Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Designing the Look of the Blockade Runner Engines from "Rogue One"

"Rogue One" (2016), visual effects by ILM. Visual effects supervisor John Knoll.
Lighting by Tom Martinek, compositing by Todd Vaziri and Will McCoy. Full ILM credits.

Making The Blockade Runner Engine Look for ROGUE ONE
Written by Todd Vaziri, lead artist at Industrial Light & Magic
originally published on

I was thrilled to get to work on this shot from "Rogue One" with my friend and frequent collaborator, ILM lighter Tom Martinek. Leia's Blockade Runner escapes, which ties directly to the start of "Star Wars" (1977)? Yes, please! We'd love to bring this moment to life. It was a thrill to be able to help create the updated look of a classic ship we haven't seen on screen since 1977. Also, it's fun to realize that pretty much no one agrees how to pronounce "Tantive IV"

Our first task was to study those first fleeting glimpses of the Tantive IV from the original "Star Wars". Replicating the engine look of the engines precisely from the first film would not work for our movie. This was a recurring theme for our design challenges we took on for "Rogue One".

I created the Blockade Runner 'engine look' to appear the way you think you remember it from "Star Wars", not the way it actually appeared -- honoring the spirit of the original look and updating it to fit modern sensibilities and the stylistic signature of our new film.

First, I matched the hue of the engine glow from the original film. From there, I wanted to add an organic "jet engine" texture to the inside of each engine, so I rotoscoped and stabilized some footage from a Bell 209 helicopter engine, which had a lot of built-in dynamic energy.

I placed the texture inside the engine geometry of each of the eleven engines so we could get peeks at it when looking down the tunnel, and offset and rotated the helicopter engine footage for each engine (so each engine would have unique energy signature).

Tom developed a flickery cucoloris effect to create the interactive light from the engine cast onto the inside of the chamber--I split that into 11 passes to animate them separately. Then I had to come up with a way for the engines to ignite as if from a cold start.

I knew we never saw a Blockade Runner power up in any of the movies, but I asked Pablo Hidalgo and others to see if there was any precedent set in any of the animated shows. Apparently there was none! So I thought it would look cool if the four corner engines fired up first for stability, then the other seven engines followed up behind. I didn't want the shot to become a big lens flare show, so I only had a few crisp flares peek through (taking my cues from the original trilogy X-wing engine flares).

This engine look became a quick-start setup for the other Blockade Runners you see in the film. Finally for this shot, I added a hopefully-subtle camera rumble as the engines ignited.

We had a lot of fun talking about the rotating dish atop the Tantive IV. Look carefully at it in the original "Star Wars" (1977)--in shot 1, it's not visible. In shot 2, it's rotating counter clockwise. In shot 3 it's rotating clockwise! For "Rogue One", we animated the dish counterclockwise.

Todd Vaziri is a lead artist and compositing supervisor at ILM.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

One Visual Effects Shot from "Pirates 2"

 "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" (2006), visual effects by ILM. Visual effects supervisor John Knoll. Winner of the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.

Rotoscoping by Lauren Morimoto, compositing by Todd Vaziri.

This was a fun shot. The foreground was shot on a docked boat facing the sea, but the entire background was replaced with synthetic water, to match the look of the rest of the sequence. Every single thing on the boat, for this shot, had to be rotoscoped or extracted.

The actor playing Captain Bellamy was photographed with the other two actors saying their lines. He pretended to react to a non-existent tentacle grabbing him with wide eyes and an open mouth, flinging his arms up in the air. Later, without the other two actors a stuntman was rigged with a wire and stood in the same spot, and was flung off the deck of the ship. I had to seamlessly transition from the actor to the stuntman. The morph transition finishes entirely* before he goes behind that middle actor. It was fast but complicated.

I did the morph completely in After Effects using Re:Flex to first shape the stuntman into the actor's position, then carefully revealing different parts of the stuntman at a time. The buttons on his jacket were particularly difficult. I wanted the tentacle to grab Bellamy between his arm and his body; I already isolated and animated his foreground arm (bending it with FE Bend It), so it was straightforward to matte it behind the arm. It gave the shot a little more complexity, and hopefully realism.

