CGSociety :: Production Focus
    14 February 2007,  by Barbara Robertson

    For the film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ (‘El Laberinto del Fauno’) Mexican producer, writer, director and makeup artist Guillermo del Toro whirled Spanish history, a fairy tale, and his experience with such horror films as ‘Blade II’and ‘Hellboy’ into a magical cinematic blend that left critics breathless.

    On Rotten Tomatoes’ “cream of the crop” tomatometer, for example, the film scored a rare 100% positive rating. ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’is up for six Oscars, including those for best foreign language film, cinematography, makeup effects, art direction, music, and for del Toro’s screenplay.  It also received eight BAFTA (British Academy) nominations, including a nomination for special visual effects, and won three awards – for make-up, costume design, and best film not in the English language.

    CafeFX created the film’s 300 visual effects and acted as associate producer, helping to finance the movie. With a budget estimated at around US$13.5 million for the entire film, when it came to digital effects, pragmatism ruled. Even so, the small Santa Maria-based studio created several CG characters and CG environments.

    “This is the first film we were the only vendor on,” says Everett Burrell, visual effects supervisor. “It was a big step and a big investment for CafeFX.”

    The film represented other firsts for CafeFX as well – first character show and the first time the studio used Autodesk’s Maya and Mental Images’ Mental Ray in production. In addition to those tools, the CafeFX crew used boujou, SynthEyes, 3D Equalizer, Photoshop, BodyPaint, ZBrush, Softimage|XSI, Lightwave, HDRI Shop and their own Cafesync, a Java program for sharing QuickTime files.
     Fantastic characters
    The crew’s primary digital character was a stick bug that transforms into a green fairy, but they also created blue and a red fairies, a toad, and a mandrake root. “It seemed like everything was a first thing for us,” says Akira Orikasa, CG supervisor. “We’re known for doing photoreal hard surface stuff. For this, so much was organic and character related, which required animation.”

    Because the stick bug needed to evolve into a fairy, modelers created both in Softimage XSI to take advantage of that software’s ShrinkWrap feature. The modelers worked in Maya, however, for the other creatures. “We rigged, textured, shaded, and animated in Maya,” says Burrell.

    For the stick bug, modelers referenced insects brought to the studio by an insect wrangler. “We had a room with a dry aquarium dedicated to them,” says Ron Friedman, supervising animator.

    The fairies, on the other hand, look and act like little bald monkeys, according to Burrell, with characteristics inspired by Ray Harryhausen creatures. “We looked at the Homunculus from [The Golden Voyage of] Sinbad, and the Trog from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger,” he says. “We tried to get those Harryhausen moments.”

    To create textures for these creatures as well as the toad and mandrake root, the crew used a combination of Photoshop, BodyPaint, and ZBrush. “We created the textures in Photoshop,” explains Orikasa, “and then brought them into BodyPaint to clean up the seams and make the textures continuous. Then we used ZBrush to export bump maps out to normal maps. Usually, bump maps use simple gradations from black to white to indicate elevation, but with ZBrush, the normal map reproduces the lighting angle so you can make the textures look like they were lit from the side.”

    Orikasa worked with del Toro to design the textures for the fairies. “He didn’t want Disney fairies,” Orikasa says. “He wanted them to look friendly but creepy, too.” Thus, to prevent ‘Pan’s’ fairies from conjuring up images of Tinkerbelle, Orikasa added blood vessels, dirt, and scars to the texture maps and used a dead leaf texture for the wings. “It had an insect quality but also, the dead leaf texture tied into Pan because he looks like he’s made of old wood,” he says.

    On the Move
    When Ofelia, the little girl (Ivana Baquero) first meets the stick bug, the insect lands on a tree, begins walking as the car she’s in starts moving, and then follows the car. “That was the most challenging shot,” says Friedman, “because the bug had to look realistic. The audience doesn’t know that it will become the green fairy. So we wanted the audience to wonder how the filmmakers got the bug to do that performance.”

