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'Ultraviolet': Hollywood Goes to Hong Kong for VFX

Alain Bielik uncovers how Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design handled its first major American studio feature, Ultraviolet.

For the first time, China is tapped by a major studio for vfx: Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design produced more than 850 shots for the movie in less than eight months for Ultraviolet. All images © Sony Pictures.

For the first time, China is tapped by a major studio for vfx: Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design produced more than 850 shots for the movie in less than eight months for Ultraviolet. All images © Sony Pictures.

Visual effects are becoming more global than ever. Back in the 90s, when American studios started to look for alternatives to create vfx, they first went to England, then to Canada, Australia, and even New Zealand. But with Ultraviolet (released by Sonys Screen Gems on March 3), they went all the way to China a first for a major studio release. Hong Kong-based Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design produced more than 850 shots for the movie in less than eight months.

For visual effects producer Steven Calcote (who collaborated with Neil Greenberg), this historic assignment was the consequence of several converging factors. For one thing, Sony has been working hard to strengthen film ties with China, and has had some recent successes in the region like Kung Fu Hustle, Calcote recalls. When writer-director Kurt Wimmer argued for shooting his futuristic Ultraviolet in Hong Kong and Shanghai two cities that already look like theyve been plucked from the future Sony was game to give it a try. This eagerness to work in China also meant that the studio was receptive to talking to a vfx company based in Hong Kong. During the summer of 2003, a dozen vfx companies from all over the world competed for a shot at the film. Menfond was requested to produce a three-minute animatic for one of the most difficult scenes in the movie: Violet uses an antigravity generator to evade pursuit in three dimensions; she ends up riding her motorcycle not only on the street, but up the sides of buildings!

Steven Calcote (left) and Victor Wong of Menfond competed with a dozen vfx companies for the Ultraviolet job. It won the assignment after it produced a three-minute animatic for one of the most difficult scenes in the movie.

Steven Calcote (left) and Victor Wong of Menfond competed with a dozen vfx companies for the Ultraviolet job. It won the assignment after it produced a three-minute animatic for one of the most difficult scenes in the movie.

Violet (Milla Jovovich) is a beautiful and lethal mutant, the product of a genetic alteration that has created, in the late 21st century, a subculture of humans with enhanced physical abilities. As these newcomers become a threat for the government led by Daxus (Nick Chinlund), the decision is made to destroy them. Violet then sets out to protect her new race and to seek revenge for the many deaths

The animatic produced by Menfond was deemed a success by the studio, and a first batch of 130 vfx shots was assigned to the company. From then on, Menfond continued to generate proof-of-concept tests that led Sony and exec producer Tony Mark to steadily award them more shots. Gradually, Ultraviolet evolved into a complete vfx showpiece with six times more effects shots than had been originally intended.

The Digital Option

During principal photography in China, the plates were captured by the latest 4:4:4 Sony 950 HD cameras. When the production moved into post in Los Angeles, Sony authorized Menfond to retain a complete cloned copy of all Ultraviolet footage in HD. Thus editorial had only to send tape and timecode and Menfond could import footage minutes later using their DDR. Due to the different time zones, editorial could make a request in the evening (L.A. time), and have a temp shot or finished shot the very next morning.

Menfond used a great variety of software packages to create the shots. We employed Maya for 3D modeling of all digital props such as the spider-arm chair, which probes Violet during a security examination, co-founder and visual effects supervisor Victor Wong explains. We also used Maya for all glass and debris shots, such as when Violet bursts through a skylight into her first rooftop fight. For 3D object motion, such as Violets car during the climax, we turned to a combination of Maya and 3D Studio Max. When it came time to start destroying things, we used 3D Studio Max specifically for particle effects. For instance, the destruction of Daxus headquarters features a number of dome explosions created this way. Compositing was carried out in various Adobe and Discreet products, and rendering was done in RenderMan and mental ray.

Since the action is set in the late 21st century, designing futuristic cityscapes quickly became a major task. Above is an all CGI cityscape featuring the Laboratories for Later Day Defense. Note the biohazard symbol design.

Since the action is set in the late 21st century, designing futuristic cityscapes quickly became a major task. Above is an all CGI cityscape featuring the Laboratories for Later Day Defense. Note the biohazard symbol design.

Since the action is set in the late 21st century, designing futuristic cityscapes quickly became a major task. These environments were created as a combination of live action buildings from a library of thousands of digital photos taken during production in Hong Kong and Shanghai, original matte paintings for distant city backgrounds and high resolution 3D models for closer shots. Maya, RenderMan and Photoshop were the tools of choice for this type of work, with global illumination being employed to create photoreal lighting. One of the great challenges thrown to us by Kurt at the beginning of the process was to design a city where future technology is organic rather than existing for the sake of being futuristic, Wong notes. The result is a city with extremely clean lines that nevertheless feels fresh for a sci-fi story.

Even more demanding were the many set extensions and digital interior environments. More than half of the sets in Ultraviolet were real buildings or custom-made production sets, while the other half were full 3D virtual environments combined with greenscreen footage. For set extensions, Menfond artists photographed as many textures of the sets as possible using a 6.3 megapixel Canon 10D. The trick was to match the structures 100% since we needed to build 3D models that would seamlessly match textures and lighting of the real sets, Wong remarks. We made a lot of incredible changes to locations such as the digital re-construction of Shanghai University into a Soviet-style gulag. Another example was the extension of the atrium of Shanghai Commercial Bank to make it look five times bigger than the real location. Adds Calcote: We should point out that the 4:4:4 HD helped us a great deal here with our digital stills. The HD stills were devoid of grain, and therefore lacked the matching problems experienced when trying to combine extremely clean digital shots with film. Staying digital throughout the process kept it apples-to-apples.

