ComputerCafé Creates Invisible EFX for LXG

For Twentieth Century Fox’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, opening in theaters today, the team at Santa Maria, Calif.-based effect house ComputerCafé was charged with updating the Invisible Man for the 21st century.

It has been 70 years since actor Claude Rains first portrayed the character in a film that boasted cutting edge special effects for 1933. In that version, the Rodney Skinner, a.k.a the Invisible Man, wore bandages, gloves, an overcoat and dark glasses to make himself seen. LXG‘s Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran) renders himself visible by smearing white greasepaint on his face and donning a black leather jacket. When he is invisible in a snowstorm, falling snowflakes define his shape. When he’s burned, his singed flesh becomes grotesquely apparent.

A lot of the R&D went into designing the Invisible Man’s burns and the flame dynamics of that key scene. ComputerCafé’s digital effects producer, Vicki Galloway Weimer notes that another challenging aspect was removing elements that existed in the practical shots, as well as mimicking what the actor did and representing it in CG.

ComputerCafé visual effects supervisor Scott Gordon explains, “Director Stephen Norrington (Blade) and production visual effects supervisors Janek Sirrs and, later, John Sullivan wanted to use practical effects as much as possible. From early on we knew that wouldn’t be possible in the shots where the Invisible Man applies greasepaint since his hands cross over his face and we need to see the backs of his fingertips, so we had to recreate those elements digitally.”

ComputerCafé opted to motion capture Curran’s face and selected Redondo Beach, Calif.-based Eyetronics for its unique approach to capturing the subtle nuances of the human face.

“The director wanted the audience to have a sense of Skinner’s mood in the way he recites his lines, so we had to reproduce Curran’s performance faithfully,” says ComputerCafé animation supervisor Domenic DiGiorgio. “The face has the most complex muscle system in the body. With traditional motion capture, markers are placed on up to 160 points around the face, data is captured and its up to the animator to interpret what the skin does between markers. But that technique doesn’t faithfully reproduce an actor’s facial performance.”

With Eyetronics’s system, a fine grid is projected onto the actor’s face, with about four pixels between each grid line. The actor’s performance is then filmed. Proprietary software interprets how the grid distorts on the face so the geometry follows the contour of the actor’s face, recording what it’s doing in every frame.

Next, Eyetronics applied this data to a cleansed cyberscan template. Once ComputerCafé received the data, Alias|Wavefront Maya was used for additional facial animation and alterations in timing to synchronize dialogue.

When a shot arrived at ComputerCafé, animator Victor Grant, assisted by Jeremy Cho, tracked the actor’s head against the static CG head. DiGiorgio rendered the CG head as a mask, and then Steve Arguello used the Cyborg compositing system to warp the mask to the moving face of the actor, feature by feature.

Gabriel Vargas crafted many of the CG make-up elements as Skinner applies the greasepaint with digitally animated fingers. Greg Jonkajtys lit CG faces and animated facial expressions not caught by motion capture. Because Skinner’s body and the back of his head are invisible, his face can be seen from behind or inside out when he turns away from the camera. Camera angles and lighting differentials help the audience recognize that they’re seeing the back inside view of Skinner’s face. From the inside out view, his face bears the negative impression of light beard stubble and skin pores.

Similarly, ComputerCafé animators had to replace the inside of Skinner’s jacket where it’s open to the collar and portions of the jacket where his hands cover it. A number of CG elements – Skinner’s hands, sleeves, the inside of the jacket and collar – were crafted by Gabriel Vargas, Greg Jonkajtys and Mike Fischer. Manuel Guizar and Fischer also handled jacket tracking.

“Maya acted as the hub software between the packages,” Gordon notes. “We tracked the first pass of the heads in 3DS Max then went into Maya and Lightwave for clean ups. Texturing and lighting was done in Lightwave, as was most of the rendering.”

Throughout the invisibility sequences, the ComputerCafé team tracked and replaced backgrounds blocked by the actor’s body in practical shots. Since clean motion-control plates of backgrounds were not supplied, single frames from wild-camera shots were used as reference for painting replacement elements. Compositors Votch Levi, Everett Burrell and Mike Bozulich used eyeon’s Digital Fusion to track new backgrounds. Bozulich served as primary color matcher.

“The entire process was extremely challenging and almost every frame was touched in some way by our artists,” ComputerCafé president Jeff Barnes comments. “The scenes turned out great, and we all are very proud of the result.”