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'Silent Hill': Nothing Quiet About These Horrifying VFX

Alain Bielik chats with the chief vfx supervisors on videogame-turned-feature film Silent Hill about tackling a job that started with three vfx houses and grew to nine.

Now its time for cinemas to enter Silent Hill. All images unless otherwise noted © 2004 Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.

Silent Hill is the latest hit videogame turned into a feature film. Just another no-brainer, shoot-them-all, show-no-mercy kind of adaptation? Well, maybe not this time. Compared to previous videogame adaptations, Silent Hill (released by Screen Gems on April 21) has three major assets to play with: an intriguing storyline, a director with a real vision (Christophe Gans of Brotherhood of the Wolf fame) and truly disturbing creatures designed by Patrick Tatopoulos (I Robot, Underworld).

In Silent Hill the movie, Rose (Radha Mitchell) desperately seeks a cure for her daughter Sharons bizarre illness. She decides to take her to Silent Hill, a deserted town that her daughter continuously names in her sleep. Soon after they arrive, Sharon disappears and Rose sets out to find her, a quest that will lead her to uncover the truth about the curse of Silent Hill

The narrative space of Silent Hill consists of four dimensions: Silent Hill in the 1970s, Silent Hill in present day, the Fog world and the Darkness. The latter is a living shadow that periodically overcomes the city, literally transforming everything it touches into rusty, hellish surfaces. With so many different representations of the same locations, it was evident that visual effects would play a key role in the realization of Gans vision. Visual effects producer Holly Radcliffe was called in to coordinate the work of no less than nine vendors based in different countries and various time zones.

Three Vendors Turn Into Nine

At the beginning of principal photography, the work had been distributed between three companies: BUF Compagnie in Paris, and C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures and Mr. X, both in Toronto, Radcliffe recalls. The hero Darkness transformations had been awarded to BUF, largely because of tests they had sent illustrating the beginning of the peeling effect, eventually featured throughout the film. The Grey Children, the Armless creature and the fog and ash shots all went to C.O.R.E. Finally, the aggressive roaches were assigned to Mr. X.

During the shoot, vfx supervisors Stéphane Ceretti from BUF, Bret Culp and Kyle Menzies from C.O.R.E. and Evan Jacobs from Mr. X all attended set and liaised directly with Gans in the coverage of their respective sequences. When new shots were awarded in post to additional companies, supervisors and artists came to the edit rooms to discuss and collaborate directly with the director. In the end, there were 619 visual effects shots in the movie, with major contributions from (in order of credits):

The vfx houses had to tweak on-set fog for a heightened look.


197 shots, including:

  • The Darkness transformations
  • The church exterior
  • Red Pyramids execution of Anna
  • The Nurses
  • Church sequences


227 shots, including:

  • The Grey Children
  • The Armless creature
  • The fog & ash
  • The birds
  • Darkness environments (class room & court yard)
  • Set enhancements and extensions
  • Wire removals


68 shots, including:

  • The Janitor
  • The Roaches
  • Set extensions and action in the boiler room


6 shots

  • CG elevator and shaft


17 shots, including:

  • Aerial matte paintings from opening sequence
  • 2D map images


47 shots, including:

  • All driving sequences
  • Real world sequences inside Silent Hill


45 shots, including:

  • Edge of the World matte paintings
  • The Rose & Dahlia sequence
  • 2D matte paintings for the Armless sequence


  • Treatment for the Flash Back Sequence
  • Main titles


  • Additional work

A menu screenshot from the Silent Hill videogame. © Konami Corp.

Skinning the Walls

Celebrated for its creations of photoreal alternate realities in feature films, commercials and music videos, BUF was a logical candidate to tackle the aesthetically challenging Darkness world. As the Darkness transformations were our original assignment, we had quite some time to prepare and design the shooting and post methodology, Ceretti comments. We began prior to principal photography by showing a few tests to Christophe. They helped us determine what elements would be required on set. The main limitation was that we would not be able to use motion control for these shots, which meant we could not simply shoot a foggy version and a Darkness version of a set with the same camera move. Sometimes, we did not even have both versions of the set, in which case we had to create the foggy or the Darkness version entirely from scratch, based on other sets that we photographed.

The look of the transformations was the result of a lot of experimentation. One aspect of our early tests that Christophe liked was the organic quality of the transition, Ceretti notes. We basically turned the transformation into a skin disease. The foggy world is just a skin on top of the Darkness metal world. When the fog turns into Darkness, the skin is basically peeled off the walls. Simultaneously, blood seeps thru the cracks and flows down the walls. We used our in-house cloth dynamics simulations to create the peeling effect, and based the progression animation on fractals. We also added rigid body dynamics to the tiles of the bathroom. We used the same technique, but in reverse, to create the transitions from Darkness to foggy. This gave us the opportunity to bring some very interesting reversed dynamics animations.

One of the key transformations occurs in a bathroom. The set was first built as the foggy world version. Ceretti and his crew took tons of stills of the set, and used this 2D imagery to reconstruct the geometry entirely in 3D. Radha Mitchell was then shot in the Darkness version of the same set. Buf also took stills of this set for 3D reconstruction. The two plates were then tracked and match-moved until the foggy set and the Darkness set overlapped, at which point the transition effect could be applied. In the end, every shot in which the actress is not the frame is full CG animation.

