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    CGSociety :: Production Focus
    10 March 2009, by Paul Hellard

    The broad extent of visual effects in The Watchmen had the many crews on the development cycle for a long time. CGSociety brings this perspective of the work by Sony Pictures Imageworks and Intelligent Creatures.

    Pete Travers has been a Visual Effects Supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI) for almost ten years, and he’s done close to ten projects whilst there. His projects in the past include ‘Click’, ‘Zathura’, ‘Aviator’, ‘Stuart Little 2’, a ‘Harry Potter’ project or two, as well as ‘LOTR’ and ‘Matrix.’

    In fact, the journey into the ‘Watchmen’ office for Travers began when he was still working on the second ‘Matrix’ movie with John 'DJ' Des Jardin. After Matrix was completed, DJ and he kept in touch over the years. “DJ had this huge chunk of work and brought me into it. We had some long discussions tracing basically how we were going to create the effects of ‘The Watchmen’.”

    Bringing the graphic novel to the screen is once again the challenge for Zack Snyder. If there’s one thing you get from Snyder as a director of the movies ‘300’ and ‘The Watchmen’ is the tremendous amount of similarities in the look. “Everybody identifies with ‘The Watchmen’ because it was a successful graphic novel, why alter it to make a movie if you don’t have to,” explains Travers. “On set, the pages from the graphic novel, with some other panels, acted as the storyboard for the movie.“

    The opening credits are Pete Travers’ favorite part of the movie. ”They are amazing,” he says. “All set to the tune of Bob Dylan’s ‘Times, they are a’Changing’. Dylan actually re-scored the tracks so it would fit for the credits.”

    Visually, these credits are a series of flashbacks, a timeline of how the super heroes had played a part in this fictitious story of our society. “In the typical super hero story, you have the Gotham City or Metropolis. In ‘The Watchmen’, an alternative reality is staged from the actual past. “The premise,” says Travers, “is ‘ while everything is truly the same, what would have happened in history, had superheroes actually been in the mix.’”

    SPI creates an alternative 1986 for ‘The Watchmen’, with Nixon still in office. He has convinced Dr. Manhattan to go and win the Vietnam war for the US.

    “To stage this sequence was one of the biggest set-ups in the movie,” Travers says.

    “Dr. Manhattan comes up over a rise and pops off all of the VietCong soldiers. So they can ‘explode’, we had to build a 3D model of each of these soldiers, from the inside out. Extraordinarily graphic, a lot of work, but it is extremely well done.”

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  • The Dr Manhattan character is the only person in the story with actual super powers. The rest of the ‘superhero crowd’ are just a bunch a guys running round in capes and masks. Dr Manhattan starts out as a scientist who gets caught in a nuclear reaction chamber and he gets torn apart. Now, in the story, his consciousness remains and he gathers these ‘super powers’ and he starts to reconstruct himself. “To create this effect, we were really stretched,” admits Travers.

    “In one shot, he’s basically a huge jellyfish, with these huge tentacles. He’s a weird squid floating in the air. In the next shot, he covered in muscles but no skin. Then he did have skin. It was a challenge to pull it off and maintain the level in quality. And it worked.”

    The Imageworks team was in the position to use some of the 3D geometry of the city of New York constructed for the ‘Spider-Man’ franchise. They began to use it but they were OK for buildings to look real on the outside. In ‘Watchmen’, the script asked for the buildings to be sliced up and destroyed. That’s when they began to make more of their own assets.

    Dr Manhattan basically gets so frustrated with life on Earth that he teleports himself to Mars and builds himself a Glass Palace. Travers felt he let the SPI team off the hook because this palace was built in Dr Manhattan’s mind. There was a huge number of glass rings intertwining for the creation of this scene. “Thankfully,” he says, “they were to be floating in space and didn’t need to be mechanically realistic.”

    “Once we got that idea, we found we could procedurally animate them, instead of using traditional keyframe animation,” explains Travers. “We relied heavily on Houdini for the Glass Palace. It was easy to do two rings intertwining; but as soon as you add a third ring and a fourth ring it got more complicated, and when a fifth was introduced, the math just got crazy.”

