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'Sky High' — The Superpower of Visual Effects

Mary Ann Skweres unmasks the secrets identities of the visual effects heroes behind Sky High.

The vfx had to sell the gags in Sky High. Effects were created to fit convincingly into the live action, but were somewhere between a cartoon and photoreal in tone. All Sky High images © 2005 Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights rese

Its hard enough being a teenager trying to prove yourself to your parents and classmates but imagine if your mom (Lynda Carter) and dad (Kurt Russell) are the most famous superheroes on the planet and you havent inherited their powers. Director Mike Mitchells imaginative comicbook comedy, Sky High, is a colorful, live-action adventure about teenage growing pains. Set in a world where superheroes are accepted, this coming of age struggle tells the story of Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano) and his underdog friends. In the face of an evil threat, he finds the power in friendship and proves himself a hero worthy of family tradition.

Nathan McGuinness (left) and Mitch Drain of Asylum led a team of 60 artists to create the majority of the super-human vfx and animation essential to the story premise.

The talented inmates at Asylum Visual Effects were tapped to create the majority of the super-human vfx and animation essential to the premise. The process began two years ago with script meetings in pre-production with director Mike Mitchell.

Asylum visual effects supervisors, Mitchell S. Drain and Nathan McGuinness, had a tricky mission. Because the director had a specific vision as to what would be funny and sell the gag, they had to create effects that fit convincingly into the live action, but were somewhere between a cartoon and photoreal. The degree to which the effect leaned depended on a give and take of ideas during the development of each effect. The deciding factor, according to Drain, was always that the gag came first. For instance, in a sequence where a sapling grows from nothing into a tree, the team created a photoreal animation that had to be pulled back from reality to achieve a giggle. They had fun with the final version creating a look like stop-motion animation to add comic effect.

According to Drain and McGuiness, the director was very hands-on from day one, conveying many of his ideas visually by drawing on paper or over a still frame. He was also sensitive to the needs of the artists and allowed the team a great deal of creative freedom. On three previsualization sequences, Asylum took the lead in creating the shots for the scenes, which the director then adjusted.

The team tackled a variety of effects. The super fast bully can run circles around the other characters, but the enactment required imagination by the animators. They needed to bring a unique take to an effect that has been done before on other films, so they created a blur that by virtue of speed alone, could knock an opponent off his feet. The power punch of the super strong Will varied, dependent on the environment. When he hits the ground the resulting ripple effect differed depending on whether the flooring was hardwood planks or concrete blocks.

Geeky Larry morphs into a gigantic, muscle-bound rock boy.

They morphed the geeky Larry into a gigantic, muscle-bound rock boy, ignited conflicted student Warren Peace, cloned the snobby cheerleader Penny, simulated flocked crowds with greenscreen people and flew the bus up to Sky High, but the most difficult effect to achieve was stretching the teenage bully, Lash (Jake Sandvig). At first, the character was rubbery. Eventually the effect changed to having the character extend much like a spyglass or extension ladder expands.

To assist Asylum with the character animation, Realscan 3D a specialist in proprietary, next-generation mobile, high-resolution, high color, structured light 3D scanning provided 11 scanned animation-ready models, built and delivered to the production in less than a week each. To create the digital doubles, all actors and props were captured on-set during and between takes. The high-resolution texture maps and geometry captured by Realscan 3D, produced highly detailed models with film quality textures.

The most difficult effect to achieve was stretching the teenage bully, Lash, who fights against an ignited Warren Peace.

Asylum also created a knock-down-drag-out cafeteria fight between Will and Warren that knocks holes in the walls and threatens to torch the school. Most of the fire in the scene was CG-generated. Real fire elements could have been used for the explosions, embers and the fireball thrown against the wall, but because the fire needed to be directional and controlled for the story, it had to be created through computer graphics. The use of particle animation made this digital blaze believable and kept it from the telltale CG uniformity that can plague fire effects.

