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'Underworld' Awakens the World

VFX supervisor James McQuaide reveals the 3-D and Uber Lycan creature work of the fourth Underworld film.

All images © 2011 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Vampire and Lycan clans must band together to fight humans when their secret existence is uncovered in Underworld Awakening, the fourth in the successful horror franchise. Shot in 3-D for the first time ( the second film to use the Epic camera; and the first film to shoot with the 3ality Technica Atom rig), Awakening makes use of the stereoscopic format as never before.

"The new camera and rig were easy to use and required little fixing," McQuaide says. I ran around 12 shots through ocular; everything else was fixed by moving pixels around in DI. Between the camera seeing everything and 3-D, they couldn't fall back on any of the old tricks. It pushed all of the VFX companies to bring their A-game.

"Early on, Selene gets knocked out by an explosion and wakes up 12 years later. We wanted to use 3-D almost narratively. We did this whole sequence where we plunge through the water and then the camera begins to rotate and bubbles go by camera and they become ice crystals, which then become the ice crystals of the cryo tank that Selene has been in for 12 years. But by twisting that image, you have a physical reaction that makes you feel almost as disoriented as Selene.

Plus there are more vfx shots than ever before -- 850 total and 275 devoted to creature work. The VFX was spread among 15 companies across the globe, including Mokko (the conventional Lycans), Celluloid (CG environments and the cryo tank), Spin (CG environments), Look FX (elevator mayhem), Furious FX (comping), Rodeo (the signature star thrown by Kate Beckinsale's Seline) and Atomic Fiction (face replacement).

But the highlight, as always, was the signature Werewolves by Luma Pictures. They did the 12-foot uber Lycan, the star of the movie, along with the Tunnel Lycans that have been driven underground.

" We're maturing, and as the movies go on, what visual effects makes possible, we take advantage of," McQuaide suggests. "Our post schedule was only 28 weeks with a limited budget, but we were still able to do quite a bit.

"Luma raised its game. The creature work is stellar. We had never done motion capture work for the creatures before. It wasn't necessary. But in this case, we had a character named Quint, who becomes the uber Lycan. And we spend enough time with him that it became necessary to use motion capture to reveal certain human traits after he becomes a Lycan so he doesn't just look like an animal. We motion captured the actor [Kris Holden-Reid], who was very physical, and we used his performance as the basis of a lot of the action you see in the movie. It wasn't a literal translation of his movement, but we took the general ideas and then had someone animate on top of it to give it the proper scale and so forth."

At one point, the uber Lycan gets his fingers cut off by Selene. And McQuaide sat in a room for many weeks discussing how a 12-foot Lycan would react after losing his fingers. Would it be anguish? Would it be pain? They tried various things but it didn't seem organic. "We brought the actor in, we mocapped him and what he did is the basis for what you'll see in the movie. It seems real -- letting the actor inform the animation department about what the blocking should be. I thought it was a good melding of both disciplines -- motion capture and keyframe," McQuaide says.

It was also the first time that they took creatures outside. "In one particular car chase sequence, we took the creatures, ran them out to a public street, which was great. In a big way, we pull the curtain back and reveal to the world that these vampire and lycan creatures exist."

Enter Luma, supervised by Vincent Cirelli. Luma utilized the motion capture stage at its new Santa Monica facility to enhance and improve the character design. Rather than fabricate a traditional snorri-cam (with a camera mounted around an actor's chest), Luma devised a helmet to capture every movement of Holden-Reid's face, independent of his body movements, as he thrashed around in pain acting out the transformation from man to werewolf. A custom framework was fabricated from lightweight piping and fitted with a wide-angle Go Pro camera. This was then secured to the helmet with the lens facing the actor's face.

The new workflow was incorporated early in the process to allow for directors Björn Stein and Måns Mårlind to provide input into character movement and to help capture the personality Holden-Reid imbued into the character of the Uber Lycan. Providing 106 intense CG creature shots, spanning two distinct Werewolf species with environmental interaction and 35 specific assets, Luma's work represents their most robust contribution to the Underworld franchise to date.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.