CGSociety :: Production Focus

15 August 2013, by Paul Hellard


Neill Blomkamp first began uploading his VFX shorts onto CGSociety forums (CGTalk) in 2004. Catching the eye of Weta's Peter Jackson, District 9 emerged some years later as an original story filled with immense VFX by his friends at Image Engine. Fast forward to today and Elysium is the product of even wider collaboration for Blomkamp. CGSociety rounds up some suspects for interrogation.

The orbiting ring is the Elysium or the Torus, the ultimate gated community. As a concept, it is a fairly familiar science fiction idea coming to the big screen at last. Earlier ideas of 'living on the inside surface' of a spinning space station would be in Syd Mead's Torus treatment from the 70s.

One of the world's best know visual futurists, Syd Mead is a great fan of Neill Blomkamp's original District 9 film. He was thrilled to come into the production of Elysium by invitation. Speaking from Pasadena last weekend, Syd Mead went on to say the Neill asked him out of the blue to submit some concepts of the Torus, the 'ring' named Elysium which orbits the Earth in the movie. This was to be massive, a triumph of engineering in every sense. "Neill flew down here from Vancouver and we got to know him really well. Neill was still refining his shooting script at that stage, but he first had me design one or two of the action sets, seen really briefly, with lights and ramps, part of the parliamentary buildings up in Elysium," explains Mead.

While shooting was happening down in Mexico, and other work was happening down at Weta Workshop in New Zealand, Neill went back to Syd to get him started designing the concepts for the surface of the floating ring city in orbit. Elysium has the inverted perspective curved surface. "I'd done that style of work for my own renderings in the past," says Mead, "and that's what put Neill onto me in the first place, which was great. Years ago, this was for a rotating, orbiting station for a National Geographic [magazine] issue, and Neill had a copy of that rendering. The Elysium turned out to be a kilometre and a half across the surface."

During the concept sketching stage, Mead found that the hexagonal ground plane overlaid with forests and residential areas, was the most efficient traverse topology for building across any surface. "But then Blomkamp wanted to move away from the hexagonal model because it looked too mechanical," explains Mead. "They ended up taking aerial shots of Beverley Hills, confident that was the look of opulence in space that Neill was looking for. The premise of taking to an orbiting world for the 'haves', leaving the Earth for the 'have-nots' comes from it being the only way possible to make more land'. "It's either drain the sea from the land like has been done in Tokyo Bay and places like that, or the Netherlands," says Mead. In Elysium's case, it was the only option left because the air on Earth was so polluted. "Neill Blomkamp is one of Hollywood's more remarkable young directors," he adds. Syd Mead was so impressed with the white models that came back from Image Engine as the first pass in 3D. He wants to point out he didn't work on any vehicles for the Elysium production, and only worked on the concepts of the Elysium orbiting city.




Neill Blomkamp ended up chatting to the folks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to find out if it was actually possible to have the visuals of this station exist. People would be living in presumed gravity in a bath of fresh air held 'down' by spinning the wheel. "Of course it isn't We found that gravity is produced by mass and not centrifugal force, but this is a movie. There were some decisions that had to be made to make it more suitable for the story, so the creative team at Image Engine had to depart a little bit from what could realistically be achieved," says Andrew Chapman, the Associate VFX Supervisor at Image Engine. "There are enormous glass walls that are also making this world open to space. Any atmosphere would in reality be sucked out into space."

The design team at Image Engine and Whiskytree began after a briefing from the leads in production, like Peter Muyzers, Neill Blomkamp. They ran through questions important to consider in context of how the real Elysium might look. Questions were poised. How many people could live on something like this? How big should it appear in the sky for people on Earth. "Dropping down through the levels of design, we get to questions like: What does the outside look like and broadly speaking, what does the inside look like?" asks Chapman. "What are the walls made of? What would the large air purification beam which runs around the entire structure look like? How many municipal buildings are there or is it more residential? Is there visible public transport?" Then there's water bodies and terrain and things like that to consider. Once all that is laid out, there has to be consideration of what particular mansions look like. It becomes a vast design exercise. "Of course if this was real, you would have teams of a hundred architects and city planners involved. I think it's a common thing in film making to under-appreciate how much design work is required when bringing visual effects to the screen," says Chapman. The Torus ring was only very lightly designed pre shoot and only after the long shoot was there sufficient time for Neill to concentrate with Peter and the designers on the details of the ring.

personal personal


"Throughout the production and especially in the ground sequences, the camera work in particular is very gritty and down to Earth. That is Neill's personal style of film making," Chapman says. "A lot of the time, we are actively avoiding bringing too much attention to the visual effects work. People on Earth at this stage of history are so used to the ships flying past. The other side of this is Neill's wanting us to keep a foundation of reality within everything we do."

