Tue 10th Jun 2014, by Paul Hellard | Production
Official Extended featurette
© Warner Bros.
In Edge of Tomorrow, the world is at war with an alien force that no army can conquer. CGSociety talks to the artists who made it.The United Defense Force’s least likely recruit has to succeed in employing a most implausible strategy: Live. Die. Repeat.
The plot follows an Allied Forces PR rep, (Major William Cage) who unwittingly gets tangled up in the highest-level military operation of destroying an alien invasion. But before anything of like that happens, our hero is killed just minutes into the beach landing. Therein lies the plot. This is a SciFi warfare ‘GroundHog Day ’ kind of premise.
© Warner Bros.
A brilliant vehicle for an action movie that stays fresh as it develops. There are many VFX studios bringing their brilliant work forward for it, including but not limited to MPC, Framestore, RodeoFX, Cinesite, The Third Floor and Sony Pictures Imageworks. Edge of Tomorrow is the first motion picture to be shot at Warner Bros. Studios at Leavesden.
Based on the novel ‘All You Need is Kill’ by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow was directed by Doug Liman, framed and lit by DP Dion Beebe and Nick Davis was overall VFX Supervisor. Davis’s history of action-thrillers speaks for itself, with The Dark Knight in 2008, Clash of the Titans in 2010, as well as 2012 ’s Wrath of the Titans in his resumé, Davis has proven his futuristic SciFi visual talents here, more than ever.
Sony Pictures Imageworks VFX supervisor Daniel Kramer and his talented crew collaborated with Nick Davis on driving the photorealistic environments and epic battle scenes, the creation of CG creatures and characters and large and small-scale effects animation. In over 400 shots created for Edge of Tomorrow, SPI began work on the first two acts of the movie, which included the layout of the Heathrow airport shot, which appears completely taken over by the military.
© Warner Bros.
Shot at Leavesden Studios, and extended with both aerial and ground-based set extensions from the real Heathrow, there were crowds of troops, barracks, vehicles and the DropShip aircraft. RodeoFX was called upon at that stage to create a lot of the Heathrow extensions, after SPI replaced the 747s with DropShips, barracks and mess halls. Likewise with the trailerpark set, captured in a backlot of Leavesden, which was extended using CG elements and matte painting, also work split with RodeoFX.
Prior to Sony Imageworks becoming involved, an extensive previs was generated in London by Nick Davis and the crew at The Third Floor. “At the time, the script was certainly still evolving,” says Kramer, “and the scenes in the previs were showing a huge armada of allied forces landing on a beach like Normandy, filled with soldiers in these insanely bulky battle suits. The outlook for a human victory was not good so we minimised the number of vehicles. In every single shot, there was a troop carrier being shot of the sky onto the beach. The location was mixed. Some angles built as a partial set on the Leavesden Studios backlot, photographic elements were shot at Saunton Sands, CG elements and matte-painting were added to tell the bleak story.”
This very big previs job was taken on by the crew at The Third Floor. Albert Cheng was supervising previs in London for this project. He says that once set pieces were created for the ‘master scene’ of the beach assault with all the elements, including the lighting setup, that's a large portion of work that carries over loop to loop, they could then focus on changes that the character affects in the script. He takes up the story. “Given that it's a battle scene with a lot going on, there was still a lot of work to animate the different actions of the principal characters,” he says. “A great deal of our work on the beach was simply trying out different situations based on the demands of the script at any given time.”
However, Cheng qualifies that the beach landing and all the loops over a large portion of the sequence were extensively prevised. “From very early on, major action beats like members of J-Squad getting killed in the trench and Cage seeing Rita outside the ship had been established. From there, we would revise specific actions around those key beats so you could see the various ways Cage was able to alter the event.”
Director Doug Liman wanted to convey the desperate situation the allied soldiers were up against. They were not only outnumbered, but the strength and terror coming at them from out of the sand was unfightable. “As we watched the story develop, the whole tone of the battle changed,” explains SPI’s Dan Kramer. “One of the nice things about it was that because the battle was so incredibly chaotic, it was almost impossible to work out where they were. Almost purposefully disorienting, which made it easy for us to take a lot of liberties. It allowed the artists a lot of freedom. No particular smoke column had to tie into anything or any explosion had to be in a particular spot. It was like we could ‘just make cool shots’!”
© Warner Bros.
There also were a lot of practical effects on the beach that the SPI artists then augmented into CG plumes of fire, explosions and smoke. “They first began to place smoke drifting through but the lighters would then take it and render out thousand frame clips of it. The compositors in NUKE would then bring the layered 2D elements in on cards to the battlefield and it was up to them to design the destruction on the beach, and that was really complicated,” says Kramer. “They followed up with RBD simulations of trucks and cars exploding, and the lighters would render them from different angles so they could be dropped into frame as required from this fiery CG element library we developed.”
In terms of actual fighting choreography, all the action with Cage and Rita fighting the Mimics (aliens) together was choreographed by Simon Crane and his stunt team. It was important that they work out how an enhanced Cage and Rita moved in the suit to allow them to leap and powerslide. Tom and Emily would be performing a lot of the stunts themselves so they carefully choreographed and planned all that action, which involved lots of rigging on set.
Where the actors were running around on the shoot, they were in a muddy, boggy area for up to two months, capturing various angles and battle scenes. The Saundon Sands location was a big wide beach, with a little water visible at one end, but there was no surf at all. That was all added in for the production. So there was a lot of ocean spray, surface and water interaction in Houdini fluid and water simulations as they came ashore or landed from the DropShip in shallow surf.
