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How ILM Animated the Avatars from Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’

Industrial Light & Magic had a blast creating the virtual world of the OASIS and tripping down memory lane with spot-on recreations of the DeLorean from ‘Back to the Future’ or the T-Rex from ‘Jurassic Park,’ but the avatars were much more demanding.

‘Ready Player One’ © 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC.

At first glance, there are way too many Easter Eggs to keep track of in Ready Player One. But, as Steven Spielberg emphasized at the Los Angeles premiere, “My philosophy from the very beginning was, the story is out the front windshield and the pop culture references are out the side mirror.” As a result, animated performance was key for Industrial Light & Magic. Sure, they had a blast creating the virtual world of the OASIS and tripping down memory lane with spot-on recreations of the DeLorean from Back to the Future or the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, but the avatars were much more demanding.

And, after directing The Adventures of Tin Tin, Spielberg was well-versed in converting motion capture data to fully fleshed out animation. But just because he didn’t want the avatars to resemble human beings, it didn’t mean they couldn’t elicit our empathy. That’s because they were constantly inter-cutting between the real life characters (who were mo-capped) and their avatars.

“It’s very meta. What we’ve done is make a movie about characters in virtual reality and then those characters in a virtual world go into a movie.”

This impacted both design and performance, and was especially true of the hero, Parzival (played by Tye Sheridan). In fact, it took nearly a year to complete Parzival. The animation work was a collaboration between ILM teams in London (supervised by David Shirk) and Singapore (supervised by Kim Ooi). “We did a lot of design tweaks to find his didn’t work on the first pass,” said Ooi. “The facial capture [using the Medusa system from Disney in Zurich] provided the movement but it lacked personality.”

The animation teams took the capture data for face and body and stitched together different takes and added keyframe on top of that. They also used stunt doubles to mix with the actual live-action characters and performed additional keyframing because of the tricky physics of the OASIS.

One of Spielberg’s early criticisms, though, was that the eye design didn’t match Sheridan’s. “The shape of the eyes seemed flat and straight,” Ooi said. “They were rounded off so it would look the same in frontal and three-quarter view. And the mouth looked boxy because of the cheek structures, so we had to round out certain areas to make it look more organic. And there were indents on the cheeks that were unappealing. The other thing was lighting because camera angles could alter the look. We wanted to get it within the cinematic scope that Steven wanted for character consistency.”

Because Spielberg wanted all walks of virtual life and a rules-based system for fighting and dancing in the OASIS, ILM developed a new crowd system called Arcade, based on high-fidelity mo-cap. “It became such a directable tool that we used it in the early pipeline,” explained ILM VFX supervisor Grady Cofer. “Even in the layout stage, we could have a crowd artist populate a scene and get Steven to provide feedback about the density or makeup of that particular crowd. We could take any one of those characters and promote it into animation, and do hero animation or replace it with some specific mo-cap.”

Two of the animated highlights were the zero gravity dancing/fighting for the Distracted Globe club sequence, and zombie dancing for the recreation of the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining. For the Distracted Globe sequence, it was John Hughes meets Saturday Night Fever (using “Stayin’ Alive” from the Bee Gees). Sheridan and co-star Olivia Cooke as Samantha/Art3mis performed on a mo-cap stage in Leavesden, England, and moved up and down on wire rigs to simulate the zero gravity effect alongside trapeze artists.

“The mo-cap was difficult and people bumped into each other because the leverage wasn’t good, and you couldn’t do a full spin,” Ooi explained. “So we used around 70 percent and hand-animated to handle the gaps and make it look comfortable and natural. You could go 360 and flip up and down, head looking sideways. It was three-dimensional.”

Spielberg also wanted to experiment with the lighting so that it looked cinematic and bombastic. He suggested a strobing effect and ILM created special animation rigs to sweep the lights through the lens. “We did waveform analysis of the music and we used that to drive the lighting,” Cofer said. To add to the zero gravity effect and make it more stylish, ILM brought the design of Art3mis’ dress to life. “The textures on her dress slowly move like a flocking system, and there’s a subtle light show that goes on,” added Cofer. “Her dress actually melts into light and becomes a big effects system. And she would swim around [Parzival]. It would leave light trails that coiled around [him].”

In this virtual world, anything goes, saving the best for The Shining sequence. But it had to look authentic. First, they scanned a digital version of the movie and began recreating CG versions of the sets (including the hallways, the ballroom, the Colorado Room with the infamous typewriter, Room 237 with the bathtub lady, and the exterior maze). There were also direct lifts from the movie in terms of shot composition, and then they replicated the hard look of John Alcott’s lighting style and even the look of the grain structure when it’s projected.

The mix-and-match digital trickery included shooting real actors as stand-ins, including the Grady twins and the lady in the bathroom. The first glimpse of her, in fact, is right out of The Shining. Then, they cut to the stand-in before she transforms into the axe-wielding CG zombie.

The ballroom zombie dance, meanwhile, featured about 50 characters. The choreography was merely one change. The other was attaining natural movement. “We wanted it to play more like a ride, where there’s a rig underneath them that goes up and down,” said Ooi. “But Steven wanted them to feel like they were really floating. That had to be worked out. There’s a section where they pick up the female zombie and we had to do a twist and a lift to all of them and then separate out the males and females so it feels like they’re not on a platform. Then we had to take out the footwork and reanimate.”

Added Cofer: “It’s very meta. What we’ve done is make a movie about characters in virtual reality and then those characters in a virtual world go into a movie [within a movie]. It was chilling and it brought back a lot of those great film memories.”

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.