In creating all the assets created for Elysium, Image Engine was at pains to reference back to real world materials. Any one of the big flying ships would be presented to Neill for approval would include a render of real hardware; landing gear, perhaps. Beside the images of the CG landing gear would be reference images of an A380 airliner landing gear, as well as related structures like oil-rigs or motorbike suspension gear. Always drawing parallels from real world to our detailed CG elements.

There are vehicles called immigrant shuttles that are jury-rigged versions of older corporate vehicles that fly around on Earth. There are also Homeland Security vehicles on Elysium called Raptors that fly around finding and kicking out immigrants. There are immigrant shuttles that ship people from Earth onto the Ring in orbit. The character Kruger is a hired mercenary on Earth, employed on a casual basis by the leaders up on Elysium. One hero ship called the Raven is Kruger's vehicle. Almost all of the vehicles were approved before the production, the only exception to this are the Raptors, the bright red Homeland Security ships on the Ring, which were designed later in production.

"The Raven vehicle which transports the CEO of the Corporation on Earth went through further detailing so that in the end you could stick the camera within a few feet of the CG vehicle and it would hold up to scrutiny, which we're all really proud of," says Chapman. "We had a small section of the Raven on set so actors could climb in and out of the thing. We also had guys climbing in and out of the ship against a green screen. The characters are all throwing shadows onto it and it looks completely believable. This is one of my favourite shots in fact."

personal personal


For all the appearances of the Droids, of which there are several forms, each with their own style, color and background story, the artists had stunt actors with grey suit tracking markers all rigged to go. This was the same approach that Image Engine used for the aliens of District 9. "Neill always insists on getting something in front of camera, even though they will be replaced later on. He can then concentrate on getting the right performance from the actor, and from the VFX point of view it locks down the lighting and performance reference. This ensures the crew is working on something that Neill has approved and won't be on the cutting room floor. The Droids were animated using a process called 'rotomation'. These Droids don't emote in any way, in fact they are pretty straight performances. If anything the animators had fun finessing the details, redesigning to the next level if you like," Chapman adds.

There is a gun battle between a Droid and Max out on the flats. Using the vehicles as cover, he shoots the Droid with exploding rounds. "The results were three shots, intercut, in extreme slow motion, with lots of time to see whats going on," explains Chapman. Image Engine had a dedicated little crew on those three shots. They had to take a Droid and disassemble it, and handing over from animation, into FX in Houdini. "It's a difficult call to know how far to take it in animation before handing it over to FX, because it's only at the very end of that where you really so the result."

"Some articles concentrate on the tricks, but really it comes down to a lot of hard work by the artists," says Chapman. Maya is the base package for the entire 3D pipeline at Image Engine and they detail their model up in ZBrush and MARI. "We were testing MARI out quite extensively in the lead up to Elysium and by the end of production we were full-time MARI texturing, and it's working out really well." In fact, Chapman tells CGSociety, the lighting pipeline is MARI based and it rendered out to 3Delight and Arnold. While Image Engine uses 3Delight usually for the rendering, they used a mixed render for the 'ring' itself. It became a show bigger than Image Engine of course. "Although this is an 'Image Engine show', we ended up in a really good collaboration with Whiskytree in Marin, California," Chapman adds.

Before going into post production, Image Engine had some really solid designs for the other assets in Elysium all ready. The Droids and vehicles had been designed. "The props had come through Weta Workshop and they fabricated a lot of assets for the shoot early on, like the HULC suit that Max (Matt Damon) has drilled onto him," explains Chapman. "This was all practical from Weta Workshop, although with the many digital double sequences, not only was Max created as a digital, but the HULC casing was also then created in CG."

"We knew how much of a big task it was to build it, with as much design sign off as possible because after we start, it would be very difficult to turn the ship, as it were," says Chapman. Image Engine is a middle-sized facility but grew to 102 during the busiest period of production.




"Whiskytree did some incredible environment and detail work and had a lot of material sent to them. Since they are an Arnold-shop, it almost wasn't an outsourcing situation because we are in a bit of a partnership with them. It's like they were an outside department of Image Engine while they were doing that work. They did a really great job at the massive scale architectural detailing," Chapman explains. "We thought it would be good for someone to take that on, specifically to focus on it. We were still dealing with the hard surface assets of the shots, while they would do the houses, the terrain and the water bodies and such."