The motorcycle chase was shot practically in front of a greenscreen, and later combined with a computer-generated environment. The sequence was shot in reverse, moving opposite of the direction the bike moved.

The motorcycle chase was shot practically in front of a greenscreen, and later combined with a computer-generated environment. The sequence was shot in reverse, moving opposite of the direction the bike moved.

Extreme Action Without CGI

Amazingly enough, none of the extreme fight moves and stunts performed by Violet during the course of the movie ever required the use of a CG double. Almost all of the action shots were filmed practically, with camera movement and mechanical setups generating the virtual movements of Violet. Thanks to six months of training in martial arts, Jovovich was able to perform most of Violets fight routines and acrobatics herself. There is some wire work in the film, mainly when we had to accomplish the more intense acrobatics, Wong observes. Even in these cases, however, we used Milla for all the close-ups. This was particular challenging when we had to remove a wiring harness from her mid-riff in the first vault fight. Considering that her costume left that bare, we had to work very hard to recreate her supermodel abs in a couple of shots! This said, the focus of our work on Milla didnt really concern her action sequences, but her hair and clothing. One of the key technologies in the movie is electrochemical color shifts based on mood and situation, i.e. Violets hair shifts color from black to purple as her adrenaline starts pumping in one scene, while in another, her white outfit picks up the color of blood from a massive fight. We accomplished the color shift effect entirely in 2D with complex masking and rotoscoping techniques.

Even the signature motorcycle chase was realized without a CG double. The character and the bike are actually real all along the sequence. We first discussed creating a horizontal city window set that would allow us to run the bike practically across windows and walls, Wong adds. But to really get more than half a second of footage, we realized that wed have to build something hundreds of yards long! Also, when you consider how much CGI would have to be added anyway (i.e., building extensions, backgrounds, etc.), we realized wed be working at cross-purposes.

Ultimately, Jovovich and the bike were shot practically, in front of a greenscreen, and later combined with a computer-generated environment.

During a high speed run on a rooftop, all background cityscapes, buildings, helicopters, bullet impacts on walls, broken and flying glass, debris and destruction of the glass pyramids were created in CG.

During a high speed run on a rooftop, all background cityscapes, buildings, helicopters, bullet impacts on walls, broken and flying glass, debris and destruction of the glass pyramids were created in CG.

During a high speed run on a rooftop, as Violet is targeted by helicopters, all background cityscapes, buildings, helicopters, bullet impacts on walls, broken and flying glass, debris and destruction of the glass pyramids were created in CG. Only Violet, the bike and a few non-destroyed pyramids were shot practically. The helicopter destruction was created by combining the practical explosion of a 1/2-scale model hung from a 30-foot crane, with CG animation of the digital chopper.

CG Showdown

After surviving her high-speed confrontation with Daxus armed forces, Violet decides to meet her archenemy for a last showdown only to bump into Daxus awaiting her with an army of hundreds! The plates were shot with a base of 100 extras only and without the benefit of motion control. Given the extremely complex camera movement along all three axes while zooming out, the duplication of the soldiers turned out to be quite tricky, Wong recalls. We recorded all the location information and camera data for post camera 3D tracking using Maya Life. Then, we built digital stunt versions of the real soldiers, and mimicked their lighting and color-temperature using Maya. Finally, we used the 3D camera tracking data to render the digital stuntmen and composited the rendered images to the live action plates. One of the key aspects of the sequence was Violets sleek futuristic car. Kurt wanted a non-existing vehicle for this particular scene something special since it would be a character. We realized it would be more cost-effective to realize it entirely in CG, and also to destroy it in the digital realm. By creating in CG the thousands of bullet hits and multiple debris, we could precisely control the timing of the destruction. We were also able to lay in quite a number of practical spark hits and metal destruction arranged for us by Darrell Pritchett.

This CGI cityscape features the Needle, headquarters of Nerva. Note the aftermath of a major fight sequence in the orange circle/landing pad.

This CGI cityscape features the Needle, headquarters of Nerva. Note the aftermath of a major fight sequence in the orange circle/landing pad.

Although action sequences and environments represented the majority of the visual effects shots, they were not the most complex assignments of the movie. The most demanding shots actually involved a fictitious technology called flatspace that allows objects to be assembled and disassembled on the fly through flatspace receptors. Those shots required a high number of iterations because the artists were building a new physics from the ground up, Wong comments. At one point, Violet discovers that shes unwittingly kidnapped a key character with this technology. In order to design the flatspace around that character, we had to determine its texture, viscosity, lighting source, turbulence, etc. The substance inside flat space was defined as a new kind of liquid with non-standard physical properties. Since the character was stored inside the flat space, we would see him immersed inside this fast flowing and high viscosity fluid. We used Mayas particle effects to create the new substance and then rotoscoped a 3D model of the character onto the real footage to get the profile/landscape for the liquid to flow onto and around. Visualizing a brand new technology and developing the language to discuss it with Kurt turned out to be quite an exhilarating challenge. We felt extremely fortunate at the opportunity to not only build basic visual effects for Ultraviolet, but to help create a whole new world as well.

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

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