The gods can be a fickle bunch, too secure in their authority and position. And the humans they reign over can be an unappreciable lot, always looking for more power. But, oh, when these two groups face off, it is a war for the ages.
The latest epic battle between the gods and mortals plays out in the stylized action/adventure film Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall). In the movie, the ruthless power-hungry King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) and his murderous Heraklion army razes one ancient Greek city after another in search of a legendary bow that could destroy the gods of Olympus—and mankind in the process. The only person who can stop the king’s madness and keep the delicate balance of power between the gods and the mortals in check lies on the shoulders of a stonemason named Theseus (Henry Cavill).
Bent on avenging his mother’s death after she is killed during one of the king’s bloody raids, Theseus is empowered by the Oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto), whose visions foretell a far more important role for the stonemason. With the Oracle’s help, Theseus embraces his destiny as he and a small band of loyal followers fight to save civilization.
Rather than setting the story in an actual historical epic, Singh and his designers created an original world for Immortals. “It’s not the Minoan Age or the Bronze Age,” says Charley Parlapanides, who, along with his brother Vlas, penned the script. “This is the Tarsem Age. It uses the Olympian gods and the Titans, but it has a unique point of view. It’s not a world you will necessarily recognize. For the most part, it is straight out of Tarsem’s mind. He’s made something new and breathtaking, and yet dark and brutal at the same time.”
Immortals is loaded with visual effects, action, and adventure. To make the creation of Singh’s imaginary world easier technically and logistically, the producers housed the production offices, special effects, art department, and visual effects all under one roof at Cité du Cinéma Studios in Montreal. Singh worked with his longtime colleagues: director of photography Brendan Galvin and production designer Tom Foden. Jack Geist, VFX producer, and Raymond Gieringer, VFX supervising producer, were added to the team to oversee Immortals’ visual effects.
“Just taking the environments into account, we had a large-scale effects show,” says Gieringer. “Then within the environments we had a lot of effects: enormous battle scenes, mountains collapsing, gods and Titans battling. There are over 100 shots that involve special effects.”
A number of visual effects companies helped tell this epic tale, including: Image Engine, Prime Focus Film VFX, Tippett Studio, Scanline VFX, Proof In, ReThink VFX, BarXseven, Rodeo FX, The Third Flood, and NeoReel, and others.
ON A CLIFF
One of the largest digital environments in the film is the vast cliff-face environment. Initially shot on greenscreen in Montreal, this location was then expanded digitally by Image Engine and linked three of the feature’s major stage sets: the village, tree bluff, and checkpoint. More than 20 shots occurred here, encompassing both the main angle and a reverse. A handful of shots were in the checkpoint looking down the cliff face toward the village, with the tree bluff beneath, then the reverse angle. In addition, there were shots within the village looking back at either the tree bluff or up at the checkpoint and out to sea. For the tree bluff, there are shots looking across the cliff face at the village or out to sea. Collectively, this was one extensive environment built as three stages with multiple views from within.
“The cliff was a design challenge, as it was such a vast structure,” says Simon Hughes, visual effects supervisor at Image Engine. “The cliff towered several hundred meters above sea level, which meant a huge area of rock-face to create. The cliffs had to avoid being just a mass of similar-looking rock textures, and it had to include lots of detail.” Hughes doesn’t think twice when asked which part of the project posed the most difficulty: “Easily the environment, from the initial planning, through management, to the techniques that challenged all the departments involved,” he adds.
Using a Mo-Sys system on set, the production team conducted a basic build of the cliff, which provided Image Engine with a concept of the overall layout. The production crew also conducted Lidar scans of the sets, which Image Engine then simplified so they could be used to form a base structure, to which the artists added the three environments (village, tree bluff, checkpoint), building the environment out from there.
As Hughes explains, the expansive virtual set had to be both simple and complex at the same time—complex enough in scope to hold up in camera, and simple enough so that artists could make changes when necessary during production. The sets and cliff initially were built using Autodesk’s Maya, with CG artist Gus Yamin meticulously sculpting the rock detail within Pixologic’s ZBrush. The group also incorporated matte paintings in Adobe’s Photoshop, with a touch of Maxon’s Cinema 4D. The matte paintings were derived from images of the Aran Islands. While a large portion of the imagery comprised a photography-based matte painting, the style and lighting used made it more stylistic.
