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VFX breakdown shots for Hercules
Posted on Aug 02, 2014 at 11:50 pm IST
Among the task list for the Method’s artists, supervised by Doug Bloom and Nordin Rahhali, were set extensions and full CG environments, digi-doubles, face replacements, crowd duplication, CG weapons (arrows and spears) and FX simulations including burning oil, fire and building destruction.
Among the task list for the Method’s artists, supervised by Doug Bloom and Nordin Rahhali, were set extensions and full CG environments, digi-doubles, face replacements, crowd duplication, CG weapons (arrows and spears) and FX simulations including burning oil, fire and building destruction.
Some of the most challenging work was the roto and comp work required to replace all the skies in the sequence. Most of Method’s shots were filmed at night so the sky was black and many shots did not have green screens to aid the pulling of keys. There was a huge amount of work put into replacing the skies and making sure that all the set extensions, soldiers and effects work looked brighter, as if at sunset, while still feeling integrated with the original nighttime photography.
The most complex scenes involved CG fire pouring down the stairs after the soldiers tip over cauldrons of burning oil.  A key challenge for the FX crew was first getting the dynamics of the underlying fluid (oil) right before setting that oil on fire. Once they had approved animations for the oil, there was a great amount of effort put in to make sure the CG fire matched the speed and feel of the practical fire shot on set. It was also important that the CG fire properly illuminated the surrounding photography and integrated with the practical soldiers. Much of the work on the fire integration was crafted by Method’s comp team who had a collection of interactive lighting passes and control mattes provided by the FX and lighting artists.

The destruction of the temple, surrounding environment and huge statue of Hera required a significant amount of work upgrading the assets used for set extensions, originally provided by other vendors. This allowed Method’s artists to fracture and add dynamics to the set pieces and CG extensions while maintaining all the approved look-dev from the wider establishing shots and original photography.
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VFX by Method Studios
VFX by Double Negative
A lion encounter
In one of the first Twelve Labors depicted in the film, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) stalks a Nemeean lion in a cave before a close-up fight. Designs for the 16 foot long lion were carried at Weta Workshop and also by concept artist Rob Bliss who also made ZBrush sculpts.

For Double Negative, this was the first labor in the film that had to reveal the myths that had been spread about Hercules, and so dictated the style of creatures they had to create. “There’s mythical Hercules, the Hercules we know from legend and the Hercules they portray as a mercenary for the King,” says Dneg visual effects supervisor Ryan Cook, who shared duties with Paul Riddle. “The interesting part of the script is where you have the lion and the hydra and all the creature work, but then there’s the reality of what really happens.”

To craft the lion, artists began with Bliss’ ZBrush sculpt. “Whilst we were making a fantastical beast, I felt that the best approach was to try matching to a real lion, get a photoreal looking lion, and then allow us to be drawn into lookdev for what looked like a giant beast,” recounts CG supervisor Julian Fodd. “I went to a zoo and shot loads of reference of real lions, and that’s what we based the model sculpt and the texture paint on.”
Dneg created a muscle mesh and a separate skin mesh for the lion, with animation done in Maya, overseen by animation supervisor Nathan McConnel. Then, Dneg’s in-house fur grooming tool - Furball - was used to deal with the several different layers of lion fur, from short clumps to the large mane before rendering in RenderMan. Furball is a GPU-based procedural system based on a Houdini-style node graph. “These graphs define a series of filters or operators to apply to our curves,” explains Dneg R&D lead Francesco Giordana, “starting from a set of guide curves and gradually adding more and more detail. Because every operation is perfectly self-contained inside a node, the groom artists had maximum flexibility in assembling those graphs and achieving really complex looks. Effects like wisps within wisps were relatively easy to achieve.”

The compositing team helped marry some set extensions to the cave set, and then integrate the lion. “The main thing we were having to interact with was probably in relation to the fur,” says 2D supervisor Robin Beard. “A lot of the contrasty light meant that the fur tended to look quite contrasty. It was almost like it was self-shadowing, so within the comp the guys were using like an un-occluded render to selectively mix that back in and almost give the fur some more detail.”

Interestingly, Dneg’s lion build took place while filming was still continuing. That way, explains visual effects producer Kate Phillips, an almost final version could be shown to the director during plate turnovers. “When Ryan and I went to LA to do turnover meetings we were able to take with us a selection of shots of the creatures, including the lion leaping,” says Phillips. “As soon as Brett saw it, he loved it, and it was a great help for us to get the clients on board with what we were doing - and getting their trust, and letting us complete the sequence in the way we could.”
Hail Hydra
Another of Hercules’ labors is his swamp encounter with the Lernean Hydra in which he severs the many heads of the creature. The scene was shot in a 60 x 40 feet tank designed by Puzos. “Jean made trees out of root systems which were recycled from a different set,” explains Bruno. “He hosed them off and he basically used the roots, sprayed darker colors and then it looked like a strange, mythical swamp with a lot of depth and visual cues.”

That tank set was surrounded by bluescreen and later augmented by Double Negative with a CG environment and SpeedTree greenery. For the Hydra decapitations, Dneg developed a rigging approach that would give animators the ability to ‘slice’ the creature at any point Hercules’ sword went through its body. “Our creature supe made a rig that allowed the slice points to be slid around along the body,” explains Foddy. “It worked with a procedural system so the angle of the cut could be changed if we needed to. In the original first pass animation, everything was being cut at 90 degrees and we soon realized that that was going to look very samey. You’re now seeing different parts of the internal anatomy revealed depending on the cut.”
Dneg’s water sim solver - Dynamo - allowed for churning, splash, foam and spray and silt particulate passes, as well as small rivulets landing on the Hydra’s body. “One thing we hadn’t done before also was having the little plants floating in the water and the interaction with water and blood,” says Cook. “Sometimes we replaced the existing water in the plate, and we also did some digi-double replacements of Dwayne to show water running down his back or have CG digi-double spec passes over the top of the body for water interaction.”
Cotys’ courtyard citadel
A large chunk of the action takes place in Cotys’ courtyard citadel - a massive set designed by production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos at Origio Studios. “He built a football sized area,” outlines Bruno. “We had the King’s palace, entry gates, the surrounding village and a temple of Hera. There were six giant greenscreens that surrounded the temple walls which were anywhere from 30 to 60 feet and 100 feet long.”

The visual effects teams extended anything above the pillars and added in the mountains and landscape behind. Double Negative co-ordinated the approach to the builds. “We took a 3D procedural approach,” says Foddy, “where we built a kit of parts and kept moving pieces around. They all shared textures but had additional dirt maps that could be mixed up.”
For background mountains a two and a half D projection approach was taken. “I went to Croatia to a mountain location that we were trying to re-create and shot lots of photography,” recalls Foddy. “Ryan Cook then returned to that location with a helicopter shoot for aerial photography. We used that shoot to do a photomodel reconstruction of the mountain which became a proxy in NUKE for two and a half D projections.”