Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 9 (September 2002)

eye spy

By Audrey Doyle

The theme of Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams is one that most kids love. The fun-filled family film, which was released in August, highlights the amusing exploits of pint-sized spies Carmen and Juni Cortez as they embark on a zany mission to save the world from genetically altered creatures while battling the forces of rival kid spies.

Despite its adolescent theme, creating the digital effects for this kids' comedy was anything but child's play. "This film has almost 1100 effects shots," says Daniel Leduc, vice president at Hybride Technologies, the Quebec studio responsible for most of the 401 effects shots in Spy Kids, the popular first installment of the Cortez family story, released in March 2001. This time, Hybride was responsible for about 650 shots-almost 43 minutes of animation-with the remainder completed by a handful of US facilities.

Besides an increase in the number of shots requiring digital manipulation in postproduction, Spy Kids 2 also boasts more character animation and more organic effects than the first film, and it was shot in high definition, at times making rotoscoping more difficult. In fact, the only thing that didn't grow with this project was the deadline, as all the facilities had, on average, only a few months in which to complete their work. Yet, they succeeded in creating effects that pack a strong visual punch-one that Robert Rodriguez, who directed both films, believes was integral in making Spy Kids and now Spy Kids 2 a success.

Lions, Tigers, and Sea Monsters
Many of the effects in Spy Kids 2 contain digital characters created by ComputerCafe, Hybride, and Janimation, which crafted a two-headed sea monster. In fact, nearly half the 35 shots generated over four months by Janimation's 15-person team, led by chief creative director and owner Steve Gaconnier, involve the monster, which has goldfish-like heads and an eel-like body. In one sequence, the sea monster terrorizes Carmen and Juni as they're approaching a mysterious island on a float. In another, it emerges from the water and prepares to feast on the rival spy kids, but is repulsed by their odor (they are covered in manure) and falls back into the water, generating a huge wave.

Using an animatic created by freelance animator Chris Olivia as a reference, Janimation modeled, animated, and lit the monster in Softimage|XSI running on Boxx Technologies' Windows 2000-based workstations, with rendering completed in Mental Images' Mental Ray. Greg Punchatz, director of animation, then hand-painted the textures using Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint, and applied them to the model in XSI. Morphing, color correction, and some compositing were done with an Avid|DS HD system, while most of the compositing was done in Apple Computer/Nothing Real's Shake and Discreet's combustion, also running on Boxx systems.
Hybride Technologies developed more than half the effects in Spy Kids 2, including a number of creatures, such as this giant snake-lizard.
All images copyright 2002 Miramax Films. Courtesy Dimension Films.

According to Punchatz, the scene was especially challenging because of the sea monster's size. "There are close-up shots, so its texture resolution had to be enormous," he says. In fact, each layer-such as for color, bump, specular, transparency, and other features-was about 60mb, for a total texture size of 500mb.

Animating the sea monster's neck was especially difficult, and required the use of a spine-creation technique developed by Michael Isner, the character setup and animation lead for Softimage Special Projects. "The technique [available as a character animation script in XSI] lets you intuitively animate things like spines, tails, and necks," says Punchatz. "In most systems, we'd animate the neck using a bones setup, but that would have given us too many bones to animate. This technique gave us a simple, four-point control setup, enabling us to animate the whole neck using just four cubes."
To complete the scenes containing the menacing skeletons, artists at ComputerCafe used radiosity rendering, which calculates bounced lighting. Though traditional CG rendering would've been faster, the group chose this method, which is more accurate an

The sea monster scenes, though actually shot on a lake, had to appear as if they were shot on an ocean. To accomplish this, Janimation used Shake and combustion to rotoscope the kids in every frame. The team also color-corrected the footage to transform the brown-colored lake water into a blue-green ocean, and composited clips of real ocean water where the lake ended, extending the water to the horizon. For shots that contain sweeping camera moves, the artists created CG water using Arete Entertainment's Digital NatureTools.

Feature Creatures
ComputerCafe, like Janimation, also modeled and animated creatures, completing 89 shots for two main sequences of the film. In the first sequence, Carmen and Juni meet Romero, a genetic scientist and his menagerie of miniature creatures, including a tiny lion, tiger, elephant, kangaroo, sheep, cheetah, zebra, monkey, and penguin, as well as a group of hybrid animals, such as a horsefly with a horse's body and a fly's head. Other aptly named hybrids include a catfish, sheepdog, and spidermonkey, while more inventive creatures include a spork (a pig with eagle-like wings), turtleroo (half turtle, half kangaroo), and slizard (half lizard, half snake).