According to Hughes, it was imperative that the team be smart about how it handled the build of the cliff, to plan what could be handled in the final composites. At the start, the group initiated a thorough build, but not all the shots had been planned out at that point. Later, the artists integrated the projected matte paintings, which provided the rock detail for the medium and wide-angle shots. To bring the environments to life, the artists added waves crashing on rocks, distant whitecaps, tidal bands, and so forth. “This contributed to a believable ocean element, along with additional elements, such as lens flares and distant coastal islands, which helped complete the scene.”
The village extension, which expanded a three-story practical set to 25 stories, posed a large creative challenge. “We had to find a way to demonstrate depth and scale, and for people to be able to travel between the levels,” notes Hughes. “We also wanted to create a sense of life and organic growth that you see in medieval towns and cities throughout history, where structures grow around and spread around one another over time. The trick was scale, how to make these things appear vast.”
The responsibility for constructing the village extension fell to Jacob Miller, who used 3D assets. After starting with the digital scans of the set, he built atop them, incorporating basic geometry; Miller also projected set photography and the relevant sections onto the base structure within Maya and Maxon’s BodyPaint. For this latter task, the artists used a “gak pack” to fill out the structure—a collection of generic pieces from the set dressing (such as lights, rails, door frames, curtains, and so on) derived from the practical set. Ultimately, though, the 25 CG stories seemed to get lost in all the detail work. As a result, the group built just several stories of detailed CG, then augmented the remaining levels with matte paintings.
The cliff models, in fact, are quite large. This particular section of the cliff spans approximately a third of a mile, allowing for extreme close-ups of the environment to sweeping cameras that show vast areas. For one hero shot, the group panned all the way up to Mount Olympus, revealing a view of the cliff that was much farther into the distance and included mountain ranges in the background.
According to Hughes, it was up to the compositing team—mainly Jordan Benwick, Janeen Elliott, and Virginie Goulet—to bring all the imagery together. This was done using The Foundry’s Nuke; tracking was accomplished throughout the project using 2d3’s Boujou and The Pixel Farm’s PFTrack.
“We pushed the projection abilities far and had to find ways to deform and improve on the geometry to accommodate the matte paintings and have them fit in with the CG,” Hughes says. “It was almost a full modeling job, but not quite.”
Using arbitrary output variables (AOVs) from the renders of the cliff and oceans, the artists were able to create reflections from the matte paintings, skies projected onto domes in Nuke, and create visual interest in the ocean, manipulating ripples to create the kind of tidal variations seen in vast areas of the ocean. The renders and AOVs were made with DNA Research’s 3Delight, which is set up in Image Engine’s pipeline to supply nearly 40 AOVs. “The amount of control this can offer a compositor is fairly staggering,” says Hughes.
There was also a large physical component that supported the effects. About 20 sets were built, each containing a different virtual world, some with 360-degree views. Gieringer says the departments worked hand in hand to make sure things ran smoothly. “Their world is practical, and they’re going to build these sets. We needed to take those sets and build the environments around them. Tom Foden and art director Michael Manson worked with us to make the process seamless,” he says.
No strangers to building realistic CG backdrops, the Image Engine team found the work for Immortals to be the largest environment they had ever constructed. “Even though we had developed many techniques from previous environment work, it was a challenge to fulfill Tarsem’s creative vision.” As Hughes notes, he had completed similar work on other projects before arriving at Image Engine, but the work had been very specific to each film. “It’s not just a simple case of create terrain and then populate it,” he says. “It involves a lot of creative interpretation. At the end of the day, the environments can take up the majority of the frame, so they drive the scenes within the film—they are the scenes. That’s not something to be underestimated.”
