Mr. X cranks up its creature work for the fifth installment of the zombie franchise.
Mr. X (helmed by president and production supervisor Dennis Berardi) underwent a new pipeline evolution to help tackle the new monster star of Resident Evil: Retribution -- the Uber Licker.
Indeed, it took a lot of planning to drive 700+ stereo shots (most of which were entirely CG) more efficiently through the pipeline. They had a high shot count and had to scale up during a short post schedule. To handle the sheer volume of image and sim data, for instance, they split them between two fileservers to prevent the slowdown of the sim farm and allow the artists to concentrate more on their specialties and less on data wrangling. At peak, they reached more than 100 TB of data and consequently purchased an additional 100 TB of fileserver space to handle the load.
At the same time, Mr. X built an Alembic-based pipeline to support their native use of Maya, Houdini and Nuke interchangeably. Additional refinements to the texturing and look dev pipeline were required to handle the vast amount of hero creature and dig-double work. Animation was particularly tasked with the evolution of the Uber Licker creature.
"We decided to adopt Alembic throughout our entire pipeline, so that all of our core pipeline apps used the exact same scene build structure and the same animation and the same point caches," explains lighting supervisor Trey Harrell. "It made our scenes significantly lighter so that we could push a lot more data through, which was another challenge. There were fewer iterations from effects and lighting onward for any given shot."
Of course, it helped Mr. X having 10-year creative relationship with director Paul Anderson when it came to the design and execution of the franchise's biggest bad-ass creature yet, the Uber Licker, based on the Licker from the Resident Evil video games. "Our heroes in the series up until now have been able to hide behind walls because they've been chased by dumb zombies," admits animation supervisor Jason Edwardh.
"We wanted to up the ante and take away that safety net. So we approached the Uber Licker as not committing the cardinal sin of having you see every pixel in frame all of the time. In a monster movie, less is more and we really worked hard to make this creature look scary.
"We first needed to define how this massive, unstoppable creature was going to move. And from the animation side, we paid particular attention to how to transfer a more agile animal and do something more dinosaur size. We used aspects of horses, baboons, gorillas, rhinos and cheetahs. Once we figured out the proportions and the structure, then we had to figure out and dial in our equilibrium in terms of his weight, his gait and his speed. He also had no face to emote with. It was just a big brain and a whole bunch of teeth. So we had to really focus on his posture and tell a lot through his head motion alone. I recall a shot where we locked the camera to the rotation of the head, which worked out well."
The approach also informed the shading and lighting of the creature as well. From a shading standpoint, they wanted the membrane on the outside to look like burned bacon and medium rare steak for the musculature on the inside with the fat and muscle sinew.
"We also decided very early on that we didn't want to go with a naturalistic lighting approach," suggests Harrell. "We wanted to go with a graphic approach that exploited the creature's silhouette. We have the silhouette, his mouth, his tongue and his brain to exploit. We chose a very graphic lighting aesthetic that wouldn't be out of place on comic book covers. And there's a balance to be found to have it fit in with live action stuff but I think it was pretty effective.
"We did creature design during previs and during principal photography, so we were able to take some of the plates that were shot and start throwing the creature in and doing our look development in the actual environment that he was going to be living in. We found out that you can't use huge lights on a huge creature because it makes him look small. You have to use very small point light. We settled again on that very graphic approach with heavy rim light; high key but allowing him to always fall into shadow. You've got this implausible creature that we have to make plausible and have to convince the audience that he could move like that. He has weight; he's appearing in the scene with our heroes and attacking them.
Because of Mr. X's previs experience, they could get the look and range of motions dialed in early. There's a sequence when the Uber Licker is chasing a Rolls Royce Phantom down an escalator and into the subways of Moscow (there was a second unit shoot in Moscow along with 2.5D projection for Red Square) And trying to get this huge, beefy creature down a steep incline was quite a balancing act between keeping him aggressive and mean and preventing him from looking clumsy.
The in-house muscle system helped solve some of those aspects. This creature is nothing but a ball of muscle straight out of gym class and the animators had control over individual muscle contractions. After that, the creature would be sent and simmed in Maya, where extra jiggle and muscle weight would be added and dialed in later. There was also finaling to bulge it out and get some veins to pop out.
"Seeing the same character using very different motion cycles is really quite fascinating because I think it can tell the story of its motivation," adds VFX supervisor Eric Robinson. "To help keep him scary, we added digital slime, spit and breath effects. He's also got a pretty long tongue that he can use as a weapon. We have a few beats in the film where he's roaring and menacing the camera, trying to get a strong, domineering pose. It was important to get those moments right, not only in a 2-D compositional sense but also in 3-D so that on the big screen you get the sense that this creature is huge and literally over you."
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.