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'X-Men': The Last VFX Stand

The VFX stakes were definitely raised for X-Men: The Last Stand. Tara DiLullo discusses the challenges with Cinesite, MPC and Weta Digital.

Eleven vfx companies were called to duty for X-Men: The Last Stand. All images  and © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. X-Men character likenesses  and © 2006 Marvel Characters Inc. 

When it came time to prepare the last of Foxs mutant-themed trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand (which broke box office records during its Memorial holiday debut), there were some firm absolutes: One, there would be the addition of new mutants, including impressive examples of their powers in action. Second, the eye-popping visual effects set pieces would raise the bar. Third, the scale and the mortal stakes for the X-team would be raised as well through the complex vfx sequences conjured up by writers Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn. Their epic ideas proved to be so vast and challenging, that 11 visual effects companies were hired. Vendors such as Soho VFX, Framestore CFC, CIS Hollywood, Rhythm & Hues, New Deal Studios Inc., Kleiser-Walczak, Hydraulx and Lola Visual Effects all contributed work to the film, with The Moving Picture Co. (MPC), Cinesite and Weta Digital contributing the largest sequences. The latter three companies will be the focus of this article.

Cinesites work in the Danger Room required showing the transition from VR training to reality. 

Cinesite: The Danger Room

Responsible for the opening sequence of the film, Sue Rowe, visual effects supervisor for Cinesite, details that their participation on Last Stand was a project they aggressively pursued. We were keen on working on the show as soon as we heard it had been green lit. Cinesite had worked on both previous films, with Cinesite L.A. having done the majority of work on X-Men 2, so we had a good understanding of the shows needs. Also, the overall vfx supervisor, John Bruno, was a good friend of Cinesites, as we worked on Alien vs. Predator with him a year before.

Explaining the specifics of their contributions, Rowe offers, We did the more unique, boutique-type shots rather than whole dedicated sequences, which was great as we were able to enjoy the creative process more with Bruno. The film was spread across the globe and we all got a selection of shots, some more challenging than others. There was previs work to follow as a guide and, in some cases, we stayed with it and in others we were able to embellish the original concepts.

For example, the film opens with the Danger Room, which has not been seen before in the earlier films. The concept was to go from a VR training program, which then reveals itself to be an empty set. Ironically, we really go from a real set with CG lasers and missiles and fireballs into a totally 3D environment. Here the concept was to dissolve into a wire frame to show the transition from VR to reality. We discussed a design concept with Bruno and he liked the idea. We used a graphic visualization of point cloud data, which brought the concept right bang up into todays software capabilities. The actual room that is revealed is a 3D build. We made it dark and moody with a sexy brushed metal floor. The scenes no longer dissolve from one to another; the structures diminish into particles, which have an eerie x-ray quality to them. Bruno loved it he said it was bitchin-tastic! she laughs.

Thrain Shadbolt, Cinesite CG effects supervisor, adds, We modeled the live-action geometry in the plate, then used RenderMan to create point clouds of the geometry. This was read into Maya as particle systems using custom scripts, and then animated within the shot using Mayas dynamics tools and particle expressions. This was combined with a more traditional wire-frame look to give the appearance of the structures dissolving as the virtual environment gave way to the real world. Many layers of particles were used in addition to the multiple layers of motion control.

Cinesite also created a number of X-jet shots after shooting the plates in the Canadian Rockies. 

As for other sequences created, Rowe says they also did a number of X-jet shots. The plates were shot in the Canadian Rockies, so the photography was spectacular! Asked their biggest challenge, Rowe admits, Time constraints and a very fluid brief! We had a team of about 30 working in small teams; I think thats the best way to work when your creativity is what drives you. Even the conference calls to L.A. every night were amazing. We showed our work via Rising Sun Researchs cineSync and then discussed the shots eye-to-eye, via a web cam every evening. Our vfx producer Martin Gabriel was incredibly organized, which is imperative on a production this size, so it was a pretty dynamic production on both sides of the water. We already have an established smooth 2D/3D pipeline and now we can work with any time zone now! Also, I think the relationships we have built on this film will mean Cinesite will be seen as an individual creative place to bring your work rather than just for its capacity.

MPC: Dark Phoenix and the Exploding Lake

Bruno also went to recent collaborators MPC to take on key vfx sequences for the film. Nicolas Aithadi, visual effects supervisor at MPC, explains how they were drafted onto the project. We were supposed to do a lot more than what we ended up doing. In the beginning, there were less visual effects companies, maybe three or four, so the movie was divided into bigger pieces. Quite quickly, we all realized the time we had to do the effects, it was too big and we had to give up on some of the effects and concentrate on what was possible in the time, because it was a really short project in terms of time. For the biggest sequence we did, we got the shots somewhere in December and had to deliver them in March. It was quite tight in the schedule so we preferred to concentrate on what we could do.

