Gods and Monsters

How vfx supe Kevin Mack conjured up classic creatures and wondrous transformation scenes for the new fantasy pic Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

When you’re launching a big studio movie whose cast of characters includes classic Greek mythological heroes and villains such as Poseidon, Zeus, Medusa and Hades, there’s a good chance you’re going to need some major visual effects wizardry to bring it to life. That was certainly the case with director Chris Columbus’ adaptation of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, a beautifully mounted adaptation of Rick Riordan’s popular 2005 book, which is the first in five volumes.

The film, which will open in theaters nationwide this month, centers on a young boy who discovers that he’s the son of the Greek god Poseidon and has to track down Zeus’s master lightning bolt to stop a terrible war among the gods. Helping Columbus realize his vision was Oscar-winning vfx supervisor Kevin Mack, whose very impressive list of credits includes pictures such as What Dreams May Come, Fight Club and Speed Racer. Mack had to oversee the work of 13 different vfx shops, which included about 315 shots from Digital Domain, 180 shots from MPC, 88 from Luma Pictures, 10 Hades Underworld exterior shots from Pixomondo and some storm effects from the team at Rhythm & Hues.

‘We started to work on the project in November of 2008, the minute they greenlit the picture, so altogether, we’ve been on it for 15 months,’ notes Mack during a recent phone interview. ‘Altogether, we did over 900 shots, out of which 811 finals are actually used in the movie.’

Mack says what drew him to the project was the fact that it offered a new contemporary take on mythology. ‘Here was our chance to work with these classical characters and creatures that we had seen in all our favorite Ray Harryhausen movies,’ he adds. ‘The main characters in the movie are these teenagers and the whole movie had this edgy quality which made it a lot of fun. The other thing was that so often when we do these big effects movies, there are only one or two gags, but here we had such a rich variety of stuff’every kind of mythological creature, and all these amazing environmental things. For example, there’s a huge battle scene that takes place on top of the Empire State Building and features an aerial fight with winged shoes.’

The pivotal scene mentioned by Mack showcases a massive water effect scene created by the team at Digital Domain. Our teen hero, Percy (Logan Lerman), who finds out that he is the son of Poseidon and has the ability to control bodies of water. ‘I wanted the finale to top everything else we’d seen so I had this idea that would have him pull the water from all the water towers on top of buildings in New York City,’ recalls Mack. ‘I pitched it to Chris [Columbus] and drew pictures of it, and at first, nobody quite got it, but we ended up getting a great scene in which we have all this beautiful fluid water simulation’which is defying gravity while obeying all the other laws of physics.’

Mack also sings the praises of the work Digital Domain did on the Hydra creature that poses some problems for Percy. In case you haven’t been brushing up on your Greek mythology, the Lernaean Hydra was an ancient serpent-like water beast that had nine heads and a venomous breath that killed at a distance. Although the beast was originally killed by Heracles, he is back to torment our teen hero in this adventure. ‘The Hydra sequence is another one of my favorites,’ says Mack. ‘Digital Domain did a great job of depicting the monster as it slips and slides in water, breathing fire and confronting Percy.’

Killer Looks

Medusa, the serpent-haired monster who can turn people to stone just by looking at them, also makes a wonderful appearance in the feature. The job of transforming the beautiful actress Uma Thurman into a feared gorgon fell upon the team at Venice, Calif.-based Luma Pictures, who delivered some of the thrilling effects in last year’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

‘It’s a stunning transformation,’ says Mack. ‘Medusa is a classic character and you don’t expect anything new or surprising’but Luma did such a fantastic job of animating every snake on her head. There are numerous snakes of every shape and color’and they are bickering among themselves. In a way, they are Medusa’s only friends, because she turns everyone into stone’they are extensions of her self.’

Mack says Thurman’s performance is quite noteworthy because she really wanted to know the back story of her character and her relationship with the serpents. (In classic Greek mythology, Medusa was raped by Poseidon’but we’re sure the filmmakers won’t really get into that in this family picture!) ‘Uma wore a blue bathing cap and moved as if she has this massive weight on her head’she would look at the snakes, although they weren’t animated yet. Then, Luma had to add the snakes interacting with the other characters in the scene as well. They had to go in and animate every snake, which is a huge amount of work to get rid of all these intersecting snakes. They are different sizes and have numerous skin textures and they’re all hissing and wiggling their tongues’it was a spectacular amount of work.’

