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Rise of the Creature Designer to Director

Famed creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos moved into the director's chair for the third Underworld film, Rise of the Lycans, with even more vfx than the first two.

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Rhona Mitra in Screen Gems' Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. Mitra plays Sonja, the secret vampire lover of a Lycan. All Photos By: Ken George, © 2008 Lakeshore Entertainment Group LLC. All right reserved. 

Lycans (werewolves) and Death Dealers (vampires) are back for the third installment of the successful Underworld horror franchise. This time, though, the artist helming the project is the very person who designed them in the first place. With Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (now playing from Screen Gems), famed creature designer and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos makes his directorial debut with an origin story that takes us back to an ancient time, when lycans were mere slaves to their vampire masters.

A veteran of the two previous movies, Visual Effects Supervisor James McQuaide enjoyed a great collaboration with Tatopoulos. "One of the unique pleasures of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (UW3) was working with a director who had both production designed Underworld: Evolution (UW2) and had designed/built all the creatures for all of the Underworld pictures. As a result, there was a knowledgeable attention to detail that provided the visual effects (and the movie, for that matter) with a level of reality that it very likely would never have had. Patrick knew exactly the shape of the werewolves' necks, precisely how he wanted the werewolves to move their hind legs when they ran, where the CG rocks that we added to the meadow in front of the fortress should be placed, what the clouds in the fortress assault sequence should look like, etc. And that he could draw what he was looking for, made its execution immeasurably easier."

During production, McQuaide worked alongside On Set VFX Supervisor Charlie McClellan.

Underworld: Evolution, released in 2006, featured some 553 digital effects shots, plus about 800 opticals -- far more than the 390 vfx shots of the first Underworld. "From a vfx perspective, UW3 is a significantly larger, more complicated picture than either of the previous two," McQuaide observes. "For example, in UW2, we had 29 shots that involved CG werewolves while, in UW3, there are 80 CG werewolf shots. In UW2, at most, we had four CG werewolves on screen at a single time; in UW3, we have 15-plus shots that have 250 to 300 werewolves on the screen at once. In UW2, we were proud to have two werewolves transforming in a single shot; in UW3, we have a shot where four Lycans are transforming at the same time, to say nothing of shots where transformations are occurring while Lycans are running, while they are on fire, etc. We even bit the bullet on UW3 and had clothes fall away as a result of the transformation, an issue we had previously avoided by having the transformer pull his jacket off.

"Another challenging aspect of the new movie was the overall budget: it was relatively low, slightly more than half the cost of UW2. So, while the scope of the vfx that presently exists was certainly suggested by the script, it had to be greatly reduced in prep in order to make the budget work. However, in post, as Screen Gems was able to see how great a picture Patrick had made, additional vfx allowances were made that, in essence, allowed the vfx to grow back to the size originally suggested by the first reading of the script."

These late additions caused unexpected deadline issues during post-production. Since production had wrapped at the end of March 2008, the various vendors initially had a respectable eight-month post period. However, with new vfx shots added late, they eventually had to rush to complete the project on time. "One of the main reasons 10 companies worked on the picture was to address the need to expedite things," McQuaide explains. "For example, the fortress assault sequence -- which consists of roughly 25 vfx shots, all of which involve CG werewolves, many of which featuring 250 to 300 werewolves -- had to be completed in less than three months."

