From humble beginnings in the Northern European nation known better for angry bird games or mobile phones, Energia Productions has stormed onto the movie scene and stirred up a groundswell of interest and excitement in anticipation of the Finnish visual effects house’s first full-length feature film, Iron Sky.
Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival in early February 2012, Iron Sky became a social media phenomenon, logging more than five million YouTube views of the Iron Sky trailer and more than 100,000 Facebook and Twitter fans. The movie premiered in North American in March at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
An Original Concept Unfolds
Iron Sky is unique for several reasons, says Kelly "Kat" Myers, CG supervisor and LightWave 3D team leader for Iron Sky visual effects at Energia Productions in Tampere, Finland. Iron Sky’s storyline and the way the film came about are radical departures from the norm. In fact, a portion of the film was funded by fans of Samuli Torssonen, a Finnish film writer, director, actor, producer, and owner of Energia Productions known for his inventive short films.
The premise of Iron Sky? In 2018, an American astronaut is captured by Nazis, who via a secret space program, fled Germany at the end of World War II and relocated to the dark side of the moon. For more than 70 years, the Nazis have been assembling a space armada, finalizing their flagship spacecraft and plotting the invasion, assault and conquest of Earth from their massive, swastika-shaped moon fortress.
Sounds crazy, right? “Can you imagine trying to pitch that in Hollywood? It might have some legs if you were an established producer or director with a few solid shows and a run of movies under your belt. However, for a bunch of guys out of Finland who had done a Star Trek parody in the basement of someone’s house shot on bluescreen and the CG done on less than 10 computers? Come on.... Never would have happened,” says Myers. “Still, the idea is brilliant and because they had done such a fantastic job with their social media initiatives to promote Star Wreck, it was natural for them to carry that fan base over into Iron Sky, which was immediately accepted by their fans and caught on quick.”
Small Team, Big Results
Within hours of joining the production crew, Luke Whitehorn, an experienced third-party LightWave plug-in developer based in the UK, teamed up with Myers to work on the shots for the Cannes Film Festival teaser, which would later be used to help sell the movie into several territories. Using Skype for communication and Dropbox as a remote server for LightWave content, Torssonen was able to check the progress, add assets, tweak content as necessary and send to the renderfarms before the team eventually migrated to Tampere.
The LightWave 3D team working on Iron Sky included just five people at any one time: Myers, Whitehorn, Torssonen, Tuomas Kankola and later, Lee Stringer. “All in all, it was a very small crew considering the scope of the film and how it was shot,” says Myers. “The amount of virtual set work on the film is staggering, and the compositors, many of whom had never done anything like this, did an amazing job.”
On the other side of the shop, a team of 15 to 25 artists worked in Autodesk’s Maya and The Foundry’s Nuke. Torssonen produced the original shots shown in the teasers and trailers leading up to the pre-production phase in LightWave. He enjoys a rich history with LightWave, which he used on Star Wreck and in the pre-production and conceptualization of Iron Sky.
Insert Space Battle
Torssonen’s rule was that anything beyond five meters from the camera—or the actors—in a shot would be virtual set extension elements created later in the computer. "When you step off of those virtual sets and get into space combat, aerial combat and lunar landscapes with things blowing up everywhere, things change drastically in terms of the scope of the work," explains Myers.
In total, the LightWave team worked on more than 140 shots, each averaging between 200 and 500 frames, out of the film’s 800-plus total shots. One shot in particular that Myers's team worked on spanned roughly 6,000 frames and was largely completed by one artist (Lee Stringer).
The very first shot Whitehorn and Myers did together was almost 800 frames, using the new features of LightWave 11 to achieve results that would have been impossible to accomplish in previous versions. “Other teams on the project tried to achieve the same results with other software but failed,” explains Myers. "Time was quickly burning away along with the VFX budget. (Torssonen) made the right decision to bring in a LightWave team to continue on and complete the film.”
The scope of what needed to be accomplished wasn’t always clear. "It got a bit daunting when the script called for an 'epic space battle' on page 70, for instance, and all it said was just 'Insert space battle,’” says Myers with a laugh.
Time was not on their side. "Often when we saw the rough edit for the first time, there would be a black card onscreen for five to 10 seconds describing what is going on, followed by a dozen other shots of varying length that were ours to finish, says Myers. “Meanwhile, half of the other team’s shots were done and in the movie."