Medusa isn’t the only mythical creature brought to life by the film’s talented vfx teams. Digital Domain worked on a character called The Fury, which was based on a drawing made by Columbus and the actress who plays the character in the movie. MPC created a very realistic minotaur and a centaur portrayed by former Bond man Pierce Brosnan. Of course, there’s also Grover, Percy’s best friend at school who turns out to be a satyr and sports a pair of hairy goat legs when he’s in battle mode!

Hades, the God of the Underworld also required a lot of vfx work, since he comes out of fire, has devil horns with a burned charcoal texture and a pair of wings. Portrayed by British actor Steve Coogan, Hades has two very different appearances’the first, which is ridiculed by the young hero and his friends, is a silly rock star persona. ‘He has a human form when they go to visit him,’ explains Mack. ‘But he also lets them see his full-devil persona which gives them a scare.’ MPC used mo-cap on Coogan for the dialogue, utilizing the Mova Contour system to create the photoreal face for the character. MPC also used a version of the Scanline software for all the fire sims on Hades’ body as well as the completely CG-animated burning lost souls in Hades’ mansion.

According to Mack, Columbus has come up with a very different way of looking at Hades and his Underworld. ‘This Underworld has been inspired in part by Dante’s Inferno, but the neat twist is that it’s also Hollywood,’ he points out. ‘Our characters are riding in a boat which is ferried over these chasms and a city which is very much like Hollywood, with fires coming out of every corner. Then there are thousands of objects, the debris of human life, floating in the air’hats, watches, record players, dolls, etc. Percy actually reaches for a pocket watch and releases it.’

Mack managed to convince Columbus to use something he had heard his father say years ago for this very scene. ‘That’s my one-line contribution to the script’it’s a quote from my dad’Looking at all the objects floating around Hades, the boatman says, ‘The scrap heap of human misery,’ which is followed by my fathers’s quote: ‘All lives end in suffering and tragedy.’ Chris liked that line and asked if he could use it in the movie!’

Mack is quick to praise the collaborative nature of the director’s style. ‘He is incredibly generous and allowed me to be very creative in coming up with many of the movie’s scenes. We relied on lots of previz. Chris is very passionate about telling a strong story and making things very clear for the audience. It’s always about telling the story with imagination and coming up with a unique and original way of presenting the material.’

Water World

Another vfx highlight for Mack is a sequence in which Percy’s father, the 30-feet-tall God of the Sea, Poseidon’rises out of the ocean and then transforms into human size when he lands on land. ‘We shot the plates on Coney Island, tracked them and captured the camera data, then we shot the actor and used motion control and green-screen,’ says Mack. ‘We didn’t shoot any water effects’all of the water and the interactions were CG work by Luma. The big challenge here was that we had to transform this 30-foot guy into a regular size once he gets to the boardwalk. Originally, the plan was to just shrink him down, but no matter how we did the shrinking, it looked silly, like something out of TV’s Bewitched. So I came up with this gag, where we transform him into water, and all this water goes rushing back into the ocean in a huge wave until he becomes a regular-size human!’

Greek gods and monsters aside, Mack says the main focus of visual effects artists in 2010 and beyond will be fine-tuning the aesthetics of cinema. ‘The technology changes and we get more capabilities year after year,’ he concludes. ‘There are certain types of effects that are more doable and affordable to do today, but we’ve been able to do pretty much anything for a while. Solutions become more elegant with all of the simulation tools we have. What has always been a challenge is the aesthetics and making the work look good by using original ideas and imagination. It’s all about asking yourself, ‘Is it a cool idea? Is it original? Have I seen it before?”

This first installment of the Percy Jackson saga is certainly proof that Mack and his team have come up with all the right answers for this modern mythological odyssey.

Fox released Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief in theaters nationwide on February 12.