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    Guiding the eye to the Invisible Digital Effects for Changeling.

    CGSociety :: Production Focus
    6 November 2008, by Renee Dunlop

    Losing someone in a crowd isn’t easy when you are filming on a small lot with just a handful of extras.

    The overwhelming task of finding a child lost in the vastness of 1928’s Los Angeles can’t be portrayed with a two hour close-up. To reveal the silent scream of Angelina Jolie’s character in J. Michael Straczynski’s Changeling, VFX Supervisors Michael Owens, and CIS Vancouvers’ Geoff Hancock helped build and populate a back lot city block into a budding metropolis meandered by a million unique paths.

    Through set extensions and matte paintings, digital vehicles and Massive pedestrians, Owens and Hancock gave life and depth to a storyline that imbibed the definition of subtleties. What is unique about the perceived simplicity of such a task, assuming the work is even noticed, is how crucial it can be. While not the standard VFX fare of explosions and superheroes, the visual FX in Changeling helped reveal the power of emotion rather than the power behind a dynamite blast.


     

    Angelina Jolie, Clint Eastwood and writer J. Michael Straczynski
    Building Blocks
    Drawing the eye away from the digital work and towards the story points, framing the storyline in photorealistic and historically accurate emotional queues first led to a great deal of research. Los Angeles was still shiny and new in 1928. The cars were some of the first off the line and every one still had a shine. Clothing was made of wool, hats and gloves were proper attire, and movements were small, formal, and refined. But there was a seediness to the town as well, one that needed to reveal slowly, creating a mood of pressurized confinement in a town brimming with corruption and etiquette.

    CIS Vancouver, previously Rainmaker, was the facility predominantly chosen to do the project. Michael Owens explains, “Early on in conversations with clients (director) Clint Eastwood and (producer) Rob Lorenz, we were trying to figure out what scenes would be enhanced by visual FX. We were all thinking that whatever we were adding was supposed to be peripheral. It wasn’t supposed to be a platform for VFX, it was supposed to be peripheral to the story. We did a lot of architectural and vehicle adds that were all period to the 1928.”

    Geoff Hancock of CIS Vanvouver found the process very rewarding. “It was great working with Michael because he really likes to focus on the story and how VFX can enhance that. He really urged us to strive for the grammatical complexity. Because it wasn’t a huge over the top in your face FX, you couldn’t get away with anything, it just had to look like you expected it would.
     
    “It took a lot of research to figure out what really needed to be shown,” said Hancock. “We had to start from scratch because so much of the material that is commonly available is more modern, and we weren’t able to leverage any existing models. In most cases, everything from textures to models to mocap was recreated from the ground up. We had to talk to the mocap performers about how people walked differently in that time. They weren’t just strolling down the street, especially in the parts of the movie we were recreating. It was center city, some of the busiest intersections in LA, where people were out on the town.”

    The first challenge for Owens was to maintain the pace that Eastwood is known for. In Eastwoods case, this meant avoiding bluescreens and relying on roto. “I knew early on, well before Changeling, that Clint worked very fast. He was patient if needed, but his desire was to cruise through and not slow down and dwell on things. It’s not that bluescreen isn’t a viable technique, it’s just that the further I go into my career the more I realize it’s better to do it this way, unless technique-wise you are just going to shoot yourself in the foot. Bluescreen can be done, and we do them, but on Flag of Our Fathers, we started to go in a direction where we didn’t use any.”

     
    The obvious question is, what are the benefits to such a workflow? “The director doesn’t like bluescreens and the crews slow down. When you don’t use a blue or greenscreen the lighting is so much better, because you don’t have all that spill going on, and the light comes from where it should. If you roto something into it and it’s done well, it looks far more realistic in the composite. So we limited ourselves to just where it was reasonable to put a bluescreen in, such as the end of the street on the back lot, where we put a bluescreen up on either end. It helped when we needed it to and it was so far back it didn’t really affect lighting. That is where Clint is very amiable. If you have to have it, then do it. But if you can do without it and you can keep getting better at it, then let’s live without it because it makes his life better, and quite frankly it makes ours better too.

    “We shot on the recently burned down back lot of Universal to gain the foreground part of a lot of the street scenes, and we opened up the streets considerably. We had a lot of extras on the back lot, but we had to add to them considerably. Then the challenges was taking the digital crowd to the next level, and making sure the audience wasn’t aware of it. We used Massive crowds and we did a lot of mocap to facilitate the animation.”
     
