Returning to the 'Transformers' franchise for a third time, Digital Domain created and animated new characters including 'Laserbeak,' 'Brains' and an army of Decepticon soldiers known as 'protoforms.'
CGSociety talked to key leads in the Digital Domain crew, creating 'Laserbeak' and the universally popular 'Bird Men' sequence. This scene features skydiving soldiers bailing out of V-22 Osprey helicopters to fly through Chicago with Decepticon ships in hot pursuit. The 'Space Bridge' sequence shows protoforms rising out of the moon's surface to mobilize a portal which sends them to assault Earth. During their mission, Digital Domain delivered 350 shots calling for astonishing hyper-reality in stereoscopic 3D.
Digital Domain's visual effects supervisor Matthew Butler says Director Michael Bay is a realist who is comfortable with seeing things he hasn't seen before. Butler and Bay were both wanting to see the real, believable visuals. "Studying real physical phenomena is an important thing in my background and job," he says. Matthew Butler holds an undergraduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Manchester UK and a master's degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT.
"I think there is an infinite beauty in reality," Butler asserts. "And you should study the intricacies of reality before you start 'messing' with reality. Otherwise, the results you pursue will not gel like reality." Butler says while there's nothing wrong with emulating reality, as the uncanny valley showed in the creation of a face model, the closer you get to reality, "the more unforgiving, the harder it becomes to accept an attempt to recreate it."
"You shouldn't be afraid to cheat the visuals every now and then. It's good to start testing the boundaries, but not so far that the story depends on convincing an audience. Now, what I do is simulate things."
Matthew Butler appears to have had a lot of fun, but he admits it was scary fun. "Michael (Bay) told me early on that we would be doing this in stereo, with an emphasis on scale, mass and huge stunts."
Matthew started his 17-year tenure at Digital Domain as an image data supervisor on 'Apollo 13' and worked his way from digital artist for films like 'Dante's Peak' and 'Titanic', to CG supervisor on 'Fight Club', 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas', and 'Vanilla Sky'. As visual effects supervisor on 'The Day After Tomorrow', Matthew created photorealistic weather, tidal waves and twisters, work that earned him a VES award. Matthew earned a second VES award for his work on Clint Eastwood's 'Flags of Our Fathers' and 'Letters from Iwo Jima'.
"It's been amazing to work alongside such incredible people recreating the landing of an alien ship on the surface of the moon," says Butler.
Compositing Supervisor Lou Pecora's personal favorite sequence which stretched his team's skills was the Bird Men sequence where the swat team jumped out of the Osprey Choppers. "That was like a compositor's dream, [and nightmare]. This scene had all the old-school muscle in it," says Pecora. "There was so much rolling shutter footage on the helmet cams they wore when they actually jumped off Sears Towers in Chicago." The shots from those smaller cameras was so blurred, "it looked like it was shot through a bowl of Jello", he added.
Lou Pecora's background is print graphics. He says ambition got a hold of him. He told himself if he could do it for one frame, he could do it for 24 each second, in movies. t"Every trick we know, we had to throw at that thing," says Pecora. "Plus, I'd never seen anything quite like that in a movie before. Michael Bay likes to shoot a lot in-camera and add to that. There's lots of real fire and CG fire. CG smoke and real smoke and a frenetic mix of all of these, all in this amazing sequence."
The shot with the flaming chopper passing the back door as the Bird Men exit, looks way out over the burning Chicago to the Great Lakes. "Because this is in stereo, we didn't get away with a whole lot of cheats. Normally the background could be a matte painting, but being in stereo, the city elements needed some parallax. There were three or four Motherships in there as well. Everything had to be there but not 'hitting you over your head'," explains Pecora.
"From the background, working your way forward, there's layers of smoke, and atmosphere, and there were two classes of elements. 'Cherrypicks' and 'inverse-Cherrypicks'; where 'Cherrypicks' would get the full stereo treatment. We worked closely with Legend3D whose job it was to dimensionalize the plate.
The 'Cherrypicks' would be used by the stereo house to be given the full stereo treatment for the final plate, whereas the inverse-Cherrypick elements, we'd keep and use them to composite at our end. We found out early that when you dimensionalize, you have to do a lot of cheats, because there's a whole lot of 'playing with scale.'"
"Michael [Bay] really attached himself to the Bird Men sequence," explains Digital Effects Supervisor at Digital Domain, Dave Hodgins. "The sound effects and lighting were just as important to Michael to convey the situation, as any CG element in the Bird Men sequence. Straight out of previz the crew around him were getting excited about what other elements could be brought in to strengthen the delivery of all effects. "Bay had a full gamut of ideas for the final delivery of the sequence," says Hodgins.
"Laserbeak was incredibly complex. He had to transform into several different objects, none of which he had the parts for," explains Dave Hodgins. "A lot of the transformers like Optimus Prime could morph into a truck cos he had truck parts on him, whereas Laserbeak would change with a quick motion blur." One of the consolations of working on the third film was that many of the characters and procedures and workflows had already been put in place within Digital Domain. The big challenge was stereo.
Michael Bay designs frame similar to paintings. He might call for a highlight somewhere that isn't justified until the final shot is realized, because it just might look great and convey a tiny lead for the story. Getting an HDR together and sitting a robot model into the shot doesn't cut it. The piece has to be lit, with kick, bounce and moving lights to bring it home for Bay. "It's kind of like going to the Michael Bay School for our lighters, because it's a little bit of a different mind-set," says Hodgins. "It can be daunting, but in the end, you start to anticipate what he's going to want. You've understood where he's coming from."
The VFX Supervisor is on set and makes the calls on how the data is collected. He also deals directly with the Director Michael Bay. Butler also conveys the information from the set, back to Dave Hodgins, the Digital Effects Supervisor who directs the asset build.
Mårten Larsson, the CG Supervisor is at that time, driving the effects development while Hodgins concentrates on lighting challenges and the asset builds of the models and the rigs.
One of the golden rules during production of the two previous Transformers films, was that the Transformers were not allowed to spend much time standing in front of one another because they were such complex models, if that happened, it became hard to distinguish between the two.
Now that 3D stereo was a driving force on this third instalment, it was easier to read the motion and that rule didn't apply anymore. This was Hodgins' first 3D film and composing for stereo took a little while. The display of finished shots on a big cinema screen was different to the smaller studio screens. This took a little getting used to but the tools already in place at Digital Domain for stereo production made the transition a whole lot easier.
Using RenderMan and Mantra in Houdini and Digital Domain's inhouse renderer Storm as well, the Computer Graphics Supervisor MÂrten Larsson had his job cut out for him. In the volume rendering for several key shots in Transformers 3, they used a lot of Houdini's own volumetrics. "Being a very technical tool, Storm needed to have people specifically trained up to operate it for the show," Larsson says.
"With Houdini, it was easier to find people to create specific effects, but our own Storm renderer was invaluable and could be used to generate very detailed effects. Chasing a particular effect like smoke stacks and clouds, it was easier to work in Storm." The DD crew tended to work in Houdini more when there were simulations to generate, where there needed to be objects interact with neighboring bodies.
The awakening of the robots out on the moon surface was a particularly busy mission of this CG Supervisor. The tasks for MÂrten Larsson encompassed even down to writing shaders for the many areas of the shots in the sequence. His CG Supervisor position had a 'broad-brush' grasp in some sequences, with some intensely technical duties.
Michael Bay works tricks into most shots, with the help of the VFX crews. Stereo tricks like increasing the inter-occular to bring some elements closer. "There's a lot of give and take, push and pull," says Lou Pecora. "It's all there to tell a story. Michael likes a tight shutter. He likes to crank it back to 130 degrees.
Almost 'Saving Private Ryan' but not quite. And sometimes he would direct to wind the shutter angle to change during a shot. To explain, that's not frame rate, but the amount of blur he wants in each frame. He wants story anchoring elements in some shots to punch out elements that signal a slight plot change perhaps.
While Photoshop is the tool of choice for environment and backgrounds and mattes at Digital Domain, the main compositing tool is Nuke. Michael Bay is big on lens aberration, lens flares. "He's always, 'Ping my lens man, don't be afraid to 'ping my lens'". Adobe After Effects has a great plugin called Optical Flares from Video Co-Pilot which is phenomenal for generating lens flares.
We'd save it out, bring it into Nuke and worked a treat, he loved it." In fact, compositing crews at Digital Domain have been filming their own lens flares, pointing lasers into lenses and adding them to their collection for years. Both stereo and flat. Maya is used across the board for shot build and RenderMan for pushing it all together. There's a bunch of proprietary tools in there as well.
Theres a difference between 'totally awesome' and 'real'. Let's admit that sometimes a real shot just doesn't look totally awesome. "Reality is a starting point, and Michael Bay's reality can be whatever he wants," Lou Pecora says. "His films are hyper-real. In some shots, he wants beauty bounce lights that just simply happen in reality.
But it looks spectacular and if he wants it, he gets it." One classic feature in the film is the leading gal's white jacket that after all the tumbling, falling, dragging and smashing around, her jacket, make up and hair is pristine. Just perfect. One obvious flag goes up there. This is comic book hyper-reality. It is 'fictional fun time'. And that's where the comparison to normal reality should stop.