August 27, 2007

Zoic Holds Its Own in Epic Battle

Vancouver, B.C. - Zoic Studios BC has proven to be a facility that doesn’t always take the road, or path, less proven. And for this, the studio has received a number of industry accolades, including Emmy, VES, and CLIO awards, for its work on such inventive television series as Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Firefly, and unique commercials, including HP’s “Picture Book.” For the second time, Zoic has taken its expertise and vision to the big screen, completing more than 300 VFX shots for the film Pathfinder.

Pathfinder is the story of one man’s struggle to repel the Viking invasion that threatens his adopted people. Set in approximately 600 AD, it is also the story of a man torn between the Viking world he was born to and the peaceful indigenous villagers who raised him after he was left behind by his clan when their ship wrecked on the Eastern shores. Despite his lineage, the boy is raised by the very Indians his kinsmen set out to destroy. Now, as the Vikings return to stage another barbaric raid on his village, the 25-year-old Norse warrior wages a personal war to stop the Vikings' trail of death and destruction. The film is directed by Marcus Nispel for 20th Century Fox and Phoenix Pictures.
"Zoic was asked to do what I consider the toughest of any special effects assignment--to not draw attention to their work in order to transport viewers to another time," says Nispel. "I have collaborated with the Zoic team many times and, as such, we have a shorthand that is invaluable in any production, and was a huge asset to the scope of Pathfinder."

The types of effects Zoic and VFX supervisor Randy Goux handled varied greatly in complexity, from simple rig removal to a harrowing cliff traverse and avalanche that happens 1500 feet above a valley floor. Pathfinder was shot in and around Vancouver, British Columbia, with locations ranging in diversity from the top of Mount Seymour to the Belcarra rock quarry. The entire feature, with the exception of two scenes, was shot outdoors in very difficult terrain and less-than-ideal weather conditions, leading to numerous situations that challenged both Goux and the production team.

One of Zoic’s relatively simpler tasks was to add arrows to the epic battle sequences. Due to obvious safety issues, no real arrows could be used on the set. In some cases, prop arrows were used, but even these could cause injury, so in most cases the artists added CG arrows, created with Maya, into required scenes. In fact, Goux spent time with the cast before shooting began to rehearse exactly how to grab, hold, and release the non-existent arrows so their actions would appear as realistic as possible.
Pathfinder is a movie set in violent times, with many violent conflicts, so Zoic Studios BC added blood into many scenes and sequences. This was accomplished with a combination of CG and practical blood elements. In most cases, the team relied on practical blood elements specifically shot for this purpose. These blood elements were used for everything from sword slices to decapitations. In particular, the artists relied on CG blood, created with Next Limit Technologies’ RealFlow fluid and dynamics simulation software, when they needed a very specific direction, tracking, or pattern to the blood, as in the case of blood running out of the mouth and down the chin of a Village girl.

In addition, Zoic added fire to selected scenes, most notably, one in which a Villager is roasted alive by the Vikings. To create this effect, Zoic used practical fire elements tracked in 3D using 2d3’s Boujou and enhanced with CG embers and smoke (done in Maya), including the smoldering of the unfortunate victim’s hair.

To give a sense of scope and depth to the film, Zoic created matte paintings to establish wide shots of each of the different tribal villages. These matte paintings were comprised of many different elements—a combination of both 2D and 3D crafted in Maya and Adobe’s Photoshop--including miniature Wetu (hut) elements, CG Wetus, CG birds, practical ski plates, smoke elements, CG campfires, as well as various plate photographs lensed by Goux, including trees, lakes, mountain-scapes, and snow elements. In some cases, the artists created both daytime and nighttime versions of the Villages to allow for greater flexibility to the storytelling process. According to Nispel, creating these matte paintings required an expansive color-space range in order for the bright daytime shots to translate into night, and vice versa.

The more complex VFX scenes in the movie include a traverse across a frozen lake, which gives way under the weight of those trying to make the perilous crossing. The visual effects for this scene required a matte painting establishing the frozen lake, complete with a CG cast and CG horses, as well as shots of the ice breaking and the hero Vikings, and horses falling into the water. We see the surface ice cracking and breaking from both above and below the surface of the water, all achieved with Maya’s particle dynamics and Zoic Vancouver’s proprietary volumetric rendering solution.

The most complex sequence Zoic completed was a lengthy traverse and battle that concludes with an avalanche, all of which takes place during a blizzard on a cliff-side trail perched precariously above a river valley 1500 feet below. The scene was shot at a quarry outside of Vancouver with a granite wall approximately 30 feet high. Zoic extended this cliff face both above and below the rocky trail, as well as added the river valley and mountain vistas to complete the illusion of a very dangerous mountain pass crossing, ultimately leading to the deaths of those falling from the cliff, and to an avalanche that courses down the mountainside.
There are many elements included in the final realization of this sequence, most notably CG cliff extensions, river valley and mountain vista matte paintings, CG falling bodies, CG blizzard snowfall, and CG avalanche snow. For the characters who had the misfortune of slipping from the cliff to their death, the artists used filmed plates of stuntpersons executing high falls and transitioned their performances to CG digital doubles, to increase the height and length of the fall. The Viking digital doubles were created in Maya, and artists added dynamic hair and fur costumes underneath the metal armor. 
For all down-angle shots looking into the virtual valley far below, it was impossible, due to the size and geography of the set and also the sweeping camera angles and movements, to have a bluescreen stretched below. Therefore, many hours of roto work was needed to isolate the practical cliff and talent from the existing unwanted set. The avalanche itself is a combination of avalanche stock-footage shots and CG-generated avalanche elements incorporated into practical plates. The force of the avalanche is felt by the CG elements overtaking and enveloping its victims, relying heavily on Zoic Vancouver's custom volumetrics shaders and renderer. Each avalanche shot had many individual CG elements, including large and small ice chunks, small debris, blowing snow, and smoke.
In the end, Zoic completed more than three times the number of VFX shots it had anticipated before postproduction began. Similar to the struggle by the film’s hero, the Zoic artists overcame the hardships that surfaced during their journey and emerged the better for it. –Karen Moltenbrey