January 4, 2008

CafeFX Reveals Horror Lurking in The Mist

Santa Maria, Calif. - Feature film visual effects facility CafeFX completed extensive character animation for Dimension Films’ The Mist, an adaptation of the legendary Stephen King science-fiction novella in which horrific creatures emerge in a small town in Maine after a massive thunderstorm.
A strange, otherworldly mist descends on the town, unleashing monstrous beings and trapping a number of its residents in a grocery store.  Reason vanishes in the midst of fear and panic and the thin veneer of civility is stripped away, as we are left to consider which is more terrifying: the monsters in the mist—or the humans struggling to survive inside the store.  

The film’s director, Frank Darabont, brought the project to CafeFX after seeing the company’s past animation work, particularly on Pan’s Labyrinth. In a departure from the elegant style of his previous films, Darabont wanted a documentary-like, cinema verite treatment for The Mist. The hand-held look of the film was built into the storyboarding and pre-vis process, but with an eye to creating the least restrictive environment during the shoot.  
CafeFX visual effects supervisor Everett Burrell was at Darabont’s side throughout the six week shoot in Shreveport, Louisiana, as was KNB creature designer and 2nd unit director Greg Nicotero, ensuring that continuity for the visual effects was in place before the cameras rolled. Darabont allowed time for visual effects set-ups on the set, which in turn granted him the flexibility and coverage for the camera moves and angles demanded by the frenetic action scenes. Reviewing the footage on a large video monitor, Darabont would often act out the behavior of the creatures, using the KNB puppet models, for the benefit of CafeFX’s animation team.  

The CG monsters include winged insects, a pterodactyl-like bird, an enormous fanged tentacle, giant spiders that shoot acidic webs, and “Big Foot,” a massive six-legged entity covered in thousands of smaller creatures and tentacles, so towering that it has its own ecosystem and atmospheric conditions.  
It would be up to CafeFX Animation Supervisor James Straus and his team to bring these creatures to skin-crawling life. The Stephen King novella is a longtime personal favorite of Straus, who was floored at the opportunity to work on the film. For him the challenge would be to establish the creatures’ motivation and how they would behave when, after crossing an inter-dimensional threshold, they meet humans for the first time. The encounters begin as investigations, but quickly build to a terrifying climax, the horror revealing much about human relationships in the time of crisis. The monsters become a supporting element for that human drama.   Straus’ first task was to create virtual sets in order to have a well-defined space in which the action and drama could unfold. The environment was created to scale with virtual cameras and the shots blocked out before the characters were even built.  
CafeFX CG Lead Votch Levi recreated the environment through photogrammetry, using photographs taken on the set and an HDRI solution to capture the real life lighting conditions, so that the creatures would exist realistically in that world. Several 360-degree photos were also taken of each cast member for the reflections that would fall on the CG creatures they were interacting with.  
The animation team could then begin rigging and animating early in the process, blending the artistry of both KNB and CafeFX and converting the practical models into computer simulations. In his research of animal and insect behavior, Straus stalked a spider in his own home, filming it and using its movement for base cycles. His objective was to ground the monsters’ behavior in what is familiar and real in the natural world and move into fantasy for the ultimate performance.  
The tentacle attack at the loading dock causes the first rift among the humans, since many of them not only refuse to believe that it took place, but also question the others’ motives. Even a hacked off section of the tentacle, which pulsed with blood covered fangs and suckers as it dragged a young man away, fails to persuade them that they are now under siege in an altered world.   Straus felt that a motivation was needed for the predatory birds to attack the humans in the store. Since the birds were preying on the insects drawn to the light within, Straus suggested that the birds would naturally continue their hunt when the insects flew into the market after the glass storefront shatters. Once inside, the birds would naturally consider the humans another food source, a pursuit that leads to a fiery counterattack, a complex interaction of actors and CG characters with practical flames.   A small scouting party leaves the grocery store for a nearby pharmacy to secure much needed medical supplies. There they find a dying man who has been spun into a spider web. To their horror, hordes of tiny spiders spill from pulsating blisters on his skin, the offspring of three-foot long spiders with hideous death’s head faces, fangs and claws, and worse, the ability to shoot acidic webs capable of amputating a man’s leg.  
The inclusion of the Big Foot character was something that Straus lobbied hard for, knowing that Stephen King fans would love it.  Straus, who described the collaboration with Darabont as “a sheer joy,” said, “Frank treated us like his brain trust. He has a great eye, a great aesthetic, and he’s very decisive. He encouraged our ideas and really listened to us.”  
Sequences were planned and reviewed with Darabont and the animation team via CafeSync, CafeFX’s interactive online system. Ideas were turned around into pre-visualization as soon as they were developed.  “We loved Frank’s hand held style; it makes you feel like you’re there. His pacing allows for character development, as well as the element of surprise and truly effective horror.”  
He also admits that that the bar for difficulty was raised on this project, in spite of vast technical advances in computing power. “The monsters were as terrifying to work on as they were in the film. I have nothing but admiration for this team’s creativity and stamina.”  
Akira Orikasa, CafeFX CG Supervisor, jumped immediately from visual effects production for the company’s work on Spider-Man 3 to look dev for the creatures in The Mist – from hard surfaces to highly organic characters with skin that had to be fully integrated into a live action world. Working with reference from the puppets, his focus was to match and enhance their design. The tentacle that maims the young man from grocery store’s loading dock featured a slimy surface that flowered into other monstrous appendages and required extensive texturing and shading. Dynamic tools for self collision were built were built into its rigging. The transparent wings of the bugs that fly into the plate glass windows, the bristly hairs of the giant spiders, the translucency of the pterodactyl’s wing membranes and the sub-surface scattering of its skin also demanded the generation of multiple texture maps, displacement and shader tweaks.  
Animation for the Big Foot character was very hands-on, with an expression driven muscle system that responded to the motion of its gigantic frame. Every aspect of its weight, volume, density were factored into the animation.  
The mist itself, whether CG or dry ice effects, becomes one of the film’s creatures, at once otherworldly and realistic. Atmospheric effects require an enormous amount of computing power and endless simulations, unlike the fog CG Lead Levi studied rolling off the ocean at Pismo Beach and reaching eastward, as if it had a mind of its own. Levi is especially proud of the interaction of the fog with the actors and practical assets, and particularly the way the mist, augmented with dry ice effects, subtly interacts with the tentacle.  
On the opposite end of the scale are the secondary interactions, subtle yet critical nuances like the foot impressions left on the barricade of dog food bags or the reflections, an insect’s tracks on a sweater and shadows of the creatures on the floor.   Orikasa likens his job to that of a puppeteer in a Japanese Noh drama. “Our mandate is to be unseen by the audience, even as we manipulate the characters and drive the story.”  
The final shot in The Mist is a revelation on several levels. As the camera pulls back from a scene of wrenching tragedy and ironic denouement, a convoy of U.S. military tanks and transport trucks filled with survivors rumbles into view. The sequence features several CG iterations of a small number of live action vehicles, CG soldiers with flamethrowers and weapons and CG smoke. It is an ending as dark as it is optimistic.