Animationwerks Helps Remember 9/11

Tonight at 9:00 p.m., pay cable network Showtime will premiere DC 9/11 A Time of Crisis, a new original docudrama that chronicles how the government dealt with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. To help make the film feel as real as possible, Santa Barbara, Calif.-based animation and EFX boutique Animationwerks produced and delivered a series of 22 complicated compositing, tracking, and CG shots with a small team of artists.

Working primarily in Lightwave, After Effects, Commotion, Photoshop and Particle Illusion, they met the tight deadline with a little help from the World Wide Web. Animationwerks director and co-owner Jim Clark remarks that the team’s communication with the EFX supervisor and the client was carried out entirely via the internet.

“We had artists working in our studio, several off-site Santa Barbara-based freelancers and an artist based in Canada,” says Clark. In the 10-week production schedule, we never actually met with our client in person. We even delivered the final shots straight to the film-out house on a firewire drive via FedEx. It’s more proof that small animation and VFX houses can do their work from just about anywhere they choose to locate themselves.”

A major challenge for Clark and his team at Animationwerks was creating the high-resolution Air Force One and F16 3D models, both flying and grounded versions, that would appear in 10 shots. “We worked with a very talented Canadian modeler/animator, John Moores, then took what he built and tweaked it right until the end of production. For rendering, we considered radiosity but found that it was just too time consuming for our deadline. In the end we used straight raytracing in Lightwave.”

Animationwerks also provided extensive pre-viz, rendered in full HD, for on-set playback for the shots taking place on a tarmac. The crew was responsible for adding a CG Air Force One and performed the pre-viz to avoid having to roto-matte out any live foreground elements, which the schedule didn’t allow time for.

Clark goes on to describe a particularly complicated shot: “The final tarmac plate was 292 frames long. The shot started with the camera less than 3 feet off the tarmac and came to rest more than 50 feet in the air. The wind was blowing the crane round, causing this continuous rocking motion. Plus, the overcast sky made the shot very low contrast and hard to distinguish foreground details from the background. To complicate it more, the 6 tracking markers they used were very large. Because the camera went from seeing the markers face on in the beginning of the shot, to seeing them from overhead at the end, they were very tough to paint out and covered both sky and ground elements. Worse yet, all of the pre-viz we had created to avoid serious roto work was dropped and the final plate ended up with a whole troop of heavily blurred soldiers running across the foreground, with more soldiers crossing middle ground, and even more soldiers around the base of the plane. There are also 2 Humvees that cross in front of the AF1 and its shadow. Our poor roto artist, Seth Fullerton, is fairly new to this type of work and wins the award for most mattes painted on this shot. It took him several weeks to paint out all of the hard to discern, low-contrast elements and he logged nearly 12,000 paint strokes in After Effects.”

In addition to being technically difficult, Clark explains that the job was also emotionally trying, given the nature of the content. “Because had to look at a lot of footage shot right after the 9/11 attacks, we were constantly reminded of what happened. In most of the shots, we were actually recreating the devastation and matching to existing footage. Political views aside, we all learned a lot about the government’s actions that took place post attack and contributed shots that helped give light to the events.”

Final DC 9/11 shots are available online for viewing at www.animationwerks.com under the “Visual FX” section.