MPC created and destroyed the all-CG den for the violent fight between Dr. X and Jean Grey in 90 shots. The vfx house put together a visual bible of the actual set and broke down the images using proprietary software. 

Able to select the sequences they were to keep, Aithadi reveals the work they asked to create. We worked on six sequences ranging from effects, like replacing windows, to the biggest and most challenging sequence featuring Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). For that, we had to create an all CG environment, which was the den inside Jeans house. We had to completely create it and destroy it. It was the biggest sequence in terms of shots 90 shots. The idea was that Jean is in her house and Xavier and Magneto (Ian McKellen) come to see her. She is possessed by the Dark Phoenix that makes her do things that she cant control. She loses herself and starts destroying her environment, starting by atomizing the walls. We had to create a system to actually peel the wallpaper off and break the plaster and wood planks underneath. It was one part of the effect. The most challenging part wasnt destroying, because we do that a lot, but the challenge was making the inside of the room look like a mundane room in the house. It was the most complex thing to make a table look like a table. It ended up being a big challenge. Its easier to do a creature than a table, he laughs.

We spent a lot of time looking at details, like adding plugs to the lamp, hundreds of books or any number of details, he continues, They initially shot in an actual set and we went to Vancouver and we took thousands of pictures of the actual room from which we created a bible showing each corner of the room. We started to break down the whole thing using proprietary software. The first one was called PAPI, and it was built for Kingdom of Heaven. We used it to break the siege towers and its a rigid body dynamics system. Everything that was flying or being pushed or falling was animated with PAPI. We then created another tool, which was a soft-body dynamics system, which allowed us to take the wallpaper and draw black-and-white mattes, deciding which part of the wallpaper was actually peeling off. If it was white, the wall wasnt peeling, if it was black the wallpaper was peeling and if it was gray, it was peeling off but stayed attached to the wall. So the whole thing needed to be choreographed.

The whole sequence was maybe 10 minutes and there were 30 shots of wall, so we were sending the sequences to John Bruno and we were working on all the shots at one time to make sure the continuity was working. It was quite tedious and once we, and John Bruno, were happy, we segmented the whole thing into different shots and we went back and had to do detail on each shot. That was just for the walls! We had to do the same thing for all the furniture, with chairs breaking and pieces falling off. We added some shattering capability to our proprietary software and we, by hand on the CG model, controlled where it will break and the kind of debris it would create. The first pass we did, the breaking chairs were looking like marble because they were breaking like stone. It was those kinds of interesting details that we had to work on to make it more realistic. One of the things that made us happy is that when you look at the sequence at the end, people dont really know what we actually did that the whole thing is CG. There is a moment when Jean is standing up and soon as she does, everything in the room is computer generated except for the actors. Its really rewarding when people ask us, What did you do? and we can say, Everything!

Nicolas Aithadi of MPC led a small team of digital artists for the six sequences it created for the film.

Another aspect of the Dark Phoenix transformation that MPC had to tackle was the physical changes Jean undergoes during her violent episodes. We spent a lot of time developing the look of Jean when she turns into the Dark Phoenix, he details. Driven by John Bruno, 2D lead compositor Arundi Asregadoo created hundreds different versions of skin and eyes treatment. The idea was that when the Dark Phoenix is taking over, Jeans skin darkens, some veining appears on her face and her eyes go black. We went through hundred of iterations with different degree of darkness, with more of less visible veins. At the end we went for less is more and made the effect more subtle but enough to give Jean a scary look. We used a 3D model of Jeans face to track the digital make up at compositing time.

We also had to do another sequence, which was Jean Grey and Scott (James Marsden) on the bank of [Alkali] lake. We had to recreate the lake in CG entirely, which was quite difficult. When we approached the sequence we had two solutions, the first being to keep the lake and add effects to it and the second was to recreate the whole lake, which is what we chose. Its more complicated to do a patch of lake and match it exactly to the lake so we decided to remove the lake and create a lake in CG and add effects to it. The water was created using a mix between Simulation for the big waves and a displacement shader we wrote. The trick was to re-create exactly the same look as the original lake. When we succeeded, it became our base.

We also had to make a big explosion in the lake. It starts with a whirlpool created in the lake and then water bursts up and explodes. That was quite violent to take on, he laughs. It was the most complex effect because it was really, really difficult to achieve. The point wasnt to do an impressive water sim, but to get a controllable template for the whirlpool and the big explosion. We used a combination of Maya Fluid for the simulation and for the bigger waves and RenderMan for all the small detail on the water and a lot of particles and 2D elements as well.

