Season of Magic

This summer’s string of big-budget popcorn movies are a lively exhibit of the latest achievements in the vfx arena.

If summer means anything to movie lovers, it means a season of the biggest, baddest blockbusters all overflowing with eye-popping images only the latest and greatest visual effects wizards can deliver.

This year, the summer movies season is full of old friends as the studios revisit past favorites from a new angle and try to take them to the next level. Such is the case with three very different films that all feature fascinating effects just now hitting theaters or on their way: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and Terminator Salvation.

Return of the Robots

Few films are as anticipated as Revenge of the Fallen, director Michael Bay’s follow-up to the 2007 hit based on the popular Transformers toys and cartoon show.

As audiences have come to expect from Bay, everything is bigger and bolder in the sequel, which increases the robot count from 16 characters in the first film to about 60, says ILM’s Scott Farrar, the overall visual effects supervisor on both Transformers films.

The story, which is still being kept under wraps in advance of the film’s June 24 release, gives a bigger role to the robots that requires better animation than was seen in the first film, Farrar says. ‘We’ve got important dialog, important acting that’s going on. A lot of the plot is really delivered by our robots, so they have to really hold their own with the actors,’ he says. ‘It’s been a growing period, especially between the last film and this film, and our animators are a lot better’

In animating the robots, Farrar says ILM used reference of the voice actors and managed to translate some of the actors’ personality into the robots’ movements. ‘The nuances of the performance actually get enlarged by the animators,’ he says.

ILM also pushed the envelope on interactivity and detail for the robots. ‘By that I mean the robots, when they’re fighting or walking or whatever, there are a lot more dustups when they’re on solid ground. They get dirt and grass on them. They burn, they spit, they pump gas, they leak, they spurt,’ Farrar says. ‘You name it, if they have an injury, things come out.’

That kind of detail was carried to an extreme level with several of the film’s sequences being shot in IMAX. While last year’s smash hit Batman film The Dark Knight featured IMAX sequences, they were not as CG-heavy as what’s being done for Transformers.

‘This is the first film where we have computerized characters or computerized images pretty much fill the screen on an IMAX,’ he says. ‘We have close-ups of our [robot] characters, so the resolution level and the amount of detail is very high.’

One of the challenges with IMAX is that the screen is shaped more like a square than standard movie screens. Farrar says that forced everyone working on those sequences to consider both aspect ratios and frame shots to work well in both frames. Farrar says they came to see the extra real estate on the IMAX screen as a kind of bonus image.

In all, the number of effects shots is somewhere over 600, Farrar says. That may not be as many as other effects-heavy movies, but Farrar says the quality and detail make up for it. ‘A lot of films will have more shots than we have in ours, but man these are jam-packed,’ he says. ‘They’re complicated, they have many characters doing many different things.’

Farrar adds that this team put a lot into interactivity’showing dustups when a character walks across the desert, for example’and into detail in the Transformers themselves.

‘Whenever possible, we’d have gears, belts, wires, chains, cables, whatever, moving,’ Farrar says.

The film benefited from shooting in expansive locations that gave the visual effects crew a large canvas on which to work, Farrar says, citing in particular sequences shot at Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania and in the deserts of Jordan.

A project this complicated also posed a lot of technical challenges just to ensure it all gets done, Farrar says. Revenge of the Fallen is using more than 130 terabytes of storage and had a large crew of 250 people working on the effects at ILM only seven weeks out from the June 24 release date.

Farrar says he hopes the film comes together as well as he expects, saying preview screenings have given the film high marks. ‘People say it’s a lot better, a richer story than the first one.’

Building a Wilder Exhibit

While everyone expects big sci-fi films to be chockfull of visual effects, fantasy also works well with comedy’something proven by the success of Night at the Museum, which spawned the sequel that rolled out in May.

VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, who worked on the first film, says Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian offered much the same challenge as the first film but multiplied by a factor of 10. The first film was set in New York’s Museum of Natural History and required effects that brought to life a lot of the animals and natural settings it has on display. The sequel, however, moves the action to Washington, D.C., and the more diverse exhibits at the Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.