    “After lengthy discussions about how the Doc was going to work, we decided the suit the actor would wear would provide actual light into the scene,” says Travers. “Dr. Manhattan was going to become a light source. So we had dense packed LEDs sewn into his suit. Of course, all along, we were worrying that we were just not doing it right. Are we going to be totally off-base down the road? There’s always fear there and the question whether that fear is going to turn into joy or sorrow later on.”

    There are some basic themes there that are a very important aspect of the animation. It’s always very difficult to animate a digital human. Some crowds focus on the technology and not focus on the performance. All the motion tracking in The Watchmen’ for Dr Manhattan character was done on set with video capture. All captured on HD on every shot as well two or three HD ‘witness’ cameras, Sony F900s, facing the Panavision film camera.

    This is an epic film. In nearly three hours of screen time, there were almost 200 sets for the production. The movie moves around a lot; in time and through locations. “There were a tremendous number of simulations and the effects were extremely intense,” says Travers. “For instance when the Glass Palace bursts out of the ground, it’s this tremendous simulation of tons of earth being displaced as these giant crystalline forms lurch out of the ground. It’s all emerges in one shot and all of this had to be built in simulation. Then the next sequence is entirely different again.”

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  • Intelligent Creatures’ (IC) specialists in Toronto created the always-changing inkblot making up the face of Watchmens vigilante hero, Rorschach.

    “We faced exceptional challenges during the development of the Rorschach mask, says Lon Molnar, VFX Supervisor for IC. “We sought to develop a process to produce the same effects that would have been conventionally developed through multiple cameras or motion capture equipment, neither of which was available to us. Since this had never been done before, we faced many uncertainties at the onset.”


    One of ICs first assignments was replacing the characters live action head through complex cranial and facial-motion tracking, which was seamlessly positioned between the live action scarf and fedora.

    To duplicate the mouth and facial movements produced by the mask, Intelligent Creatures used a match animation process. The development of an elaborate animation rig driven by the facial tracking markers formed the foundation of this movement.

    Intelligent Creatures look development team reconstructed the cloth fabric of the practical mask right down to the cross-hatching and hair like fibers. These minute details were created through the use of complex shaders and 2D workflows, including fur and cloth shaders to recreate the rim lighting captured in the live action plates.

    It was critical that the inkblot animation pipeline retain flexibility and speed to promptly address any changes required by Snyder and D.J. For this task, IC enlisted the talents of seven classically trained animators to facilitate the ‘pencil drawing approach’. This method was achieved by creating pose-to-pose animation on a 2D plane for an entire sequence.

    That surface was then wrapped around the 3D model of the mask. This process preserved the continuity of the inkblot within the entire sequence and allowed the lighting team to pre-light each shot prior to applying the inkblot treatment.


    “We discovered that only in close-up shots, it was necessary to backup the faux 3D data with keyframe animation to replace the missing extra depth animation,” explains Lon Molnar. “For many shots where the actor spoke, or his mask deformed, the faux 3D facial match-move was good enough and we were able to reproduce the performance without the motion capture equipment.”

    Lighting the CG head and mask was a significant under-taking. In order to sell the mask as a non-CG element, IC had to re-produce all the shadows created from the source lights by the fedora and other objects. Together with the shadow creation, the off-white fabric produced a challenging palette of subtle variations and layering of colors that needed to be captured in every frame, all of which had to be blended into the final shot. Intelligent Creatures also delivered various New York City Streets environments, set piece extensions, blood, gore, snow and breath throughout the film.

    The L.A. Times actually called ‘The Watchmen’ story, ‘unfilmable’. Years ago, Pete Travers of SPI would have said the same thing. “But anything is filmable in these digital days, and it’s just a question of how good the result would have been.”

    The Watchmen
    Sony Pictures Imageworks
    Warner Bros.
    Paramount Pictures
    Legendary Pictures
    Intelligent Creatures
    Gentle Giant Studios
    Moving Picture Company
    CIS Hollywood
    Rising Sun Pictures
    Svengali VFX
    SideFX Software
    SideFX story

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