VFX Supervisor Alexander Seaman talks about DNEG’s aerial and terrestrial chase sequences for ‘The Adam Project’ – Time Jets, a wormhole and animated flying robots.

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Time Jet pilot Adam Reed, protagonist of Netflix feature film ‘The Adam Project’, travels back and forward again in time from his dystopian world of 2050, risking his life and the balance of history as he tries to discover the truth behind his wife's disappearance. He crosses paths with Maya Sorian, the dangerous leader of the dystopian regime, and meets his younger self as a 12-year-old in 2022, creating intrigue and calling on the skills of VFX artists.

With production underway near the end of 2020, overall VFX Supervisor Alessandro Ongaro looked for a team to cover the film’s chase sequences, and hired DNEG led by VFX Supervisor Alexander Seaman.

Flying through Time

For ‘The Adam Project’, DNEG completed more than 350 shots within eight sequences. “Our main tasks involved visualising time travel, including pre-vis for various time travel sequences, and building and animating the time jets,” said Alexander. “The Production had supplied concept art and preliminary builds for the jets, but the DNEG team needed to improve and refine the modelling to reflect 2050 engineering. Inspiration for the design came from modern military aircraft and modern landspeed record vehicles, which the team developed further for a futuristic, high-speed look.”

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A large number of the time travel shots that featured the jets required full CG recreation. One of their sequences was a dog fight between two jets involving a huge terrestrial environment build, digital tracer fire, and damage and destruction to Adam’s jet. Another was the opening sequence, when Sorian pursues Adam in his Time Jet as he escapes the earth’s environment.

Alexander said, “The work started with aerial plates, followed by previs. The plates were useful to a certain extent, serving as a practical anchor for placing all of the elements. But the extensions we needed to make were so large, and all aspects of them had to be controlled so closely in order to choreograph the intense action between the jets, that an all-CG redesign was more efficient in the end.

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“For the opening sequence, DNEG had to create a sense of speed and urgency while in a space environment with little for viewers to latch their eyes onto for orientation. The artists’ job was to design a CG earth model and a CG starfield in which to place the scene, as well as a wormhole that Adam escapes through.”

Evoking a feeling of speed for the audience was essential for the story, but is difficult to convey in a space environment where the artists could not use wind, noise or parallax by rushing the camera past nearby objects, and where motion blur is not relevant. “So we cheated slightly when rendering the clouds and vapour trails, depicting them in motion and with more clarity than a viewer in Adam’s jet would have experienced from that distance,” said Alexander.

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The team had to design the layout and camera work of the sequence before they could focus on the textures and photorealism of the assets.

Placed in Space

Also, as the animated CG sequences needed to serve as storytelling devices, layout was key to the shots. Working from the previs, the layout artists used the assets and cameras to stage, block and shoot the action shot by shot, making a kind of 3D animatic while the models were still at low resolution. They were also working at a point in production when they could adapt their work to the stylistic choices of the film fairly easily, a bit like designing the stage where the jet animation and FX would take place.

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“As well as the challenge of expressing speed, space viewed from a given spot is usually not very dynamic,” Alexander said. “To prevent a static feeling, we made sure particles and dust were present in every shot. We also cheated the position of earth, shrinking it down and keeping it in view as much as was feasible, even if the result wasn’t entirely accurate, and altered the position of the sun. We had a collection of satellite shots of earth as reference, and the views of the starfield referenced NASA imagery.”

The team needed to portray the Adam characters inside the space ship as it flew through shots, not only from inside but sometimes also from outside the cockpit. When the camera was inside, they could use a bluescreen replacement approach with the talent on a live action set. From outside, though, they needed to create, light and animate digital doubles, and composite them into the wider scene.

In terms of animation, this was also an opportunity to add to the storytelling with some fun ideas. Alexander described a shot of a deep dive that would cause the characters to undergo weightlessness. He said, “We added the younger Adam hanging onto the seat with his legs kicking out behind him, just visible from the viewer’s POV outside.”

Wormhole Escape

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One of the bigger challenges for the team was Adam’s escape through a wormhole. Above all, the artists wanted a look that was exciting, and explored all kinds of looks and 3D camera work. Ultimately, their goal was lens-based effects, which meant exploring looks caused by chromatic aberration, bloom, distortion and so on. Deciding on a look that simulated passing through a magnifying glass, they used prismatic types of effects with effervescing particles.

For the audience, the feeling is almost physical. Most of these looks could be achieved with in-house shaders, while the basic geometric shape of the wormhole resembled a trumpet. But a special challenge was defining the 3D camera for the shots. They considered where to place the camera, and what POV, or POVs, to adopt. “We also needed to look at it from both sides, which means seeing Earth through it at some point, and also in reverse as Earth would be reflected in its glossy quality. Sorting out the colour palette was another interesting part of the project,” Alexander commented.

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Forest Pursuit

DNEG also created a car chase through a dense forest in which the two Adams’ car is pursued by Time Soldiers on hoverboards, descending from a space ship above them. A driver took the car on a fairly wild, but not dangerously fast, ride down a conventional dirt road that passes through a real forest. For the finished sequence DNEG had to make the car appear to be driving off-road at speed, right in among the trees, by placing trees between the car and camera, building forest extensions and blending them all with the existing plate material. This work required detailed compositing, both for exterior shots and for views of the forest from within the car.

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The need to insert fast moving Time Soldiers into this environment added to the complexity. Alexander said, “The Time Soldiers models on hoverboards were supplied to our team from Scanline, so that our challenge came from the animation and compositing parts of the job. We did have video of stunt men with hoverboards on wires – their performances were excellent. Although they weren’t moving fast enough to race the car and convey the necessary sense of danger and menace, having the video as reference meant the artists could create and control the Time Soldiers as digital doubles, saving time in animation and enhancing the realism of the final performance.”   www.dneg.com

The Adam Project is now streaming on Netflix.

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: Courtesy of DNEG © 2022 Netflix

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