February 2004

VFX: Around the World in Eighty Days


A modern, big-budget adventure film, such as Frank Coraci's upcoming release of Around the World in 80 Days, can have hundreds of visual effects (VFX) shots. Using this film as an example, the DGA's Special Projects and AD/UPM/TC Visual Effects/Digital Technology Committee presented a January 17 seminar that explored managing the production of such VFX work.

Committee Chair Susan Zwerman, the film's VFX producer, along with Rhythm & Hues VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer (representing the company's VFX supervisor, Derek Spears), provided examples of various types of VFX shots, and Reel Logix software developer Randy McGowan, who managed digital dailies and communication for the project, explained the challenges of implementing those systems.

The period 1860 film, produced by Walden Media, was shot in five countries — Thailand, Germany, England, Austria and China — presenting both cultural and logistical challenges.

Zwerman described how to break down a script effectively with the film's director, producer, UPM, VFX supervisor and special effects team, identifying which shots require VFX and determining how they could be accomplished. Storyboards are often produced, she said, to assist in deciding how CGI shots will be implemented.

Partial evolution of an effects shot

Another tool, Pre-Visualization, roughly animated computer animation of complicated scenes, was described. "Pre-Vis" allows you to see something before you normally would, to allow you to make some sort of decision with it," Westenhofer said. "Our director sat down with the computer and was able to sit on the deck of the film's steamship set before it was even built." Having developed the shots in Pre-Vis, he said, Coraci would sometimes ask to see the Pre-Vis while on stage, to help recall details of how the shot would later be melded with the effects. Pre-Visualization also helped the team determine the size of a green screen required for a particular shot by planning camera moves ahead of time.

Westenhofer also detailed the process of creating digital actors, noting that one should always use a real actor whenever possible. However, a particular sequence involving the principals flying by in the film's "Flying Machine" would have been extremely difficult to shoot with a blue screen, making the digital option more cost-effective. The actor's form and detailed features were recorded using a "cyberscan" process, while their various wardrobe elements were scanned separately. Digital extras were created by recording the activities of extras on a motion capture stage and inserting their computer-wardrobed characters into various shots.

Aerial backgrounds depicting London in the 1860s were often created using CGI. First, contemporary London was photographed aerially in order to capture historic structures. Later, modern buildings were covered with either tree elements or by carefully copying other buildings from other parts of the shot.

The team also created a library of 3D buildings using a Lidar system, a laser scanner which records, in great detail, surfaces of entire buildings. Another system, High Dynamic Range Imagery (HDRI), was also utilized. HDRI uses a pair of back-to-back cameras shooting a 360-degree view to record all incidental lighting on an object. "You automatically have a high-fidelity lighting simulation of what that object would have looked like if it were in the scene," Westenhofer explained.

McGowan explained the various technical challenges of providing digital dailies to and communicating with teams working in far-off locations. On the communication side, McGowan described the use of Virtual Production Office (VPO) systems which allow, through a secure website, team/crew members access to contact info, as well as to uploaded files, such as budgets, location photos and even large VFX shots. He noted it was important to get everyone on the team to "buy-in" and utilize the system in order to eliminate paper distribution.

Panelists Randy McGowan, Susan Zwerman and Bill Westenhofer 

An alternative to VPO is a project-owned File Transfer Protocol (FTP) site onto which large files can be uploaded and downloaded. Such a system, however, requires a staff member to manage and operate the system via a simple PC kept onsite. An FTP and VPO working in conjunction were both utilized on this production. In addition, a wireless communication system incorporating a satellite dish was set up to allow access to both systems while working in remote areas.

McGowan also detailed the digital dailies system implemented for Eighty Days. While the film was being shot in Thailand or other far-off locations, the lab and editors were in Berlin, Germany.

This was resolved through digital dailies, both in Standard Definition (SD) video and High Definition (HD) video. SD dailies were uploaded to an FTP site and downloaded using E1 lines (the faster European equivalent of T1 lines), accessible to both location crew and to executives in New York. The files were encoded/encrypted, for security's sake, since, as McGowan noted, "You don't want everyone downloading your dailies and cutting the film for you." That particular comment received a huge round of applause from the audience.

The HD–transferred footage was distributed via USB hard drives and shipped back to location. While the time savings over film was identical, shipping costs were less due to film being heavier.

Once delivered and downloaded, the files could be viewed, courtesy of a traveling case containing USB drives, a DVD recorder and other AV equipment. Footage was either viewed using a JVC HD projector, or DVD discs were burned for team members to view in the privacy of their hotel rooms. One advantage of this system was that the digital files, unlike film dailies, could be ordered by select takes easily, without rewinding and handling film. "We could cue up all the things the director wanted to see," McGowan said. "It was a grueling shoot, so Frank was able to get in, watch the stuff, and then get back out."

A Tanberg Video Conferencing system was also employed allowing real-time meetings to take place between the Thailand-based director and his editor in Germany.

Panelists join members of the AD/UPM/TC Visual Effects/Digital Technology Committee

Zwerman discussed the importance of close collaboration between first unit and second unit/VFX. Adequate prep time, she noted, is key to the success of the second unit's work, including meetings with first unit director and DP, to make certain they understand what shots are needed for background plate material. The needs of green screen and aerial and boat units were also described, again noting differences such as tungsten lighting vs. Kinos for green screen illumination in other parts of the world. Aerial unit schedules must be carefully planned — and adhered to, with weather contingency days included (which, she noted, were all used).

Budgeting for VFX shots was discussed in detail, with Zwerman presenting examples of both simple and complex shots and their various cost ranges. Zwerman also explored both the creative and technical advantages of digital dailies.

Around the World in Eighty Days opens in June 2004.

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