Detailing their creative team, Aithadi says, We had a small team of people. We tried to keep it quite small just because it was so similar. Every shot we did had big creative input and a lot of it came from John Bruno and it was easier to related his creative input to one lead compositor that was doing everything and dispatching that to other compositors that were more technically involved than artistically involved. On all six sequences, we had a master compositor dealing with the whole sequence.

Weta created two sequences, the Car-B-Q, (above) where Magneto is throwing cars, and Pyro is lighting them on fire, and the Wolverine/Jean Grey (Dark Phoenix) sequence in which she is ripping apart Alcatraz.

Weta Digital: Battle at Alcatraz

For the final, violent battle on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco between the X-Men and Magnetos militant group determined to destroy the newly created mutant antidote, Bruno approached Weta Digital of New Zealand. Eric Saindon, vfx supervisor at Weta Digital, echoes the stories of his colleagues. We didnt start in reality until January (2006), which is quite a bit later than most of the vendors. We were given the end sequence and did some random shots here and there throughout the movie. But they really wanted us to concentrate on the end and the reason I think we got it was because there was a lot of destruction involved, like destroying buildings, cars and people. It was a lot of the same things we were doing for King Kong, so our pipeline was well suited for what they needed.

The majority of what we did was within two sequences. One, we called the Car-B-Q, where Magneto is throwing cars and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) is lighting them on fire. Its lots of cars getting thrown through the air and smashing into the Alcatraz set where the X-Men are fighting the mutants that are trying to stop the cure from getting out. The other sequence is the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Jean Grey sequence, who is now the Dark Phoenix. She is basically ripping apart all of Alcatraz and there is nothing that can stop her. Because Wolverine can heal himself, he is able to walk up and get to her, even though his flesh is being ripped off. We did a lot of ripping flesh and growing it back and having bits of flesh and clothes streaming off of him all the time.

[This project] was very different from Kong, where we had about a year. We were able to figure out all the R&D before we got started on the project. On this project, because it was such a short time all the R&D was really done in the shot. We had to figure out how to rip the flesh off inside of a shot and then get that shot to film and used that process for the rest of it. Wed run off the seat of our pants and come up with the best process that would allow us to come up with the best process to finish the shot in enough time to get the film out. So we did write propriety plug-ins for Maya. Simon Clutterbuck did a plug-in for us so that when threw particles at Wolverine, it ripped his flesh off so we used that to write out mattes and that was the basis for all the flesh-ripping we did.

One of the goals of this sequel was to create superior eye-popping visual effects. Above, Magneto moves the Golden Gate Bridge for his own convenience. 

With their chunk of the finale taking about 20 minutes of screen time, Saindon says there were plenty of other elements they had to create also. We atomized soldiers, which is similar to the effect in War of the Worlds, when the little pods blow up the people. But we were trying to do it in a way that is different and the people almost turn into confetti as this power goes through them and it just washed them away. We also did a lot of water simulation. As Jean gets stronger and stronger, she is supposed to lift the San Francisco Bay up and pull the water up around the island and shoot it up into a dome up above which you never actually see in the final cut. They changed things around from what we did to the final cut. We are primarily a Maya, Shake and RenderMan house. Everything we do is through that process, but the R&D for the water was difficult mainly because of the time frame we had to finish. We didnt have a lot of time to do the water and it was a pretty complex scene to do. The good thing is that we created a lot of the pipeline on Kong for the Venture sequences, so we were able to piggyback on that a little bit to create the simulation and get it to look like water in the scale that we needed.

As to the Weta team, he offers, I think we had somewhere around 300 people on the film, so we did put a lot of bodies on it. By the time we got the plates at the end of January, we were delivering at the end of March. It was 190 shots, so it was a fair amount of complex shots for the amount of time we had to do it. We also had to consult with other companies, including MPC in London on the Dark Phoenix look. When she becomes Dark Phoenix, her eyes go black and she gets veined and her skin loses some of the saturation. They were having similar shots so we had to make sure our look and their look matched very well. They also did a lot atomizing shots, so we had to send them a lot of information, plates or final comps, so they could get theirs to look like ours.

Even with the short turnaround and scale of the shots, Saindon says the film was very manageable for the Weta group. To be honest, I think it went really well. It didnt feel like a lot of pressure was on us and we were able to turnaround everything in a very timely manner and we got lots of iterations to the client, but we didnt feel that stressed. John D.J. Desjardin was our connection to Fox and he was really easy to work with. We did all our talks over iChat and used cineSync and we were all on the same page. We ran it in a way that didnt kill everybody with long hours. It really was a fun project to work on.

Tara DiLullo is an east coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites and