The Watch

Thu 16th Aug 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

15 August 2012

Digital Domain helps The Watch defend Earth against alien invasion.

Digital Domain recently completed visual effects for The Watch, 20th Century Fox's comedy starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade. Directed by Akiva Schaffer, the movie tells the story of four suburban guys who accidentally discover that their town has become overrun by aliens posing as ordinary suburbanites and save it, and the world, from extermination.

The movie includes an unusually large number of visual effects shots for a comedy, and Digital Domain's work focused on those elements that were key to supporting the story; particularly, the creation of hundreds of computer-generated aliens. The look of the aliens was designed by Legacy Effects, which created a number of practical alien suits worn by actors. Digital Domain brought its expertise to the aliens' movement –achieving digitally what was impossible practically by giving them dynamics and physicality that were animal-like and could not be mistaken as human.

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Kelly Port is the Visual Effects Supervisor and immediately made reference to a comparison with another SciFi movie. "There is more character animation in The Watch than there is in District 9," he says. "In addition to that, we probably have close to 400 individual aliens animated within the full show. There's also a nice mix, a broad range of visual effects in the show. There's a mix of MoCap and keyframe animation. There's digital pyrotechnics with smoke and fire on a very big scale."

As Animation Director, Steve Nichols was stationed out in Vancouver with 20 or so animators doing all of the animation for The Watch. The Director wanted the design of the aliens to allow it to do stuff that didn't have to be all-CG. The original designers were from Legacy Effects, Stan Winston's old company. "We knew we'd have to do some CG, especially where we have a bunch of aliens in a single shot," explains Port. "We had two hero suits and couple stunt suits, and one puppet."

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There was an initial plan to have a performer in a suit and then to also shoot empty set plates. That way, opened up the possibility to thin the waist of the alien, to the extent of making in impossible for someone to be inside the suit. "We didn't want the motion of the alien to look human at all," Port continues.

"The plan was to have the alien running around quickly, making sharp turns, doing pretty athletic moves, slipping on the floor as well, cos it begins its action as a slimy thing actually, so there were a lot of ideas in that ilk," adds Port. These creatures were jumping from four-legged to two, then back. There was a lot of performance capture work bringing the material together for the many scenes allocated to Digital Domain. That was the approach to the alien animation. The biggest technical challenge for the DD crew was the workflow paradigm in terms of the lighting and the rendering. Digital Domain was working with KATANA on a simultaneous production, and to then bring The Foundry application across to use in The Watch was first time they'd used KATANA in a big way. In using the ARNOLD renderer, there were, Port says, some challenges with that with quality, without having those enormous render times. And then the major challenge for the alien was to try and make sure this thing didn't look like a human at all. That was more of an animation challenge as mentioned earlier. "The wet look on the creature ended up being the key piece to the puzzle to bringing in the 'alien-ness'. The specular highlight and orchestrating how much it would break up, was the key to how it looked: plastic, or metallic, chrome," Port says. "There were extra layers brought in to have a bit more control over the specular."

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The Pyrotechnics on the CostCo sequence was a real challenge too. At the end of the movie, an entire CostCo warehouse is destroyed because it happens to be where the alien hive is situated, close to all the 'supplies'. The explosion was created in an inhouse Houdini plugin called grok, a suped up particle sim with a faster algorithm. The crew used that to get an editorial sign off to the timing of the explosion. It wasn't just one big explosion, but a series of smaller explosions. The trick was to run those through to sign off on the size of the explosion and smoke plume, how much wreckage, and decide on the timing of the explosion. The Rigid Body Dynamics (RBD) of the explosion had to be just right. As soon as the VFX crew saw that it all worked together, it was handed over to the compositing team to add in the 'sparkles'.

On set the VFX crew gathered some lighting passes, in many colours, directions and intensities. "We put up massive maxi-brutes to light up the trees at the perimeter," explains Port.

Digital Domain's work supports The Watch crew by giving them serious science fiction to contend with (and play off) as they discover, battle with, run from and finally destroy, in spectacular digital pyrotechnic fashion, the invading alien force. Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Kelly Port oversaw teams in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Venice, California, and the work of visual effects partner Reliance MediaWorks done in India, to deliver 239 shots in 10 months. Performance capture for the aliens was done in Digital Domain's virtual production studio in Los Angeles.



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