Tue 24th Jan 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production
Luma Pictures is once again howling at the moon in celebration after completing its fourth consecutive run as the primary visual effects house on the popular Underworld film in the franchise. Underworld: Awakening, the latest in the series, showcases Luma's penchant for hyper-realistic creature design and ability to evolve characters throughout a film franchise to translate a fresh look and feel to audiences.
Luma Pictures utilized the motion capture stage at its new Santa Monica facility to enhance and improve the character design on "Underworld: Awakening" ("Awakening"). Rather than fabricate a traditional snorri-cam (with a camera mounted around an actor's chest), Luma devised a helmet to capture every movement of the lead actor Kris Holden-Reid's face, independent of his body movements, as he thrashed around in pain acting out the transformation from man to werewolf.
"The helmet couldn't be cumbersome, yet needed to be stable enough to ensure accuracy when translating the motion to animation. A custom framework was fabricated from lightweight piping and fitted with a wide-angle Go Pro camera. This was then secured to the helmet with the lens facing the actor's face," said VFX Supervisor Vincent Cirelli.
The new workflow was incorporated early in the process to allow for directors Björn Stein and Måns Mårlind to provide input into character movement and to help capture the personality Kris Holden-Reid imbued into the character of the "Über Lycan." Additionally, the motion capture helped speed the workflow process up. For various shots, Luma was able to use the mocap data itself as a starting point, which led to a better product at a faster pace.
Providing 106 intense CG creature shots, spanning two distinct Werewolf species (Tunnel Lycans and the Über Lycan), with environmental interaction and 35 specific assets, Luma's work represents their most robust contribution to the "Underworld" franchise to date.
Luma was presented with concept sketches, scans, and maquettes of the Über Lycan and Tunnel Lycans to start, which were then handed off to their concept artist Loïc Zimmerman. While the Tunnel Lycan stayed mostly true to its original design, the Über Lycan went through several iterations before becoming the creature seen on screen.
"Earlier versions of the Über Lycan were completely covered in fur, but as iterations went on we steered toward a more minimalist direction," said VFX Supervisor Vincent Cirelli. "With less fur, the musculature and key design aspects became highlighted. Once we locked down the amount of fur, we styled it to bring the character to life. Unlike other Lycans, the Über is a genetic creation with human thoughts, and we therefore designed him to look more intelligent and regal."
"For "Awakening" we did a lot of work on skin and fur rendering along with muscle simulations. This was our first full show using Arnold, and we contributed a lot to the development of our proprietary Maya to Arnold translation system," said CG Supervisor Richard Sutherland. "A custom skin shader was developed for the Lycans, and for the human side of our transform shots we partnered with ICT to utilize their high-fidelity lightstage scanning services. We worked closely with Solid Angle, the creators of the Arnold render, testing out a new fur shading model they were working on. Overall there was quite a lot of new development for us to push our existing techniques further and improve the quality of the shots we produced."
Luma's relationship with Executive Producer and Visual Effects Supervisor James McQuaide of Lakeshore Entertainment is one of the keys to the success of the film's powerful visual effects. "James has come to trust us, as we trust him. He has a very collaborative nature, but also possesses a clear vision of what is best for the film," said Executive VFX Supervisor Payam Shohadai. "We're on the same page 99% of the time, which makes the shot design much faster as there is less back and forth needed. James is more than just a client; he has become a friend who also has become a visionary in the visual effects world."
Luma's 3D pipeline on "Awakening" is based in Maya, and combines standard softwares with some specialized programs for camera tracking, modeling, and FX work, such as synthEyes, ZBrush, and FumeFX. 3D data is passed between applications and departments using Alembic. Luma also has a robust suite of PyQt and web-based tools for client I/O to ensure deliveries are as smooth and efficient as possible. The facility's 2D pipeline utilizes Nuke to composite and finalize shots.
"Awakening" required a team of 83 to complete the project over the course of a year from the first received concept, with four solid months of shot execution from the reception of plates.