Invisible CG effects
October 19, 2011

Invisible CG effects

A small, nimble team at Uncharted Territory turns the page on digital work in the feature film Anonymous.
Today, most high school students are well versed in the writings of English poet/playwright William Shakespeare. A master of comedies and histories, he was a master of prose, whether pl ays, sonnets, or narrative poems. Yet, as most students can attest, it is Shakespeare’s dramatic works—Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, in particular—for which he is best know. Yet, there has been speculation as to whether this great playwright actually penned the works for which he is known.

That is the subject of the drama Anonymous, a feature directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, 2012). It stars Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, purported in the film to be the true author of Shakespeare’s works. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Queen Elizabeth, while Rafe Spall is Shakespeare. The movie is produced by Centropolis Entertainment and Studio Babelsberg, and distributed by Columbia Pictures.

The movie itself reads like a Shakespearean play. The movie is set in the 17th century, in Elizabethan England, as the Tudors and Cecils maneuver for succession of the throne. The queen is facing an Essex rebellion. Meanwhile, the 17th Earl of Oxford acts as the queen’s lover, as well as the true author of the works of Shakespeare. 

Filmmakers had a tall task re-creating Elizabethan London for the film. More than 70 hand-built sets were constructed, including a full-scale replica of London’s The Rose theatre. The remainder of the settings were created and enhanced with computer graphics. Aside from the settings, CG was used throughout the film for various effects. VFX house Uncharted Territory takes us back in time for the film, with Volker Engel and Marc Weigert serving as executive producers, and Rony Soussan as compositing supervisor. 
Here, the trio from Uncharted Territory discuss the work they did for the film.

As executive producer and VFX supervisor of Anonymous, you and your team produced this project with a modest budget and achieved a high-end finish. How was this achieved?
Marc Weigert: For everything we do, we try to think outside the box. For me, that is the most interesting part about this job.  Try to find a simpler, better, more efficient way. In our collaboration with Eyeon, a lot of work that is traditionally done in 3D, we moved into compositing. When you work in 3D programs, the feedback loop is fairly slow. So Eyeon developed tools in Fusion for us that would allow us to shift more work into the compositing space, and thus get instant, or near instant, feedback. For example, we used 3D volumetric fog inside Fusion. Particle systems for snow, breath, chimney smoke, and so on. All immediately visible and adjustable in the composite.

The postproduction team on Anonymous was a smaller than usual VFX crew. How did the approach to producing the visual effects change? How did the size of the crew relate to the shots accomplished/timeframe/workflow/pipeline?
Marc Weigert: We had a team of 29 artists for the final three months of postproduction. That team created over 300 shots comprising of about 30 minutes of film time. And we had dozens of huge shots. Wide shots of the city of London in the 16th century, with thousands of animated people, tens of thousands of buildings, animals, ships, water, horses and carts, and so on.... I’m very proud because this was a huge accomplishment for such a small team.

What was the total number of VFX shots completed, and what was the timeframe?
Volker Engel: We delivered 302 shots. We started building assets with a group of only five artists in November 2009 and delivered the last shot in October 2010. During peak times, we had 28 CG and comp artists working on Anonymous.

There were a multitude of greenscreens and virtual sets created. How did this impact the post work? How did working within Fusion’s architecture impact the process?
Volker Engel: A lot of the London street and courtyard shots had actors act in front of 360 degrees of greenscreen, so we had to build 360 degrees of buildings, streets, and landscape.  Working with a very small team of artists, we needed a compositing tool that was 100 percent reliable all the time—there was no room for trial and error at all.

Working with this nimble team of artists, how interactive and rapid was the turnaround on the shots?
Volker Engel: There is a huge advantage in working with a small team of skilled artists; there is a much better line of communication. You don’t need middle management, except a very reliable project manager who knows the status of every shot all the time. Otherwise, Marc and I were directly working with the compositors all the time. The shorthand that had developed between us and the compositors helped tremendously in achieving incredibly fast turnarounds. We’d sometimes have a screening session with director Roland Emmerich, and after he had given notes on a shot, we’d show him a new version 30 minutes later during the same session. Many times we’d final a shot right then.

You assembled a team of Fusion veterans, an 'A Team’, if you will. Where did you find them, how did you get them together, and who were they?
Rony Soussan: Actually, they were comprised of varying skill levels. We built comp teams comprised of two artists, one veteran, and one mid- or junior-level person, and in some cases, even interns comp’d full shots. In some cases, the interns turned out to be outstanding, as was in the case with Caroline Weidenhiller. Our A team leads were Ryan Smolarek, Pieter Van Houte, and, later in the game, we were joined by Brian Fisher to help finish the show out.  Some are regulars, like Ante Dekovic who works with Uncharted Territory on all shows, and cleaver guys like Gringo (Gregory Chalenko) who turned out to be one of our comp TDs in the end. Our most successful team as far as output and synergy was definitely Sandra and Thomas,  as they had just come off a long project working as a team and had already fine-tuned their workflow.

