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Plenty of New Skin & Muscle in 'Land of the Lost'

Bill Westenhofer talks about raising the dino bar for Rhythm & Hues in this new take on the old Sid & Marty Krofft series with Will Ferrell on the loose.

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Rhythm & Hues raised the bar with Grumpy, the T-Rex, with new skin detail and muscle flexing. All Images: Rhythm & Hues / Universal Pictures © 2009 Universal Studios.

There is plenty of new skin and muscle on display in Rhythm & Hues' dinosaur work for Land of the Lost, providing a welcome respite from their recent fur work.

Rhythm & Hues did all of the dinosaurs and set extensions encompassing 536 shots (Hammerhead handled the interior pile on sequences). The cast of characters include the T-Rex called Grumpy and the Alisorus named Alice, along with various Deinonychyuses, Compsognathuses and Teradactals.

"Grumpy represents our latest in terms of skin and muscle technologies," suggests Bill Westenhofer, R& H's visual effects supervisor. "He's got a tremendous amount of detail with the skin and muscle flexing, and I think it surpasses what's been done with dinosaurs to date. A lot of it was done procedurally, but there was a lot of it that was hand-animated from a muscle standpoint that actually involved our tech animators walking outside and videotaping themselves and feeling what muscles in their legs are moving. And they'll kill me for saying this, but they actually oiled up somebody's leg so they could see it more clearly. There's secret videotape that was used for reference, but to save embarrassment for the person involved, that will remain hidden."

Westenhofer contends that this project was more evolutionary than revolutionary for them. "We built upon a lot of the technologies that we had. A lot of the stuff we did on Hulk, in fact, carried over, letting skin slide over muscles that are in the process of deforming and picking up those shapes on the surface. There was a little extra R&D work done to make sure that scales that are meant to be rigid wouldn't deform. As designed, Grumpy, for the most part, is a realistic T-Rex, but we added these ridged barbs on the back of its neck that could rise like cackles…

"From an R&D standpoint, there's a lot more work done on the waterfall sequence that we did with the dinosaurs. In the original series, there's a whole opening that's essentially Sid & Marty Krofft's garden hose making a little stream in the backyard with a two-inch raft. That was their visual effect, so what we've done is spruce it up for modern audiences and used our water simulation software called Ahab. So we did a lot of tests and there was a set that was built: essentially a plume ride with water pumped through it. But then we took over and the whole thing starts to disintegrate and there's this worm hole that opens up and sucks them off to the land of the last -- and that was all done digitally. They were shot on a motion-controlled gimbal that supported the raft and moved it around and we added the environments to match."

For set extensions, the studio used a new package called Rampage, which came in handy when dealing with wide angle shots.

Rhythm & Hues continues to use all proprietary software for animation rendering and compositing along with Houdini for vfx. However, it combined e-on's Vue trees with its own digital trees for some forest shots that were added later on.

This marked the first time Rhythm & Hues has worked with director Brad Silberling. Westenhofer describes him as very vfx savvy. "I found myself on set quite often trying to imagine what's going on in the blank space of the frame and before I would open up my mouth to make a suggestion, he was already discussing things with the cinematographer, so we were on the same page in terms of how the motion was going. And he was very collaborative from a performance standpoint for what the dinosaurs would do."

One of the more challenging sequences, though, was when Ferrell escapes after being swallowed by Grumpy and rides the T-Rex back into a crowd in an attempt to rescue his colleagues from the invading alien race of Sleestaks. Rhythm & Hues started with previs, figured out the animation and shot a sequence of blank plates and then did the animation before feeding it into a motion control base and motion control camera.

"We have a new set extension package called Rampage, which allows you to very efficiently project imagery onto geometry, move around and see what's missing and add some more detail," Westenhofer explains. "In this film the dinosaurs and the effects work were very challenging, but there was a lot of set extension. Bo Welch, the production designer, built these sets, but Brad liked shooting with wide angle lenses, so no matter how large the set was, we were always staying off the edge, and ended up with a lot more shots than anticipated as a result. We used a combination of the 2D process using Rampage and actually built 3D extensions of the sets along with digital trees for areas with a lot of parallax going on."

Rhythm & Hues relied on Massive for creating crowds of Sleestaks.

Rhythm & Hues made a lot of digital Sleestaks as well, which entailed two weeks of motion capture to build a library of action and used Massive to populate the invading Sleestaks waiting to invade earth. "The Sleestaks were mostly suited performers in homage to the original series but we added digital characters in the background, with the exception of when the T-Rex plowed through people."

"One of the things I'm really proudest of," he concludes, "is that we found ways of using Will Ferrell instead of a digital double. With Will, you want to get him on camera as much as possible. He ad libbed even when riding a motion base."

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Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

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