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'Sunshine': 2057 -- A VFX Odyssey

Alain Bielik shines a spotlight on The Moving Picture Co.'s work for Danny Boyle's sci-fi space epic, Sunshine.

Sunshine required some of the most sophisticated visual effects ever realized for a science-fiction feature. The 700+ vfx shots were all created by The Moving Picture Co. All images © 2007, DNA Films/Fox Searchlight. 

In the year 2057, mankind is on the brink of extinction. The sun is dying and our only chance for survival is to send a spaceship on a high stake mission: deliver a nuclear device conceived to reignite the solar "engine"... Although totally focused on storyline and characterization, Sunshine (opening July 20, 2007, from Fox Searchlight) required some of the most sophisticated visual effects ever realized for a science-fiction feature. Directed by Danny Boyle, the movie comprised more than 700 vfx shots, all created by London-based The Moving Picture Co. under the supervision of Tom Wood. The team included vfx producer Joanna Nodwell, CG supervisor Kieron Helsdon, compositing supervisor Marian Mavrovic, R&D Sander van der Steen, previs supervisor Sean Mathiesen and fx lead Greg King.

Tom Wood, VFX supervisor.

"We had around 30 to 40 shots that were deleted from the final cut," Wood recalls. "Our shot count kept changing during the course of post-production. A number of sequences, mostly the Observation Room, were turned over early to us as Danny felt they were visually stunning and were definitely in his film. We completed them quickly just as they were cut from the film. They were then put back in and cut again two or three times during the year. Thankfully, they all mostly ended up in the released version. This was pretty indicative of the edit process for us."

Early on, Boyle made it clear that his vision of the space sequences had more to do with NASA footage than with Star Wars. He was especially keen on grounding the lighting in reality. "Danny wanted the vfx to be part of the movie in a way that both enhanced the narrative, and the mood," Wood explains. "He wanted an inky blackness to space with few or no stars, to suggest an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere. His references were 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien for the sci-fi look and feel, although our ship could never have that sort of lighting. I think this movie is the first for a space ship not to have a key light while in space flight, as the bulk of the ship is in the deep shadow of the ship's shield." Indeed, the whole spaceship was designed around the fact that it was being protected from the sun by a gigantic gold shield, one mile in diameter. Since all the light was reflected away, the rest of the ship had to appear in total darkness.

A Modeling Challenge

The MPC team set out to build two ships, the Icarus I from the ill-fated original mission, and the main hero ship, Icarus II. The later turned out to be the largest model MPC had ever built or rendered. The team actually faced some difficult technical challenges to get it working efficiently. Modeling and animation were carried out in Maya, and rendering in RenderMan. The sun effects work was produced using a mix of off the shelf software and proprietary software. All compositing was accomplished with Shake.

The ship was built over a period of six months with artists modeling individual modules. The structure was made up from 75 separate modules, and comprised of two main sections: the Living Section and the Payload/Shield section. The Living Section was around 300 meters (1,000 feet) long and comprised 50 modules. After the main spine of the ship was built, a team of five modelers led by Philip Koch built the individual modules. "The art department provided a 'design bible' of images that we drew upon in creating the individual modules," Wood notes. "These were mostly from the ISS and the Mir Space Station designs. They also included the London Eye. The basic design of the ship was conceived by production designer Mark Tildesley, but we had to come up with how the modules actually worked and fitted together. The back-story was that the modules had been built on Earth, and then assembled in Earth orbit, which led the design thinking. We used the practical set blueprints to 'build out' from the main Flight Deck & Mess Room, so the module shapes followed the interior designs."

Early on, director Danny Boyle made it clear that his vision of the space sequences had more to do with NASA footage than with Star Wars. His references were 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien for the sci-fi look and feel. 

The team developed a system of "materials" that were assigned to different sections of the modules. The tool would vary the look of the textures on individual pieces to have them look like metal, insulation, aluminum, etc. The final model generated some 1.9 gigabytes of geometry data in total. "You couldn't actually load the whole ship into Maya!" Wood says. "So, we had a custom pipeline created for the ship. We used our proprietary RenderMan scripting language called Giggle, so we could see and manipulate the ship within Maya. We developed a system where we had proxy Open GL version of the ship in the scene. We could change the settings, like the level of detail on the ship, as a whole or on single modules.

