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Meet the Creatures at Image Engine

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Image Engine visual effects and animation studio in Vancouver recently spoke to Digital Media World about creatures – specifically, about the creation of digital creatures, composited into live action movie footage. Since the studio’s first major project of this kind, ‘District 9’ from 2009, Image Engine has worked on a variety of creatures from furry to robotic, achieving tremendous results.

We met with five of Image Engine’s artists - R&D lead Andrew Kaufman, animation lead Jenn Taylor, senior creature FX TD Michael Levine, lookdev lead Geoff Pedder and texture lead Cheri Fojtik. Collectively, they have worked on many films at Image Engine, including ‘Chappie,' ‘Independence Day: Resurgence,' ‘Jurassic World’ and ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.' All had lots to say about the progress made in Image Engine’s creature look development and production, animation and integration pipelines.

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Up until ‘District 9’ the studio had been working mostly in television, which meant special efforts were needed to upgrade their abilities and processes in creature expertise over the past eight years. Following the success of that first film, the studio gained confidence and skill, and from there diversified and strengthened its pipelines, especially over the last four or five years. Their efforts were fully on show in 2016, with four beasts created for ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.'

R&D

Depending on the project, R&D work and time is scheduled into each pre-production period. On ‘Fantastic Beasts’, for example, Image Engine planned far ahead to allow time to develop the processes driving fur and feathers. This R&D process involved new software, Ziva Dynamics, and Vital Skin FX, which were both still in beta when adopted by the studio.

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Image Engine also develops its own open-source and proprietary tools, such as Gaffer, for look development, lighting and general automation, as well as Jabuka, their asset management software. The studio has also developed several plugins for Maya.

For Image Engine, dedicating time to new tools is vital because once the software is integrated into the pipeline, it’s then ready to use on all following shows. For instance, Ziva is now used to set up finite element method [FEM] muscle simulations, and VitalSkin produces realistic, physically-based skin sliding, without having to keyframe the movement by hand to match.

Design and Movement

The concept art work that Image Engine receives from production’s art departments and designers varies in terms of detail and completeness, but always serves as the primary reference for the creature creation process.

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On ‘Fantastic Beasts’, the concepts for the various creatures they were tasked with creating were very well-developed. On ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’, the team needed to align its work with Roland Emmerich’s earlier film, using concept art and even maquettes to create the alien invaders. ‘Jurassic World’ needed more in-house input.

For ‘Chappie’, however, they were given much more opportunity to contribute their own design ideas regarding character development. The studio was once again working with director Neill Blomkamp and Weta Workshop, as they had for ‘District 9’. In that earlier case, Weta’s concept designs for on-set practical models were also reference for Image Engine’s 3D modellers. But on ‘Chappie’, the workflow was reversed. Image Engine worked alongside Weta first, producing final 3D concepts of the robots and vehicles, which were then used as templates for 3D printing and constructing the live action props.

Both Neill Blomkamp and Image Engine wanted to create on-screen robots that would move in a realistic fashion, without resorting to quick fixes or visual cheats like ball joints. As such, the Chappie model was 100% mechanically accurate.

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The goal was to make the audience forget that the two hero CG characters, Chappie and Moose, were digital effects, and accept their personalities and emotions as if their roles were played by actors. Seeing the characters in 3D before they were built helped the production to work out some of their design and movement limitations, and gave the director a chance to make changes before the shoot started.

Once the practical models were built, reference imagery of the two practical robots was captured under multiple lighting conditions. This reference was used by Image Engine’s texture and look development artists to finalise the characters.

Integration Techniques

Image Engine delivers projects via a solid compositing and integration pipeline, through which it can believably combine digital elements with real-world environments. Lighting is a critical factor here - vital when convincing the viewer that creatures are a part of the original plate photography. Using LIDAR scans of sets as they work helps them create realistic bounce lights off of the surfaces onto the CG, and for creating convincing shadows in the plate.