The ComputerCafe group modeled, textured, lit, and rendered the animals using NewTek's LightWave, and animated them using pmG's project:messiah. The team then composited the models into the live-action footage using Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion running on NT-based IBM IntelliStations.
Using inferno, Digiscope composited the 3D elements and live action to generate this scene in the kids' tree house, as they use the CG mechanical bug called R.A.L.P.H., created by Hybride, to spy on their rivals.

The second ComputerCafe sequence features Juni and Carmen as they battle a horde of swashbuckling skeletons atop a large rock on the island. According to digital effects producer Vicki Galloway Weimer, the actors were filmed on location, and an animatic, created by a freelance animator using Alias|Wavefront's Maya, was used to accomplish most of the skeletons' movements. ComputerCafe then finished the animation in Maya, and exported the models and motions into LightWave for texturing, lighting, and rendering. Compositing was done in Adobe Systems' After Effects and Discreet's flame.

According to digital effects supervisor/animator David Ebner, the team of approximately 18 artists completed the work in less than five months. And unlike the skeleton scene, which was straightforward, the zoo segment proved especially difficult because of the number of animals that had to be animated. "There are lots of animals that all move differently as they emerge from tiny cages and walk across a tabletop," Ebner says. "They are close together as they walk. So when Robert [Rodriguez] wanted one animal moved back, that created a ripple effect on the animals behind it."

Other creatures, which were created by Hybride, appear later in the film during the battle sequence, in which Romero's hybrid spidermonkey and slizard have grown tremendously after coming in contact with a potion. Hybride created both of the larger creatures in Softimage|XSI, painted their textures in Deep Paint, and composited the models using Discreet's inferno and flame.

In that scene, Juni, riding on the back of the spidermonkey, battles with a rival spy kid, who is riding on the back of the slizard. According to Leduc, the director wanted the actors to interface convincingly with the CG creatures. This was accomplished by motion-capturing the actors during the actual shoot as they rode on props that were moved by puppeteers. As LocoMotion conducted the mocap session using 15 Vicon cameras, Rodriguez shot footage of the actors, who were in front of greenscreen. Tracking markers were placed on the actors as well as on Rodriguez's camera, the props, and the overall set. "While the actors were filmed, the mocap cameras recorded the positions of all the trackers," Leduc explains. Hybride later used the data inside XSI as a starting point for the CG creature animation.

According to Leduc, it's unusual to conduct a mocap session simultaneously with a live shoot. "Normally, you do motion capture with markers on a performer. You're not shooting the actor, so you're not getting usable film footage. It's motion-capture data that you'll use to drive the animation of a CG character," he explains. "In this case, we didn't use the motion data to animate the creatures. Rather, we used it for positioning, to determine the camera's location on set, how fast the actors were moving, and subsequently where and how the CG creatures should be placed and animated in the scene."
Reel FX provided extra thrills for the actors by replacing some actual amusement park rides (top left) with a digitally created ride (bottom left). The CG Juggler ride was then incorporated into the live-action shots (right), filmed at Six Flags over Texa

Clever Compositing
While some effects shots involved building and animating creatures, nearly three-quarters of the film was shot in front of greenscreen, necessitating compositing and associated techniques. For instance, most of the work by Hybride's 60-person team included set extensions created in XSI and composited in inferno and flame. In addition to constructing interior office and interior submarine extensions, the artists generated CG extensions of underwater scenes, using XSI for the water and Maya for bubbles, particles, and plankton." Hybride also animated numerous models in XSI and Softimage|3D, including submarines, helicopters, and the small robotic spybug named R.A.L.P.H.

Compositing also defined the majority of the work by Reel FX, where a team of 15 artists completed 130 shots in about 16 weeks. All the shots are scattered throughout the amusement park sequence, which appears in the film's first eight minutes. In the segment, the mischievous daughter of the president of the United States tours an amusement park and decides to take a spin on a particularly dizzying ride, but becomes trapped and has to be saved by the junior spies.