I kept the honest movement of the stuntman intact after he becomes airborne (couldn't re-animate him anyway, since he was photographed with all those ropes on screen right) but I thought it would be fun to track Bellamy's face on the stuntman as long as I could which made for a nice little moment when you see his great facial expression as he flies through the air between the two remaining actors. The water effects, droplets and splashes are several photographed splashes tracked in 2D and some generated in AE Particle World.

It's barely noticeable, but there's the face of Alex Norton (Captain Bellamy). If your eye happened to be in the vicinity, you would have seen him, rather than the motion-blurred face of a stuntman who didn't really look like him.

As for the splashes, the CG water folks had their hands full with other, giant shots, and since this was a relatively subtle, non-spectacular shot, I was confident I could do all the effects in 2D. I probably used six or seven photographed splash effects (filmed against black).

Coming up with the right combo of droplets, splashes and mist to create the motion and energy the shot required was fun. When comping filmed elements that have action, the trick is to NOT over-animate them in 2D because you can easily negate the natural energy of the elements.

Original Tweet.

Friday, March 08, 2019

A "Fury Road" Appreciation

We take this movie for granted. What a masterpiece.

Remember how Ebert would sometimes screen a film with an audience and if anyone yelled STOP he'd pause the film and they'd talk about it? It would be a real experience to do something similar with "Mad Max: Fury Road".

In terms of action pieces, the final chase has SO MUCH STORYTELLING IN IT. It's almost criminal how well the choreography, cinematography, stunts and editing all work together.

I'm sure connective moments were "found" in the edit, but a great deal of planning and care was required to create the individual pieces.

These cuts are not random. The edit builds and builds and builds. It's all about momentum. The stakes keep getting higher. And the action is always personal, never clinical or objective. The audience feels the danger.

In any other movie, this many cuts in such a short sequence [including two shots of a hallucination!] would be a crime.

Look at how the sequence is put together. There's no confusion. You know what's happening. This isn't quick cutting solely to simulate energy - it IS energy.

Framing (frequently center framing the action), careful attention to the 180° line, consistent eyelines and cutting precisely when a cut needs to happen allow the audience go along for the ride, rather than bombard them with seemingly random, unrelated shots that don't connect.

I've watched this movie a lot, but I keep learning more about cinema each time I watch it.

All about the film’s cinematography, straight from John Seale and David Burr.

Steven Soderbergh on "Mad Max: Fury Road":

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Thursday, March 07, 2019

Breaking Down a Visual Effects Shot from "Inferno"

"Inferno" (1999), visual effects by Banned from the Ranch Entertainment. Visual effects supervisor Van Ling, compositing/layout/roto by Todd Vaziri.

This movie (aka "Desert Heat") is objectively bad and should not be viewed by humans. The production shot this great footage of the moon rising with a super-long lens, and wanted to add some coyotes (a mom, dad and pup) running along the ridge as the last shot of the film. The production also shot some footage of a coyote running in the desert and wondered if we could somehow use this footage for the shot. It was a really fun little project.

I rotoscoped the coyote (traced its shape) for all of the frames that I had available, to isolate it. In addition, I stabilized the footage (smoothing out the camera operation) to help me lock the coyote in screen space, as if it was running on a treadmill, removing all the little bits of random motion from both the camera and the coyote's velocity changes.

Using my mattes and the stabilized footage, I created a run cycle for the coyote that was infinitely loopable. I threw the coyote over the footage and made position path that matched the ridge with as few keyframes as possible. All of this is in After Effects, btw.

I used the Auto-Orient to Path feature in After Effects, which meant zero rotation keyframes. I duplicated my coyote animation it to create the 2nd, messed with its path a little bit (to break it up) and offset the run cycle so they wouldn't be in perfect sync. For the pup I scaled it down and sped up its run cycle a little bit, to make it seem like its little legs had to work harder to keep up. I messed with its path, too, so that it caught up... then fell behind... then caught up again, giving the pup a little character.

Finally, I didn't want to try color correcting the coyotes to fit in the scene, so I used the coyote shapes and filled it with the landscape from the moonrise photography (moved up in Y), and mixed it with only a tiny percentage of the actual coyote footage.

It was a fun shot to put together, and I did pretty much everything (tracking/stabilization/animation/comp) in After Effects. I probably did the rotoscoping in Commotion.

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