    The bug needs to act, though, in a later scene with Ofelia is in bed with her mother. The creature crawls along the blanket up to Ofelia who opens a book and asks if it’s a fairy. 

    “The idea was that the insect provoked her to do something with the book,” says Greg Jonkajtys, animation lead. “So we used its head to show her what to do and react to her.” When she asks about the photo, the bug straightens up almost, describes Friedman, like a woman running her hands along her dress. And then, the bug transforms into the image in the book.

    Because del Toro didn’t want a straight morph for the transformation, technical animation supervisor Domenic DiGiorgio developed a process using XSI’s ShrinkWrap feature to selective change parts of the body one after the other. To heighten the illusion, Friedman animated the character in particular poses during the transformation.

    First, though, he designed the sequence with thumbnail sketches. “I come from a traditional animation background, so I often do little thumbnail sketches before committing to posing the character in a 3D program,” he says.

    His goal was to focus the audience’s eyes on specific body parts during the transformation. Friedman started with the insect’s legs and wings folded into its body.  The bug moved a rear leg and its feet became human. It stepped back and the rear legs transformed. The second time it stepped, its wings popped out and became fairy wings. Then, as it brought its front legs up, hands opened, fingers sprouted, and its arms became human. Lastly, its head transformed into its new fairy shape.

    Of all three fairies, the green fairy is the most human; the red and blue fairies act more like monkeys. “For the blue and red fairies, we were thinking of primate behavior,” says Friedman, “or even cavemen. It was as if they hadn’t yet learned the refinements of how to carry themselves.” The green fairy might anticipate before reaching for an object, but the blue fairy would lurch toward it.

    For the green fairy reference, the animators videotaped a dancer performing the role to use as reference. “We wanted the fairies to be feminine because they’re not men,” says Friedman. “But they’re also primal, feral. It was a fine line trying to incorporate something that felt elegant, but still animalistic and not totally human.”

    Animating the toad, on the other hand, meant matching an animatronic’s movement. “A lot of footage had been shot of the practical toad, but once Guillermo [del Toro] looked at the rushes, he decided we would replace it in a majority of the shots,” says Friedman. “Because he was adamant about using the puppet in a few shots, we had to be as close as possible in the render and in aspects of the movement.”

    Animators first created a performance for the shots – the tongue grabbing Ofelia’s hand, for example, or the toad turning inside out – and then added such smaller actions as little head jerks that made the CG toad seem more like a puppet.

    A more difficult task for the animators was the mandrake root. In the story, the mandrake root comes alive in a bowl of milk and mimics the movements of Ofelia’s mother who is in bed. “When she turned from side to side and adjusts her feet, the mandrake had to mimic those actions almost exactly,” Friedman says. “But because there’s a time delay the audience sees the mother moving first, so we had the mandrake perform the same thing with a broader movement to move the audience’s eyes there.”

    Initially, the crew planned to blend the CG mandrake into the mandrake prop that Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) dropped into the bowl, but ultimately, they replaced the physical prop during the beginning of the shot. “We couldn’t get it to the point where it wasn’t an obvious transition,” says Friedman. “So we overlaid the CG mandrake root during the entire scene.”
     Crazy Legs
    In addition to these characters, the crew also helped del Toro create skinny legs for the Pale Man (Doug Jones), the character with eyeballs in his hands, and for Pan, also played by Jones.

    Because the Pale Man’s design called for him to have emaciated legs, Jones wore green leotards on set with prosthetics glued on the front. When seen from the side, though, the trick didn’t work, so Jonkajty’s animated CG legs in XSI.  “I used the real legs as reference for the motion because the CG legs had to match the upper body,” he says.

