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    Texturing, lighting and pampering the critters of 'District 9'.
    Image-Engine completes the story.

    CGSociety : Production Focus Part 2/2
    3 November 2009, by Paul Hellard

    The Executive Producer of 'District 9' Shawn Walsh, had been following Director Neill Blomkamp's career pretty closely for some years. It was a pleasant surprise when Neill got in touch one day asking if he was interested in collaborating on a project. "We'd nearly crossed paths many times, but we didn't know each other," adds Walsh. He says Neill sent him "great rambling bits of text that included all kinds of wildly imaginative stuff he wanted in the film. It was all very improvisational."

    Peter Muyzers, Digital Production Manager, thought there was something about the first connection with Neill's assistant that convinced him to explore the film project a little further. "There was a brief outline in an email that immediately struck us as interesting," Muyzers explains.

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    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
     
    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

    The Mission
    It's no secret Neill Blomkamp has always had a keen interest in seeing Vancouver prosper as a center for filmmakers. Post production services and visual effects are crucial to being able to execute whatever he has in mind - which almost always includes computer generated images.
    It's also true that the film was originally imagined as a Weta Digital project, but with major projects like 'Avatar' having a huge effect on their workforce, Neill argued for the opportunity to take the film elsewhere and Peter Jackson agreed.

    "I think it had more to do with focus than anything," explains Shawn Walsh. "Neill just wanted a passionate group of his own that was going to embrace his film." Blomkamp vetted the project to various houses, but he was really encouraged by [eventual] On-Set Visual Effects Supervisor Peter Muyzers and Shawn Walsh showing him what was going on at Image Engine and they pitched successfully for the work. "That had a lot to do with Peter and Neill connecting with respect to how the film was going to be shot on location in South Africa because Peter would be responsible for the on-set supervision," explains Walsh. "It is great when you see two people connect like that because you know you can support and foster that relationship."

    Muyzers and Walsh were surprised by how much Neill already knew about them. "He really keeps tabs!" exclaimed Walsh. "I think that softened the landing on his leap of faith. Once we got the ball rolling, we worked very closely with Line Producer Trisha Downie and Post-Production Supervisor Pippa Anderson at WingNut, along with the film's financiers, to ensure that we were working with a budget and plan for visual effects that would stand up over the whole duration of the project."

     

    Challenges
    Neill presented Image-Engine with an amazing challenge. Take something completely foreign and seamlessly insert that element into a cinematographic shooting style that is designed to feel overtly unpolished and raw: a documentary film sensibility. There are aspects to many of the shots that are simultaneously bizarre and surprising, yet totally believable and completely integrated into the live action photography. That challenge was not sequence based, but rather existed in all of the shots. "We had many short sequences and one-offs that proved very challenging from a tracking and digital management perspective," explains Walsh, "but ultimately our work was like one 27 minute sequence dealing with variations on similar digital assets."

    Just make it look Cool!
    One of Blomkamp's best and most often used directions will simply be this: "Just make it look cool". Creature Supervisor James Stewart thinks the word 'cool' has a tremendous amount of implied trust as it assumes that they are thinking the same thing when that word is used. "Firstly, the greatest aspect of Neill's directing was his ability to empower the team as artists," says Stewart. "This was the key aspect to our relationship with Neill. He thinks like an artist so we were able to cut through a lot of red tape and get a tremendous amount of art on the screen."

    The sculpts from Weta gave the Image-Engine (IE) team their starting point for both creatures. Christopher and Little CJ. So much of the creature was laid out initially and it was up to IE to interpret it into something that would work logically and rig it that way.

    James Stewart's job was to play art director and supervise the build process. Crew familiarity for the character started when Shawn handed them the book, 'A Smaller Majority'. This was the book that Neill had used to wrap his head around the character. Inside were incredible pictures of bugs, slugs, crabs, spiders. They asked the author to send a DVD of RAW images so they could have the most realistic images possible.

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    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

    "If you look at the Goliath bug, that color was used for one of our aliens, the grasshoppers for another," explains Stewart. "There was not a shell on the character or a spec highlight that we were not able to compare to something in real life... all good art is that way. My job was making sure that the reference was hit and that artistically everything worked... and worked together with the backgrounds they would be intended to fit into."

    Image Engine didn't have many generalists. There were solid modelers, texture artists riggers and look development artists. "I think having talented experienced artists make artistic communication much easier and the possibilities seem infinite," adds Stewart. "This was the feeling I got from this crew."


     
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    Julianna Kolakis
    Julianna Kolakis first worked on the look development of Christopher and little CJ with James as well as the look dev lead Joe Eveleigh, the lead lighter Robert Bourgeault, and later Anna Ivanova, the second texture artist who came aboard to help with maps for the aliens and other models. The artists all contributed to the character development gathering references and giving artistic feedback on how materials such as the skin, shells, and tentacles should look.

    "There were 2026 texture maps for a variety of adult aliens (excluding clothes), and each model had 21 UV maps at 4096 pixels," explains Kolakis. "These maps included colors, bumps, displacements, various specs, wet specs, roughness, masks, multiple subsurface, and reflections for materials such as the shell, skin, eyes, fur, bruising, blood, dirt, dust, war paint, and stickers.