According to Dale Carman, chief visioneer at Reel FX, the segment was shot at Six Flags over Texas. "However, the existing rides weren't crazy enough for the film, so we replaced four of them [in Maya] with ones that were more in line with Robert's vision," he says.
For the treasure room, Cinesite reduced the film plate containing the actors to make the area seem more imposing, and extended the miniature set with a digital matte painting. To complete the shot, the artists added CG elements such as the skeletons and s

Before compositing the CG rides into the footage, the team had to remove the rides they would replace. After bringing the footage into inferno, the team used 2d3's boujou to track the movement of the existing rides and extract the camera data. From the tracked data, the team got two camera files. They used the inferno file to remove the existing rides from the scenes by painting them out, frame by frame, and the Maya file to correctly position the CG rides into the tracked scenes. Then the artists composited the CG rides-as well as riders-into the tracked footage, performed color correction, and added blur and grain using inferno.

"For 'The Vomiter' [ride], we put boxes on top of a large turntable, sat people on the boxes, and spun the turntable, taking different greenscreen passes of them," Carman says. "Then we synchronized that to the rotations of the ride and composited everything together." A similar technique was used for the other three rides.

A Treasure Trove of Compositing
At Cinesite, 15 artists had 12 weeks to create effects for about 60 shots, split almost evenly into two scenes. In the Treasure Room sequence, Carmen and Juni enter a cave filled with gold, jewels, and other treasures. According to David Lingenfelser, Cinesite digital effects supervisor, the set was a miniature model into which the actors, shot in front of greenscreen, were composited using Kodak's Cineon. For shots looking in Carmen's direction, Cinesite extended the set with a digital matte painting created in Adobe's Photoshop. For the segment's opening shot, Cinesite used Cineon to shrink the kid elements by about 60 percent to make the treasure room seem more imposing, and livened up the background plate by adding shafts of light and smoke elements.

The other Cinesite sequence occurs in the OSS spy organization garage, an underground submarine hangar, for which the artists created a docking bay, submarines, and some water in Maya running on IBM Linux workstations, then composited the kids into the scene. Cinesite's Bouncer software, written for another project, was used to make the waves in the water interact believably with their surroundings.

Although the treasure room wasn't difficult to composite, the same can't be said of the OSS garage. "I think something was off with the greenscreen lighting," says Lingenfelser. That, combined with the fact that HD footage is compressed in the blue channel, made it difficult to pull mattes around Juni's hair, which is thin and curly. "The noisier the screen got, the more it ate into his hair," he recalls. "It took a lot of time playing with Cineon's Ultimatte plug-in to make this look good."

At Digiscope, a team of 16 artists completed 70 shots in five weeks for two main scenes, one of which takes place in the kids' tree house, where they meet to spy on the OSS headquarters using a secret screen. "It starts as a large window with an ocean view. However, when the kids hit a special button, it turns into a spy screen," says Brad Kuehn, Digiscope digital effects supervisor. "We designed the screen, animated the text and graphics on it, and composited it into the window space using inferno." Digiscope also composited the ocean footage into the window.

All told, the artists who worked on Spy Kids 2 say that despite the pressures of a large workload and tight deadline, the project was a great experience. "We had a lot of fun on this job," concludes Reel FX's Carman. "Robert's vision to make this a great kids' movie shows in all the scenes."

Audrey Doyle is a freelance writer and editor based in the Boston area.

One of the highlights of Spy Kids 2-indeed, of any spy flick-is the variety of inventive and imaginative gadgets and vehicles the spies use to scrutinize their enemies' actions. In this film, most of these props were designed and digitally modeled by Alex Toader and Troy Engel.

Toader, the film's CG designer, created the movie's infamous Spywatch as well as R.A.L.P.H. the robotic spybug. He also designed numerous vehicles, including the one-person Spycopter. Engel, who was the film's 3D modeler/props designer, was responsible for approximately 30 props, most of them spy gadgets.

After designing their respective props, the artists modeled them in 3D: Toader used Alias|Wavefront's Maya, and Engel used Discreet's 3ds max. The files for the small gadgets were imported to a Roland MDX-500, PNC300, or MDX-20 rapid prototyping machine, where they were milled in wax or plastic to create a prototype. From each prototype the designers created a mold, which was used to cast the props in plastic. Each plastic piece was then painted and used on set. The Spycopter and other large vehicles were hand-carved in foam, rather than milled, and then painted.

According to Engel, modeling the props in CG proved beneficial for this project. For instance, when the artists needed to animate or enhance the gadgets or vehicles in postproduction, they could use the designers' actual 3ds max or Maya files instead of manipulating 2D film footage. "If a prop was to explode in CG, for instance, the actor could do the scene holding the actual prop, rather than faking the motion or using a stand-in prop," Engel adds. "Doing it this way made the shots more believable." -AD

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