The 10 facilities involved were:

  • Duran-Duboi (67 shots): all werewolves at Sonja's arrival; all werewolves in the carriage attack; the werewolves' lair
  • Luma Pictures (37 shots): all transformations; all werewolves in the fortress assault
  • Intelligent Creatures (85 shots): fortress extensions; matte paintings
  • Celluloid (42 shots): Lucian vs. Viktor; all CG blood adds
  • Furious FX (32 shots): vampires eye enhancements; all CG arrows
  • Element (27 shots): vampires burning in the sunlight
  • Foret Bleue (7 shots): dome opening above Sonja
  • Ntropic (13 shots): genetic memory; main titles; crane shot that first reveals the world after the Lycans escape
  • Proof (16 shots): post-visualization; final composites for the sequence where harpoons are shot at the escaping Lycans
  • Sub/Par (64 shots): production in-house unit that did all wire-removal and clean-up work

CG Werewolves

As had been the case for the previous two movies, a key aspect of the project was deciding when to use practical werewolves (once again built by Tatopoulos Studios), and when to use CGI. Usually, the type of action dictated the most logical approach. "The practical werewolves worked extremely well when the camera was in close," McQuaide notes. "However, the ability for the performers inside the suits to move was somewhat limited given the three-foot stilts they are perched atop of. So, as an example, if the requirement was for the werewolf to run, the only viable solution was CGI. And in UW3, there were certainly a lot of running werewolves (to saying nothing of fighting, climbing, jumping, etc.).

"One of the great things about working with Patrick was that, even though his facility was responsible for creating the suits, he was frequently the first one to acknowledge that CGI might be a better solution. For example, there is a shot where Lucian goes into the werewolves' lair and finds himself surrounded by eight to 10 werewolves. We had photographed the werewolf elements to build this shot as a straightforward A/B comp, but Patrick felt strongly that, given the importance of this shot -- it's in essence the moment when Lucian and the werewolves become allies -- that he needed something stronger. As a result, we switched to a CG approach to the shot, and were able to accomplish something in the werewolves' performances that was even more nuanced than the suits were capable of."

The bulk of the character animation duties were assigned to Studio VFX Duran-Duboi in Paris. VFX Supervisor Thomas Duval and VFX Producer Annabelle Troukens started working on the project as early as May 2008. The team included CG Supervisors Julien Lambert and Fabien Guiliani, Animation Supervisor Aurore Rousset and Compositing Supervisors Cyrille Bonjean and Aurélie Lajoux.

Duran-Duboi ended up producing 67 shots, which included 49 3D animation shots. "We were very excited to work with [fellow Frenchman] Patrick, with whom we have a great relationship," Duval says. "His facility had built a wonderful maquette of the character. We received the 3D scan data and used that as a template to build our werewolf in Maya. Since the maquette featured the wolf with all its fur, we had to determine the exact body volume to model the correct geometry. We used Shave n'Haircut to groom the hair, and PRMan to render it."

The characters were animated using Maya. Developing a proper animation style for the werewolves took quite some time. "We suggested many different walk and run cycles to Patrick. It was tricky, as we had to find a balance between elegance and brutality. Patrick specifically wanted the werewolves to look sexy when in motion, and not so much beastly. It may seem like a contradiction, but in fact, if you look at a cheetah, it has a very feminine walk, while a wolf in motion remains much more massive. So, we fought hard to incorporate this feline attributes into our walk and run cycles, while simultaneously retaining all the aggressiveness and sense of weight of the characters. We had to keep in mind that these creatures weigh hundreds of pounds."

Animators also worked hard on specific attitudes that Tatopoulos had in mind. For instance, the director wanted the werewolves to move in a very aggressive and vicious way when wounded, even severely, which required much iteration. The team met an interesting challenge with the key sequence in which the werewolves' lair is revealed. "There are more than 300 characters in this sequence..." Duval notes. "Our animators developed several families of cycles that were then applied to the werewolves. Obviously, we had various levels of details on the fur, as some of the characters were pretty small in the frame. We did use fur simulation on all of them though. We noticed that our pipeline was so efficient that it didn't make much of a difference whether we used simulations or textures. The werewolves were then rendered out in groups and layers, as to maintain reasonable rendering times. All the elements and layers were then combined using proprietary compositing software Dutruc."

Lucien (Michael Sheen) rallies the other Lycans in an uprising against the cruel vampire king who has enslaved them.