Christophe was very open-minded about new ideas and concepts, Ceretti adds. Still, he was very adamant to have all the visual effects match the concepts of the game. Sometimes, when our ideas went away from it, he took us back to the tracks of Silent Hill. He also wanted to ensure that the visual effects had a strong background justification. All of BUFs shots were created with proprietary software, with mental ray being used to render images.

Director Christophe Gans keeps his creatures hidden in shadow and fog for the proper horrifying effect.

Adding Fog To The Fog

While BUF was mainly focusing on environments, artists are C.O.R.E. were busy manipulating fog and creatures. The team included Joe Raasch as the lead for the Grey Child sequence, Maria Gordon and Lisa Carr-Harris as supervisors on the fog and ash sequence and Mark Thomas-Stubbs as the lead of the Armless sequence. Vfx supervisor Kyle Menzies led the work that didnt fit into the first three categories. This included digital birds, rain, set extensions and full CG environments. The crew utilized Digital Fusion and Combustion for compositing, and Digital Fusion for tracking and rotoscoping. 3D animation was created in Houdini and rendered in RenderMan.

For in-house vfx supervisor Culp, the main challenge of the project was in keeping color timing continuity with hundreds of fog and ash, Armless and Grey Children shots. In the fog sequences, we had to keep the density and color of the fog consistent even when the plates were not. On the other end, the Grey Child sequence takes place in the Darkness world, and we wanted to have the figures quite dark but not loose their detail. We had to make sure that they would be visible, but not pop too much in a darkened theater. In fact, we didnt completely establish a brightness benchmark until the last few weeks of production. While we were working with primary graded scans, at the delicate extreme ends of the brightness spectrum, a small final color correction tweak could have drastic effect on the look.

Given its vaporous nature, the fog proved to be one of the trickiest elements to manipulate. Fog becomes denser the farther it is from our viewpoint and so, in order to add realistic fog to nearly 200 shots, we had to recreate the 3D information from the plates. The fog itself was basically a neutral color that we added to the plates. To place the actors (or anything moving within the frame) into the added fog, they had to be completely rotoscoped. This became very difficult when quick movements resulted in a lot of motion blur. In some cases, we had to paint Radhas hair back. Like the delicacy required working with such dark on dark imagery in the Grey Child sequence, it was equally finicky working in the upper bright areas within the fog. We also extended, created or modified sets and added 3D digital ash to most of the fog shots.

Many of the films scary characters and creatures have prosthetic enhancements accomplished in CG.

Enhancing Prosthetic Work

As for most of the creatures, it was decided that digitally enhanced performers in a suit would be the most viable approach for the Grey Children. The suits were designed and built by Los Angeles-based Patrick Tatopoulos Designs, and implemented and applied on set by Toronto-based Paul Jones. Multiple passes were shot of a single actor in a suit performing all the key actions or interacting with Mitchell. In order to add to its oddness, the character was shot moving in reverse, which created uncanny movements once the footage was reversed. The various plates were then combined into one main plate featuring multiple characters. Individual actions were retimed, movements were reversed, and sizes were changed as to create an effective blocking. In the final composites, the characters are essentially re-animated 2D elements.

The next step was to change the way that the Grey Children looked. As the project evolved, so did the look of the Grey Children, Culp observes. The costume that the performer was wearing was quite light, and in the end, the creatures were to look charred with glowing embers within. In order to achieve this look, we had to rotoscope all of the Grey Children and do an intense series of individual color corrections. The key was to make them dark, but never lose shadow detail. The embers were created digitally and tracked onto the creatures.

The most difficult shot was the transformation into the Grey Child. Once the concept was signed off on, we did 3D scans of the geometry and textures of the practical before and after heads, Culp explains. We started animation blocking while working on texture maps, and shading. We used subsurface scattering and ambient occlusion to ensure that the creature would match perfectly to the practical suit. We couldnt finish the final texture work until we locked the look of the rest of the Grey Children sequence, which came late in the process. Concurrent to these developments, we were doing R&D on the spreading veins and embers that happen during the transformation. Finally, the plate had the practical creature in it, so the parts that were not obscured by our CG creature had to be removed. All of the elements were combined and the transformed Grey Child was given the same digital treatment as the practical creatures.

The disturbing Armless character was created similarly to the Grey Children, with a performer in a prosthetic suit. The first step was to change the creatures proportions and overall shape, as to give it inhuman, almost deer-like, proportions. Every time the body shape was altered, parts of the background had to be reconstructed. Then, the character was rotoscoped and color-corrected. The last steps included creating digital bile dripping from the creature, and digital smoke as a result of the biles contact with the environment.

Pushing For Experimentation

Throughout the production of the visual effects, Gans requested that each vendor largely contributes to the design of its own sequences. Christophe enjoys nothing more than the surprise of experimentation, Radcliffe concludes. He invites vfx contributors to actively participate in understanding the aesthetics of the film, and to feed the developing elements of their shots to the editing process, more from a design than a technical point of view. So the companies working on Silent Hill had to adapt somewhat to a more open way of working than they might sometimes be used to. Hopefully, the results speak for themselves.

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 Cinefex. Last year, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.