Making Mayan Mayhem

No question about it: Audiences will get their money’s worth of eye-popping, end-of-the-world vfx in Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie, 2012.

This month’s disaster-zeitgeist movie 2012 isn’t only about destruction, but when a story centers on the Mayan calendar’s end of the world in 2012 and the director is Roland Emmerich, you know that planet-wide destruction plays a major role. The wreckage begins with a crack in the firmament, soon ratchets way up to a big earthquake sequence in’where else?’Los Angeles and from there, all hell breaks loose.

Sixteen studios, under the overall supervision of co-producers Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, created the breakage. Engel and Weigert’s own Uncharted Territory led the mayhem by ripping apart the landscape in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for 400 shots. Studios that contributed around 100 shots or more included Digital Domain, Double Negative, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Scanline. Pixomondo, which previz’d the show, contributed 93 shots. Hydraulx had 60. Gradient, Evil Eye, Factory FX, UPP, The Post Office, Crazy Horse, Alex Lemke FX, Cafe FX and the Picture Mill shared the rest.

‘It wasn’t like we started with three studios and ended up with 16 because we didn’t get the shots done,’ says Volker. ‘We planned this from the beginning. We figured out who would be our best partners.’

Volker and Weigert chose Digital Domain, for example, to do the second half of the earthquake sequence in Los Angeles, which we see from the air. Double Negative bubbled up all the trouble in Yellowstone National Park. Imageworks and Scanline split the third act, with Imageworks creating huge arks inside a Himalayan mountain and Scanline providing the rush of water that floats the boats. Imageworks’ boat-building job extended sets on a massive scale, but for the most part, the studios’ work required rigid body simulation, fluid simulation and particle simulation to create fire, water, landslides, lava slides, earthquakes and general destructive chaos.

‘You can’t give these shots to small houses,’ Weigert says. ‘You have to give them to a sizeable house with the people, the pipeline, and the programmers who have done this before. So many mid-sized visual effects houses have closed down there’s literally a shortage of houses that can handle this kind of business.’

Splitting huge sequences into pieces helped manage the global destruction, as did finding smaller sequences for smaller studios. Hydraulx, for example, cracked a supermarket in half near the beginning of the film, and later destroyed Hawaii with volcanic eruptions and lava flow. ‘They are typical Hydraulx shots with complicated computer graphics and particle simulations,’ Engel says.

For their part, Engel and Weigert set up shop for their production company Uncharted Territory on the Sony Pictures studio lot. As they had for earlier projects’Independence Day and Coronado‘they staffed and equipped Uncharted Territory specifically for 2012, buying machines and software and hiring over 100 people to handle the effects and manage the project. ‘We wanted to be close to Roland [Emmerich] in editorial,’ Weigert says. And, close to the 400 terabyte server, too, that sent the digital files wherever needed during the post-production process thanks to a proprietary project management system, and then, when finally approved, moved them to editorial.

The artists working at Uncharted Territory used Autodesk’s Maya for modeling, 3ds Max for effects, and The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing. They also used Cebas’s finalRender, a hardware-accelerated ray tracer for rendering, and that company’s Thinking Particles system, a 3ds max plug-in, for the destruction.

‘We learned that they were developing a volume breaker that made it possible to destroy buildings without having to cut them apart by hand,’ Engel says. ‘We made a deal with them to finance part of their development, which gave us exclusivity during production and a close collaboration.’

To create the Los Angeles earthquake sequence, Engel and Weigert started with three lines from the script. ‘[The script] read kind of like, ‘They run out of the house and as they drive in the limo, buildings crumble around them,” Weigert says. ”And then they arrive at the airport.”

At first, they considered filming the route and replacing only the buildings they wanted to destroy, but they soon realized they’d need to create an entirely virtual environment except for the limousine, which they shot on a blue-screen stage in Vancouver. ‘In a lot of the shots, we even had to replace the road because it breaks in the shots,’ Engel says.

To expand the three lines into what became a three minute sequence, the crew at Uncharted Territory created a previz using simple geometry. ‘It was like a little LEGO set,’ Weigert says. Once Emmerich approved the basic idea, Weigert and Volker moved the previz on to Pixomondo, which previz’d around 90 percent of the film.

‘We had really good previz,’ says Mohen Leo, who was visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain for 2012. Digital Domain handled the L.A. earthquake sequence from the point at which the limousine arrives at the airport. ‘Pixomondo worked a long time to get the layout and camera that Roland [Emmerich] was really happy with. We did previz ourselves or made changes on a handful, but the whole flow was established. We just had to flesh it out.’

To do that, the Digital Domain crew shot reference for the parts in Los Angeles that Emmerich wanted to see destroyed in the fly-over, and then built break-apart models of buildings, fire hydrants, traffic lights and so forth to match. Proprietary technology split the geometry into pieces procedurally. To hold the objects together until they shattered, the studio developed Drop, which is custom code built around Bullet, an open source rigid body solver. Both proprietary systems worked inside Houdini, which gave artists the ability to manipulate the simulation.

For Scanline, though, the previz wasn’t as useful. ‘There’s a big difference between a polygon wave,’ says Stephan Trojansky, visual effects supervisor, referring to the previsualization of moving water, ‘and a simulation that shows in detail how the water moves.’ Finding the right speed to move the huge amounts of water realistically, yet within the time allotted for particular scenes, was a particular challenge because changing the speed of the simulation also changed the look. For example, water shooting off a fast moving wave vaporizes, but at a slower speed, looks like droplets.

At Double Negative, the challenges were literally groundbreaking. Using proprietary software implemented through Houdini, the studio caused a pool of lava to erupt through the Earth’s crust in Yellowstone Park and then created an ash cloud from which lava bombs and chunks of earth shoot after a fleeing RV.

‘This film pushed the limits of everything,’ Weigert says. ‘When you have to move and break the entire environment, it makes everything more than ten-fold as complex.’

When work on 2012 ended, Weigert and Volker disbanded Uncharted Territory, but will start it up again for Emmerich’s next film, which takes place in 16th century London. ‘When we learned we needed to create 100 percent photoreal environments, we just laughed,’ Weigert says. ‘We said, ‘No problem. Nothing has to break.”

Sony’s 2012 is now in theaters nationwide.