Mr. X Takes Flight with Amelia
October 21, 2009

Mr. X Takes Flight with Amelia

Toronto - Mr. X, a creative visual effects house in Canada, provided CG aerial scenes and other effects shots for AE Electra Productions’ Amelia, directed by Mira Nair. The film tells the story of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart who disappeared over the Pacific in 1937 during her quest to become the first woman to fly solo around the globe. Starring two-time Oscar award-winner Hillary Swank, Amelia includes numerous flight sequences designed and completed at Mr. X under the guidance of visual effects supervisor Wojciech Zielinski. Several of the shots were presented to the public during this year’s Academy Awards ceremony as part of the 2009 film preview reel broadcast during the show.

Mr. X served as the lead visual effects house on the project. Approximately 300 shots were completed, including full CG environments, CG aircraft (both in flight and on water), crash landing a vintage plane, crowd duplication, and set augmentation, such as CG confetti for a parade sequence.

The full CG environment shots include cloudscapes in the dawn and evening light, and dramatic flight scenes through storm clouds.

Creating believable CG clouds is not easy, and key scenes in Amelia called for demanding visual effects sequences with CG aircraft flying through dramatic cloudscapes. The team at Mr. X took on the challenge.

“At the start of the project we had various discussions to determine what type of cloud solution was required for Amelia,” says Jim Price, technical director at Mr. X. “Because the some of the shots were 100 percent CG with the camera flying through the clouds, matte paintings and sprite based approaches were ruled out in favor of a more functional solution. We decided to construct our cloud using 3D volume primitives, which would allow us the flexibility to change animation and camera positions at any time with minimal impact to any work that had already been completed.”

For visual reference, the team at Mr. X assembled photomontages of iconic “hero” clouds. These would serve as the style frames for the artists, providing visual cues for the position, texture and lighting of the clouds. The first step in the cloud shot pipeline was blocking. The previz team created cloud layouts in Maya using placeholder spheres that would represent the cloudbanks from the sequence style frames.

Cameras were also animated during this stage and any gaps in the cloudbanks were filled with additional placeholders. Once blocking was complete, the spheres were replaced with polygonal models matching the desired profiles of the clouds. When these were approved, the surface shapes were passed on to the VFX team to be converted into true volumetrics.

“The VFX team’s first step was to bring the polygon clouds into Houdini and voxelize them,” says Price. “Then procedural volume shaders were used to provide finer detail by modifying the density within each cloud.”

The VFX team also handled lighting for the clouds and applied additional effects such as lightning and rain. The clouds were then rendered in Mantra using multiple passes and light layers.

“Rendering cloud elements out by depth and by light allowed the compositors total freedom to control the color and density of the clouds and minimize expensive re-renders,” explains Kyle Yoneda, FX animation supervisor at Mr. X. “Perhaps the biggest challenge was the fact that volumes take significantly longer to render than standard surfaces, so we had to develop fast preview techniques in order to get visual feedback at every step, rather than having to perform long test renders.”

Although computer graphics were used for a significant portion of the film, director Mira Nair wanted the CG elements to be discreet and photorealistic, supporting the narrative of Amelia Earhart’s personal and public life, rather than drawing attention to themselves.

“We had a lot of freedom to design the aerial sequences,” says Zielinski. “We took the lead on these shots and presented our ideas to the director during previs. We were always in close collaboration with Mira. I’m a big fan of her work so it was a real pleasure to work with her on this project.”
As aspects of the narrative were refined during production, the feel of some of the shots, and even some of the visual details were changed, requiring a flexible workflow and efficient delivery. None of this phased Zielinski or the team at Mr. X. “Our goal is to make sure the director feels entirely comfortable with the VFX work so that he or she can focus on the story,” he explains.

The film calls for several water landing and takeoff sequences. The background plates for these shots were created using a real Cessna on location. The modern plane was then painted out and replaced it with CG models of the Lockheed Vega and the Fokker FVII b Friendship, two of the aircraft flown by Earhart. Shooting the scenes with the Cessna provided the basic water interaction for the final shots, which was augmented with CG water splashes and spray.

Providing all of this within the constraints of the production budget required ingenuity. One scene, depicting a crash landing, made use of a restored period aircraft. “The owner let us use it on condition we didn’t get a scratch on it,” laughs Zielinski. The team at Mr. X “crashed” the plane with great care and the shot was captured using an articulated crash rig. The rig was replaced in post with damaged CG landing gear and propellers, accompanied by CG sparks and smoke. “You’d think we had ruined his plane, but in fact we returned it in perfect condition!”

Mr. X built CG models of the Lockheed Vega and the Fokker Friendship using cyberscans of full-scale models built by the production’s art department. These CG models were used for all of the CG aerial scenes in the film, both in the full CG environment sequences, and in daytime sequences, which use live-action shots for background plates.

Amelia, directed by Mira Nair and starring Hillary Swank, Richard Gere, and Ewan McGregor, opens in North America on October 23.

Anibrain, RocketScience VFX, Rodeo, and Invisible Pictures also worked on the project under the direction of Mr. X.

Mr. X Team on Amelia

VFX Supervisor: Wojciech Zielinski

Technical Director: Jim Price

FX Animation Supervisor: Kyle Yoneda