Myers continues: "The difference to us was they had a year and a half to get to that point with their shot count and three to four times the amount of people working away on material that was essentially locked by the edit itself. It wasn't really going to change much, if at all. We had three to five artists and four to six months to finish what we needed to do, and up to that point, it hadn't really been locked into the edit because it largely didn't exist at all.”
Before shooting began, some early boards were created based on older drafts of the script, but so much had changed during the shoot and again in the edit, notes Myers, “that we didn't have anything we could use to start piecing animatic sequences together.”
Myers, Torssonen and Stringer worked together to break up the shots among the LightWave team starting with advanced pre-visualization and get the material to the Iron Sky editors. "We had to conceptualize the shots fast. Other departments absolutely had to have near final timings and direction for picture edits and mix-to-picture work that was being done by the sound engineers for the film in parallel. We couldn't stop."
Extreme VFX Spoken Here
“Working with Samuli was great because he could jump in and mock up something in LightWave, helping to translate Timo's vision," says Myers. "Language was a problem initially as they would have to speak Suomi (Finnish) to each other to work out the problems. Our universal language ended up being LightWave itself. Samuli would set up the basics of a shot, and then hand it over to us. In the end, not having boards was a good thing as we were creating our own directly in LightWave, saving time and money." Iron Sky director Timo Vuorensola needed to see near final production renders when working with the editors so they could wrap their heads around the combat sequences in relation to the rest of the movie.
Torssonen and Myers decided to shift more of the work away from Maya and Mental Images’ Mental Ray to LightWave. "It looked better, and the material was produced faster in LightWave,” explains Myers. “And while it would mean more work for us, the show demanded it be done. It became painfully clear that we needed to give the models a facelift, build in additional details, and fix major geometry problems then optimize everything for speed and render quality. Essentially, we put the models on a diet and whipped them into shape so we could use them effectively and efficiently—getting them ready for the big screen.”
Models that the LightWave artists inherited from the less-experienced artists “looked passable from a distance but wouldn't hold up on closer shots,” says Myers. “It was due to a dependence on texture maps that were insanely large (10K), combined with models that were over built or needed more modeling work."
“When [the modelers from the other packages] started to see how we work in LightWave—how we would go about fixing, texturing and lighting the models—they were a bit astonished,” he adds.
Model cleanup was done primarily in LightWave, as were additional texture modifications and enhancements using LightWave's nodal texture system. Adobe’s Photoshop and Eyeon’s Fusion helped to optimize the texture image assets for balance in render and speed—not only inside the render engine for LightWave, but also to reduce the load on the network pulling assets, textures and more into the render nodes,” explains Myers.
“It was critical because the network and server infrastructure we had to work with had limitations. We had to optimize the data going to each node, reducing network load and server strain while the compositors were pulling 2K and 4K plates off NAS units at the same time,” Myers says. The LightWave team helped the compositors balance load and resource sharing by making its footprint on the network as small as possible.
Streamlining the Shots
Each artist on the Iron Sky LightWave team was responsible for setting up and submitting his assigned shots to render. “With other render applications, that’s next to impossible because most artists that use other apps only focus on certain tasks or skill sets,” says Myers. “Because the renderer is built-in and an integrated part of our workflow, LightWave artists can take shots to final without depending on a full-time ‘shader writer’ or rendering manager."
By exploiting a combination of LightWave’s Viewport Preview Renderer (VPR) and full renders directly inside LightWave Layout, Iron Sky’s LightWave team knew exactly what they were getting before sending shots to the renderfarm.
On Iron Sky, the artists made full use of all LightWave utilities, including the software development kit (SDK), with which Whitehorn quickly wrote plug-ins that helped the team stay organized. “The entire package was used throughout the show, and each area of the package gave us what we needed to continue to meet deadlines,” says Myers. “LightWave is all over this movie. Most of the VFX seen in the theatrical trailer are LightWave shots, and we are not talking about little side shots or set extensions. I'm talking about the fact that some of the biggest punch-you-in-the-face shots of the film are in that trailer. There is obviously a lot more in the film, but that’s a good example of what LightWave accomplished in the movie."
“We did the show under some heavy restrictions from a time, budget and scope of the project point of view,” says Myers. “LightWave helped get the show green lit and financed. In the places where it wasn't used, those were the spots that put the film at risk of not delivering. LightWave is the package that got the show finished, and we demonstrated how powerful it was every step of the way.”