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'Final Destination 3': Going the Distance with VFX

Alain Bielik rides the roller coaster of deadly effects in Final Destination 3 with the visual effects wizards and lives to explain how they were done.

Final Destination 3 begins with the mother of all rides. All roller coaster images courtesy of Meteor Studios. All images © 2006 Shane Harvey/New Line Productions.

The first one started literally with a bang: an airplane blowing up during take-off. The sequel opened on a far more ambitious scale with an intricately designed pile-up on a freeway. For the third Final Destination movie (opening Feb. 10 from New Line), co-writer and director James Wong wanted to go even further with an opening sequence that would, this time, entirely rely on visual effects.

At the beginning of the sequence, a teenager has a premonition of a fatal roller coaster accident at an amusement park. She manages to convince her friends to get out of the ride on time, which saves their life. But Death doesnt accept to be cheated and soon, tries to reclaim the life of the survivors in a series of dramatic accidents

All the death scenes required varying degrees of 2D and 3D enhancements. The roller coaster sequence alone comprised 144 vfx shots, more than a third of the total (340) vfx shot count. In a perfect world, we would have found a real roller coaster that suited our needs and shot most our plates on it, overall visual effects supervisor Ariel Velasco-Shaw relates. But it didnt exist So we decided to capture the exposition plates at a much smaller roller coaster that we digitally extended. In some shots, we dropped the horizon line. In other shots, we rotoscoped the carts and integrated them into a CG background. However, all the action shots were photographed on green screen with single carts or multiple carts mounted on rigs, suspended on bungees, etc.

CG supervisors Claude Precourt (pictured) and Joey Lessard, along with vfx supervisor Tim Stevenson, led one of Meteors two teams. They focused on the roller coaster sequence.

The Mother of All Rides

The sequence was assigned to Meteor Studios, where visual effects supervisor Tim Stevenson oversaw the project, with CG supervisors Joey Lessard and Claude Precourt handling the 3D effects. The coaster was custom-designed based on the events described in the script: sharp turn, followed by a steep drop, leading to a loop, etc. Most of the model was hand-built, with some MEL scripts helping out for specific elements. These included a Closest Point On Surface node to help position the tracks supporting brackets.

A few custom techniques and tools were developed to streamline the process of going from layout to lighting, Claude Precourt explains. One of the difficulties of this project was that we could not film the actors in movement, on real roller coaster tracks. So, using the previsualization as a reference, we animated the camera as the inverse of the movement of the carts. We gave these animations as a reference to the team on the set whose job was to recreate by hand those camera moves with the real carts and the actors. The carts were static, but were bent to the right arc, again according to our references. When the filmed plates came back to us, all we had to do was to matchmove the camera and transfer the animation to the carts, most of the time by eye. That was still a little tricky, but overall far less expensive than having six carts on individual, computerized, gimbals and having to track them all individually afterward.

Parts of the roller coaster structure were built with shading variables, so they could be used in multiple places in the ride. As a result, a single, small chunk of RIB associated with a piece could be dynamically loaded at render time, saving CPU cycles as well as memory.

Meteor Studios created 18 digital doubles for dangerous shots. First they modeled a generic and applied it to a cyberscan of each actor. They then created animation cycles, which gave the layout and lighting teams instant choices.

Crafting CG Victims

For shots that couldnt possibly be photographed with a real performer, Meteor Studios employed digital doubles. Every actor had a corresponding CG double, Claude Precourt recounts. We started by modeling a generic digital double. Once the UVs were unwrapped, we took this generic geometry and applied it to the cyberscan of each actor. We used this technique to generate 18 different digital doubles, each of them with the same geometry and an initial UV set. We then tweaked each of the doubles until we were all satisfied with the result. For many shots where they were seen in the distance, we had them sat in and constrained to the carts. We then created a few animation behavior cycles of the group (relaxed, scared, panicked), so that the layout and lighting teams could bring that up and have a completely animated scene in minutes. The behavior, as well as the specific animations, was hand animated. No motion capture was used. Maya Cloth was used on some characters, but most of the cloth movement was generated by a wave deformer in Maya.

The modeling and animation were done on Maya 6, with textures and mattes painted with Adobe Photoshop CS in 8 and 16 bits Christine Leclerc was the texture lead. Most of the camera tracking was done with 3D-Equalizer. For the rendering, Meteor Studios used RenderMan, and created the RIBs with MTOR in Maya. For the key shot in which all the carts pile up, we used rigid body dynamics to get the crash looking right, says Aaron Dem, vp of production at Meteor Studios. Once we had approved animation, we animated one of the CG double to fall out of the tumbling car. We then added lots of extra elements to the shot to add to the believability. Lastly, and always, our compositors put the finishing touches to make sure everything integrated perfectly.

Meteor custom-designed the coaster based on the script: sharp turn, followed by a steep drop and leading to a loop. Most of the model was hand-built, with some MEL scripts helping out for specific elements.

In one of the most complicated shots, a character named Lewis gets smashed by the broken piece of a cart, flies off and lands brutally on the coaster supports. The shot involved every type of effect used in the rest of the sequence: CG cars, CG supports, body doubles, full CG environment, particle effects and greenscreen photography. We started off with two greenscreen elements: Lewis hanging from the car, suspended from wires and a second plate of Lewis bouncing off a padded post, notes compositing supervisor Cristin Pescosolido. During layout, we changed the angle of the coaster tracks from what had been originally planned to give us better dramatic effect. This meant that the front two coaster cars needed to be rotoscoped out of the green screen and CG cars with body doubles put in their place to fit the new track angle. They were then integrated in a highly detailed CG environment. In the second half of the shot, we had to make it look as if Lewis back gets broken as he is almost folded in half on one of the coaster supports. To do this, we did a transition between the actual actor and a CG double that gets bent in half backwards and then back to the live-action actor as he spins out of frame. We also added a large amount of blood, both matte-painted and particle/liquid simulated at the point of impact.