The team of approximately 60 artists produced around 450 shots for the film, including CG character animation, wire removal and compositing. Programs such as Houdini and Inferno are standards in the company toolset. Although they used some programs especially built for fire, the company prefers to focus more on the talent than the tools. Drain says, Artistically, using the tools we have, its the person drawing it that makes it work. There were no minimal players on the team. It was a very collaborative process that required the artists to get to know the characters and follow through on their development during the course of post-production. They used every discipline at their disposal.

Asylum created a knock-down-drag-out cafeteria fight between Will and Warren that features an almost completely CG-generated fire.

Kathy Chasen-Hay was Asylums visual effects producer. Emma McGuinness acted as visual effects exec producer. The visual effects coordinator was Andrew Foster.

The lead character animator was Michael Ffish Hemshoot. His animation team included Matthew Hackett, Erik Lee, Jack Geckler and Kevin Cullhane. Gunther Schatz was lead effects animator, supported by effects animators Rob Stauffer, Steve Cummings and Ira Shain.

Joe Ken was lead compositor. The compositing team included Andy Rafael Barrios, Perri Pecora, Mark Renton, Steven Muangman, Claas Henke, Brandon Criswell, Hilary Sperling, Marty Taylor, Kevin Bouchez, Glen Bennett, Nancy Hyland, Joni Jacobson, Ali Laventhol and David Crawford. Matte painting was by Timothy Clark (lead) and Shannon Burkley.

Elissa Bello acted as rotoscope/paint supervisor. Paint artists Amit Dhawal, Judith Bell, Tonia Young and Cornelia Magas and rotoscopers James Lee, Eric Evans, Deke Kincaid, Stephen Edwards, Laura Murillo, Jennifer Scheer and Brian Taylor worked on the film.

Furious FX supervisor Dave Lingenfelser and his team started with eight shots during post-production and were quickly awarded greater numbers of more difficult shots. Furious created around 120 shots in all.

Other members of the crew included CG supervisors Sean Faden and Dottie Starling, lead modeler Greg Stuhl, modeler Mike Hobbs, lighting technical directors Aaron Vest and Raymond King, 3D technical directors Anupam Austin Das and Zach Tucker, 3D tracking/matchmoving Michael Lori and Leslie Brennan, visual effects editor Kosta Saric and assistant editor Zach Justman.

To help complete the visual effects, Furious FX and visual effects supervisor, Dave Lingenfelser, joined the process in December 2004 when they were awarded eight shots during post-production. When they quickly and satisfactorily proved themselves with the contacted shots, they were given greater numbers of more difficult shots. All told, the team of 15-16 artists created around 120 shots, which included greenscreen compositing, complex multi-wire removal, CG flames, CG sparks and CG rope.

According to Ligenfelser, his favorite sequence was the greenscreen Sky High bus as it travels on the ground through the neighborhood. (When the bus takes off, Asylum takes over the effect.) It was tricky to maintain the students reflections in the windows as well as the wispy fine hair silhouetted by the windows when the digital backgrounds were composited in place of the greenscreens. Handheld camera moves were also added by the team in post to liven up the shots, providing the realistic, bumpy movement expected in a moving vehicle.

The show went smoothly for Furious. Ligenfelser says, The project was a ton of fun to work on and establish a relationship. Director Mitchell was open to ideas from the artists. The director and Furious FX team reviewed shots at screenings, face-to-face. Ninety-five percent of the shots that Furious finaled were accepted as final by the production and not kicked back for more work. The team used its usual pipeline and worked with popular programs such as Shake, 3D Equilen and Maya. To pull a better matte, a de-graining plug-in for Shake was used.

Scott Dougherty is president and head of production for Furious. Jeffrey Baksinski is digital manager and Ralph Denson is gm.

Mary Ann Skweres is a filmmaker and freelance writer. She has worked extensively in feature film and documentary post-production with credits as a picture editor and visual effects assistant. She is a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.