Led by VFX supervisor Derek Spears, the studio filled the sea and sky around Midway Atoll with the devastating tools and action of war in Roland Emmerich’s harrowing tale of the decisive 1942 battle between the U.S. and Japan in the Pacific Theatre of WWII.
Pixomondo has released both its VFX Breakdown reel and a video showcasing its previs work on Roland Emmerich's WWII epic, Midway, now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Six months after the Imperial Japanese navy’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, they once again attacked the U.S. fleet near Midway Atoll in the South Pacific. Emmerich’s vivid depiction of the famous battle captures the enormous scale and magnitude of what eventually became known as the most important and decisive naval battle of the Pacific Theatre of World War II, a stunning U.S. victory that dealt a mortal blow to the Japanese fleet from which they would never recover.
The Oscar and Emmy Award-winning studio was also a co-producer on the film; they have worked on numerous Emmerich movies over the last decade, including 2112, Independence Day: Resurgence and the soon-to-be-released science fiction thriller, Moonfall. Led by VFX supervisor and creative director Derek Spears, Pixomondo delivered a variety of elements and sequences on the film. Some of the more elaborate work involved creating fleets of ships, including aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers and escorts; an elaborately detailed reproduction of the famous WWII aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise; the detailed reproductions of two Japanese aircraft carriers, the Kaga and Akagi; and the Japanese airbase at Taroa [Island], complete with over 160 unique props, such as military buildings, watchtowers, vehicles, tents, barrels and sandbags.
The show presented numerous challenges for Spears and his VFX team. “Midway is a historical drama that presented many challenges on both a technical and artistic level,” the VFX supervisor reveals. “Roland wanted to portray an accurate representation of the events of the battle, while creating a cinematic experience that would engage and thrill the audience. We started by researching the appropriate ships present in both the America and Japanese fleets, as well as configurations and markings for aircraft. That research included where escorts ships would sail in formation around their individual careers. The Enterprise was built from the actual plans and configured as it would have been during the battle.”
According to Pixomondo, The Enterprise model was made up from 136,360 separate pieces and 45.2 million polygons. Using Maya crowd simulation, Spears's team was able to create 200 crew members exercising on the Enterprise’s deck with 11 different classes of digi-doubles. Simulations of the bow wake used over a billion particles.
Production challenges revolved primarily around two major areas: animation and simulation. “Realistic aircraft flight dynamics were critical to ensuring the audience’s belief in the reality of the events,” Spears explains. “Our animation director, Sebastian Butenberg, being a pilot himself, provided keen insight into realistic animation of the aircraft. Everything from the physical arc of flight to the correct animation of flight controls was carefully orchestrated.”
“Simulations provided the other big challenge,” he continues. “Flak was a very important visual element to the film, injecting a heightened sense of danger and a visual messiness into the shots. A selection of flak bursts was simulated at high resolutions and then, using a set of scattering tools, artists could place these simulations throughout the scene. Tracers were added with controls to affect the amount of ‘wiggle’ that a camera being subjected to that shaking would perceive.”
Depicting an epic sea battle meant realistic ocean shots were critical. “Oceans were built with a combination of shader-based approaches for distant seas and full simulations for close ups,” Spears describes. “Wakes and whitewater simulations were built in Houdini, with extra green aerated water added to these disturbed areas for realism. Aircraft and ordinance impact the surface throughout the attack, which was achieved using methods similar to [how we produced] the flak: individual pre-computed sims placed by artists within the scene.”
“Finally,” Spears notes, “the explosion on the Akagi from [Lieutenant Richard Halsey] Best’s attack was one of the highest resolution and longest running sims on the show. It features fire, smoke, and debris. It was so successful that we ended up using it again for the attack on the Kaga. The explosion caches were re-used, placed, rotated and relit for the two impacts that erupt from its deck.”
In the second shared video, Pixomondo head of visualization Tefft Smith explains how the studio used previs to create realistic battle sequences for the film.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.