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ILM Singapore Hubs its First Feature with Zhang Yimou’s ‘The Great Wall’

VFX supervisor Samir Hoon discusses the challenges of integrating the work of multiple facilities for the groundbreaking Chinese-U.S. big-budget co-production.

Chinese director’s Zhang Yimou’s highly touted The Great Wall represents a significant milestone in cinematic history, bringing together filmmaking talent from all over the world to helm the largest Chinese - Hollywood co-production ever made. In addition, the show was significant for lead VFX house Industrial Light & Magic, as their Singapore studio, for the first time, served as the designated creative and production hub on one of their large-scale feature film projects.

ILM typically hubs their shows out of San Francisco, with ILM Singapore alongside other ILM studio locations handling sequences or substantial parts of a movie. On The Great Wall, in addition to managing the production flow across ILM locations, the Singapore facility managed and integrated the work of outside vendors Base FX, Hybride, Animal Logic and Ghost VFX.

One of the leads on ILM Singapore’s project team was VFX supervisor Samir Hoon. An industry veteran of films like Hitman: Agent 47, TRON: Legacy and Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, Hoon came onto the show prior to ILM being awarded the work, taking an active role in the bidding process to help secure the project. Says Hoon, “I met Zhang Yimou and Peter Loehr [the film’s producer] for the first time regarding the project at Legendary Pictures in Los Angeles sometime during July, 2014. That was followed by rounds of bidding and conversation about methodology, given the extent of visual effects work planned for the movie. That went on for several months. I think John Dykstra was on the show at that time as a client side supervisor. But he left, and after Phil Brennan came on as client side digital tech supervisor, he and I continued the back and forth discussions.”

Hoon’s subsequent trip to China later that year helped ILM win the bid. He notes, “That November, I went to China because that’s where Zhang Yimou had set up production. He had his whole team there, but they hadn't awarded the visual effects work at that time -- they were still talking to several studios. I spent a week of meetings there and we were awarded a project. We were going to hub it out of Singapore and manage the work externally. That was the initial plan.”

As the VFX hub, ILM Singapore not only managed the work internally across ILM’s own facilities, but with the project’s third party vendors as well. As Hoon describes, “All the other vendors were our partners in this. The whole principle of hubbing is that not only are you handling work within any of the ILM studios, but you're also managing the outside studios. So, for instance, Base would send the work to us, Hybrid would send the work to us, we would review the work and then review it with the client.”

As the story underwent changes and the project grew in scope, Hoon’s management team grew as well. “The show grew in its complexity,” he notes. “In the early days, the valley was supposed to be based off a real location, which was Wangmang Mountain in the Lingchuan County of Shanxi Province in China. But that changed to became all CG because it needed to be bare, more desolate and foreboding looking, like a meteorite had hit and gone through the mountain, turning it into a valley. Initially I worked with one of our associates, visual effects advisor Jeff Capogreco, who manage the third-party vendors while I managed the internal work. Then, the movie release date got pushed because of some story changes, some tweaking and more shoots. It was supposed to be released in November 2016 in the U.S., but got pushed to February 2017. Ben Snow from San Francisco came in, while Jeff left to do another show. Ben and I divided the work -- we split our internal work in half, and we split the vendor work in half as well.”

In all, ILM managed more than one thousand shots on the film, though not all made it into the final cut. Says Hoon, “Our total shot count was around 1,087, which also included omits -- a lot of shots ended up not making it into the movie. So out of 1,087, I would say we were south of a thousand shots that were actually in the movie. ILM Singapore did about 356 shots, Base did about 452 shots, ILM San Francisco did about 34 shots, Hybrid did about 154 shots, Animal Logic did about 59 shots, and Ghost did about 32 shots. Also, right at the end in the third act, some changes were made and additional work, another 200 or 300 odd shots, were done by other vendors that worked directly with Phil, not through us. All we did was share any of the assets that they required.”

ILM was involved in practically every aspect of the VFX work. According to Hoon, “Basically, we touched pretty much everything in the movie. Initially, all the creature and crowd work was done out of Singapore, but Base did do some creature work as did ILM San Francisco and Animal Logic. We were using Massive, and we built up the soldier crowd scenes, the wall, the valley, the area behind the wall, the creatures and established the look. Then those assets were passed on to Base, Hybrid and Animal Logic so that they could ingest the same assets and continue working.”

