Search form

Splicing Dren Together

Bob Munroe adds some splice to the new horror film about the evils of genetic engineering.

Check out the Splice trailer and clips at AWNtv!

The child Dren was the most difficult challenge, with Image Metrics providing Eye ADR and C.O.R.E. animating most of the face. All images courtesy of Warner Bros.

In Splice, two scientists (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) cross the ethical cloning line with terrifying results by combining human and animal DNA. It's director Vincenzo Natali's Frankenstein, which took him a decade to make. Longtime Natali collaborator, Bob Munroe, the visual effects supervisor (formerly with the now defunct C.O.R.E. Digital), was on the project from the very beginning. He admits that Dren (nerd spelled backwards) is the reason it took so long to make Splice: "Dren is complex and evolves very quickly from a little, hairless, bird-like, lizard creature to a very attractive, young female in almost no time. Thankfully, we had a lot of great creature designers, especially Amro Attia.

"I think what [Natali] was after from day one was a sympathetic character that didn't draw attention to itself as a monster, but as a creation of two monsters. The look of Dren is [subtractive] -- the bald head, the eyes slightly far apart and slanted, only three fingers and a thumb on each hand, a tail that only moves when necessary to conserve energy. And the way we supported that from a visual effects standpoint was to constantly make things as subtle as possible."

C.O.R.E. did the bulk of the animation in Toronto using Houdini, with Paris-based Buf Compagnie and Mac Guff Ligne animating Dren as a baby/ toddler and the pre-Dren slugs, Fred and Ginger, respectively.

Buf animated Dren as a baby, with eye support from Image Metrics.

Munroe suggests that a test was made 10 years ago, but it wasn't technology that held them back. "The reason we could not have made this 10 years ago is because we didn't have Delphine Chanéac. She informed the character at every stage of its evolution," he explains. "She came back from Paris to Toronto after we wrapped and I videotaped her in a small studio acting out the baby and toddler Dren actions for the benefit of the animators, even though they were all-CG characters. And Delphine worked with Abigail Chu, who plays the child Dru, for a couple of weeks helping her understand how her performance was going to come across on screen to support the evolution of Dren: The fact that the eyes are on the side of her head, how she could tilt her head to one side to look straight ahead; the recoiling action when she gets scared or the aggressive action when she gets angry."

Munroe credits CG Supervisor Terry Bradley with devising the techniques for pulling off the different Drens. The child Dren, though, offered the most complex challenge since most of her face is CG. "We had to blend skin tones right in the middle of her face and make it work," Munroe continues. The eyes, skull and ears are CG. We had her wearing a prosthetic built by KNB for lighting reference."

Not surprisingly, the child's eyes were the biggest challenge, and it was Bradley's suggestion to once again rely on Chanéac. "When we finished editing all of the scenes of the child Dren, at the same time that we brought Delphine back for reference, we did what we called Eye ADR.

Actress Delphine Chanéac informed Dren at every age of her development, including instruction for child actress Abigail Chu.

This was performed by Image Metrics in LA, utilizing its proprietary rigging and animation technology to provide 128 seconds of facial animation. Using a rig that controlled the cheeks, eyes, eyebrows and massive forehead, five animators and four trackers from Image Metrics completed a first pass of animation for the young character. Many shots were then altered in art direction from the original timings to achieve director Natali's vision. Core then imported the data into Houdini and applied it directly to the CG eyes.

Then, as Dren evolves, she becomes more predatory, with the eyes moving more toward the head. "We didn't want to go through the expense of a complete CG rendered head with Delphine because of the number of shots where she's on screen," Munroe says. "Terry and John Mariella, one of our animation directors, came up with a technique that was absolutely brilliant in its simplicity: We brought a company in from Ottawa called XYX RGB and they scanned Delphine's head in very high-resolution detail, so we had a CG data set of her head. On set every day, we put tracking markers around Delphine's eyes to make it easier later on. Once we were finished and got the plates, Paul Waggoner, our head of tracking, then processed that footage and that would go to our compositing team, and they would remove the dots. Then our animation team took that 3D data set of Delphine's head and placed it into the shot so that it was tracked in perfectly, and then the cleaned up version of the plate was camera projected right back on that 3D head; and in realtime, Vincenzo and I could sit with Paul to [determine where to position the eyes]. Then it would be put in the render queue. There was no ray tracing or global illumination or subsurface scattering or ambient occlusion because the lighting was already in the footage. At that point, there might be some cleaning up of the edges by the compositing team. And that was our adult Dren. It was remarkably simple, effective and cost-efficient.

Dren becomes a subtractive, predatory creature, but not without sympathy.

The final problem was Dren's wings, especially the retraction, which wasn't tagged until the final day of visual effects production. "We decided that they needed to desiccate in a way that made sense for the natural ribbing," Munroe adds. "We tried various techniques and finally Terry and his team used the structural lines of the wings to their advantage. They let the wings collapse so that the veins effectively push up against one another and can gather in a much more natural way."

After a sixth-month design/pre-production phase for vfx and 12 months to produce around 500 shots, Munroe singles out producer Steven Hoban. "He convinced Gaumont and the other financiers that this was critical to the success of the film. If the effects were substandard, it would've taken you out of the movie. He gave us the time to figure them out because on a more typical production schedule I don't think we would've succeeded the way we did."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.