Thomas J. McLean talks to X-Files VFX Supervisor Mat Beck about the challenges of snowfall with the new Frosty program.
When it came time for Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files TV series and director and co-writer of the new Fox feature film The X-Files: I Want to Believe (now playing), to pick a visual effects supervisor, Mat Beck at Entity FX was really the only choice.
Not only was Beck the supervisor on the franchise's first movie in 1998, he was also a visual effects producer on the TV series and even wrote the third-season episode, Wetwired. Returning to The X-Files was like coming home, Beck says, and being familiar with the production and the style Carter prefers for his creation was a definite advantage.
"He has a definite style and a definite point of view," Beck adds, "Chris puts a lot of faith in his audience to appreciate the production value that's there and also to fill in the things that are kind of hidden from sight one way or another. I think that philosophy informs this movie as well."
As usual, coming into the film the schedule was very tight and the number of shots that were going to be needed was at first indeterminate and then tripled late in the schedule. That made the biggest challenge just one of the logistics of trying to get the work done on time.
Then came the plot -- which has been kept under tight wraps -- and many scenes involving snowy winter storms and landscapes.
Dealing with snow was particularly difficult because no two snowfalls are exactly the same. "We had to have believable snow in a bunch of shots that had to have continuity with shots that were practical snow," continues Beck. "And then, overall, there had to be an evolution of the snow through certain scenes to kind of set an emotional tone. And so we had different kinds of snow and different levels of snow and different scenes in which snow had to be inserted. So we needed to generate some tools in house to give the capability to do it quickly."
The result was a program called Frosty, which was written by David Alexander. Beck says Alexander, head of 3D on the film, wrote the program in Mel, the scripting language for Maya and had it drive Maya's particle engine through Sprite. Beck says the program is basically an interactive snow generator with about 50 controllable variables dealing with wind turbulence, where it falls and how it interacts with other objects. It also controls various types of blurring, including motion blur, lens blur and atmospheric blur, all of which have to be dealt with in the right order in order to look real, Beck says.
Once Frosty was up and running and integrated into the pipeline, Entity was able to generate the custom snow elements that most vfx shots in the movie needed. As the schedule got tighter, Beck says Entity shared Frosty and some of the elements with such companies as Illustrated Arts, Hybrid and Frantic Films to get the movie done.
The software also came in handy on a snow-heavy sequence Beck is supervising for Entity on The Spirit, Frank Miller's solo directorial debut due Christmas Day.
Discussing specific effects is difficult for Beck, as the plot to the film has been kept under tight wraps until just before its release. Some scenes required adjustments to lighting and adjusting backgrounds.
"Along with adding snow, we had to either hide or cut off tops of mountains that didn't look right for the location of the movie, and then we had to attack the highlights and mitigate the shadows so that it did not look like a sunny day, that it did look like an overcast day," Beck continues.
The movie also called for a number of set extensions needed to make buildings look taller and bigger. All kinds of techniques were used for these extensions, from 3D matte paintings to 2D and 2.5D.
"There's a shot where someone's climbing up toward a camera at a construction site and we replaced the background with a long drop down to the street below, and the street had 3D buildings around it and 3D cars driving on it," Beck offers.
Greenscreen techniques were not terribly common on this film, Beck suggests, though some driving scenes were done with greenscreen while others were done with rear projection. Most had to have snow added in, and Beck says there was a lot of practical photography that required digital tweaks.
CG elements were mostly limited to earthbound objects such as cars, guns, an ax and CG blood. "I can tell you right now that the shot count of flying saucer shots is zero," Beck continues.
Some of the more gory shots went through multiple passes to work for both the theatrical release and an extended cut that will be on the DVD. "We kind of obscured some things that were deemed a little too gruesome for the rating for the MPAA," Beck recalls. "But then when we went back in for the DVD, we revisited some of the shots and made them a little more gruesome again, added some more CG blood."
Entity also took advantage of its office in Canada, which allowed Beck and crew to have a base near the film's shoot in Vancouver and at the Whistler ski resort. Sending information back and forth required development of some software to help make Entity's infrastructure as flexible as possible, helping with render management and information synching between points. Beck spent a lot of time on the set and also directed some second unit work.
While many films have a lot of wire removal work, a movie like this with lots of snow scenes needs footprint removal, Beck says. A company named At the Post was brought on by Tom Ford, the vfx producer for the studio, to do a number of footprint removal shots, Beck says.
"We did a lot of previs for certain sequences, which was hugely helpful for all the right reasons," Beck says. "It helped Chris kind of hone the idea of what he wanted, it helped discussions with editorial and with Frank (Spotnitz), who was the co-writer of the show."
It also helped that a dialog was established between departments so that, for example, the art department knew exactly how much it needed to build for a particular shot. "That healthy dialogue before you get on set pays off big time," Beck says.
The film ended up having between 350 and 400 vfx shots -- a small number for a potential summer blockbuster, but this is a film that Beck says is not a high-concept vfx film -- and is all the better for it.
It also was a pleasure to be reunited once again with many members of the old X-Files team. "I've obviously known Chris and Frank and a bunch of them for a long time and it's a real pleasure being in a creative collaboration with them because it is a collaboration and there's that real commitment to make the big things good and the little things good as well."
Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.