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'A Sound of Thunder': Combining the Futuristic with the Prehistoric

Mary Ann Skweres speaks with A Sound of Thunder visual effects supervisor Tim McGovern about the challenges of bringing Ray Bradburys prehistoric and futuristic sci-fi classic to the big screen.

A Sound of Thunder brings Ray Bradburys butterfly effect to the big screen. All images © Warner Bros.

Based on the short story from famed sci-fi scribe Ray Bradbury, A Sound of Thunder (opening Sept. 2) relates the disastrous consequences to the history of the world if even a minor piece of the past is altered. Set in Chicago of the future, a big game hunter (Edward Burns) on a time-traveling safari to hunt dinosaurs in the prehistoric era accidentally kills a butterfly. As a primeval jungle threatens to overrun the windy city, monstrous eels take over the flooded subway and reptilian Baboon lizards replace mammals as the dominant species, a team of experts must return back in time and replace the butterfly before the unknowingly instigated chain reaction erases humanity from existence.

Creating a mythical, imagined world in believable photoreal detail offers unique technical and artistic challenges. Strong creative leadership with a clear communicable vision facilitates a successful outcome. Well-represented in the visual effects heavy science fiction genre, award-winning director/cinematographer Peter Hyams (2010, The Relic, End of Days) helmed the ambitious project, which required 900 effects shots to tell the story. There was a tremendous scope to the film, including dinosaur sequences, future changes to evolution and a subway tunnel flooded and destroyed. Hyams and visual effects supervisor Tim McGovern (Total Recall, Supernova) hit it off from the beginning. The director had a very strong visual sense. Previsualizations of sequences turned into a high level of animation. Previs is not the right word, claims McGovern. It was really animation blocking. This method had the benefit of allowing detailed planning of the live-action shots needed for scenes. The animations became the Bible. The sound track was even mixed to these rough sequences.

This baboon-like lizard is only one of the strange creatures that evolve after a safari to the past goes awry.

But effects-laden films always seem to be crunched for time and money. Competition is fierce for high caliber artistic talent. Tools continue to evolve every few months and the bar is raised as audiences come to expect increasingly seamless and sophisticated effects. In large films with so many effects, even one change or problem can have a snowball effect. Much like the cascading actions in the films storyline, numerous events literally flooded the pictures long journey to the screen. The production was shooting in just about every available makeshift stage in Prague, including a large World War II era sound stage, an ice rink and a swimming pool, when Central Europes greatest flood in 500 years hit them. The crew had to scramble for high ground, not only moving sets and equipment to safety, but also switching hotels as the water rose and their accommodations were red-tagged. At one point it was feared that the jungle set, built in an ice rink, 1-1/2 stories above ground, would be inundated by the torrent, but the water stopped just short of disaster. Still, the company had to re-schedule shooting on that set. By the time they got back to the jungle almost two weeks later, many of the cut greens used in the set dressing were brown, ironically from lack of water because the sprinkler system failed to function due to power outages caused by the deluge. But despite schedule changes, amazingly, the company never missed a day of shooting.

As if Mother Nature wasnt enough of a problem for the company, production began before it had full- funding. McGovern admits this had the effect of someone standing on a hose causing the water to barely trickle out, compromising the work and the schedule. The initial 2003 release was revised and post-production expanded from under 12 months to almost two years. McGovern believes Hyams professionalism and controlled demeanor kept the process moving despite the delays. Peter was grace under pressure. It was a pleasure working with him.

According to McGovern, The sun never set on the production. In an attempt to keep the vfx on schedule and on budget, he used the boutique approach and sub-contacted work around the globe. McGovern pulled together an international crew made up of visual effects professionals from the U.S., Germany and France that he had worked with before. Rotoscoping and basic compositing was done in India and Hong Kong then tweaked in the U.S. VFX producer George Merkert had among his tasks the job of scheduling and shipping equipment, including the motion capture rig, in and out of Prague. Barry Walton also assisted with the equipment. Marc Kolbe administered the budget for the bond company and helped wrangle additional companies to provide visual effects services. The Prague team included Igor Chevalier, a conceptual illustrator and visual effects art director, who could paint or fix anything, according to McGovern. Technical director Marcio Julio could solve any tech or software problems.

