Mr. X reveals the challenges of working in 3-D and making better zombies and action.
For the fourth entry in the Resident Evil franchise, they've gone stereoscopic with Afterlife, using the Vince Pace 3-D rig from Avatar in conjunction with the Sony F35, which is also the tandem being used on Tron: Legacy. In fact, Toronto-based Mr. X (under the supervision of Dennis Berardi, the company president) has been working on both stereoscopic features.
In Afterlife, Alice (Milla Jovovich) rescues the survivors of the T-virus outbreak in LA, and they combat the head of the Umbrella Corp. (Shawn Roberts). Mr. X did around 300 shots, but, because of the volume of work and tight schedule, called on Montreal's Rodeo Effects, Toronto's Rocket Science and India's Anibrain for the remaining 200. Lots of zombies, of course, though with much more detailed in textures, and the overall experience director Paul W.S. Anderson was after was like the first-person shooter game.
Not surprisingly, Berardi says the biggest challenge was working in 3-D. "It is basically three times the work," he suggests, "where your data management and rendering requirements alone can pose difficult technical challenges. We had to invest in new rendering processors, more disk space, 3-D stereoscopic critical evaluation workstations and artist level viewing tools just so we could work in 3-D. Also, the creative design side was challenging. We had to learn to design effects where we take into account the dimensional aspect of the experience."
Afterlife certainly heightens the experience for us, too. "It puts the audience in the middle of the action," Berardi concedes. "This can be tricky because the experience should be fun and dimensional but never uncomfortable. If the 3-D is too aggressive, it can become annoyingly uncomfortable to the eyes. Our goal was to present big action and a fully dimensional and new experience. At times, we had to tone things down and ease off on the dimension just to give the audience a break and so that the bigger moments played with impact when they did come. We were a little concerned about the audience becoming immune to the dimensionality if we did not vary it and go deeper in some scenes and flatter in others."
As for vfx, Mr. X worked hard to make sure the quality of the CG crowds was photoreal. This started with very good quality high-resolution cyberscans of the real zombies, which was done by XYZ RGB. Then we took the data along with our own photo survey database and created individual zombies that could hold up at in a medium shot, where head to toe they filled the height of a 2.40 frame. This meant 4K or 6K textures for every section. It also required a complete reworking of our shaders."
One of the most complicated sequences, in fact, was the opening at the famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, where the infection spreads. "This included a shot that was over a minute long where we pull back from Shibuya all the way to a cosmic view of the Earth," Berardi continues. "Then, the Resident Evil: Afterlife title appears in glorious 3-D. Then, without cutting, we drop back down to Earth and purposely designed the move to induce some vertigo in the audience. It is very effective. The shot ends on a hapless zombie at street level who is about to meet her doom.
"I took a plate unit to Tokyo and flew over Shibuya crossing and photo surveyed the area from varying elevations. We also sent a ground survey team to take detailed measurements and high-resolution photos of Shibuya and the surrounding 3 blocks. We took all this data back to Mr. X and began the long process of creating a full CG photoreal Shibuya crossing as well as the surrounding three blocks. The process took about eight months with a team of about eight modelers and texture artists."
Another challenge was the destruction of Tokyo, which took its inspiration from Akira. "Paul Anderson really wanted to see the buildings crumble and collapse in 3-D. The concept was that Wesker triggers a plasma blast, which becomes more powerful as it consumes more and more matter, so the spherical plasma event becomes more violent as it grows. The origin of the blast is right in the center of Shibuya. We used our hero Shibuya CG asset and created complex building crumbling simulations in Houdini. These simulations were incredibly complex due to the complexity of the geometry and textures we created, since everything had to hold up for close-ups."
Speaking of tools, Maya was used for modeling, rigging and animation; Houdini for shading and lighting (as well as for water and explosions). For rendering, Mr. X alternated between RenderMan and Mantra and used Vray for full-on zombie shots. 3D equalizer and PF Track were utilized for matchmoving; compositing was done in Nuke. Ocula from the Foundry was used for stereo work, and FrameCycler DI from Iridas was used for stereoscopic dailies.
Mr. X did all of the shots that required many months of asset building and design. They set up a production pipeline as the lead shop so their assets could easily be shared with other vendors:
Rodeo did 82 shots (30 were shared with Mr. X), including wide establishers of LA, prison rooftop composites and various comps; Rocket Science did 72 shots (19 of which were shared with Mr. X), including the Axman shower room fight with Alice and Clair, Wesker phase shifting and red eyes; and Anibrain did 100 shots (40 of which were shared with Mr. X), including blood and gore enhancements, psychic blast, white room and roto.
Getting back to 3-D, though, Berardi thinks the greatest moments "come at the end of the film when Alice faces off with the famous undead zombie dogs. There are shots in the sequence where the dogs lunge right out into the audience; it's good fun."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.