While the entire project was fraught with challenges, one persistent issue was achieving Singh’s unique visual style within a photoreal digital environment. “We were tasked with developing a rich and painterly approach for the visual effects, which had to be integrated as seamlessly as possible,” explains Hughes. “We knew from the start that this was a very artistic endeavor that needed to be of a very high standard.”
In addition to the environment, Image Engine created interiors for the monastery, extended several corridor shots, and added soldiers to give the appearance of a massive battle, designed the concept of the magic arrow, integrated gore in a number of shots (from simpler blood spatters to severing limbs), built various CG weapons, and created a handful of CG hawks and birds. The artists also created shots of Athena, requiring them to project set photography onto BodyPaint to create the appearance that Athena was blended into the set, with the projections changing depending on the viewing angle. For the final reveal, she pulls a magic cloak (initially invisible) from the ground, and then is revealed with a spray of gold dust. These shots culminate with a painted projection of the set dissolving into her flesh, revealing Athena in her human form.
Geist and Gieringer became involved early in the development process to help Singh conceptualize his film. The director was very precise about what he wanted, according to Gieringer. “Tarsem is specific in terms of his framing, and his composition is amazing, unlike that of any director I’ve ever seen before. We made a very beautiful, somewhat stylized film, with plenty of bang for the buck in terms of the virtual.”
Immortals utilized several cutting-edge systems to achieve its unparalleled visual style. During preproduction, the filmmakers implemented an InterSense-based system for virtual filmmaking, allowing Tarsem to see exactly what would be greenscreen and what would be set,” says Jeff Waxman, who served as both line producer and executive producer. “We were then able to build our sets to exactly the size needed. We designed everything months in advance. We had matte painters design all the environments on computers. Across the hall, the art department was designing the physical sets that would fit into those environments. Having it all under one roof, Tarsem could bounce between them and make changes on the spot.”
Because the technology is developing so fast, Kavanaugh says they were able to go one step beyond what was possible for James Cameron when he was making Avatar. “Tarsem could sit in front of a computer before he shot the scene, with it all mapped to scale,” says the producer. “He could actually see the shot before he shot it and make decisions about how to shoot and what lenses to use. It also allowed him to create the perfect 3D reality and understand which parts of what scene were going to be popping out.”
During filming, the director used another high-tech system that gave him even more control of the shoot. “Mo-Sys Chameleon is one of several systems that enable you to pre-visualize, so you can see beforehand what it will look like within the CG extension or a CG world,” explains Galvin. “Tarsem could see a person’s head come over a mountain that doesn’t exist. We used it in the monastery shoot, looking down from the monastery onto the encampment with the Heraklions, so you can see where all the stuff that’s not actually there will be.”
Singh says the system, along with his attention to detail in preproduction, allowed him to create shots that are perfectly composed. “I was able to construct a tableau,” he explains. “If some films are like comic strips, this is a painting strip. The system sees past the greenscreen, so I could control the composition.”
THE THIRD DIMENSION
Bursting with Olympian deities, sweeping battles, and breathtaking vistas, Immortals demanded a larger-than-life production style. From its inception, the film’s creators knew that to bring the dynamic story fully to life, it would have to be a 3D movie—and not just an ordinary 3D movie. “Tarsem has a rare kind of vision,” says Tucker Tooley of Relativity Media. “He looks at the world through a different lens and brings something to the story you would never anticipate. To realize that unique point of view, we designed the movie in 3D from the beginning. We tailored everything about the film to maximize the stereo effects.”
However, shooting the film using conventional 2D cameras and creating the 3D effects in postproduction gave the director more control of the depth and dynamic range than would have been possible shooting in 3D. “Every element had to be considered,” says Tooley. “Before we shot a single frame, we designed our foreground and background elements in a way that optimized the dimensionalization process.”
Singh worked with senior stereographer David Stump of 3DCG to develop a detailed depth budget and depth script that helped ensure that the look of the picture conformed to the director’s vision. “You can see the difference immediately,” says the director. “We took the time and, most importantly, put in the planning to do it properly.”
The movie’s groundbreaking look was executed by Prime Focus, the 3D effects house that had previously dimensionalized such blockbusters as Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Recent advances in technology, including Prime Focus’ proprietary View-D software, allowed Singh the flexibility to create visuals unlike any that have been seen before.
With 4,000 artists and technicians spread across three continents, Prime Focus dedicated significant resources to realizing Singh’s ambitious vision.
“Tarsem’s input was the basis for everything we did,” Stump says. “He asked us to give the characters a sense of volume and form. The key word was sculpture. We wanted the characters to look like they were really right there in front of you as opposed to on a screen.”
For Singh, the technology proved an organic extension of the unique visual style he has developed over an award-winning career as a commercial and feature-film director. “The story could have been told in many different ways,” he says. “But my aesthetic really lends itself to 3D. My shots tend toward tableaux, and I normally shoot longer masters, both of which are effective in 3D. I don’t do a lot of fast cutting or extreme close-ups, which don’t work well in this format. So in the end, I didn’t have to adapt my vision for 3D; it was a perfect fit.”
The dimensionalization process can be slow and arduous, Stump acknowledges, but it brings big payoffs in the final product. “It took months and months of work. But creating stereoscopic 3D content in postproduction gave us more control. We could place anything anywhere we wanted. In fact, we not only could, we had to, because nothing lands in the right place accidentally.”
As Singh anticipated, 3D ultimately suited his inspired visuals perfectly. “It was a quite a benchmark we had to reach,” says Merzin Tavaria, co-founder and chief creative director of Prime Focus. “The detailing of the sequences, particularly the Titan sequences, was an exciting challenge.
The finished film has depth and volume never before seen on screen, according to Ken Halsband, executive in charge of production for Relativity Media. “What’s new and unique about this particular picture is that we succeeded in creating an artistic looking 3D movie,” says Halsband. “Everything from sets to costumes was designed for the ultimate 3D experience. We used the technology better this time, more painstakingly and artistically than it has been used before.”
Luminous and encompassing, Immortals raises the bar for stereoscopic effects in film. “Tarsem has created an entirely new world,” says Tooley. “With an environment that the audience hasn't seen, the more you integrate them into the experience, the better it is. The 3D technology gave us an amazing opportunity to do that.”
Singh’s immortal heroes, the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, are a world apart from their human counterparts in beauty, strength, and speed. The director envisioned them as idealized, larger-than-life creatures. “In the end, the gods have very little wardrobe,” says Singh. “They had to be fit. That had to be a factor in casting.”
Some of their seemingly superhuman abilities are the result of Singh’s innovative use of the camera. “I wanted to take them to another level,” says Singh. “So during the battle scenes, the gods move much faster than the humans, which adds to the action. All our fights are quite different. Those that pit humans against humans take place in real time. And when gods go up against gods, they match each other’s superior speed, so the difference between their speed and the humans’ is imperceptible and it still appears to be real time. But when gods go up against humans, humans are revealed to be like putty. They’re frozen.”
And at times, all three types of battle are taking place simultaneously. “There are a couple of sections where all the fighting sequences are differently done,” Singh says. “I think it’s pretty magical.”
Making the director’s brainstorm into reality took patience and persistence. “We shot the whole thing from the gods’ perspective,” he says. “Then we then shot the whole thing again from the human point of view. We shot something like four days of plates to make it right for each perspective. The humans practically freeze, while the gods are like lightning. It’s not a fair fight.”
Galvin explains that the magic was created by changing the camera speed. “Five hundred frames is starting to really slow things down and if you up that to a thousand, sometimes even the simple movements people make can look static,” says Galvin. “It’s an unreal speed, you’re entering a different dimension in your head when you’re going into those speeds because you see things. Most people are familiar with high speed from sports events. When you slow things down, it’s quite different.”
Canton finds the “god speed” effect an excellent example of the way the special effects have been woven throughout the film to become part of the story and storytelling. “Seeing the gods moving at hyperspeed and the humans moving in slow motion is more than just an effect,” he says. “No one’s ever attempted to manipulate time for two different characters in the same movie.”