As the largest museum complex and research center in the world, the Smithsonian served up dozens of new types of characters for DeLeeuw and his team to bring to life. The greatest challenge was simply keeping up, he says. ‘Just the sheer magnitude and diversity of [effects] was probably the biggest challenge,’ notes DeLeeuw. ‘It wasn’t just one effect used over and over again.’

One of the tougher challenges was creating CG versions of the statues that acted funny and moved believably while still looking like they’re made of bronze or marble. ‘It’s having sculpture, marble and things move that shouldn’t be able to move without bending or breaking,’ said DeLeeuw.

The film benefited from being able to shoot inside the Smithsonian’ though they had to shoot during business hours, which meant visitors to the museum were able to watch the shooting’as well as inside the Air and Space Museum’. They weren’t as lucky with other locations, such as the Lincoln Memorial, the interior of which had to be recreated digitally.

Each digital character, whether it was Albert Einstein, the squid or the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln, had to have its own personality conveyed through motion, DeLeeuw says. ‘Each new character had his own segment of the film, so it was coming up with all the different characters, coming up with all the different personalities and all the different looks.

Another interesting challenge came from bringing to life famous paintings. Some of the more realistic ones, such as Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, were relatively easy to bring to life, while the more abstract ones posted a much greater challenge, DeLeeuw says.

They also had to create CG airplanes and an Apollo rocket, which required flame effects. ‘We did pretty much everything we could think of. The challenge is coming up with something we haven’t done,’ he says.

The Summer’s Other Robot Movie

Another franchise that’s back in theaters’albeit without the quotable Arnold Schwarzenegger’is The Terminator, which returned to theaters May 21 with the fourth installment in the long-running sci-fi action series.

For the first time in the series, Salvation takes place completely in the post-apocalyptic future that spawned the robotic killers. That gave the vfx crew the chance to play around a bit with the established Terminator arsenal.

‘We had a lot of these new creatures that we had to really bring into the Terminator universe and not make them seem out of place,’ says ILM’s Marc Chu, animation director on the film. That meant creating the T-600 model Terminator’predecessor to the T-800 seen in the first film’as well as ‘hydrobots,’ Terminators who turn into motorcycles, airships and giant walking Terminators.

Creating just the right feel required giving a mechanical look to the movements and making the technology seem both futuristic but not that far removed from present reality. ‘We wanted to make all those machines feel like they were being driven by existing technology and not running around jumping or doing something that was really out of this world,’ Chu says.

For maximum believability, actors on set were suited up with ILM’s iMoCap system pioneered on the Pirates of the Caribbean films to play Terminators so they could interact with the actors. ‘In most cases, we could take the matches and really figure out what worked best, keeping it the same or figuring out what needed to change to make it more mechanical,’ Chu says.

For other robots, a lot of reference footage was consulted to make sure that the motorcycle animation was realistic. ‘We used a lot of practical effects, a lot of pyro elements and shooting real plates to put them into,’ Chu says. ‘We kind of used the best of everything to try to make things look realistic.’

One of the overall imperatives for the film was to avoid the slick robotics look of movies like Iron Man or Transformers, even as Terminator Salvation directly benefited from the work ILM did on both those films.

‘[The director] McG really wanted a gritty future war feel, very apocalyptic, very dirty and gritty. So the machines you see aren’t all nice and chromey,’ Chu says. ‘This is sort of a new alternate future where things aren’t happening as planned or as [John] Connor was told, so it’s a whole new adventure.’

Once the motion was right, the look had to follow, with ILM developing a process called energy conserving lighting. Chu says the process allowed his tem to get the look of a render to the 90 percent mark much more quickly, giving them more time to focus on the last 10 percent of making everything look photorealistic.

Chu says his crew at ILM worked on something like 330 shots for the film, with compositing proving one of the bigger challenges.

Helping out immensely was a director and crew that respected the franchise and knew how to make it all work. ‘McG has surrounded himself with people that were involved in this franchise from the beginning,’ Chu says. ‘They were there every step of the way and they wanted to make sure this was a movie people wanted to go see and keep it true to the legacy.’

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will open in theaters on June 24th. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and Terminator Salvation are currently playing in theaters nationwide.