Karen Moltenbrey
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 1 (Jan 2003)


Bond is back. From Asia to London to Cuba, the debonair spy James Bond, aka Agent 007, returns to the big screen in an action-packed adventure as he hunts down another megalomaniac while attempting to prevent a cataclysmic war in Die Another Day. In typical Bond fashion, the film features fast cars, beautiful women, incredible scenery, high-tech gadgetry, hair-raising chases, and an abundance of special effects. This time, though, a substantial number of the effects are computer-generated rather than practical. In fact, Die Another Day features more digital effects shots than any other Bond film to date. Cinesite, a London-based studio, was responsible for the majority of those sequences.

In all, Cinesite completed approximately 480 digital effects shots, the most complicated of which appear in a chase sequence on an ice field in Iceland. In the scene, Bond speeds across a glacier in a dragster, eluding villains shooting at him with a laser. As he approaches the edge of the glacier, he releases a parachute and grappling hook to slow him down before toppling over the ice cliff. As the super spy is dangling precariously in the air, the bad guys continue to fire at him, causing the wall of ice and Bond to collapse into the water. This, in turn, sets off an 80-foot-high wave that bears down on Bond as he bobs offshore. He emerges from the wave, then dodges icebergs while maneuvering to safety at the opposite end of the bay.

The biggest challenge for the Cinesite team was re-creating the scale and natural phenomena of the sequence, which involved a massive expanse of CG water, foam, ripples, and spray within a 1-square-kilometer virtual environment; 250-foot-high computer-generated cliffs; and approximately 200 digital icebergs. Initially, the group spent three days filming water elements, but in the end, only about 20 percent of those were used. The remaining water environment was generated from a program developed in-house by Jerry Tessendorf at Cinesite's Los Angeles location. Alias|Wavefront's Maya, Pixar Animation Studios' RenderMan, and Side Effects Software's Houdini were also used to generate particles for some of the water spray.

Cinesite's water-generation tool, which is based on the studio's procedural water-simulation program, was adapted for the specific needs of the icebergs sequence. Originally, the software was used to generate smaller segments of water, but for this film, the group needed to show the entire bay, says Dottie Starling, sequence supervisor. Therefore, programmers Peter Yesley and Andy Whittock had to revise some of the processes in order to handle the large data set by creating displacement maps within the shader to make the small and medium-size waves. In particular, R&D was required to develop deformations for the larger waves, and shaders to handle ripples and smaller wave movements, as well as textures for the various elements (such as surface, foam, and splash).

The impressive ice cliff and numerous icebergs, on the other hand, were modeled in Maya, and textured with Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint. Rendering was done with a beta version of RenderMan Version 11, enabling the artists to achieve authentic raytracing and refractions. "Ice is tricky. It has this nice white color, and on the back side, or shadow side, it has a bluish appearance," says Starling. "So we had to write a few Maya plug-ins to do per-point vertex thickness calculations to establish how light would transmit through the ice, depending on which side you were looking at." The Cinesite group wrote additional plug-ins to situate the icebergs in the water so they were weighted correctly and would therefore bob and move as the director requested.

Next, the artists composited images of James Bond into some of the water shots. In most instances, the group used a digital double of Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, rather than inserting bluescreen footage of a stuntman. "When we got the [water tank] tests back, the stuntman didn't have the proper lateral movement, and his body weight didn't look right [in the water]," notes Starling. "So production decided to go with a digital double for the medium and long shots, and composited footage of Brosnan [using Eastman Kodak's Cineon and Apple's Shake] for the close shots."

The team then used 2d3's boujou and RealViz's MatchMover for matching the live-action shots of Brosnan with the CG environments. One shot in particular proved especially complex. In that segment, the camera focuses on Brosnan's face as a huge wave creeps up behind him, then the camera turns 180 degrees, so at the end of the shot, the camera is behind the actor. "When they shot the bluescreen of Pierce, they turned the camera 90 degrees, and then he turned 90 degrees, making the shot difficult to track," says Starling. "We had to get in close enough [with the camera] to where it didn't look like Pierce was moving." The group accomplished this by using a 3D track, then transferring the shot to the 2D department, where the team stabilized it, and then handed it back to the 3D group for another track to smooth out the motion.

This sequence and other action-packed scenes have helped make Die Another Day hot at the box office, proving that technology and Bond are still a winning formula. ..

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.

Images courtesy Cinesite.

Eastman Kodak
Pixar Animation Studios
Right Hemisphere
Side Effects Software