"Elysium is like a big bicycle tyre and on the inside of the tire is the surface," Jonathan Harb, CEO and Creative Director at Whiskytree says. "Trees, bushes, mansions, municipal buildings. That is where our work is concentrated." Whisktree worked over the last year on Elysium, starting in July. They wrapped the last couple of shots very close to delivery. Image Engine started looking at how Arnold handled the massive scale rendering that was required and they were all very impressed. "So we left all the bells and whistles on, an enormous amount of geometry, threw everything at it and it works it all out," says Chapman. "For rendering the ring, that worked out really well."

personal personal

"There was a staggering amount of geometry in Elysium," states Sam Cuttriss, a Technical Director at Whiskytree. "Computer Graphics Supervisor Votch Levi and his team, were doing a lot of the heavy lifting, enabling that to render. There was a lot of approaching it from different angles because there was an unimaginable amount of polygons up on screen. We were rebuilding assets at times, to take advantage of different improvements or enhancements to the software. As well as dynamic changes on the fly to all the assets."

"In the creation of all of the plants, the structures on the Elysium surface, we had to build every asset into real geometry," says Votch Levi. "We really had to create the entire world of Elysium. In the Raven crash sequence, it hops over the outer wall of the station. It skims over the surface for a little while, then crashes in the grounds close to a mansion on the surface. We used a variety of shot constructions. There was an overhead shot outside showing an awful lot of the landscape, where we really had to render the entire thing. Some of the shots needed close to two or three trillion triangles. Far and away what we were used to."

In that shot where the vehicle crashes, it came down to hand-placed objects as well as hand-animated palm trees in order to make these shots work. Softimage was used for all the asset-building at Whiskytree. Photoshop is used for a lot of the texture-painting. And all the compositing happened within NUKE.

Creating the layout and the surface of that world so that there could be such a long camera path was a huge challenge for Whiskytree, and then the lower flights, a great amount of the detail of these mansions is shown. It was then that JP Monroy and the Matte Painting team Whiskytree could start doing hero placements almost on a per-shot basis. It was at this stage, you could see people standing on tennis courts, birds flying and vehicles flying around.

The command centre building on Elysium was the first piece that was brought from design to the final. Matte Painter JP Monroy was instrumental in getting this primary building to look as good as it did. "We had a basic layout concept sent from Image Engine on how they wanted the structure to be," he says. "The biggest challenge was the bringing in the amount of detail that had to be incorporated into each nook and cranny that was found in that building. There was a lot of manpower modeling." The matte painting team found that the best way to discover how to detail the command centre was by grabbing the shape they had to add, and swinging it at different angles to see how each looked. Bringing in all that detail would assure from afar, the building looked very complex. From closer in, the sides needed to look busy but still have a design ethic to it. "We wanted to be able to zoom in and see stuff that looked like it had a function, and not just because it was 'put there'," explains Votch Levi.


"None of my crew were actually landscape architecture gardeners, so when we started laying out lawns and buildings, we started to find it wasn't looking right, so it took a while to figure out how these things actually worked. Not just in the real world, but in a world like Elysium," explains Levi. "There were a lot of iterations in order to get the look and the feel right. It took a lot of getting right in there and placing props with almost a real intimacy. There was a long section of flight during the introduction to Elysium where you're skimming over the surface and there wasn't one place where there is repetition," Levi says. "It all had to be unique. So there were a lot of TDs here and asset builders doing a lot of landscape architecture.

Peter Muyzers from Image Engine was the Production VFX Supervisor. Jonathan Harb quoted Muyzers as stating at the very beginning to the guys at Whiskytree, "Look, I'm going to show you these images, and you're going to hear me say this again and again, all these images have the ingredients that Neill wants in his movie. Once you guys learn how to create these elements, they'll be in different shots, and they'll need to be combined in different ways. But once you have the right relationships with these ingredients, you're going to be able to nail every shot really quickly." However, Harb notes that he added, "Always look back to this and make sure that all of the shots are hitting all of the marks, cos if they are, then you'll be able to nail all the proceeding shots really quickly. Pete was true to his word," adds Harb. "When you get the look of this thing right, the rest of it is going to just flow."

Whiskytree handled all the rendering of these frames inhouse. "We thought about looking into using some of the Cloud-based render solutions, but our datasets were just too large to be sending onto the internet," Computer Graphics Supervisor Levi adds. "We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of individual assets. The 'Mansion' library for that establishing flyover shot, alone, we had literally over a hundred of those assets just by themselves. So trying to sync up something offsite just was not possible. We had to double the size of our inhouse render farm half way through the production. Whiskytree uses Arnold as the preferred renderer and they'd never rendered five trillion triangles before and they say it wouldn't have been doable without the guys from Arnold.

"When we sent the scenes to them, they had never seen scenes this complex," Jonathan Harb continues. "And that's kinda neat." JP Monroy says it was like every concept artist's dream to work on something that looked like a Syd Mead painting. "Trying to follow his design language was actually a really fun thing to do," he says. "Intimidating at first, but once you have some smart technical minds on it to explain it, it was actually really fun. The art of this movie is incredible. The concept art was really like a map."