Bill Desowitz gets ILMs Dennis Muren, Pablo Helman and Randy Dutra to divulge some of their vfx secrets for Steven Spielbergs War of the Worlds.
When Steven Spielberg decided to remake War of the Worlds with Tom Cruise playing a working class everyman from New Jersey, his plan was to metaphorically evoke an apocalyptic post 9/11 sense of panic and paranoia, utilizing H.G. Wells’ literary classic more than George Pal’s movie legend. The gritty look was inspired by amateur 9/11 footage, with dust and debris falling from the sky, and hand-held shots of pandemonium.
The entire production lasted about 10 months; the shoot, spanning both coasts (predominantly the Eastern Seaboard), lasted only 72 days; and post-production lasted only 12 weeks. Not a lot of time for Industrial Light & Magic to create 400 invisible vfx shots, a situation complicated by the introduction of a new pipeline in anticipation of the company’s restructuring and relocation to San Francisco’s Presidio.
In fact, War of the Worlds was the tightest job in ILM’s history. The crew ramped up from 50 to 179 digital artists aided by a support staff of 60. And half of the vfx shots were actually completed in the final month.
Thus, it was imperative that Spielberg make full use of realtime previs to give ILM an eight-month head start during pre-production, when it was also designing the alien creatures. The director enlisted previs supervisor Dan Gregoire, who worked on the recent Star Wars films. Armed with PCs equipped with AMD 64-bit Opteron microprocessors, Gregoire traveled up and down the east coast with Spielberg and crew as they scouted locations. For the first time, Spielberg had a hand in the previs, doing his own animatics.
“In the old days, Steven would do storyboards and would toss them out when he got to the set and was inspired,” recounts senior visual effects supervisor and longtime Spielberg collaborator Dennis Muren. “No time to regroup on this. He had Dan on the set with him. And Dan had exact replicas of the sets and the creatures, and the CG lenses matched the camera lenses in the computer. So when Steven designed a shot, we could take the data from that since the geometry and the camera lenses in the computer matched the real world; and that can only happen if you know the sets well enough in advance.
“Dan was great because there was one instance when we were trying to shoot in a location and couldn’t get it at the last minute, and they found another one, so he ran out and chartered a helicopter for a few hours and shot some still photos and photo modeled that into the system. So even on a short schedule he had something within a day for Steven to previs.”
In keeping with Spielberg’s reliance on realism, CG shots were kept to a minimum and had to seamlessly blend in with the live-action footage, which included lots of sets and models but no motion control work. The vfx shots of dust and broken glass occur behind smoke, ambience and camerawork. Taking their cues from Saving Private Ryan and Spielberg’s directive that the entire movie be told from Cruise’s POV, the vfx crew was also limited in its reliance on blue or greenscreen work.
“This meant the camera setups and the feel were much more organic than the futuristic trappings associated with the genre.” Muren continues. “This was a combat situation and we were trying to give it a feeling of dirt and chaos and to keep it intimately tied to Tom’s character. It was tempting to look over his shoulder and see what was going on over the hill, so to speak, but Steven was adamant that we keep real and mysterious, which was much harder than the usual effects movie.”
To help keep the production on schedule, Muren decided to test ILM’s new pipeline — a revamping of the company’s Zeno software package in an attempt to move away from specialization, increase the creativity of the artist and speed up the pipeline.
Zeno is a package of a lot of tools, some of which are proprietary, some of which are off-the-shelf, that all fit together in a user-friendly interface and are scalable so you can do a very few shots with them or one shot, or you can do one model or one amount of geometry or you can scale up to do a big crowd scene, Muren explains. If everybody can learn the interface, which we are trying to solidify, then you can use it for a small show or a big show and hopefully wont be hitting too many dead ends because of the software, so then it all comes down to the talent of the artist.
I had already been rethinking how we could work at ILM to better make use of the artists, to empower then with more technology and go away from the specialization that weve done before. What you have to do if youre going to upscale and downscale quickly, is to multitask the artist, which is what Ive imposed on Zeno, even though the program started out with a different idea. The artist then can do more of a shot than one or two jobs. I was about nine months into rethinking how to work at ILM when the opportunity of War of the Worlds came about. This allowed me to get out of theory and test it in production. It came out of George Lucas idea for Revenge of the Sith. The two test cases were War of the Worlds and The Island.