A Charging Army

Of all the vfx shots in the movie, those involving the 300 CG werewolves that attack the fortress were obviously the most complex... and expensive. As a result, for budgetary reasons, the sequence was culled down in preproduction to a handful of shots. During postproduction, McQuaide hired Proof Inc. to explore in post-visualization what a much more epic approach to this sequence might look like. Enough practical plates had been shot to allow for this experimentation. The resulting animation impressed the studio so much that the sequence was approved as suggested. "The key to the success of the entire sequence was the post-vis work done by Proof," McQuaide insists. "It not only allowed everyone to see what we intended, but provided vendor Luma Pictures with a very concise road map, which saved just enough money and time to make the sequence possible."

The fortress assault sequence provided Luma Pictures with a welcome opportunity to build up on the know-how that had been acquired on UW2. "We used Massive software to simulate the pack of characters traversing the CG terrain, each werewolf independently calculating its environment and other characters in its proximity, triggering different actions and paths," explains CG Supervisor Chris Sage. "All the character animation was created via keyframed animation. We developed an animation rig that would allow animators to translate between a quadruped run or bipedal run on the fly. This enabled a werewolf to start on two legs and, while running, jump down to all four legs and continue on its way. The fur was rendered using mental ray and custom Massive fur shader. For the hero characters, fur was groomed in Maya and then rendered through mental ray. Multiple fur passes for breakup and variation were generated through our Nexus shader. Each character had roughly three times the amount of detail that was created for UW2."

Another challenging aspect of Luma's assignment was the transformation shots. The team created three different sculpts for each transformation: a Human, a Hybrid state, and a Lycan form. "We created a skeleton that grew and translated a base mesh, which was then modified in a non-linear fashion by using 'widgets,'" Sage adds. "These were developed in-house to allow the animators fine levels of control over the transformation. The animators could move these 'widgets' in 3D space and position them in contact with various regions of the mesh in order to drive deformations and transformations between the various sculpts in that region. This allowed us to quickly visualize the various stages each transformation would go through, and to create the performance the director was trying to achieve for each sequence."

Viktor (Bill Nighy), the vampire king, leads his armies against the Lycans.

Fortress Extensions

Although character animation obviously gets the most attention, one of the trickier aspects of the visual effects in UW3 was the set extensions. Since the practical sets were built in a stage that was only 30 feet high, a set extension was required each time the camera panned even slightly up. "What made these extensions more complicated than most was that the lighting grid wasn't that much higher than the practical set," McQuaide observes. "Coupled with the amount of fog being added to pretty much every shot, it made it very rough on Intelligent Creatures, who handled all the set extensions and CG environments."

In order to seamlessly integrate the set extensions, VFX Supervisor Michael Hatton, 3D Supervisor Jeff Newton and their team at Intelligent Creatures decided to use the fog to their advantage. They added more haze over the CG elements, which helped to blend them smoothly in. This was done using a combination of 3D-generated fog, and 2D fog placed in the scene in Nuke's 3D environment. The 3D renders were broken out into many individual passes to give compositors more control over lighting and color.

After three Underworld movies, McQuaide now has a unique perspective on the evolution of the franchise from a vfx point of view. "On the first UW, Len Wiseman wanted to use practical effects as much as possible and CGI only when there was no other option (i.e. transformations). He wanted the movie, even though it involved werewolves and vampires, to be as real as possible. In UW2, we increased the reliance on CGI simply because the quality of what we could achieve digitally had increased significantly in the years between the two movies. In UW3, every one of the big set piece sequences are constructed with shots that, if they are not full CG, are mostly so. However, the key to whether we have been successful in UW3 will hinge on whether the audience believes the CG shots they are seeing -- even if they involve a charging army of 300 werewolves -- to be real. The best vfx shots go by unnoticed. As painful as this is to say, if the work that everyone has contributed to UW3 over these last months suffers this fate, then we will have been successful."

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, both print and online, and occasionally to Cinefex. In 2004, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.

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