End of Days
November 12, 2009

End of Days

By Barbara Robertson
The focus of the film 2012 is the survival of the human species in the face of the entire planet’s destruction. In this film, the actors play people at the mercy of the effects—stunning visual effects produced by a number of studios.
In the Sony Pictures Entertainment disaster film, actor John Cusack plays Jackson Curtis, a sci-fi author and limousine driver. Amanda Peet is Kate, Jackson’s ex-wife. But, the real stars of 2012 are the visual effects that that rip apart Los Angeles, erupt Yellowstone National Park, flood the Himalayas, and cause massive amounts of mayhem around the globe.

Co-producers Volker Engel and Marc Weigart supervised the effects. As is their practice, the two men expanded their production company, Uncharted Territory, to include postproduction capability for the duration of 2012, hiring a crew of approximately 100, buying hardware and software, and setting up shop on Sony’s lot upstairs from Emmerich’s editorial suite. The Uncharted Territory artists created 400 of the 1315 shots in the film, and Engel and Weigart contracted with another 15 studios to wrestle the rest, each chosen at the outset for their particular skills.

“Half this movie is virtual,” Engel says. “The effects are about set extensions, particle work, and destruction.”

But, that hardly tells the story. The sets were monumental; the particle, fluid, and rigid-body simulations that created the destruction were complicated. “People have done photoreal environments before,” Weigart says. “But when the entire environment reacts to a physical event, it makes everything more than tenfold as complex.”

Listen to the visual effects supervisors at the studios that created the most complex sequences:

“We didn’t have a huge number of shots, but they were really hard shots with a specific type of destruction and specific problems to solve,” says Mohen Leo, who supervised Digital Domain’s 150 shots, which included the characters’ terrifying flight through and over earthquake-riven Los Angeles.

Alex Wuttke, visual effects supervisor at Double Negative, which destroyed Yellowstone National Park and St. Peter’s Basilica, also notes that the shot count was deceptive. “We had 200 shots, of which 130 were particularly heavy 3D with ridiculously complicated layers,” he says. “We had creative challenges and technical challenges, and sometimes we just plain ran out of disk space.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever pushed as much geometry through a raytracer as we did for this film,” says Peter Nofz, VFX supervisor at Imageworks, where artists built mammoth arks inside a digital cave in the digital Himalayan Mountains.

Scanline floated those giant arks on waves that surged over mountains and, in another sequence, sent water rushing through Washington, DC. “Usually when you do effects, you have a range of shots,” says Stephan Trojansky, visual effects supervisor. “We had huge tidal wave shots in dimensions no one had ever seen before, and hundreds of miles of floodwaters. It was really tough.”

As for Uncharted Territory, Engel believes they saved some of the most complex sequences for themselves, especially the shots in which the characters drive through a Los Angeles earthquake in progress. “Every three seconds, there’s a new, big event,” he says. “It was one of the most complicated in the movie in terms of all the destruction happening.”

The full story can be found in the November issue of CGW.