Most of the compositing was done in Shake, with some shots tackled in Flame and Inferno (rendered on Linux farm). All the effects were created on Linux machines, with a few exceptions (Photoshop on Windows and Flame/Inferno on SGI Irix). Most of the motion blur was rendered in 3D, with the occasional augmentation in 2D when we needed to exaggerate it beyond what would be considered reasonable 3D render times, Pescosolido remarks. The depth-of-field was done in Shake using Z-depth passes and custom plug-ins to give us nice DOF edges. It took us a few iterations to come up with the final look of the coaster, as we had to run a fine line between visibility and moodiness. Ariel Shaw worked with us closely on the lighting, and we worked up something that had the dark mood that fit with the film, but was still photoreal and visible enough so that we had a sense of the size of the coaster and theme park. This was the second film I have worked with Ariel on, and he has a really great eye for getting moods just right.

Vfx supervisor Cristin Pescosolid (left), CG supervisor Eric Clement (right) and compositing supervisor Doug Tubach led a Meteor team that tackled the climactic subway sequence.

Ending with a Crash

As the visual effects crew was entering the final weeks of post-production, an early test screening revealed that the ending came as a disappointment for the audience. The opening sequence was so spectacular that it made the original ending look soft in comparison, Velasco-Shaw recalls. So, in October last year, a completely new ending was designed with the hope that it would match the impact of the opening disaster scene. Featuring a major subway crash, the sequence necessitated 45 augmentation effects shots of miniature effects created by Michael Joyces Cinema Production Services. Meteor Studios had only six weeks to complete the sequence.

In order to tackle the new sequence, the facility built another team that included Pescosolido, CG supervisor Eric Clement and compositing supervisor Doug Tubach. The team added camera shake and debris in almost every shot. There was quite a bit of roto and paint to help some of the ceiling lights on the miniature set to have a better sense of scale, Pescosolido notes. For the non-miniature shots, we added a huge amount of flying glass, debris, and of course, gouts of blood. This was the first film I have worked on where a comment from the director went something along the lines of: Add another 30% blood and some human debris Perhaps a chunk of hand!

To better integrate the augmentation effects into the shots, Clement generated a CG environment reproducing the main volumes of the set: When it came the time to render the effects, we benefited from depth information. We were also able to generate shadows from the CG objects on the real environment. Modeling and texture were fairly basic since we were not looking for rendering these CG elements as beauty; they were done for shadow and collision detection purposes only. To match-move the train efficiently, we came up with a custom rig that constrained the train on the tracks. The tracker could adjust the shape of the tracks (the train would follow) and adjust the train independently (speed, orientation, free wheel rotation, etc.). One of the challenges of the sequence was to deal with the interactive lights. With a luminance tracker in Shake, we were able to bring back in Maya an animated curve of the lights intensity based on the plate. The lighters needed to connect that curve in the CG light so that it went on and off with the same pattern.

Creating Intricate Death Scenes

While Meteor Studios was busy tacking large-scale disaster sequences, Digital Dimension was handling individual death scenes, which amounted to more than 100 effects shots. Benoit Girard supervised the project, with Jerome Morin as executive producer, Jason Crosby as 3D supervisor, and Leandro Visconti as compositing supervisor. We worked on multiple sequences, enhancing, and sometimes creating, the deaths of most of the characters with the one exception being the tanning bed sequence, visual effects producer Chris Del Conte recounts. Certain deaths were really detailed and intricate.


Digital Dimension handled individual death scenes, which amounted to more than 100 effects shots. According to vfx producer Chris Del Conte, certain deaths were detailed and intricate. Courtesy of Digital Dimension.

One of the most challenging scenes featured the crushing death of a character by a two-ton lift that cuts him clean in half. Velasco-Shaw originally shot a clean plate of the lift falling, and a plate of the actor miming being crushed and falling to the ground, with his bottom covered in green material. After compositing those plates, the director felt he wanted more of a gruesome punch for the shot. We then took a standard CG body that roughly matched the actors height, Del Conte explains. We ran several animation simulations crushing the body with a CG object that matched the speed, size and trajectory of the practical lift. The director picked the version he liked the most, based on body movement, performance and how the torso settled on the grass. A new plate was then shot with the performer acting out the previs animation and getting his body into that end position. We then took this new practical plate and added multiple elements of blood and gore: pouring blood, blood bags, guts elements, cartilage bits Using Digital Fusion, we combined the final effect with the falling lift. To create the shots, Digital Dimension employed SynthEyes for tracking, 3ds Max for modeling and animation and mental ray for rendering.

One specific sequence the tanning bed death was assigned to Soho VFX. It consisted of about 35 shots featuring CG skin, CG glass, as well as CG fire and smoke mixed with live fire and smoke elements, visual effects supervisor Allan Magled explains. For the shot where one of the girls fall through the tanning bed glass as it breaks, we actually used a CG double. Her whole body and bikini was CG, as well as the glass and bulbs that smashed under her. We also added CG cuts and shards of glass to the other girls face as the tanning bulbs exploded towards her face The 3D elements were created in Maya and composited in Shake.

A Dedicated Crew

Fighting against a brutal deadline and a tight budget, Velasco-Shaw was swamped with work until the delivery of the final shot: Im exhausted, but Im really proud of what we did. The vendors gave 110% to the project. On this movie, we were never satisfied with a Thats pretty good from James Wong. We never gave up until we heard him say: Wow!

Alain Bielik is the founder and editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinéfex. Last year, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.