• The Da Rainmaker Code

    Saint-Sulpice was an equally mighty fortress for The Da Vinci Code director Ron Howard who wanted to film a night scene there. The Catholic Church, which has denounced Brown’s book, refused to give the film crew permission to shoot inside the famous Parisian church. Moreover, the church is not open at night. But audiences who attend the Sony Pictures film will still see the pivotal scene. Rainmaker Animation and Visual Effects solved the mystery of how to shoot the scene without filming inside. They used a greenscreen set and digital set extensions, of course, but the answer isn’t as simple as that.
     Rainmaker A fortuitous meeting between Rainmaker’s Mark Breakspear and Angus Bickerton, visual effects supervisor for The Da Vinci Code set the stage: Breakspear had bumped into Bickerton while buying a camera in Vancouver. Previously, the two had worked together on ‘Firewall’, for which Rainmaker had created a view of Seattle from a window. The two had coffee and talked about the challenges with Bickerton’s latest job. “I knew we could adopt the technique we used for Firewall to build Saint-Sulpice,” said Breakspear.

    The requirement that the project had to be done in London (for tax reasons) was no problem – Rainmaker has a London-based office and Breakspear is British. But, they had competition. “Everyone in town wanted this sequence,” says Breakspear. “It was probably the biggest sequential shot sequence in the film. There are 39 shots one after another. And, it’s kind of a cool sequence.”
     To get the job, Rainmaker moved a small team from Vancouver to London, and the team spent two months working on a test. “Trying to get jobs is an art form itself,” says Breakspear. “You have to be fully invested. You have to know the script; you have to know the characters. You go up against companies investing thousands of dollars trying to put this stuff together.”

    The team started with measurements and photographs taken by Bickerton, who had entered the church as a tourist. “His feet are 12 inches long,” says Breakspear. “He paced the church and gave us rough measurements.” From those measurements and photographs, the team created a 3D camera move through a virtual church rendered at film resolution. “We had been waiting for a project to come along that would test a new process we’re using to build CG environments,” says Breakspear. “The test was a learning curve; we worked out a lot of the things that were right and wrong about the process.” Breakspear calls the result “jaw dropping.” It put us in the running to bid that sequence,” he says.

    As soon as they got the job, they hired additional artists in London and put a second team in Paris to gather more photographs. “We had done the test from Angus’s [Bickerton] photographs, without any of us walking through the church,” Breakspear says. “When we went to look at it, we felt like we’d been there. It was breathtaking.”

    But it wasn’t quite accurate. Bickerton’s feet, it turned out, weren’t precisely 12 inches long. Using the new photographs, a floor plan of the church, and other research data, they created a more accurate model in Lightwave.

    Meanwhile, two weeks after landing the job, a team from Rainmaker was on set at Shepperton Studios. The set, which was built inside a 40-foot, 360-degree greenscreen, had a tiled floor, some chairs, pillars, and candles – the lighting replicated a nighttime scene. Because a one-to-one scale wouldn’t fit on the largest stage at Shepperton, the set was 15% smaller than the real church. To extend the set, Rainmaker brought a wireframe model and a computer system that fed the CG model into the 35mm camera. “They could point the camera somewhere and within two minutes the camera operator could see the arches and the angles they would see in the real church,” says Breakspear.
  • Rainmaker


    At the end of the shoot, the Rainmaker team had video feeds for 60 different angles. And, with those 60 angles in mind, the team returned to Paris to make sure the film crew hadn’t shot angles they couldn’t build. “We knew the final edit could consist only of the angles we’d shot on set,” says Breakspear.

    To reproduce the church, the team used a combination of photos and painted textures. Shots that looked down from on high were especially tricky because the crew couldn’t take reference photos to match, so they generated painted textures for those. They also replaced pillars from the set, which had been modeled using Bickerton’s stepped-off measurements, with CG pillars. And, they replaced the candles. “They were real, but they didn’t look real enough,” says Breakspear. “It was totally bizarre.” Breakspear took the candles that had been shot on set to his London apartment and filmed the wicks and flames with a DV camera. “I sat there for an hour blowing on the flames,” he says. “Every little flicker is mine.”


    For this project, Rainmaker used Lightwave, boujou for tracking, digital fusion for compositing, Photoshop for painting, and proprietary code. Breakspear is coy about the proprietary process the studio uses to model, texture and light the church, but admits that it’s tied to data collection and how that data is applied.

    He says, “If you’re in visual effects, you’re aware that rendering objects with CG renders gives you only a glimpse of reality, a pseudo reality. All render engines have predefined characteristics. Textures give you a glimpse of another reality for the same thing, but in environments like the church, there are so many reflective surfaces – even wood has a sheen – you can’t just apply wallpaper. You need to have the refractive, reflective, and ambient light. When the camera moves around, objects have to react like marble and wood. So, we’ve been working out ways to combine the two and get the best from both. There aren’t many tools for that.”

     He continues: “We use stuff that exists. The technique of using wallpapering is not a new technique, but we ask, ‘How far can we push it? How far can we push CG? And, if we combined the two, how much farther can we go?’”

    Because the Rainmaker team could access and photograph the church only in the daytime, they built a daytime model, even though the scene takes place at night. Then, for reference, they used other churches to get a feeling for being in large spaces at night. The compositing team led by Matthew Crenz converted the digital model to nighttime. “Part of the technique we use strips out the real lighting and we can replace it with the lighting we want,” says Breakspear. “Converting from day

     to night was a major part of the job. We got rid of sunlight textures and shadows and added moonbeams and bluer environments, while still protecting the red in the flickering candles and the skin tones.”

    Breakspear believes that the secret code they have developed helped the crew create a virtual Saint-Sulpice that’s so believable audiences will think the crew filmed in the real church. They had to do that. “It’s one thing to create a dinosaur or a UFO,” he says. “Who knows whether they look right? But a church ... everyone knows.”

    According to Wikipedia, this message is posted at the real Saint-Sulpice: "Contrary to fanciful allegations in a recent best-selling
     novel, this [the line in the floor] is not a vestige of a pagan temple. No such temple ever existed in this place. It was never called a Rose-Line. It does not coincide with the meridian traced through the middle of the Paris Observatory which serves as a reference for maps where longitudes are measured in degrees East or West of Paris. Please also note that the letters P and S in the small round windows at both ends of the transept refer to Peter and Sulpice, the patron saints of the church, and not an imaginary Priory of Sion."

    If Breakspear is right, they might want to add a postscript that reads, “At no time did the film crew for a recent Hollywood movie shoot scenes in this church.

    Mark Breakspear

    Related links:
    The Da Vinci Code / Sony Pictures Imageworks
    Rainmaker Animation and Visual Effects
    NewTek LightWave
    Digital fusion

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