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Beyond lighting, roto animating characters captured in the plate occasionally becomes necessary in order to coordinate with CG creatures, but this is not an easy task for animators. Instead, it can be more effective to produce completely digital frames or full shots – a complex way to solve a problem, but it gives the artists control over everything the viewer sees.

Image Engine has found that, almost by nature, digital creatures in fantasy or science fiction stories sometimes have to perform in ways that plates captured on a real set simply don’t accommodate. A full CG set can often be easier to work with. Examples of projects with full digital frames can be seen in several of the jungle scenes in ‘Jurassic World’ and chase sequences in ‘R.I.P.D’. All such decisions have to be made on a per-shot basis.

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Animation & Acting

Animation is approached in a different way for every project. In ‘District 9’ and ‘Chappie’, actors performed on camera with the rest of the cast. The animators could then follow the actor’s movements very closely when animating the 3D models. In ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’, the alien performances were blocked out in detail with motion capture before any animation was carried out, with the signature tentacles run through a complex, bespoke dynamics system.

For ‘Fantastic Beasts’, Image Engine examined reference footage of a huge variety of real animals. The Graphorns’ performances, for example, combine motion based on footage of lions, rhinos, and octopus for the tentacles, which gives the digital creatures a sense of real physics – strength and weight combined with grace. Striking the right balance, and making sure the Graphorns felt right for their scale, required focus and experimentation.

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Considering scale is a vital factor in digital creatures, as they often need to feel imposing when witnessed on screen. Scale is best communicated through speed of movement, having other elements that viewers know the size of already in the plate for comparison, and the choice and use of associated creature effects. For example, the spacecraft the aliens use in ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ incorporate a range of water effects, which suggest the relative size of the aliens themselves.

Differentiating individuals among large groups of creatures of the same species also calls for some interesting problem-solving. An efficient approach is to take an original model, and then apply variations systematically. The team can make random changes to the shader for texture and colour, for example.  A successful example of this was a particularly lengthy shot from ‘Jurassic World’ that involved most of Imagine Engine’s other creature look dev, modelling, animation and integration techniques.

Herding Dinosaurs

In the shot, a herd of Gallimimus stampede past a group of park visitors. Originally, the shot was planned to contain six Gallimimus dinosaurs running along in a group. Image Engine created a believable run cycle for the dinosaurs, ready to place in a rough layout. But with every iteration, the number of creatures the production wanted to see grew, finally ending up with 60 Gallimimus in the shot.

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To accommodate this, Image Engine reworked the layout and rerendered the lighting for the entire shot each time for all 400 frames. In order to increase the realism of the creatures, the team also ran FX on each individual dinosaur, including grass kick-up and patches of digital grass around where the Gallimimus feet hit the ground. It took two days to render the scene each time.

The artists devoted particular effort to laying out the shot to create a genuine sensation of being in among a herd of extinct creatures. For the Image Engine team, careful hand animation, simulated muscles and precise choreography were key to making the shot feel so engaging. Crowd simulations wouldn’t have produced that same feeling.

Another approach to the theme of variation appears later in the same movie when the team created a group of four female velociraptors. The small number allowed them to meet the production’s request to give each one her own personality, while making the model almost, but not quite, the same for each one. Again, it required a very specific, customised combination.  

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Recent Developments

Improvements in the creature design and effects realm have been numerous in recent years. Image Engine notes that rendering software in particular has grown much more effective in the delivery of photoreal work, owing especially to the development of physically based material effects. Many improvements have been made in 3D scanning for capturing textures and materials. Grooming tools and cloth simulation software have also massively improved, enabling the studio to deliver ever more photorealistic results.

While animation as a skill still depends primarily on the artist’s understanding of performance, animators still require the support of Image Engine’s advanced rigging tools. As R&D lead Andrew Kaufman remarked, “Each wave of technical innovations seems to outstrip the last – soon, what felt new and unprecedented in ‘District 9’ will look completely outdated.”  image-engine.com