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The Apocalyptic Effects of the New 'Resident Evil'

Alain Bielik talks with the vfx wizards behind the apocalyptic work done for the Resident Evil sequel.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse goes to great heights to sell its effects. All images courtesy of Mr. X. © 2004 Constantin Films/Screen Gems Inc. All rights reserved.

Beware! The undead are back and they are bringing some new friends along... Adapted from the best-selling videogame series, the first Resident Evil movie combined a sexy lead character named Alice, a scary story (the ruthless Umbrella Corporation unleashes a virus that turns its own employees into zombies) and state of the art visual effects by Framestore CFC, London. In Resident Evil: Apocalypse, the action picks up right where it left off. Genetically enhanced Alice (Milla Jovovich) wakes up in the middle of Raccoon City, which has become a virus-infected place of the dead. She joins a group of survivors and tries to lead them out of the city, fighting her way through nasty creatures and mean zombies. But the main danger that she will be facing is Umbrella Corp., the company who created her and that doesnt want her to escape

Producers Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt selected Alison OBrien to both supervise and produce the visual effects. A former head of vfx and director of production at Framestore CFC, she had overseen the production of the visual effects of Event Horizon for the two partners. She soon found out that the new assignment was going to put her management skills to the test We had about 500 shots to do, although 444 are in the final cut, OBrien says. This was a rather large-scale project involving creature animation, CGI, crowd duplication and complex miniature set-ups. However, I was not allowed to pick up the facilities that I wanted to work with. Since this was an English/Canadian co-production shot in Toronto, there were tax incentives that required the effects work to be done exclusively in the Ontario State. This was an enormous challenge for me as I was not familiar with the companies there. I had to evaluate their capacity, their availability and their experience. With such a restraint and given the complexity of the project, I was actually very worried in the beginning. I knew it would take a huge amount of creative, technical, budget and deadline management to make it work.

Made in Canada

Selected to handle the bulk of the effects load was Mr. X, Toronto, who produced more than 250 shots under founder Dennis Berardis supervision. A large part of their involvement focused on a climactic sequence that takes place at the City Hall of Raccoon City. Live-action plates were shot at the Toronto City Hall, taking advantage of its unique twin cove-shaped towers mirroring each other. In a spectacular shot, Alice is seen running down one of the 260-foot tall facades with the help of a cable rig. The action was performed live by stunt double Joanne Leach 12 times in a row! and captured via a special camera rig that was able to track along the fearless performer.

The first part of the shot was framed as if she was running along a horizontal surface, OBrien recalls. Then, the camera did a 90-degree turn and you suddenly realized that Alice was actually running straight down the edge of the building. This was a very complex shot that required face replacement as well as costume and cable replacement. Mr. X used a digital scan of Millas head and digitally tracked it in Boujou onto the stunt doubles body. The track was really difficult as the shot featured a dramatic perspective and lighting change on the character. Plus, it was unavoidable that the costume was stretched out at the point where the cable connected to the harness. So, we had to reconstruct the background, paint her clothes back to their normal shape and replace the whole cable and carabiner.

Visual effects work was used to enhance the on-set special effects.

When Alice hits the ground, the action keeps going as shes assaulted by two combat helicopters and by Nemesis, a seven-foot tall genetically modified man. The villain is so popular among fans of the videogame that the sequel was originally subtitled Nemesis. It was later changed into Apocalypse when producers of the Star Trek movie franchise picked it up first for the tenth installment of their own saga. Nemesis was designed and created as a man-in-a-suit by Toronto-based make-up artist Paul Jones, and digitally enhanced for facial expressions at Mr. X. We heavily retouched the eye area in order to help conceal the fact that it was a performer wearing a mask, OBrien explains. In any make-up, the most delicate part is often the area where the prosthetics meet the eyes of the performer. With the help of digital technology, we were able to create a character that really looked alive.

Chain reaction

Alices foes meet their fate when a rocket hits one of the helicopters. The machine blows up and a large piece of debris hits the second helicopter, causing it to explode. Its body then breaks up into two parts with the front piece turning around and falling down right at camera. The complex choreography was previsualized in Maya and executed at Mr. X with a combination of miniatures, CGI and digital effects. Six models were built at 1/8th scale three for each helicopter and shot high speed on a black background. We set up the miniature shoots to precisely match the previs, breaking the shots up into specific camera set-ups that made sense from a rigging and time perspective, OBrien notes. The models were shot separately and combined with a plate of the location. Rotors and debris were added in CG. Mr. X used Maya for 3D animation and rendered the images in RenderMan, mental ray being favored for some elements.