In the film, the Great Wall itself is a massive structure, complete with an elaborate assortment of defensive systems and armaments, including soldiers lined up as far as the eye could see, a phalanx of trebuchets launching huge fireballs, gangplanks from which a squad of female warriors attached to tethered rings leaped off into combat, and huge blades extending out to slice in half anything touched.

ILM shared these massive assets with the other studios as the work was split out among the vendors. Notes Hoon, “We shared our models, textures and whatever our looks were with the different vendors so they had something to go by. These are huge assets. The wall is four kilometers long, the valley is massive, over 10 kilometers deep. The area behind it is also close to camera, based on photogrammetry and 3D matte paintings that need to hold up in different lighting conditions from different angles. The assets were built in a way that showed various loads of details – as you came closer, you would use higher resolution textures or displacement maps, and so on. Because we motion-captured the wall crowd, we gave that through the renders as well. Now, in our pipeline implementation, it came along with the assets, because we use sort of nested assets. But when we gave it to a vendor, they might have re-rigged it differently to fit into their pipeline, to achieve the same result.”

The starting point for the wall itself was the creation of two practical sets, one higher and smaller, with a front facade which Hoon’s team Lidar scanned and texture shot, with all required photogrammetry, and the top of the wall set, which was much bigger and used for the hero configuration. “We built the wall so we could replace it, extend it, or do whatever we needed,” Hoon says. “The actual set, on location, had the top of the wall, which was about 100 meters long and about 10 feet high, with only the top part finished, so that all the actors, extras, stunts and horses could perform in a way we could film. Everything else was an extension.”

Working with creature designs provided by Weta Workshop, ILM nevertheless had to extend and make the designs workable within the animation pipeline. Hoon notes, “I wish more concept work was available on this movie. Weta had been working on creature designs for well over a year, before we got involved on the show. We were given those designs, mostly one or two images only, with some low-resolution models to go along. We had to stay true to those creature designs, but augment them enough to provide the performance that Jhang Yimou wanted. For example, our art department helped us realize, ‘Oh, okay, the eyes are too far on top of the shoulders, we need to move them, because otherwise they would blink every time shoulder would move.’ So we needed to put them a little closer, flatter on the chest area.”

The creatures were designed around the idea that a meteor crashed into the Jade mountain, creating this giant valley. The emperor’s greed in mining the exposed jade veins led to disaster, which is why the creatures, born of gluttony, ravage the area every 60 years. Hoon explains, “Jhang Yimou felt there was too much sameness and green quality to these creatures, who inherited this mythology.  But there was another influence from the jade. During look development, we explored different ideas, and jade was more statuesque looking. So we did lean on our art department along with our asset team to come up with the look that the director and the studio were happy with.”

Initial plans to shoot real-world valleys changed over the course of the production. According to Hoon, “During the course of production, we decided Jhang Yimou really wanted the valley where the main battle sequences took place to be more foreboding, desolate and barren looking, so all the greenery was sort of removed. That was, for us, a significant change in production, because suddenly, things that were hidden by bushes, trees and foliage were now exposed, and therefore now needed more detail. That was a little bit of a challenge. The area was really large --defining that 360-degree look took a while for us to develop We had Lubo Hristov, our art director here, working very closely with us in developing all those looks, going back and forth with the San Francisco team as well.”

In addition, plans for shooting the city of Bianling, the setting for the third act, changed significantly as well. “Initially, there were plans to build a lot more sets [for Bianling],” Hoon describes. “The architecture detail across the Chinese dynasties had roof lines that were pretty similar. Just the details and colors had changed. The director wanted the film to be set in the Song Dynasty, so we loosely used the Forbidden City as a guide. The production team put together a bible from the Song Dynasty of colors and locations. One of our lead environment artists spent three weeks shooting a lot of textures and photogrammetry that we based the buildings and colors on. Of course, Jhang Yimou wanted really bright colors: reds, greens, blues, oranges, stuff like that. Pushing those colors was challenging. We straddled a fine line between reality, and hyper-real, fantasy looking stuff, all the way across the show, because he was always trying to push us towards a saturated look where things would pop more.”

For Hoon, one of the project’s biggest challenges was simply handling the sheer size and complexity of the various digital elements. He notes, “It was something we knew going in, but the biggest challenge was really the scope of the film. We knew there would be a lot of CG, and that’s always a concern, because too much CG is just too much CG in my opinion. You have creatures that are not real, that don't exist in real life. In the first act, which is where these swarms of creatures first show up and eventually get up to the wall, you go from wide angle to close up. All that was shot green, so we had stunt guys acting as the creatures interacting with the actors on set. There was no real atmosphere -- this was all shot outdoors at the Wanda lot in Qingdao, where the wall sets were located. Jhang Yimou wanted all these trebuchets and balls firing, with layers and layers of dark black and gray smoke. Obviously, the key is to accentuate all the lighting on the actors, with all the bright reds, greens, golds and blacks. Then you add in these bright green creatures. Just trying to balance and marry everything, to get them to live in the same world, was a significant challenge.

From an animation standpoint, the challenges involved the creature performances. Adds Hoon, “These creatures were the size of a rhino, with the weight of a rhino, that moved at the speed of a cheetah. Plus, they were slight in their build, and very lean. The animation team straddled the line between expressing their weight and making them also move very quickly. That was challenging performance-wise. In addition, their eyes were on their shoulders, and they had a head that stuck out with a lot of teeth in it. How do you drive what the intent of the creature is? Whether it's looking left or right, is it the eyes that make it look that way, or is it the head that leads? All those sorts of things have to be tried, tested and resolved.”

Hoon continues, “Then there’s just the massive number of creatures, getting their behavior to work, what they do when they're struck in the eye -- they're running, they fall down, they die. If they are hit in the body, blood spurts out, and dust has to kick up, arrows have to stick into their body, they have to react a little bit, they have to avoid each other, they have to climb on top of each other. All that stuff required significant coordination between the animation and crowd teams, both working to put all that together. Then getting all the atmosphere integrated…the fog battle had its own set of challenges, because even though the director wanted dense fog, he wanted to be able to see into the fog. Then in the third act, we basically built a complete virtual city with very little set, with intense action, smoke and lighting in almost complete CG shots…that was challenging too. Overall, the challenges were not one or two, but many.”

As a Chinese – U.S. co-production integrating teams of artists from around the world, the constant translation of communication between Chinese and English made an inherently difficult production environment even more challenging. Notes Hoon, “Most heads of the department crews were international, with Chinese counterparts. Most of the communications happened via translators, so we had to make sure we were very specific and detailed with our requests. We would typical be shooting with 500 extras, plus the entire crew, so the footprint of humanity on set tended to be very big -- managing and coordinating all this took immense effort on the part of all the ADs who were wrangling everything.”

Clear, concise, and precise communication was key. “A very substantial part of the set was just a green container wall,” Hoon explains. “These containers were stacked four high, because this is a massive 400-foot long wall set that includes a huge circle of cargo containers stacked four high with greenscreens on them, as well as these big diggers, with their 30 by 20 foot greenscreens that could be moved into position when needed. There was a lot of logistical stuff going on that included a lot of people -- language was an issue, therefore communication was key, and everybody was going through a translator.”

In addition, the conversations didn’t always start with English. Says Hoons, “What would happen on set was, because most of the crew was international, communication would start in English, which was translated for Zhang Yimou and vice versa, so we could all listen while standing around him and know what was going on. Stuart left after principal photography and first unit wrapped, and then we moved to a different location. Zhang Yimou had his DP Zhao Xiading, who he's worked with in the past. Suddenly, overnight, the communication changed to Chinese first, then translated into English. That took a little bit of adjustment. Suddenly you're now an observer, waiting for things to be explained in translation.”

But despite all the challenges, Hoon found the experience quite rewarding. He concludes, “It was a very rewarding show. Zhang Yimou is a great, lovely person to work with, very collaborative. He had a strong vision in his head of what he wanted for this film. He wanted shots to be wider, he wanted to see more creatures, he wanted to see more soldiers, he wanted to see more of the wall...he wanted to push the color and saturation as well as the drama and scope of the action.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.