the shots that Matt Libatique shot bleach bypass, so it has a high-contrast look. The camera is low on the ground, craning forward toward Jim as he walks toward us. Suddenly from the top of frame the body of a 'suicide blond' smashes -- full view -- onto the cement in front of Jim. It looks shocking, but it's fun to pull off a shot that's in-camera.

"Originally this was boarded to happen off camera, over Jim's shoulder. Once we got into production and we knew it was an R rated movie, talk started to spread about doing something more shocking. So we did a storyboard in which we're looking at Jim and not expecting this body to come flying out of the air."

The main plate of Carrey was shot with tracking markers in the alley. Hallett's team would later track the camera using 3D Equalizer and PF Track. "When we were on the greenscreen stage, we matched the camera height and the alley. We had a stunt double of the suicide blond jump against green onto different density mats. We filmed a high fall onto a soft mat, and then a 3-foot fall onto smaller, denser mat to get the impact of her hitting something very hard. We keyed her falling from the same position off of a scaffold, and then put frames from the two falls together."

The compositing team, led by Greg Astles, "Actually took her arms off and re-positioned them," adds Hallett. "Then we gave the shot an extreme color correction to match the DP's bleach bypass and tie the effect into the plate photography."

For the final section of this non-stop opening shot, IC used a crane and dolly to film the boy and the dog surrounded by green, with each one running on a treadmill painted green. 

Revealing Delusions

Joel Schumacher wanted the effects to show Carrey's character imagining violent acts. In one shot, his character comes up behind co-star Virginia Madsen and appears to cut her throat. Then it's revealed that we're seeing this action reflected in a mirror -- the attack exists only in his character's mind. "The camera move was nice," says Hallett, "because it's all one shot. You get the point that he's having a fantasy of cutting her throat."

"We took the plate of Jim running a knife across Virginia's throat and did a 3D track. We built 3D geometry of her neck and matched it to her body. Then we used the Maya Fluids simulator to create 3D blood running down her neck. Usually a special effects guy would come in with a pump on the knife blade to pump out blood. But because we were doing it digitally, we could actually open up her neck and get the cut to look 3D."

Another glimpse of Carrey's breakdown is a shot in which his character repeatedly scribbles the number 23 on the walls of a room. "The execution basically was similar to a motion control shot," Hallett explains. They used a hothead camera programmed to repeat the same camera move multiple times. They filmed pass after pass of Carrey at various positions around the room, writing obsessively.

"We had filmed a clean pass of the room before the art department people wrote on the walls. As he's scribbling we show his writing 'crawling' along the walls. The camera is panning, leading from one Jim to another, and another. It ends with him in a corner, all curled up."

"During production of this scene, Hallett remembers, "We were constantly going back to where they were building that set, and shooting 5K stills of the writing in different stages. We built a library of that handwriting." Back at Intelligent Creatures, they separated the writing from the wall. They could basically track it onto the clean plate and make the writing appear animated. Scott Riopelle led the compositing team for this shot.

The Final Straw

If there was any doubt about the desperation of Carrey's character, another key shot makes his condition clear. "At one point, Jim rips off the wallpaper, and sees the writing that he had written before," explains Hallett. "As he rips off the wallpaper, the camera moves into the wall. While it continues through the wall, the writing lifts off -- and into 3D space. We move through the writing and find him standing on a balcony on the other side of the wall, getting ready to jump."

They flew one of the walls out so that the camera could get to a plate shot of Jim on the balcony. This was filmed against greenscreen, and during this shoot Hallett got a glimpse of the actor's famous imagination in action. "It was amazing to watch Jim work, and see how intense he can get." Clancy Silver oversaw the final composite of the shot at Intelligent Creatures.

After six months of work, Hallett wrapped up his involvement with The Number 23. "We ended up doing 27 shots that were huge." The project illustrates that it pays to have an effects team involved from the beginning. "It is so worth the time," Hallett believes. "Because when you get to the shots in post, you're familiar with everything. You know exactly what you have."

Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications, such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.

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