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Digital Domain Spends a ‘Night at the Museum’

Led by VFX supervisor Lou Pecora, Digital Domain delivers roughly 340 shots for Shawn Levy’s ‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,’ including CG environments, animated Greek statues, and complex split-screens performances.

Visual effects house Digital Domain executed approximately 340 shots for director Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, including the creation of all-CG environments used in more than 100 shots, CG Greek statues performing in myriad action shots, and complex split-screens performances, as well as a handful of 2D shots.

Digital Domain’s contributions to the final installment of the Night at the Museum trilogy were made in Los Angeles under the direction of VFX supervisor Lou Pecora, who is known for his work on Star Trek (2009), Iron Man 3 (2013) and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007).

Split-screen shots featured interactions between night guard Larry and Laa the Caveman -- both of whom are played by the multi-talented Ben Stiller. The characters perform in several long and intricate motion control shots crossing back and forth in front, behind and interacting with each other, furthering the illusion that these are two separate characters.

Big Trouble in Little Pompeii

The film’s Pompeii sequence, featuring Dexter the Capuchin monkey, required an all-CG build of a tabletop Pompeii diorama environment, including buildings with cobblestone streets and a very active Mt. Vesuvius. Digital Domain was tasked with re-creating the 79AD eruption of the mountain that destroyed Pompeii, which required multiple complex simulations for the eruption itself -- including smoke, fire, lava, and fireballs -- along with the moving lava flow which was choreographed to match up to the live-action performances that were later composited into the scene.

“Choreographing the lava flow was fairly time consuming as simulations by their nature are difficult to art direct,” Pecora says. “Getting the right amount of lava at the right speed to put it in the right place on certain action beats required us to work at the sequence level rather than at the individual shot level.  Any changes in editorial -- cut length changes or shot reordering -- often caused us to go back and resim the surrounding shots as well as the one in question.”

The diorama itself presented a unique challenge -- the DD team needed to achieve a photoreal look of a miniature hand-made model. “To some degree, it had to look fake in order to look right,” Pecora recalls. “The cobblestone streets, for instance, were modeled and lit with the idea that it was a vacuform solid plastic base like one that would come with a hobby model kit. The same concept applied to the walls and balconies of the set.”

Also featured in the Pompeii sequence was an animated, talking bust of Augustus, which Digital Domain created using its proprietary facial animation system Direct Drive.

In order to maximize the illusion that Jed and Octavius are 1/23 scale, Pecora and his team used a technique called “Focus Stacking,” which required that photography be shot at varying focus distances. “These images can then be combined, or stacked, in such a way to allow for the focal plane to be adjusted as the shot is being composited together to more closely match Jed and Octavius’s photography and better integrate them into the scene,” he explains.

Digital Domain also created lifelike wall friezes and Greek statues that come to life as the film’s characters enter the hallway and display room with the magical tablet. To achieve this effect, DD artists created a CG version of a practical frieze, along with six hero Greek statues and 12 partial statues on stands.

Escher Tablet Pursuit

In this challenging sequence, three of the film’s main characters enter M.C. Escher’s mind-bending, iconic lithograph, “Relativity,” in a chase to get to the magical tablet. When the film’s characters enter the artwork, they take on a variation of the distinctive etched look immediately recognizable as Escher’s style, interacting with the all-CG environment and its residents in complex and intricately choreographed ways.

“This sequence provided one of the most fun and interesting challenges we have faced in recent years. Making the CG set look like lithography involved coming up with complex shaders that had to dynamically resize the pattern density based on factors like distance to camera and size in frame,” Pecora details. “Studying the artwork itself taught us that shadows aren’t just darker areas due to light being occluded, but rather a more dense arrangement of the lithographic pattern that is present in surrounding areas. This led us to render a full set of the more dense pattern to be revealed through shadow mattes that were either generated in the scene or rotoscoped or keyed from the plate photography.

“VFX always involves a balance of technical acumen and artistry,” the VFX supervisor continues. “This sequence definitely provided its share of technical challenges, but most of the journey in was spent making artistic decisions and creative calls. The etch treatment applied to the photography, for example, was very finicky and sensitive depending on how large or small something was in frame. There was no real formula for it, only artistic instincts on what looked right. Pattern angles, how many different sections we would need, how fine or coarse the pattern should be and how heavily the effect should be printed in would all have to be dialed in on a case by case basis -sometimes animating throughout a shot if we go from wide to close or vice versa.”

Dealing with things like motion blur and depth-of-field, usually fairly straightforward and technical tasks, demanded a high level of artistry. “We had to make a lot of artistic calls on how these aspects should be handled. Do we put the etch on before the defocus and let the lines get blurry? Do we let the etch treatment get motion blurred or do we put the motion blur on before the treatment?” Pecora recounts.  “For the most part there is some semblance of reality that one can use as a metric to see if an effect looks ‘right.’ The more design-oriented nature of this work made that more difficult as we had to rely so much more on our far less concrete artistic intuitions, but in the end, that was what made it so satisfying to see it all come together.”

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Jennifer Wolfe is AWN’s Director of News & Content

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.

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