Muren admits that it was a painful process, but that it ultimately worked, enabling Spielberg for the first time to turn in vfx work by the end of principal photography. The tools were getting in the way and were trying something that is more direct and interactive. Its a real dynamic system.
Because of the logistics and tight schedule, Muren enlisted another visual effects supervisor, Pablo Helman (Saving Private Ryan and The Lost World). He worked on half a dozen sequences, including one of the most challenging and time-consuming: the exciting flight from New Jersey with Cruise and the two kids.
The sequence, one of the few done all on bluescreen, was broken down into about nine shots. The camera follows the van for about two miles of New Jersey freeway, Helman explains. We shot bluescreen in and outside the car with principals. We put eight cameras and shot around the van so they could matchmove and create a virtual environment during the bluescreen shoot. The camera goes in and out of the van for two-and-a-half-minute sequence, which took six months to do.
Helman was also part of the creature design team that, among others, included Muren and concept designers Ryan Church (ILM) and Doug Chiang (Iceblink).
First came the Tripod machines, with their large heads, headlights for eyes, enormously powerful tentacles and long, slender legs. The design was intended to mirror the aliens in terms of threes and in terms of a shared organic nature, Helman suggests, emphasizing subsurface scattering transparency around the edges of their heads. We do designs based on human physiology.
According to animation supervisor Randy Dutra, the Tripods are a bit of a contradiction, considering their Sherman tank-like heads and graceful legs This makes for an arresting visual, but how does this thing move when you give it weight, size and dimension? One hundred and 40 feet tall, with flexible legs, so it could squat down almost like a spider to dispatch people. The tricky thing was how do you make him move believably? So I spent a lot of time with the animators. The trick to cracking the code of this character was that you were animating in line and not pure mass because of the slender legs. Three-dimensional animators tend to think in mass because of thicker characters. But this was learning a learning curve as to how to keep a graceful s curve in the legs and still let the Tripods go about their business. Many times these lines had to be animated to different camera angles so they had to be shot specific.
The key word that Spielberg used repeatedly was graceful, according to Dutra. Doug Chiangs work gave the impression that they were related to something aquatic. They had tentacles; the grills on the side of the heads have lights almost like jellyfish. It had to have terrestrial buoyancy but still had to have gravity and negotiate space. We did different walk tests and motion tests. This wasnt established until ILM came onboard.
These Tripods didnt have faces per se, but they had headlights, vents and ports where various alien vapors and things would be released, so you use those for various timings for characters. What you do is sequence these objects, which adds to the suspense of not knowing what the creatures are going to do next. What was particularly challenging about the Tripods is that they are a blend of the organic and the mechanical in action. Depending on if the shot was organic, wed give it an animal look, which I think of as unpredictable and natural. If it was supposed to be robotic, wed give it a mechanical look, which is more metered, precise and repetitive. This is how we explained the breakup to the animators and what percentage would be blended.
The aliens, meanwhile, were not Martians but from some unnamed planet that stealthily hid underground for eons. Spielberg suggested that they resemble lyrical jellyfish. The aliens were fun, Dutra continues, because they were purely organic. What was interesting about the long cellar scene was how the aliens had to negotiate space. It gave us a chance to exploit how strange they move. I told the animators to think of them as almost amphibious and I used the red-eyed tree frog as a model: how slowly they walk and stay close to the ground and have a stealth that was almost creepy.
The sequence was designed so they could run in and out of shadows. I liked the fact that they dont explain what they are, that the viewer is able to learn about them through observance just like the characters. Steven wanted a more suggestive and evocative environment. I mentioned to the animators to use the hands in interesting ways: place them on the wall as they move through a corridor rather than moving them on the floor. Because as they negotiate these objects, that third leg from behind comes through as a surprise, so youre never quite sure what youre looking at but you see them moving a wholly believable way.
The Probe was interesting because its essentially a big eye and the range of movement makes it exciting. Youre waiting in anticipation to see what it will do next. It helped being on set in the claustrophobic space during the cellar sequence because I could better convey to the animators a way of moving within that space. Nature (organic forms and animals) would always suggest things that you would never think of just sitting in a studio or at a workstation. Your talent as an animator lies in your choices. And I think its very important to study the world around you and not necessarily past films because then youre rehashing second and third hand information. What is usable and creative? Its better to have animation that appears to be happening in front of you.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.