    When seen from the front, compositors painted out Jones’ green legs, leaving the prosthetic and his feet. When seen from the side, the compositors integrated the CG legs. “We had to use a wild plate,” says Tom Williamson, compositing supervisor. “There was no repeatable motion control on set or on location; the camera was always moving. So, we had only an approximation of the camera move.”
    To create the faun Pan’s goat-like legs, the crew used a different technique. “From the knee to the ankle is Doug [Jones] standing on a platform,” explains Williamson. “The haunches that go backwards are mechanical appendages stuck to his knees. We see his legs in green stockings with tracking marks in every shot.”

    Thus, the compositors needed to remove the green legs, fill in holes that created with the background, and create perfect match-moved clean plate. “We matchmoved the plate, roto’d out where the green legs were visible, generated a low-detail version of the set, front projected the plate, and added film grain,” says Williamson. “Then we could have a camera move on the set by itself; we had a clean plate we could use to reveal behind where his legs were.
      Light Touch
    Burrell was on location with del Toro in Spain for five months making sure the crew had lighting reference for their shots – the typical gray ball, chrome sphere and HDRI images. “Every time they changed location, they shot 360-degree HDRIs and sent them to us,” says Orikasa. “The first thing we did was stitch everything together and make QuickTime VRs for lighting reference. You could open the QuickTime, drag a mouse inside, and see the environment.”

    To stitch together the HDRI images, Orikasa and the crew used several software packages. “None were perfect enough to do what we wanted,” he says. Once stitched, they imported the images into HDRI Shop and used a plug-in called Light Gen that generates lights from HDRI images.

    “We could assign the number of lights we wanted,” says Orikasa. “For example, if we typed in ’20,’ it created 20 directional lights with the color temperature and intensity from the HDRI image. That was our starting point for lighting.”

    The slightly translucent fairies were most difficult to light. “We used the MISSS (Mental Images subsurface scattering) Mental Ray shader to mimic the way light goes inside and scatters,” says Orikasa. “We wanted the fairies to be a little translucent, to look like they were made of flesh, not plastic.”
     Ready Sets
    In addition to the characters, CafeFX also created some invisible effects to extend the sets built on location and to heighten the action in battle scenes. For example, during a shot when Ofelia runs into the Labyrinth, the wall crumbles open and then closes behind her. To create that shot, Orikasa used particle animation in Lightwave. “I instanced all the rocks and debris and added trees and branches that look like scary hands,” he says. Also, for a sequence with a train destroyed by villains, the studio extended a train set, painted a forest and sky behind, and added digital smoke.

    Because the government didn’t allow any explosions or pyro on location, CafeFX added all the muzzle flashes, bullet holes, and even blood splatters for all the battle sequences later in postproduction. “The way you usually do blood hits is with a small explosive charge,” says Williamson. “But they couldn’t have even small explosions. So, we added bullet holes and blood, and warped the image so the blood moved with the fabric.”

    The most complicated invisible effect, though, was a sequence at the end of the film that the studio dubs, the “throne room,” during which Ofelia enters the kingdom again. “It was a completely CG environment,” says Williamson. “They had shot only the floor, a partial room, and long spires with seats on top.”

    Working with matte artist Robert Stromberg, who offered tips by painting in Photoshop on render tests, CafeFX created Lightwave rendered elements and crowds of people. “The king and queen are 3D characters, but the people in the stands are our crew,” says Williamson. “We did multiple passes of us goofing off in front of the greenscreen in different costumes – sitting on seats, clapping, standing up, and waving. If you look closely, you can see me in a Jedi costume.”

    Compositing lead Mike Bozulich integrated the many layers into the scenes within digital fusion. “These scenes were the single biggest composites in the show,” says Williamson. “They’re absolutely gorgeous.”

    As is the film. For its first foray into creature effects, the studio could hardly have chosen better. As Williamson puts it: “I’ve worked on 40 motion pictures and I can count the ones I’m proud of on one hand. At this point, ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is number one.”

    Related links:
    Pan’s Labyrinth 

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