Virtual Cinematography Shines in Awards Season
March 6, 2018

Virtual Cinematography Shines in Awards Season

Over the last several years, virtual cinematography has been bringing camera and lighting together with impressive new production techniques .  From Mowgli traveling across the monkey jungle ,  to a chase through a destroyed Star Destroyer ,  to a moment of frozen time in Magneto’s prison, recently lauded virtual cinematography around the industry has also consistently delivered some of the industry’s most memorable recent scenes.

This year’s work was no exception, with the Visual Effects Society (VES) recognizing sequences in virtual cinematography that were as creative as they were complex. Here’s a quick revisiting of the season’s award-nominated virtual cinematography moments.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Groot Dance/Opening Fight

VES Award winner for Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Photoreal Project

While it features the smallest character in the film, the Groot Dance/Opening Fight in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – which received this year’s VES Award for Outstanding Virtual Cinematography in a Photoreal Project -- presented some of the movie’s biggest challenges. The Third Floor and Framestore collaborated with director James Gunn and overall production visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend to realize the sequence, which had the two-and-a-half-minute “one’r” shot of Baby Groot dancing amidst a battle scene at its core.

The Third Floor visualized beats, shots, camera choreography and visual gags to meet Gunn’s vision for the action and musical timing. The Third Floor also worked with departments from visual effects, to editing, to stunts, to produce techvis and postvis supporting the extensive bluescreen shoot.

Visual effects and animation were done end to end by Framestore, with artists led by Framestore visual effects supervisor Jonathan Fawkner, working with Townsend and the filmmakers. The visual effects team approached the one’r by creating a seamless series of long visual effects takes, each also featuring multiple digital characters set into custom virtual environments with interactive lighting and simulation effects.

“The sheer fun and creativity of the sequence motivated everyone to bring out their best,” said visualization supervisor James Baker of The Third Floor, who accepted the VES Award for the teams. “While it is a technically complex scene, it literally has so much character!”

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – Crait Surface Battle

The battle on Crait in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, as Resistance forces face down an epic assault from the First Order across a salt-covered expanse, delivered dramatic imagery through virtual cinematography. Industrial Light & Magic, with teams led by ILM Visual Effects Supervisor BenMorris and ILM Visual Effects Producer Tim Keene, collaborated with director Rian Johnson to bring the visual landscape to life, capturing ground plates, aerial footage and HDRI panoramas in a variety of lighting conditions on a Bolivian salt flat, creating and re-projecting environments, building and animating the practical and digital ships and characters and producing final composites, simulations, virtual lighting and visual effects.

The Third Floor worked with Johnson, Morris, ILM and production departments to visualize action and camera, also helping to map setups for stage shoots. The signature red dust ship trails and ground scarring in the scene were previsualized to help represent the cinematic and story impact. During post, The Third Floor created additional previs and produced working composites, adding backgrounds, removing greenscreens and temping in characters to photographed plates.

Thor: Ragnarok – Valkyrie’s Flashback

As Hela (Cate Blanchett) attacks Asgard’s winged-horse warriors (including Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie) in Thor: Ragnarok, high frame rate shooting coupled with a specialized 360-degree lighting system helped give the scene its distinctive look and feel. Working with director Taika Waititi and production visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison, Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) was responsible for the sequence, starting with previs through to final.

The Third Floor collaborated to support on-set virtual production, also providing techvis to help inform the shoot, working with Morrison, RSP and key production crew. Through interaction with multiple departments, The Third Floor’s Casey Schatz helped position the large suspended circular lighting rig in the optimal spot to capture the on-set performances against bluescreen. Working from RSP’s previs, The Third Floor mapped positions for cameras, actors and horses, calculated lighting exposures and sent camera data to drive the KIRA high-speed robot onto which the Phantom was mounted.

Images of the winged horses were based on multiple passes of real horses charging past camera. With the lighting system from Satellite Lab being used to rapid-fire a series of flashes on a suspended circular truss, part of the techvis focused on determining which flash along the circle had to fire first. The net result was the ability to have many different perspective views of the horses relative to the camera with all of them appearing be lit from the same revolving sun source, with photographic and digital visual effects/animation elements seamlessly blending.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – Be Our Guest

For Be Our Guest, teams from The Third Floor and Framestore worked with director Bill Condon and departments across the film to bring Broadway choreography, theatrical lighting, practical sets, digital effects and a cast of CG characters into a precision-timed musical number. The Third Floor produced previs with the director and choreographer, running proof-of-concepts in techvis to ensure shots would work as visualized. The virtual data was then sent directly to a Technodolly to exactly replicate the camera moves on the practical set.  

Visual effects and final animation, led by visual effects supervisors Kyle McCulloch and Glen Pratt, were realized end to end at Framestore.  Collaborating with the filmmakers and production, Framestore artists brought Be Our Guest to life through character animation, plate shoots, compositing, digital lighting and photoreal CG.

“Even though the scene features digital characters, shots were filmed practically wherever possible using virtual cinematography to sync up the camera choreography, character choreography and theatrical lighting, and time these all with the song,” said Shannon Justison, visualization supervisor at The Third Floor. “More than 80 unique setups in the kitchen and dining room were filmed in six days by using virtual camera motion with the on-set camera rig. It was an incredible collaboration, both creatively and technically, all the way from previs and visual effects to dance choreography and on-set lighting design.”