The film has numerous invented creatures, brought to life through 3D animation. Mark Crash McCreery, a veteran of Stan Winston Designs, visualized the diverse menagerie, including the larger-than-a-man vampire bats, a 30-foot eel, dinosaurs and the lizard baboon, a cross between a dragon and a mandrill. The design of these animals from an alternative evolutionary tree was based on the premise that mammals failed to become the predominant species, reptiles did. Brian Wade provided his talents as a creature sculptor, developing drawings into three-dimensional models. Lead animator and previsualization artist Dietrich Hasse used his acting talents to instill personalities upon the imaginary lizard baboons. Directed by Hyams, he was responsible for facial expressions and realistic performances by these CG creatures. Mark Snoswell of the Australian company Snoswell Designa pioneer in character animation technologies and toolsdeveloped the 3D muscle and skin deformation software used to animate the various creatures,

These giant eels were some of the creatures inhabiting the flooded underground tunnels in the alternate Chicago of the future.

Most of the large scenes were worked on in Maya with the exception of the subway sequence. UFO FX used the Maya model of the eel animation and particle work combined with LightWave to create the subway sequence that was one of the biggest challenges in the film. In this scene the underground tunnel is flooded by the primordial sea, crushing trapped train cars and exposing the hero to attack the monstrous 30-foot eel. The water rising on the windows was real, achieved by dropping the subway car into the swimming pool set in Prague that was used as an underwater tank, but the water washing into the car was 100% CG. Visual effects supervisor Christian McIntire and visual effects producer, Kevin Gendreau were approached in October 2003 to do a test of falling debris for the sequence. In December of that year they were awarded the work, which included extending the subway, crushing the car and creating a digital avatar of the actor for the stunts. They also came up with a new mouth for the eel. Hyams had originally wanted to work with miniatures, but also wanted control of the water, something that could only be accomplished with a computer-generated sequence. McIntire says, The mere volume of cascading, flowing and rushing in water posed a significant challenge. The UFO team had to customize their software to keep the water from clumping. The sequence was finessed until the last few weeks of post. The team felt frustrated by the specificity of the previs animations with the locked sound track. It limited some of the ideas that developed during the creation of the sequence. For instance, more falling debris could not be added because it would not sync with the sound track. Nevertheless, McGovern commented, UFO came through. He appreciated the high quality effects delivered by the team because he had never worked with the company and did not know what to expect.

For the film it was necessary to not only create a recognizable Chicago of the future, but also have it destroyed and transformed into a primal jungle through four stages as the world changes to a different evolutionary timeline. Julian Caldow was tasked with the conceptual work on what the city of Chicago would look like in the future. Black Mountain Studio in Stuttgart, Germany, created futuristic buildings from scratch, which were then comped into the familiar landscape. A program developed for the telecommunications industry to assist in placing towers within Chicago had an extensive database that was tapped for building details. Real downloads from scans of the city generated an accurate three-dimensional city plan. This optimized the shooting schedule, allowing the filmmakers to know when and where to shoot and selectively adjust the camera for the real layout. Knowledge of the real widths of the actual streets helped in choreographing the bat chase sequence. The tarmac could be dressed to look like the road should at this point in the movie. Camera and car speed could also be tested in advance of shooting. Sebastian Greese and Michael Landgrebe worked as lead artists and Robert Kuczera modeled for Black Mountain.

Visual effects supervisor Anthony Mabin oversaw the effects work on the Bat chase through the city streets for Modern VideoFilm. Futuristic cars for the film were designed in San Francisco and by Audi and Porsche. QIX International Cologne, with Axel Mähler as visual effects supervisor, and Furious FX, with David Lingenfelser as visual effects supervisor, also contributed to the project. For lighting daylight scenes, McGovern used high dynamic range spheres, allowing for the recreation of any set and the ability to project textures and lighting in the computer. Yet despite all of the delays and production challenges, somehow A Sound of Thunder made it to the big screen.

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.