From the success of the “Rebel Unit” on 2012 to this project, you delved deeper into a partnership with Eyeon. Why did you make the decision to do so? How has the partnership evolved?
Marc Weigert: The “Rebel Unit” was extremely successful on 2012, with over 200 VFX shorts done by two people—Rony Soussan and Ryan Smolarek—over a period of just a few months.  We decided to take that a step further on Anonymous. Rony became our compositing supervisor and set up our pipeline solely based on Eyeon Fusion and Generation. Based on our feedback and production needs, Eyeon created new tools for us that gave us results that would have been impossible to achieve with any other software in the same time frame. (Many of the tools are now included in Fusion 6.2.) Our partnership is still ongoing, and we’re working together on new developments to assist our next upcoming big feature film.

The crew of Anonymous worked with the team at Eyeon to create new avant-garde technology. What did you see as the turning point in the process of development? How was it to work so closely with the developers of Fusion?
Marc Weigert: It was fantastic to have developers listen directly to our ideas and production needs, and then write tools to instantaneously make a huge difference to the overall workflow. The biggest turning point for me was when we started using the World Position Pass to dimensionalize rendered still frames for shots with fairly limited camera moves. Even though Anonymous is a historical drama, there are about 30 minutes of VFX in the film. So that one feature alone saved us from rendering thousands of frames in 3D.

Post work today involves Fusion being used more to create more. How does this affect the end product? Do you find Fusion’s tool set adding energy to your creative processes and emboldening you to try even more cutting-edge art?
Rony Soussan: Yes, we are creating more and more, and I have to attribute our bold venture into the cutting edge to Robert Zeltsch, our in-house TD, who was on loan to us by Eyeon for the show.  We went beyond comp’ing elements to creating them, including writing our own voxel based volumetric fog engine for Fusion.

How did you use Fusion's 3D space and model importing proficiency? Why were Fusion’s 3D capabilities only used to create single images for projection?
Rony Soussan: We used Fusion’s 3D engine to do far more than projection. We used the WPP (World Position Pass) to create 3D masks, volume fog, automatic position, and matting of elements, and of course, we used 3D for projection when needed. 

This feature film used Fusion’s GPU rendering a lot more. What were the benefits of this? 
Marc Weigert: First, we needed fewer render machines than we would have needed had we done only CPU-based rendering with 3D packages. But it also saved artists time (no setting up of 3D render passes) and wait time, allowing for faster revisions and more testing, versioning, and creativity—something that we as VFX supervisors, and the director, loved.

Water and fog simulations were a large part of the film. How did you do it using Fusion’s newest tools?
Rony Soussan: Fog was done using three sets of fog tools: The first was a volume fog engine I described earlier, the second was a more robust approach to 2D fog which helped bridge the gap, and of course, the default 3D fog was used with WPP displaced scenes when we could get away with it. 
There were also three methods of dealing with water. The first was an all-2D comp approach. We shot water elements from a dam, and I built, in comp, the entire flow of water, including foam and interaction with the bridge in 2D, then used 3D camera's from the scene to project UVs to line it up with 3D renders. The other was a pure-3D water developed by Pieter and Robert, including shaders and a custom reflection mapping engine. Eyeon made some modifications to fractal noise generators to make use of the GPU to further improve the interactive experience when doing all the look development. The last was taking 3D rendered elements from the CG department, and enhancing it by projecting foam trails, dirt, and color maps to simulate depth and refraction.

It's a long way from Super 8, just how did you find working with the Arri-Alexa on this project? (The film was to be the first major motion picture to be shot with Arriflex's new Alexa camera, a competitor to the RED One; however, Disney's 2011 Prom made it to theaters first.) Can you reflect on the evolution of change of film to digital? Was it easier and faster to accomplish the work?
Volker Engel: We have already been working fully digital for over 10 years now, starting with the Sony F-900. For this project, the ALEXA was  heaven-sent. When we saw the first greenscreen tests, where our compositing lead Ryan Smolarek had to key in half-translucent gauze that was part of some of the dresses, the result in Fusion was flawless, and we were convinced that we had the perfect combination of tools. Our DP, Anna Foerster, had never worked digitally and loved the camera right away, and, with the workflow we established, we were able to watch the day’s work in a theater on the studio lot about 30 minutes after we had wrapped for the day. 

Fewer artist = happier artists. The artists are more satisfied and feel as though they have contributed more to the project. Overall, they are more involved in the whole process and artist/studio morale is at a higher level, giving more because they have more time to create their art.  Do you think this is true of the VFX team at Uncharted Territory? How did you inspire your team to give their absolute best?
Rony Soussan: Uncharted has a way of working with feedback that is unique to the VFX experience. The artists don't have to feel like their direct supervisor is the gatekeeper to their work. The VFX supervisor for the film and Roland himself will do the walkthroughs and sit with each artist and provide them one-on-one time. If that is not enough to make an artist feel important and motivated, then nothing can!  Also, my theory is to try and put compers in pairs, allowing them to help each other without feeling like they are compromising their own deadline, learn from each other, and, most important, is that they verify each other’s work. This means that when a shot is finally submitted for review, it has already been reviewed by two people which cuts down on many technical errors and increases productivity all around.