© Warner Bros.
Original template design for the alien Mimics
These very-alien creatures took a long time to figure out. Doug Liman wanted them to be truly alien and to have nothing in which you could relate them to as a terrestrial or animalistic creature. These weren’t just big angry spiders in fast motion. He wanted something truly terrifying and take it from me, they delivered.
These creations moved so incredibly fast and came out of the ground. Rolling from dugout to another place on the beach in seconds, while the allied soldiers could just stand there. This creature was wrapped in crusty black tentacles and could fire spears at any time, from any angle. “One of the sculptors in the early days of the production built a creature that was entirely built of tentacles,” explains Kramer. “It looked like if you built a creature out of heavy black spaghetti that would be it. Doug and Nick fell in love with it because it didn’t have any up-or-down, front-or-back. It could completely shape-shift. Just by reorganising its tentacles, it could turn around, flip upside down, anything. When it needed a head to express itself, it grew one!”
Building this creature, which intrinsically didn’t have a fixed number of ‘limbs’ posed a special kind of problem for the modelers. “Usually there is a model form that could be rigged and it would stay as it was, but not this character. We wrote a Maya plugin that basically built these procedural tentacle bundles,” says Kramer. “What we would do is define a center curve which the animators could then curve around, and we grew tentacles down that limb. We could twist the tentacles on their way down and the build would ensure they weren’t inter-penetrating each other as they were pulled down. We also built various movement scripts as well as a kind of hand so it could grab victims, while staying as a completely procedural system. There was no control model to guide the creation of the next model. The animators could just shove more limbs and tentacles into the body as they needed them. Each Mimic could be a completely different shape, move differently, with a different number of limbs as well.”
This Mimic would shoot around the beach attack zone incredibly fast, and one of its hallmarks was the amount of sand, dirt and other flotsam kicked up as it made its way around. In fact, this made the presence of each of these things all the more terrifying, because the atmosphere would be filled with grit, making fighting it all the more difficult. “We pushed smoke and sand from the form as well and I think that helped sell the power of it and bring it back into reality for us,” add Kramer.
When one of these creatures is killed, they were made to almost dissolve and instantly become brittle, like a burnt sparkler stick. The material of the creature is close to hard rock or glass. Their limbs are actually chains of segments. They don’t bend but it’s almost like they’re tied together with ropes. The initial design was of sharp, hard, shiny black rocks. Black Obsidian is the closest example. “We modeled each segment rather like little chunks of obsidian and as you get closer to it, it would flash in amber because they were shiny as well, and catch the nearby explosions in reflection.” When one of these things gets hit by a tracer, all these segments are released, and the whole form shatters.
© Warner Bros.
The barnhouse sequence was surprisingly practical. While the location was peppered with set extensions, assets and frosts to authenticate its almost romantic setting, the chopper that crashes down through the roof was on a gimbal which was literally pushed through the roof. Covered by multiple cameras on the day, a replica barn was torn apart to resemble this torturous moment.
“While a lot of that was in-camera, SPI added lots of added debris, the helicopter blades and general smoke and dust,” says Kramer, “the entire chopper body was replaced with a CG as it comes to rest. We added in further dirt, hay and smoke to create the chaos that ensues after the crash-landing. The interior of the barn began with a full LiDAR scan of a barn we’d found, but where we clearly couldn’t have a chopper come through the roof.”
Although they came in quite late to the production, nevertheless they delivered a lot of the assets right across the spread of the film. Cinesite worked on ten different key sequences, 221 shots, and 189 making it into the final cut of the movie. The main set was the interior ‘shooting range’ sequence which Cinesite created and extended. This was actually quite late on the shoot, and the Cinesite crew was working on what was the final plate setup for those sequences. Simon Stanley-Clamp was the VFX Supervisor for Cinesite’s work on the movie. He told me about the training ground set which carried invisibility in CG sets to a new level.
© Warner Bros.
Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt’s character) is introduced here, training in the underground bunker with these yellow mechanised versions of the aliens. “It’s nicely designed in that it fades off into the distance and doesn’t call attention to itself at all. Like a car factory where those robots are suspended from the ceiling.” The notion is that these testbank drone trainers are being driven on hydraulic rams and can go anywhere in that space at a moment’s notice, on precise ram gears much like a printer jet.
“Since the story has Major Cage reliving the same day over and over, he goes back into the training ground multiple times during the film and there is a lot of action in there as well,” explains Stanley-Clamp. “In the fights, we created the high contact and breakaway panels when there are heavy collisions. The message in those fights is that he is actually really bad at fighting and the machines are always destroying him. In the end he is trained up though, and he almost doesn’t need to look at what he’s doing.”
These flying rigs were on the set to help the interaction when he is in combat training. These were combined with the sometime-inserted digital doubles for the landings and bounces. “This entire sequence was brought to our attention very late in the production. Nick had been talking about this movie for ages,” says Stanley-Clamp, “and it was shot for the most part in Canada, and then he came to us quite late with this sequence he wanted us to look at.”
Nick Davis had been living with the previs of each sequence for the past six or so months, and rightly wanted to keep to that vision. Cinesite was able to do more with their robots than was shown on the previs. “There’s nothing flashy about them. These are just industrial robots and that’s the thing. We adjusted the height they could go and the speed they’d go and tried varying the motion-blur,” explains Stanley-Clamp. “It’s subtle stuff but hopefully beds them in and makes them even more real.”