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  • The Massive Details
    Those crowds not only had to meander throughout the digital environment, they needed to mingle in the live action too, a very tricky aspect. Foreground extras would walk past the shoulder of the camera and into the distance winding their way into the digital crowd. Hancock and others spent two full days at House of Moves working mocap with Phillip Hartman, testing and expanding the limits of Massive. “We needed to push a lot closer, the faces to look better, and the natural characteristics of their walking to be seamless enough to show up in the first block of pedestrians,” said Hancock. “That was a lot of reengineering things on our end, everything from technology to common work practices, because you weren’t able to just get away with low res models for crowd sets. We wanted to be able to push Massive
    right up to the camera and see how well it held up. In a couple of shots the characters might be 40 feet away from the camera, about 1/5th screen height. The bigger the screen is, the bigger the character. He could be 10 feet tall, so everything, even his hair, better look good!

    “It worked out really well considering the density of the streets we had,” said Hancock. “But really the biggest thing we found was the believability of the people; even if they are close to the camera, you can get away with the true visual quality because you can buy the movement when you have mocap that is indistinguishable. A guy in a black suit, if he walks right, looks good. I think Michael hadn’t really trusted that we could get it that close, but as soon as he saw what we were able to do, he kept inching the characters forward. Shot by shot they were getting closer and closer to camera.”
     
    The Final Words
    The final credit roll runs for two and a half minutes with what is essentially a compilation of all the films digital work as Angelina Jolie’s character, Christine Collins, walks off to disappear in the crowded city streets and the camera pans up to reveal the miles of blocks ahead of her. In 1928, downtown LA was far bigger, congested and urban than New York City, the Mecca of urban centers, and that hustle and bustle of so many individual lives was needed to portray the message. The first two blocks there are people and CG buildings that recede into the distance to a CG downtown set extension. With Owens conducting much of the work through cineSync from his Idaho home, the nearly 4,000 frames were massaged to perfection.
    Owens suggested the idea for a long closing shot when he felt the Cannes version cut to black pulled the viewer out of the film too quickly. “They had us finish the movie very quickly for Cannes. We said we could probably take some cuts and some corners and make it viewable for a single viewing but not to the quality that it should be. So that is what we did. We had no time to do this end shot so they just faded to black as she’s walking away. Emotionally you really felt robbed. Sometimes you need to work out your emotions when a movie ends, and cutting to black and hearing the music come up, sometimes is too abrupt. I felt that way terribly in this case, thought that even before Cannes, but Cannes proved to me that we were truncating the audiences’ ability to emotionally chill.
     

    “There is a legend at the end before the credits. The legend speaks to what happened after the fact, and I think you need to just swallow that for a few moments with the visual still with you. Clint usually doesn’t use picture over end credits. Lately he’s done that and for a couple of reasons, but not his usual mode. In this case he was entertaining the thought and I said it might be really neat to end it just like the end of China Town. The camera booms up and she walks away from us from a very emotional, poignant scene at the end, walks away into this mass of people and traffic. It’s very hopeful and sad at the same time. We hold on that and slowly fade to an archival look of black and white, seeing way down the street.”

    Owen’s suggestion turned into a formidable task. With Jolie disappearing after about a minute in, live footage continues as the scene is gradually filled with digital work. The environment is added around the foreground live action, the background is added by the virtual world. Then all the vehicles are added virtually, as are the people. “We had extras on set and used them and dodged around them with the virtual people, combining them in the foreground, but the rest is all virtual. To maintain that for that length of time was problematic, just because of the screen time involved and the processing power that was needed.”

    Just to review the shot was a time consuming process. “You sit there for 2.5 minutes as one take, so you have to approach it a little differently. It was just.. a big.. BEAR! But it was a good bear,” he chuckled. “I think it worked out well.”
     
    The Invisible Reward
    The precision needed for such FX work requires a certain personality, one who loves creating the detail, mimicking what we know instinctively, while guiding emotions at a subliminal level. It’s the psychology in the art that helps delivers the story. It is precisely the work that Owens prefers. “I worked at ILM on the earlier Star Wars stuff, ET, and others, and I really enjoyed the platform fantasy driven FX movies. But my background before that was all live action, and I like straight dramatic movie. My favorite movie is Casablanca, those are more my style of movies. I think Star Wars, Jurassic Park, they are tremendous, I love seeing them. It’s not that I don’t enjoy working on them. I’m probably just more fascinated with directors and stories that are more purely dramatic.”

    “As time goes by, that is what I am doing more of. The work is great and it is fun. But boy, if you ever had to work with anybody, Clint would be the top of the list. He and his group are wonderful people. They are reasonable, they are artistic, they’re intelligent, fun, and funny. There are other people in the business like that, but it’s rare. It’s just such a pleasure, and I’m just lucky enough to be able to be the guy he needs for VFX. So, pretty fun.”

    RELATED LINKS:
    Official Changeling Site
    Michael Owens
    Geoff Hancock
    CIS Vancouver
    House of Moves
    cineSync
    J. Michael Straczynski

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