"A unique problem to lighting the ship was that it was in shadow. It couldn't be in direct sunlight as the main Living Section was protected behind the shield. We found an image of an oil refinery at night, which we used as a starting point. To help give the ship the correct scale, the model ended up with 432 individual lights in total, including 264 in the Living Section alone. We gave different bulb types a specific color range depending on the type of gas that might be used in those bulbs. We also generated about 200 gigabytes of texture and occlusion data. We had a system where similar objects could be set to share occlusion maps, which reduced the amount of data they needed. We also pre-baked a reflection environment map for every single module, so the lights would be reflected in metal materials correctly."

The team developed a system of

Dealing with Gold Panels

The key aspect of the ship design was its gold plated shield. MPC's Giggle was used again to help generate the shield from 130,000 individual tiles. The team first built a single panel section, and had a system that built the shield from these pieces while varying the textures. The panels ended up with individual textures, but texture maps could also be projected across them for full control of the look. By employing texture variations on the panels, as well as mixing larger textures for damage marks, MPC was able to create a sense of huge scale out of a basically featureless surface.

"It was a challenge to light a mirrored surface because it was reflecting black space," Wood observes. "During the shoot on the partial shield sets, the crew found they had to gouge the surface, so you could pick up enough of the surface detail. It gave the shield a much stronger presence in the shots. We used a similar technique to add scratches to the surface. We also created a custom particle version of the shield, so we could have the any of the shield bays animated during the Shield Repair sequence. This particle system allowed us to run animation across the shield, and even to break it up during the final descent. For the opening shot, I had an idea that the shield was making micro adjustments to the solar wind, so you could see ripples moving across the huge surface area. It helped a lot to sell the idea of a gigantic construction." For the destruction sequence, the ship's modules were also converted to use MPC's proprietary PAPI dynamics system.

A CG Trip into the Unknown

While part of the team was hard at work on hard geometries and texture maps, another group of artists was facing the toughest challenge of the entire project: visualizing our sun. The CG team had to realistically portray a star that had never been photographed or filmed from anything other than from millions of miles away. "One of the hardest things to convey was the sheer scale of the sun, how incredibly massive and incomprehensibly large our star actually is," Wood explains. "It loses four million tons of matter every second. It has massive prominent projections of matter shooting constantly from its surface, which it ejects at a million miles an hour. Ludicrous values that we were constantly competing with..."

The design of the sun shots was split into three different categories: "distant sun" (as seen through the observation room), "closeup sun" (when the ship is in orbit around the sun) and "into the sun" (for the final descent into the sun environment).

The distant sun was built up, layer by layer, using various procedural texturing methods in Maya. "Using collected satellite images of the sun as reference, we created animated textures to represent the underlying granulation surface, hot spots, and vein structure," Wood explains. "A gaseous cloud layer was created using Maya's fluid dynamics. Additional surface details, like the magnetic loops and surface eruptions, were individually modeled or created with particle systems. The distant sun had many of the elements found in the real sun."

The toughest vfx challenge was to realistically portray the sun. The design of the sun shots was split into three different categories, including

The final composition of each sun shot involved the compositor creatively combining these layers in Shake to sculpt the areas of light and dark that gave each sun shot its own character. As the film progresses, the star gets increasingly ominous with more areas of super hot turbulence and violent surface activity. The final touch on each shot was to add optical effects such as flare, glows and lens imperfections.

Diving into Chaos

"The closeup version of the sun needed to be a violent environment where everything was extremely chaotic and disorientating," Wood says. "Those shots required more detailed landscaping of the sun's surface. This time, procedural texturing was employed in combination with digital matte paintings, done using Photoshop, to create the large vistas that were needed. 2D warping techniques in Shake were used along with the fluid textures from Maya to bring movement to the matte paintings. We also created huge 10K paintings of the surface for the long panning shots that sweep over vast areas of the sun. Finally, 3D gas and smoke particle systems were used to create a dense atmosphere that added to the sense of scale and intense heat."

As the action moves closer to the sun, the design focus shifted from creating an overall sun look to creating an immersive environment including landscape features, terrain, sky and atmosphere. The majority of this work was done with digital matte paintings. Concept art was created for each environment representing increasing proximity to the sun's surface, from distant mountain ranges of gases and plasma to immense coronal ejections of matter, which form eerie structures in the sky. A large amount of 2D animation and warping was done to bring the individual layers to life. These layers were then laid out in Maya, and rendered through animated cameras to give the sense of movement and depth needed.

Throughout production, Boyle and Wood kept fighting hard to render outer space as an inhospitable and harsh environment. The space shots had to be aesthetic, but they also needed to express a sense of peril. The sun, in particular, had to work on both levels: "We depicted it as an awe-inspiring sight, and also, I hope, as the most terrifying object," Wood concludes.

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, both print and online, and occasionally to Cinefex. In 2004, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.