The sequence concludes with a gigantic blast when a missile hits the twin towers. The destruction of the building was realized via miniature effects enhanced with digital effects at C.O.R.E., a Toronto-based company commissioned to do 118 shots. First, a 44-foot tall miniature replica of the Toronto City Hall was built and equipped with some 900 individual window elements. The miniature glass panels were then detonated in a carefully programmed sequence of pyrotechnic events that radiated downwards from the top of the tower. Led by digital effects supervisor Kyle Menzies and assistant digital effects supervisor Jesse Bradstreet, C.O.R.E. artists animated a digital shockwave that distorted the windows just ahead of the blast. We warped the facade in 2D using a moving mesh that was created in Digital Fusion, OBrien explains. Then, we utilized Maya to generate several layers of elements, including glass pieces, debris and dust. These digital layers did a lot to enhance the overall scale of the event. Requested after the miniature had been blown up, an aerial view of the blast was created by duplicating in CG the look of the miniature/digital shockwave and combining it with a plate of the real towers.

Now thats explosive!

Shopping for Textures at the Butcher Shop

As if bullets, rockets and shockwaves were not enough, Alice also confronts the Licker, a vicious creature that she had already vanquished in the first movie. Very popular among fans of the videogames, the Licker was created and animated in Houdini at C.O.R.E. We didnt use the model that Framestore CFC had built for the first movie, OBrien comments. We started from scratch with a brief from the director to make it look flayed and as disgusting as possible. In order to deliver on this level, we scanned chunks of real meat that we got from the butcher shop and blended them together in Deep Paint to create organic textures that made sense. On top of that, we added gooey and slimy textures that I had shot for real. This is something that I did as often as possible on this movie. I always favored the real thing as opposed to a computer-generated element. This is why I shot many practical effects to enhance the action: liquids running and sticking, dust hits, blood sprays, etc.

The plates were shot with a mockup of the Licker as a lighting reference. Animation of the CG creature turned out to be much trickier than expected, due to the unique nature of the character. The Licker is supposed to be half man, half frog! OBrien remarks. How is such a creature supposed to move? There was absolutely no real-life animal that we could use as a reference, which made the animation very complicated. In the end, I asked the animators to look at monkeys and frogs for the jumps and the landings, and to study lions and tigers for facial animation. Also, the fact that the Licker had no eyes made it very difficult for us to convey expressions. As a result, we mainly used the elongated tongue of the character to express attitudes. Rendered in RenderMan, the Licker was composited in live-action plates with Digital Fusion.

Digital Make-up

During the course of the action, Alice gets to team up with Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), another beloved character from the Resident Evil videogame series. In a tense sequence, Jill comes face to face with a group of mean virus-infected Dobermans. The dogs were real animals that had been trained to perform the action while wearing heavy make-up. However, director Alexander Witt deemed that the results were not scary enough and C.O.R.E. was asked to digitally enhance the look of the creatures. Using Digital Fusion and combustion, CG artists painted new textures that were meant to be as repulsive as possible. After meticulous tracking of the dogs movements, the digital textures were warped to precisely fit the shape of the bodies. Close-ups of the growling animals required heavy touch ups: teeth were made sharper; tendons, bones or ribs were partially exposed; eyes were digitally injured; and layers upon layers of bloody textures were added onto the bodies. The end result is deliciously gruesome! OBrien laughs. Besides creature animation, C.O.R.E. also handled several crowd duplication scenes, turning 400 extras into a crowd of 6,000.

Director Alexander Witt (right) shows actresses Sienna Guillory and Sophie Vavasseur how its done. Photo by Rolf Konow.

The remainder of the effects workload about 80 shots was awarded to Frantic Films supervised by Chris Bond. The Winnipeg-based company focused on muzzle flashes, tracer bullets and speed changes. The final shot of the movie was the one and only effect for which OBrien was actually able to choose the facility: For this end shot, they allowed me to choose a company in the U.K. I selected Double Negative, London, and they delivered an impressive 50-seconds long pull back starting from a tight shot of Milla Jojovich and ending up in outer space. The first 10 seconds are a live-action plate photographed from a 22-foot crane, but after that, the shot becomes completely digital and, as we get out into space, it is as photoreal as it gets. The assignment was supervised by Rick Leary and executed in Maya, RenderMan and Shake.

For OBrien, the project leaves memories of intense pressure, but a sense of great pride too: I was faced with an extraordinary amount of limitations. It was an extremely hard job. Yet, given that I didnt have the choice of the companies I could work with, Im very happy with the final result. They all delivered. I should point out that we did more than 500 shots for less than $3 million in digital costs. Thats a huge feat!

Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinefex.