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Predicting 'The Day After Tomorrow'

Henry Turner ventures into the storm of vfx that makes up the disaster flick, The Day After Tomorrow.


What's Hollywood's biggest fear? A disaster in the city or at the box office? Photo by Kerry Hayes. All Day After Tomorrow images © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

The Day After Tomorrow is todays Disaster movie, similar in premise but completely outdistancing in scope anything that has been attempted in the past. Of course, it is CGI that has allowed the sheer size of the spectacle to be created.

The idea of it is that super-cell storms form over the northern hemisphere, explains Karen Goulekas, vfx supervisor of director Roland Emmerichs in-house production facility. And they are essentially gigantic hurricanes, with an eye that is calm and gigantic storm clouds around it. The terror of the film is caused by super-cool air, 150 below zero, sucked down to ground level through the eye of the storm, freezing everything, even the insides of buildings, killing everything in its path in short, bringing on the next Ice Age. In conjunction with the hurricanes are super-floods engulfing New York, hailstorms smashing Tokyo, and tornadoes laying waste to Los Angeles. Amid all this disaster, Dennis Quaid must rescue his family in a freezing New York, and learn how to survive.


Karen Goulekas (left) and her partner Mike Chambers served as the masters of disaster for this epic undertaking. Courtesy of Karen Goulekas.

Preparing for a Storm

Initial preparation started in May 2002, when Emmerich called Goulekas and her partner Mike Chambers, both freelance effects artists.

Its a great film for us, says Chambers, visual effects producer.

There were a lot of different natural weather phenomena we had to create twisters, giant hail, flooding, freezing, snowing, everything you can imagine, and Roland wanted to do it as photorealistic as possible. Extensive research materials were collected as references. The real challenge is that people know how waves and twisters look and work, and its not a fantasy thing, where you have a little more leeway, if you are trying to make something look photoreal.

Extensive previs was completed on New York City and Los Angeles data bases bought from Urban Data Solutions. It was extensively planned, though we had a relatively short pre-production period, just four or five months. We got into story boarding and we set up an internal previsualization unit. We had about 10 guys with Karen and I in the office with Roland, and he was an active participant in it and really got the ball rolling. We really had to push the envelope to take things farther than before in creating a super storm that is capable of bringing on the next ice age.

During production many new ideas were added. Approximately 250 shots were initially planned, but ultimately the shot count reached 416. Chambers points out that ultimately more than a dozen vendors were hired -- including Digital Domain, Hydraulx, Industrial Light & Magic, The Orphanage, Tweek films, Uneco, Zoic and Ring of Fire. Chambers admits that more than 800 shots were created, with many cut or determined unusable. I think it worked out great, I think its one of Rolands best films.


Despite a time crunch, Hydraulx, owned and operated by brothers Colin and Greg Strause, created the greatest percentage of shots, according to Goulekas.

The main sequences that we did were the first five minutes of the movie, which included the longest photo-real CG fly-over thats ever been done, Colin Strause proudly recalls. We did a 4,000 frame long shot flying over an entirely CG Antarctica. Thats actually the opening credits of the movie its this really beautiful sweeping helicopter move that is entirely digital. And then we did a bluescreen of a base station on a glacier where the guys are drilling. What happens is a huge ice chunk the size of Texas breaks off because of global warming, so the South Pole is actually breaking apart, and the base happens to be on one of the cracks, so the whole thing rips open. Strause says he used Maya and mental ray to create the 40-odd shots needed for the sequence.

Hang in there, Dennis Quaid. According to vfx sup Goulekas, youre in good hands with small f/x studio, Hydraulx. Image by Hydraulx.

Some of the most terrifying scenes show the main characters running toward the center of a building to escape the advancing five inch-thick frost collecting on the walls and floor. To create the effect, Lidar scanning of the interiors was employed. Chambers describes Lidar as a laser scan that creates a point-cloud model of whatever its shooting geography, terrain, buildings, with really wonderful detail.

Basically we did 3D texture growing, Colin Strause says about the frost effect, And made it look like this super-crystallizing ice was chasing them. We developed a new type of sub-surface scattering that worked on Lennox with our mental ray that we were using. With this technology, Strause was able to create translucency in the ice and frost. Normal 3D programs cant do that light hits but doesnt penetrate through the object, or bounce off onto surrounding objects. If you dont have that translucency, the ice looks like plaster. That was one of the most important things, using Global Illumination, a feature within mental ray, to calculate the true bounce light of everything, which was very important for the realism.

Hydraulx used Global Illumination, a feature within mental ray, to calculate the true bounce of light. Image by Hydraulx.

This technology was also used for deep-space shots created at Hydraulx. We did all but one of the shots from the international space station, and we had to come up with these giant storm cells that were the size of North America huge 3D volumetric displacement mapped objects. Global Illumination was used on these shots to give the storms a translucent, puffy appearance.

Finally, Hydraulx created the final and literally chilling image in the film. Its a big pull back on the earth where the whole top half is frozen theyre in an ice age now.

The biggest challenge was creating shots that ran for long duration, allowing audiences ample time to detect mistakes. Every shot is like 400 frames long -- most are 10 seconds, 20 seconds, right up to two-and-a-half minutes. And its not like you can get away with a lot like on a quick shot, so any flaw, any roto problem, all stuck out like a sore thumb. Everybody had to try that much harder to make sure the shots were dead on. As a final comment Strause points out that Hydraulx created 109 shots total. And our 109 is 12 minutes of a 98-minute film!

Freezing the Empire State

A key scene shows the freezing of New York, a sequence created by ILM and The Orphanage. You see the storm settling over New York, Karen Goulekas says, And we start at the needle of the Empire State Building, and we track down, and you can see the whole building getting covered with frost, and as we get lower we tilt up and you see the whole city getting covered in frost

The Orphanage wasn't left out in the cold when bringing these f/x to life. Courtesy of The Orphanage.

Unfortunately, when the city was totally covered it looked miniature, so a method was devised to maintain an illusion of scale. We found it looked better if we didnt cover some of the windows, creating dark pockets, so we went back into the shot tracking down Empire State, and had some of the windows explode as the ice contacts it, making the windows break under the extreme pressure, and that in turn allowed us to have dark areas where the frost is absent, which helped both ILM and Orphanage in terms of maintaining scale in the city.

Schematic Design

As one can imagine, televised weather reports play an extensive role in the film, both in terms of supplying background detail, and in the narration of the story. Erin Williams, accounts manager at Schematic, and project manager Tavin Marin Titus, both produced the playback graphics for Day After Tomorrow.

Playback graphics are anything on the screens and monitors seen in the film, Williams says. To create these graphics, Schematic creates set mock-ups, hires actors, creates effects, and shoots the scenes.

If it's not a blast of fire threatening innocent bystanders like in Independence Day, it's a flood of water in an Emmerich epic.

We would do all of the screens in a specific environment, to make it look like an official place that monitored weather, Williams says. If there were news reporters that were also integral to the story, we would shoot those reporters telling the story we would write the script for them and approve it through production, and the director, and that way create the mock newscasts. Its sort of like filling out that middle world.

Weather effects were done utilizing elements from the effects vendors, or created using Maya, After Effects and Photoshop, among others. We had to make things realistic but also look cool, because the screens cover story points--almost like secondary characters. So it was really important that we made them realistic but exaggerated them in way that was still believable.

We have to wait and see if a post-9/11 disaster flick will chill audiences at the box office. Image by ILM.

Finale: An Apt Story for Our Times

Colin Strause realizes that the film is mainly intended to entertain, but with a knowing laugh he acknowledges all the environmental and political press the film has attracted.

One has to wonder about the film coming now conceived after 9/11, and released during the Iraq war. Do people want to be simply scared by a vicarious experience of disaster, or do they wish, after years of paranoia brought on by terrorist threats and environmental warnings, to cheer on the final destruction of the world not by meteor or other natural event, but by events made inevitable by their own behavior? I think the second is what attracts perverse interest and delight the idea that, yes, we are not ants, we have the power to destroy our world and we are doing so! The film has attracted considerable attention. Environmentalists cheering its forecast of disaster, while folks in the opposite camp say that the weather changes in the film would take 200 years, and not just two weeks, to occur as if this excuses the continuation of planetary exploitation.

I predict something simpler that until the release of Spider-Man 2, Day After Tomorrow will reign at the box office. Day After Tomorrow is the most significant American popular film of the last decade. As either a foreboding spectacle of left wing prophecy, or fatalistic approbation of right wing conquest, it trumpets the message of our sick times like a flatulent clarion call blown from the bowels of a devil in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.