Pacific Rim studio talk

Sun 29th Sep 2013, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

26 September 2013, by Paul Hellard

PACIFIC RIM was one of the spectacular go-to movies of the northern Summer this year, with tremendous physical duels between the collective human world's machines and the long-term visitors to the planet in the form of massive monsters, with nods to Godzilla tales of the East. The challenge of creating these many beasts were surrounded by the even more complex task of making sure they appeared as big and as part of the world as they needed to be. This challenge was met by many studios on the slate but the crew at MIRADA stepped up to speak about their work here, exclusively with CGSociety.

The Scale of Pacific Rim

“Scale and destruction were practically their own character in this film,” says Zack Tucker, the VFX Supervisor at Mirada on ‘Pacific Rim’. “The nature of the prologue didn't afford us the opportunity to settle for too long on one shot or one location to soak that up. In fact, almost all the locations in the prologue are only seen for one or two shots. To sell the scale of the creatures, robots and destruction we had to ensure that there were visual scale cues weaved into each shot, which started at the very beginning, with the concept art. Each shot needed to be compelling and informative at the same time, while matching the impressive scale of the rest of the film. The goal was to achieve all that whilst conveying a sense of ‘found footage’ and documentary style coverage. It was a fine line to walk, and a blast to work on.”

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Mirada is a multi-disciplinary studio built for storytellers. They conceptualized the prologue's story, developed and designed all the visuals for it, shot all the necessary footage and executed the visual effects and finishing for our sequence. The project was a great way to showcase Mirada's creative storytelling prowess.The plethora of artists that are in-house affect the way the studio approaches a storytelling project. “For the Pacific Rim prologue sequence, del Toro wanted us to bridge the narrative gap between our world today and the Pacific Rim world that he was creating,” adds Daryn Wakasa, Mirada’s Art Director on Pacific Rim. “Although he had specific story beats in mind, it was our job to develop all the cultural details that would give the audience some real world context that would allow them to better relate to the Pacific Rim world. It was actually a great creative brief because we had to figure out the humanity aspect that setup the movie.”

In order to accomplish this, the Mirada crew analyzed and dissected every aspect of western and Eastern culture such as: politics, technology, the economy, environment, fashion, pop culture, national security, people migration patterns, religion and everything in between. How did cultures react to the Kaiju attacks? How was maritime trade affected? How did people cope with the up and downs of war? How did countries push to build the first Jaeger? As they were collecting all this research, the editor (Fred Fouquet), director (Mathew Cullen) and Wakasa would explore editorially on how they could emotionally communicate all these story beats in a clear and concise two minutes. The senior visual effects supervisor and president (John Fragomeni) and visual effects supervisor (Zach Tucker) also gave feedback on the story and edit as Mathew molded everything to perfection.

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While the editorial explorations took place, the concept team (Jing Zheng, Mark Brinn, Luke Belderes, and Clara Moon) was busy exploring the visuals within the prologue's story, which had a strong influence on what they were doing in the edit room. Mathew Cullen comes from a graphic design background and Javier Jimenez (EP), provided strong producing leadership always encouraging and enabling them to go above and beyond. Mirada provides an amazing creative, collaborative environment that allows artists from all different backgrounds to engage with the storytelling process. The visual development process should be a part of the story development process because the visuals help push the story to be more compelling and complete. To ensure this development revolves around story, Mirada has both the development and post production artists all in one place.

The Mirada sequence demanded it’s own unique look, which was a varied and complex task in itself. “We worked closely with the director del Toro and film VFX Supervisor John Knoll to make sure we stayed true to the world of Pacific Rim,” explains Julian Sarmiento, CG Supervisor.


“Scale was one of the biggest challenges we faced on Pacific Rim,” points out Modeling Lead Bryan Repka. There was a solid foundation laid out by the Mirada concept team to capture the size and scale from the beginning. “One of the first sketches I saw, depicted a Jaegar and a Kaiju standing next to the Golden Gate Bridge,” Repka says. “We wanted these things to feel enormous but believable at the same time. We blocked out large sections of the robots and then slowly started breaking down those sections into smaller pieces. We would place a generic man in our scene to gauge size, constantly checking to make sure panels, doors, hatches, etc were correct in scale. Surrounding the Jaegars and Kaiju with familiar objects like buildings, scaffolding and jets really helped to sell the scale as well.”

