Pacific Rim Previsualization
Issue: Volume 36 Issue 6: (Sept/Oct 2013)

Pacific Rim Previsualization

In the initial combat sequence of the sci-fi feature Pacific Rim, a Jaeger, called Gypsy Danger, clashes with a Kaiju, known as Knifehead, in the middle of the ocean, the two behemoths towering over terrified fishermen riding the heaving waves. Like The Third Floor, previs provider Mr. X had the benefit of beginning with storyboards.

"Guillermo [del Toro, director] had in place a wonderful team of storyboard artists," says Previs Lead Craig Calvert. "Following the storyboards and Guillermo's vision, we built all the character and creature assets, designed an adjustable real-time ocean environment, and animated several minutes of action."

Mr. X. modeled all the previs assets in Autodesk's Maya, using Pixologic's ZBrush and Autodesk's Mudbox for geometry and normal-map generation, and The Foundry's Mari for texturing. They animated everything in Maya 2013, using Viewport 2.0 to Playblast renders. Using light geometrically with only a small amount of secondary glow added in The Foundry's Nuke, the team could Playblast the ocean sequence in a single take.

For the billowing and crashing waves, the team designed a dynamic ocean terrain in Maya. Allowing for the rapid editing of wave height and other parameters, the crew also included special "one-off" waves for particular beats the scene needed to hit. The shots also featured rain effects, multiple layers of transparent splash, glow cards to add a sense of atmospherics, and an in-camera fog tool.

"We leveraged every trick in the book to add detail without slowing the animators down or forcing costly rendering cycles," says Calvert. "Viewport 2.0's support for environment reflection, normal maps, and screen-space ambient occlusion were all used to great effect." However, the Maya 2013 Viewport 2.0 still has some limitations, namely motion-blur artifacts visible through alpha'd geometry. Overall, though, it was a useful tool for outputting some rather involved previs without needing to 'render' any elements."

"We did a series of tests showing what would happen to a Jaeger at various scales when smashed in the face and toppling over to the ground. The masses involved in a robot of that size are enormous, and it was a good exercise to map out what would plausibly happen. Though the tests were informative, technical accuracy would never trump something that looked awesome."

Ready, Get Set, Go!

Previs also was used for set design, particularly for the fishermen on the ocean. That rig involved a gimbal system that tilts and rocks the practical boat as if it's riding the heaving waves. The techvis team created a 3D model of the gimbal platform and the boat, making sure it would fit the set, del Toro's camera work, and the greenscreens. In addition, while ILM handled the digital Jaegers, del Toro wanted to build practical mock-ups of the cockpits and other parts to get as much in camera as possible. To guide the construction, Mr. X built a virtual rig of the Jaeger heads, the actors inside, and the gimbal platform that tilts and jounces them about, testing the design to ensure that the range of motion and control would give del Toro the shots he was looking for.

"It also tied into the set layout," says Calvert, "showing safety distances required for the gimbal and providing options for equipment placement."

Testing beforehand is definitely a timesaver for the filmmakers. "It was very much a nonlinear process, with all the departments shuttling updated information to and through us, and back out again. In the end, testing the cameras, planning cranes, and exploring the set layout digitally saved a ton of time and uncertainty during the shoot," says Calvert.

Surprisingly, the simplest sequences often posed the greatest techvis challenges. When Raleigh, the hero, is recruited to join the Jaeger program, he's working on a massive protective fence to keep out the Kaiju. Says Calvert, "There was a construction crew shown welding on the 'wall,' which had to walk across and slide down sets of girders that they were repairing. We spent a large amount of time blocking in animation and finding the exact dimensions so the set would accommodate the camera and all the harnesses and rigging. Each time we demonstrated a new layout, however, we'd unlock an increasing number of questions and issues, which we'd have to work to solve."