November 16, 2006

Digital Domain Employs Nuke To Recreate Iwo Jima for Two Eastwood Films

Venice, Calif. - D2 Software Inc.'s Nuke compositing software was used by Digital Domain on Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers, currently in theaters, and the director’s parallel film, Letters from Iwo Jima, which tells the story of the same battle from the Japanese perspective and is scheduled for release February 9, 2007.
Digital Domain compositors relied heavily on Nuke's 3D environment capabilities and extensible architecture to create photo-realistic landscapes, battle elements, and soldiers for nearly 760 VFX shots spanning both films.  
Flags and Letters were shot concurrently, Flags primarily in Iceland because its black-sand beaches are similar to those of Iwo Jima. But that’s where the visual similarity stopped.
Digital Domain compositing supervisor Darren Poe notes, “We essentially re-created the whole island in Nuke using projection mapping onto 3D objects. Everything outside of where the actors stood is CG -- the island, water, skies, and most of the boats, tanks, and soldiers. It was a major rotoscoping challenge.” 
In addition to the massive roto work, for Letters, which was shot largely in California, Digital Domain’s compositing work also included turning all of the white sand beaches to black. All compositing and roto was done in Nuke , and Digital Domain’s engineers wrote a critical custom tool to apply motion blur based on predictions of the movement inherent in each plate.
“The advantage of doing the roto in Nuke was that we could use the 3D system along with our camera tracking information to put all of the roto shapes in the correct space," says Poe. "This allowed the splines to follow the movement of the camera and helped speed up the process.”  
Poe noted that a key scene of the soldiers ascending Mount Suribachi to plant the flag was particularly challenging. “It was shot on a mountain in Iceland. There were no bluescreens. We had to roto out all of the soldiers and completely replace the environment. There were hundreds of mattes. The beauty of Nuke is that we could tweak every one of them in context.” 
Nuke’s extensible architecture made it possible for engineers to write the tool in TCL. NUKE’s support of Open EXR coupled with its 3D system also optimized workflow for Flags and Letters. By standardizing naming conventions and building gizmos, the compositing team was able to render a water shot, for example, which had 50 layers of surf, lighting, underwater caustics, whitecaps, etc., all incorporated into an EXR file, and bring up just waves or highlights to adjust them individually in context. 
Poe, who specializes in photo-realistic VFX, notes, “The main difference between CG for a film like I Robot and something like Flags is that we’re doing a huge amount of work with the goal of having no one know we were there. The crew shot in Iceland, had a couple of tanks and boats, and a small group of soldiers. In the final shot there are 500 tanks, thousands of soldiers and boats and the Iwo Jima landscape -- all blended into the scene photo-realistically to achieve what you see in the actual newsreel footage of that battle. That was our goal and Nuke was the reason we were able to achieve it.”