While using people in the shot is often a great scale cue, compared to the Kaiju and Jaegers they are too small to be visible. The Kaiju carcass on the aircraft carrier didn't need additional scale cues. “While there are people and planes on the deck of that ship, they don't sell the scale; the ship itself does,” says Tucker. “Aircraft carriers share one key trait. They're all massive. It doesn't take long to digest that shot and say, ‘Oh, I get it, that dead thing is BIG.’”


Quality location scouting also really helped sell scale as well. Creative Lead Mathew Cullen found some great spots to film. “One of my favorite places was a German ship factory,” explains Tucker. “They were building a cruise ship at the time, so we had to remove that and other ship-specific things from the shot. The factory itself was enormous. It's one of the few civilian locations on the planet with 250 feet of uninterrupted vertical real estate to hold a CG Jaeger. We packed a lot of activity and goodies into those shots.”

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Smoke, dust and atmosphere are challenging when created for the scale of Pacific Rim. Mirada used a combination of volumetric simulations out of Houdini, practical elements and matte paintings. Doing a full volume simulation for every element isn't always a viable solution. The smoke and fire that required specific interaction was accomplished primarily with simulations. The larger scale, non-interactive smoke was a blend of practical elements and matte paintings so they could not only have more control over art direction but could also populate the shot in less time.

“Generally when working on a movie as large as this one, you get to re-use assets but, in the prologue all of the shots are one offs so we had to create a whole world for a specific location to be used only in a single shot,” notes Sarmiento. “This means Mirada had to create hundreds of assets, which were only used in one shot. Even though we only used some shots once, they were still complex because we had to model, rig and texture, animate and light all the characters and assets appropriately.”

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In order to be able to quickly turn around the complicated shots, Mirada used a lot of different techniques. A few shots had a mix of CG and live action plates, other scenes were heavily enhanced with 3D matte paintings or projection paintings and then brought to life in compositing, and some other ones were 100% CG from corner to corner. “We had to use a mix of Maya, Houdini, and NUKE as our main software applications, with support form packages like ZBrush, MARI, Topogun, and Photoshop,” he adds.

V-Ray was the logical solution for the needs of the show as well. “It gave us the power to turn around a lot of renders very fast. V-Ray tends to gravitate towards arch-viz and is optimized for metals. So it provides great HDRI support with a very robust render layer manager, which is basically the checklist for a show like Pacific Rim. I was happily surprised to see V-Ray’s fast displacements and 3D motion blur, another key component for creating creatures. Usually 3D motion blur is very expensive when combined with displacements but in the case of V-Ray, we noticed that it was very well optimized and ready for high-end production.”

For the big fight sequence, Mirada used Maya for animation and Houdini for the effects. The sequence takes place in a burning city, as one of the Jaegers grabs a piece of the freeway and uses it to hit a Kaiju across the face. Multiple layers of interaction had to be created in order to make this happen. The first level of animation comes out Maya -- cars, highways and major debris parts were rig and traditional keyframe. Then, Houdini was responsible for creating all secondary animation and all the extra elements required for this shot including smoke, debris, fires, dust and saliva. “In order to integrate both packages, we had to create data exporter tools in which we could use to integrate V-Ray and Mantra, keeping in mind that we had to account for motion blur, displacements and light interaction,” Sarmiento adds. “At the same time, we use Alembic for geo exporting. One of the tools created was our Maya light to Houdini exported. With this tool, we could export out V-Ray lights from Maya to Houdini with the right world position, energy and temperature.


“The execution of the prologue from beginning to end was something you don't often see under one roof and executed to this level,” says Tucker. “We had the pleasure of handling everything from initial concept design to filming and edit to final VFX. For that reason, we have many fun stories though a day of filming Mirada employees on our stage stands out. We had to replace the faces in some scenes and watching the VFX folk act in these situations was pretty hilarious. I got in there myself for a few takes but didn't make the cut! I guess I'll being sticking with VFX.”



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