World of Emotion
Audrey Doyle
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 12 (Dec 2002)

World of Emotion

Special effects artists create a planet with personality in the new film version of the science-fiction classic Solaris

The novel Solaris, written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, is regarded as one of the most important science-fiction books ever written. Rather than focusing on aliens and spaceships, which is typical of most works in this genre, the story ventures more toward the issues of metaphysics, love, life, fear, and the unknown, making it a best-seller for its skillful combination of fiction and philosophy.

Rather than model every detail on the spaceships, artists applied textures created in Studio Paint, Photoshop, and Deep Paint.

On November 27, director Steven Soderbergh's big-screen version of Lem's masterpiece hit theaters in North America. And by all accounts, this film is true to Lem's vision. Produced by James Cameron and his company LightStorm Entertainment, as well as 20th Century Fox, Solaris stars actor George Clooney as Kris Kelvin, an astronaut who is sent on a mission to a distant space station orbiting the planet Solaris to investigate whether the station should be shut down. On arrival, Kelvin discovers that the commander of the expedition sent to study the planet has committed suicide, and his crew is now fighting strange demons. In addition, Kelvin discovers that Solaris is not only responsible for these mysterious occurrences, but that the planet is actually a powerful life form that has been systematically studying and destroying the minds of the space station crew. Now that Kelvin has arrived, Solaris is unleashing its extraordinary powers on him.

More than 100 digital effects shots appear in this two-hour film. Rhythm & Hues, along with artist Richard "Doc" Baily, were responsible for creating elements making up the planet Solaris, which appears in 37 of the shots. Meanwhile, Cinesite created the 3D versions of Athena and Prometheus, the spaceships appearing in 20 shots. Cinesite also handled the 118-frame sequence in which a nasty liquid-oxygen burn on one of the characters miraculously heals itself, and the facility was responsible for final compositing work in the film.

Creating the complex digital effects for Solaris required the use of a variety of sophisticated commercial and proprietary tools. Take, for instance, the planet itself, whose surface comprises a variety of unknown liquids. In addition, the atmosphere shrouding the planet consists of colorful flares, auras, and veils of light. What's more, both the surface and atmosphere vary continuously throughout the movie to mimic the changing emotional state of the human visitors. "Because of the prominent role it plays, the planet Solaris can be thought of as an actual character in this film; it is alive, and it is constantly changing," says Richard Hollander, president of the film division at Rhythm & Hues.

According to Hollander, the assignment for Rhythm & Hues and artist Doc Baily was not only to match the emotions of the characters to the planet, but also to make sure that when viewers look at the planet they see an abundance of detail. To that end, LightStorm Entertainment hired Robert Stromberg of Digital Backlot to work with production designer Phil Messina to come up with the planet's design. Baily, the owner of Image Savant, was assigned the task of building the atmospheric elements that Stromberg and Messina conceptualized.

To create the elements, Baily used an innovative piece of software called Spore. Written by Baily, with assistance from programmers Josh Aller and J.Walt Adamczyk, Spore is a stand-alone particle system that runs on Irix and Linux machines. According to Baily, Spore is different from other particle system generators because it has the capacity to create ultra-high density images: For instance, each frame Baily created to show the atmospheric elements surrounding the planet typically contains in excess of 1 billion particles.

Athena, Prometheus, and the space station orbit Solaris, whose atmospheric effects were created by Image Savant using a particle system that generated approximately 1 billion particles per frame.

"Solaris presented a really interesting problem. This planet is alive, and it needed to be characterized by complex, psychedelic light effects," Baily says. "Spore, which I wrote for the fine-art projects I am creating at my company, specifically handles both advanced particle work and light effects. With it, I can easily render a scene containing at least 500 million points of light per frame. I don't know of any other package out there that anyone could have used to create the atmospheric elements necessary for this planet."

One could say that because it far surpasses the particle-count limitations of commercial software, Spore provides Baily with a whole new way of making pictures. "You can do a lot with other particle systems, but they tend to choke when you reach high particle counts," Baily says. "My system can render between 10 million and 20 million particles per minute. I end up with an accumulation of data that can be manipulated as if they're photons. Thus, I can create images that possess a rare quality of photographic light, and appear to be self-illuminating."

Baily supplied Rhythm & Hues with approximately 60,000 frames of atmospheric elements. At the beginning of the movie these elements move in a gentle and subtle way because the planet is in a calm state. But as the movie progresses they become denser and appear increasingly agitated and emotional. "The elements that Doc created are very beautiful. They have a diaphanous feel to them—almost as if you had a silk scarf and were waving it around, letting it bend and fold onto itself," explains Hollander. "We're creating the seven stages of the planet's look that you see throughout the film by layering Doc's elements, and portions of the elements, on top of each other to create very interesting imagery."

Baily rendered his Spore elements at 16 bits per channel on SGI workstations. The Rhythm & Hues artists put the final touches on the planet's surface, which they created using Houdini and some custom code running on Linux machines. The facility's John Heller and Sean McPherson then led the team of artists in compositing the Spore elements onto the surface of the planet using Discreet's Inferno and Rhythm & Hues' own 2D compositing program, Icy.

In addition to the shots that show Solaris in full-frame, images of the planet also can be seen through the windows of the two spaceships, Athena and Prometheus. Cinesite composited the Rhythm & Hues imagery onto the bluescreen windows of the spacecraft set pieces using Cinesite's proprietary Cineon system running on SGI Octane and Onyx machines.

The ships, meanwhile, were modeled in Alias|Wavefront's Maya on Linux-based Boxx Technologies workstations by a team of Cinesite artists headed by John Hewitt and Mark Shoaf. According to Hewitt, one of the challenges regarding the spaceships concerned the quantity and quality of the textures the artists needed to create to provide the level of detail Soderbergh wanted. "We didn't model every single piece of the spacecraft. Instead, we used textures for a lot of that sort of detail," Hewitt says. "The textures were very important for adding realism to the spacecraft. Because these ships move slowly and are seen at 4K resolution, they had to be extremely detailed."

The artists created the textures—which include myriad surface details, including dirt patterns—using Alias|Wavefront's Studio Paint, Adobe Systems' Photoshop, and Right Hemisphere's Deep Paint. According to Hewitt, the artists created more than 2500 different texture maps for the two ships.

In addition to the textures, Hewitt says that rendering these craft was also challenging. "Soderbergh was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, and in that film the spaceship was white. Initially, we started with textures that were much more metallic and darker in color. But he kept asking us to clean them up and go with whiter materials. When we did that, though, it got more and more difficult to see the textures."

Cinesite composited the Rhythm & Hughes imagery of outer space and Solaris onto the bluescreen windows of the spacecraft set pieces using the studio's Cineon system.

To get the look Soderbergh wanted, the artists relied primarily on the raytracing tools in Pixar's RenderMan Release 11. "We went with raytracing rather than other rendering techniques because it gives us more accurate reflections on the highly reflective surfaces of the spacecraft," Hewitt notes. In addition, the artists used Pixar's Slim for creating shaders within RenderMan.

Soderbergh's affinity for 2001 also played a role in terms of lighting the spaceships. According to Smith, the director was adamant about detail, and asked the Cinesite artists to study the film as a benchmark for look and quality. "We also studied the IMAX film Space Station," Smith recalls.

The end result accurately mimics the lighting of objects as seen in outer space. "In space there's just one light source—the sun—and you never see it [in the film], but you know it's there. The way the light catches the CG models of the spacecraft is what really sells these shots," Hewitt says. The lighting of the spacecraft was accomplished in Maya as well as in proprietary tools by a team of artists headed by lighting supervisor Wayne Vincenzi.

In addition to building the spacecraft, Cinesite also was responsible for creating a facial wound on the character Rheya (played by Natascha McElhone), and then making the wound look as though it heals itself almost instantly. When the sequence begins, Rheya is lying on the floor. As Kelvin rolls her over, he discovers that she has tried to commit suicide by drinking liquid oxygen. "The wound starts at the corner of her mouth and goes down to the mandible. There's also a hole in her neck where the liquid oxygen has burned through," explains Smith.

On seeing the wound, Kelvin picks up Rheya and lays her down on a bed. The camera closes in on the wound, and over the course of about 4 seconds, the wound is completely healed.

According to Jonathan Gerber, CG sequence supervisor on Rheya's face regeneration, the wound is composed of 3D geometry taken from a scan of the actress's head. The scan, performed at Gentle Giant Studios, was acquired using a WB4 head scanner from Cyberware, and the data was cleaned up in Maya at Cinesite. To apply the wound to the live-action footage of the actress's face, the Cinesite artists hand-tracked the footage using Maya, and then composited the digital wound into the segment using Cineon.

The healing process, Gerber explains, is accomplished primarily through a shading operation. "When the wound heals, what we're seeing is her skin being built up," he says. "It's basically done through a custom displacement shader that I wrote utilizing a combination of off-the-shelf and custom Slim templates."

All told, if the quality of the digital imagery in Solaris is any indication, this film might be just as successful as the book. "The wound-healing process is unique," says Cinesite's Smith, "and the spaceships are extremely detailed."

"We're very excited about this project," Rhythm & Hues' Hollander concludes. "Some of the shots of the planet Solaris are 1200 frames long. Animating abstract images like these, and knowing that when viewers stare at them for the entire cut they're pleased with what they see, is very satisfying." ..

Contributing editor Audrey Doyle is a freelance writer and editor with more than 17 years of experience covering the computer graphics industry. She is based in Boston.

Adobe Systems
Boxx Technologies
Gentle Giant Studios
Image Savant
Right Hemisphere
Rhythm & Hues
Side Effects