Living a Nightmare
Issue: Volume: 29 Issue: 6 (June 2006)

Living a Nightmare

Digital compositors bring the frightening digital world of Silent Hill to life in the film adaptation of the game series.

Alain Lachance is the senior compositor, VFX supervisor, and one of the founders of Mokko Studio in Montreal. His latest accomplishment includes the recently released Silent Hill from Tri-Star Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Silent Hill began in 1999 as a survival horror video game from Konami that has since grown into a lucrative franchise; currently, there are five Silent Hill video games. Each unfolds like a movie, with several possible endings, as a person’s choices during play determine which ending is revealed. Recently, Sony Pictures released a film version of this eerie series, maintaining its visual film-noirish design depicting dark, fog-enshrouded, decaying environments enhanced by chilling (and very sudden) sound effects and thoroughly unnatural, disturbing, and surreal/absurd creature designs. The main storyline, cinematography, and set designs for the live-action film adaptation follows the original CG game. The plot centers on Rose Da Silva, a married mother whose life takes the unexpected turn toward Silent Hill as she tried to discover the source of her adoptive daughter’s nightmares, which have her crying out “Silent Hill.” Among the facilities that worked on the 619 effects shots was Mokko Studio, which completed 50 of the shots in two months.

Interview by Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey

What work did you do on Silent Hill?
I supervised our 3D artists as well as the compositing team, and also created key composites. The most exciting part of my job was to work hand-in-hand with our artists at creating the mood that Christophe [Gans, the director] was looking for, from the concept all the way to the final composites.

Pertaining to the effects, what was the director’s goal?
He was looking for the most realistic results possible, and I think we did a good job of delivering that, especially considering the time constraints.

What was your directive?
We actually began work on the shots without any directive. We focused on rotoscoping the characters and creating all the necessary masks needed for compositing immediately after receiving the plates. Having all of this work done before we received any initial direction enabled us to begin adding elements into the shots the instant after speaking to the director.

How did your experience help you achieve this?
As an editor and then as a digital compositor, I have worked on many high-end projects within both the commercial and film industries. In addition, I have an extensive background in commercial work with clients such as: Coke, Nestlé, Labatt, Fido, and Budweiser. When I am not in the studio supervising the digital team, I’m usually on set to assure that we have everything necessary for the team at Mokko Studio to create the most breathtaking shots possible.

Can you detail some of the more impressive effects you did for this film?
We did some massive set extensions for many of the shots. We even created entirely virtual environments for some shots where all we received from the client was just a character or a vehicle shot against a greenscreen.

How did you achieve that?
With most of the shots, we began tracking the characters and cameras. We then used a combination of 2D matte paintings, 3D elements from Autodesk Maya combined with 3D matte paintings. We used a lot of Maya fluids for the smoke and fog effects, and Maya particle systems for ash falling like snow throughout the film. Most shots had over 10 layers in the final composite.

What other software and hardware did you use?
Autodesk Maya animation software and Autodesk Toxik collaborative compositing software formed the backbone of our pipeline for Silent Hill. We also used [Adobe’s] Photoshop for matte paintings, [2d3’s] Boujou for tracking, and some Autodesk Discreet Combustion. Our hardware is fairly average among other production facilities. Production work is more about software these days as opposed to a few years ago, where you needed the fastest machines available. 
Of the backgrounds, how many were CG versus live action?
On most of the shots, the live-action background was only the immediate surroundings of the character. Everything else was set extension and matte painting. In many shots, we had to zoom out and end with a very wide shot that involved a combination of tracking, set extension, matte painting, and, of course, a huge proportion of the background in CGI.
How many shots required roto and compositing of the characters?
Ninety percent of the shots. Roto was done on most of the characters to add ash effects around them. In one shot, we completely rebuilt the road in CGI. For the bridge shot, we had to create a huge dolly out—the live-action car didn’t work, so we had to rebuild a 3D car with complex fluid, fog, and ash trailing behind the car. Of course the bridge that magically appears in front of the car was CGI as well as most of the décor surrounding the action.
Why was the work on this film more complex than other roto/composites?
Challenges for this project included a short deadline (50 shots in two months) as well as quickly matching the look of the other studios already onboard (fog, ash, ambiance). The ash look was quite unusual and was a cool challenge, especially with very long shots. The ash was Maya particles with a unique behavior on each particle.
Did you devise any special techniques?
Not particularly; I suppose for Silent Hill, the work was more software-related. This was our first real production experience using Autodesk Toxik. We certainly learned some good lessons in efficiency while working on this film.
Can you elaborate?
We implemented some Python scripts into Toxik to import and cache the layers for shots overnight so that in the morning, we could do our dailies and all the layers for a particular shot would play out in real time, even at 2k.  
What were the biggest technical challenges you ran into?
Our biggest constraint was time. We also had some concerns about asset management—having a lot of layers to deal with for each shot was daunting.
How did you overcome this?
Again, Toxik was very helpful here; due to the collaborative nature of the work environment in Toxik, we were able to have two and sometimes three compositors working on a shot at the same time. One artist could work on the first section of the comp while another worked on the middle or final section. The whole sequence was updated instantly on each machine as the artists worked together. There was no searching for images to add into the composite. This was very much a time-saving feature.
What were some of the biggest creative challenges?
When working with other studios on a film, the most important goal is to achieve the mood the director is looking for while also matching the look of the shots from the other studios. The director was looking for an ominous foggy atmosphere and almost surreal mood for the shots. 

Most shots by Mokko entailed rotoscoping and compositing actors into eerie backdrops.
How did you handle that?
We initially had two concept artists working on ideas for the look independently of each other, meaning neither artist knew what the other was doing. We showed both designs to the director so he could choose which look he liked best. In the end, we mixed their ideas together, creating a composite design from two artists; the director then approved that.
Was any of the work on the film unique?
We had a particularly unique shot with a jeep driving across a bridge where all we received from the client was simply a jeep driving about 10 meters on a greenscreen. The shot wasn’t really working with the source material, so we matched the camera movement, created a 3D jeep in Maya, and then projected the texture of the jeep from the original footage back onto the 3D model of the jeep. That was an interesting shot, and in the end, this method offered us much more control. We added reflection layers to the jeep and other interactive layers like swirling fog with Maya that would have been difficult to simulate in the original footage of the jeep against a greenscreen.
Any other highlights about your work for this film?
As with any new software on a production, you are always a bit nervous because you will have unknown factors to contend, and there is not a lot of room for error when you are on a tight schedule. With Toxik, we actually saved time by implementing a new product into the pipeline for Silent Hill.