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    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

    "A lot of the textures were first painted in ZBrush and then brought into Photoshop for editing. This way I could quickly polypaint a simple pattern and export all maps for the body. I'd make the necessary changes to one map in Photoshop for filtering, adding color, photo details, etc, and apply the same adjustment layers to the rest of the body maps easily. I used my first maps as a template for all the others, just plugging in colors or masks to make the appropriate adjustments. More variations were created by inverting patterns and colors, diversifying war paint and stickers as well as changing clothes."

    There was room for conceptualizing a few more things such as wounds, eye colors, and alien patterns. The faces were changed based on a few ideas from James. He had a great sense of how the face should look and feel, and came up with a new concept focusing on a more insect-like appearance- one with more shells and less skin than originally. Following his sculpt the team fleshed out a 2D concept which got approval from Neil right away.

    MoCap
    Ultimately all the mocap was refined to background aliens and specific key moment of alien behavior. and the animators added ticks and sped up some of the subtle movements to make them seem like aggressive seven foot insect like creatures. Animation Supervisor Steve Nichols had a deja vu moment when he saw the plates and there were the gray suits that he was familiar with on 'Pirates'. They were helpful to get the performance and interaction Neill wanted with the actors and aliens. One main actor, Jason Cope, put on the unforgiving gray suit for the performance scenes involving interaction between CGI and live action actors. He focused on Christopher Johnson's character. The Animation Team would try to get as much of his nuances and character ticks from the plate and then 'alienize' the performance to make if feel less like a guy in a suit.

    Rotomation was mainly used for some of Christopher Johnson's performance. Jason or another actor was in the plate for keying the actor/alien moments. This kept the relationship and timing of the live action actors performance to the alien.

     
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    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.© 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
     

    Keyframe
    Many of the alien scenes and all of Little CJ was just straight keyframed by a small talented team of animators.

    The Aliens had a fantastic bipedal rig that also had many cool alien appendages. They used simulations in Maya for the tentacles and the Lead, Jeremy Mesana created great tools to get the most from the rigs quickly. Antennae drag and cycles for the alien appendages. The Facial rigs were based on the muscles of a human face. It was a joint based system that transferred from one alien to another, so the team stored facial poses in a central server for general use. This would keep the expressions 'on model'. The eyes were a key part of the face for nailing the performance.

    "I relied heavily on my team's abilities," explained Nicholls. "We discovered how Neill wanted the aliens to move. They couldn't look like guys in suits and they couldn't be too fantastical either, as the film is set in a very gritty, real world. We found we could use a subtle naturalistic motion and then add ticks and hyper shifts in the motion that an actor can't do. This kept it real but also something cool. The team was small, nine to 12 and then 16 at the peak. We knew we were working on something special so we all put our heart into it!"

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    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
    © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

    Budget
    Image-Engine managed to maximise the budget they had available through a combination of 'getting Neill's vision' and making that vision work within the budget that was available, with British Columbia's tax incentives for Vancouver VFX houses. "The important thing to remember was that we had a business to run and we knew if we couldn't make totally brilliant VFX with whatever budget there was, we were doomed to go under," admits Peter Muyzers. "It is important at all times to ensure that the business model is a solid one, and this was the case with Neill's project. There was very little 'excess' money available on the 'District 9' project."

    The team made a point of separating themselves from what definitely could not be done and what could. "Neill had a great knowledge of what was possible, for instance we stayed away from cloth synth, which is expensive," explains Muyzers. "We were advising even before we started shooting on the approach, and Neill was very comfortable with that."

    Peter Jackson's involvement was definitely a cache for recruiting the best for the project. People had not heard of Neill Blomkamp, but they had definitely heard of Peter Jackson. But the story holds some very pertinent issues for the world situation today. Set in real-world, gritty environments, top line crew became interested because they respected Neill's vision.
    Peter draws the parallel to the feeling at ESC during the production of the 'Matrix'. Cool ideas, top VFX, great results from each department, a 'similar buzz' around the studio, which was great to be a part of.

     

    On Set
    Peter Muyzers had on-set VFX Supervision experience while working at Moving Picture Company in London on the 'Harry Potter' series and many other projects. He knew that he had to make sure what was brought back to the studio, could be used to its maximum edge, for the production. Because Neill knew a great amount of what was possible, Peter Muyzers could be almost invisible to the camera, talent and direction on set. "They could pretty much go on shooting 360 degrees what was needed and the HDRIs, texture plates and lighting maps could be generated on the go, despite the environment also being extremely harsh," says Muyzers.

    BC Advantage
    Vancouver's VFX and film industry is going through a 'transformation' at the moment. Peter Muyzers sees similarities to London's VFX 'coming of age', obviously many years ago now. "'Lost in Space' was being worked on by many studios in London at the time," says Muyzers. "The thing that time did in London was it made various companies work together, taking on this one big project. Competition kind of disappeared and everyone pulled together to make this film happen. On 'District 9' here in Vancouver, the same thing is occurring. With three Vancouver houses working on it, egos had to be set aside to final each shot. This is working at the moment, and I hope it continues to happen on consequent productions. Although as far as I know Neill isn't a 'franchise' kind of guy, not into doing sequels like 'District 10', 'District 11' etc, this certainly isn't the last you heard from him by a long shot."

    By my reckoning, this isn't the last we're going to hear from Image-Engine either.

    Model Sheet of the MotherShip. © 2009 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
    Related links:
    Image Engine
    District 9
    Dan Kaufman, Overall Visual Effects Supervisor on District 9
    District 9 [Part 1]
    Peter Muyzers
    Julianna Kolakis
    The Smaller Majority by Piotr Nazkrecki

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