Niklas Jacobson worked in Stockholm making TVCs for the local industry for many years before doing the run around the industry in the UK. With Batman and Potter films, among others under his belt, fellow countryman Yafei Wu and he, wanted to use their skills back in their home-town of Stockholm.
With their motto of 'Perfection, Passion and Development', they started Important Looking Pirates (ILP) after about four years of solid VFX work on TV Commercial. They were looking for a feature project, along the same time the writers and producers of the Kon-Tiki were looking for companies to assist with the visuals. Kon-Tiki was being directed by Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg. The film is about the legendary explorer Thor Heyerdal’s epic journey crossing the Pacific on a balsa wood raft in 1947. “The story has a solid history and and when we looked at the storyboards, we were really thrilled,” says Niklas Jacobson. “There was a lot of really cool stuff to work on.”
"The Kon-Tiki production was an extraordinarily exciting and challenging project for us," says Jacobson. "V-Ray was definitely an important factor and a fantastic tool that made our job easier. Having switched from our previous renderer to V-Ray two years ago, we’ve developed some great presets that work great for a wide range of scenes and scales. Our time spent on look development has decreased dramatically, leaving more time for artists to make shots look beautiful."
“In the production of Kon-Tiki we used all of V-Ray’s advanced features such as GI, camera motion blur, depth of field, fog, volume caustics, render elements, etc., and it worked really great! We put a lot of effort into modeling and texturing our CG creatures, and we carefully tuned our shaders during the look development process. Then, when we added the HDRI domes we shot on set, the look was pretty much there."
The sequence given to them takes place during a major emotional peak of the movie, as the crew struggles with internal conflicts while facing a critical situation involving white sharks. ILP delivered 58 shots in total, with plenty of hero shots and some extremely complex fully CG scenes. Yafei Wu took on the role of R&D Technical Director, in charge of wrangling the immense data that was to come pouring through the doors.
“One of the greatest challenges with this sequence was that it had to look a 100% believable in order to not spoil the emotional moment, which put incredible high demands on everything from models, textures, lighting, animation to compositing and integration of the computer generated elements into the filmed plates,” says the ILP VFX Supervisor Niklas Jacobson.
Another extremely challenging part of our work was all the effects work, such as, blood, bubbles and cutting edge water effects. There were 100% CG generated shots needing to be cut seamlessly with the live action footage. ILP used Exotic Matter’s Naiad for water simulation and also their proprietary render engine, Tempest, for rendering additional particles and volumetric effects such as blood. “We didn’t have an extensive body of work in feature VFX before this as a company, and it was a definite leap of faith by the directors and producer to have us working on this movie,” explains Jacobson. ”I’m pretty sure they accepted us because we have quite a body of work in complex fluid simulations.”
Over nine or ten months, ILP were involved in 60 shots on the Kon-Tiki movie. They even created a digital double of the ship crew’s pet parrot ‘Lorita’. The digital parrot was used for the scene when Lorita flies into the water, and also when the sharks attack her in the water. Using a digital double of the parrot enabled the directors to play out the scene in a very controlled fashion, and it makes for some stunning visual effects. During principal photography a real parrot sufficed, and plenty of reference photos and video was taken to document details of the real parrot in shape, feathers and subtle movements. She was then digitally reconstructed using software such as Maya and Mudbox, where she was sculpted, had feathers and fur attached and was rigged for animation. “Fortunately we had plenty of experience of liquid simulations since we were early adopters of Exotic Matter’s fluids solver NAIAD,” says Jacobson. “We have been their clients since the alpha days in 2008 and over the years we have done several high end commercial productions with it. It still required lots of research and testing of various techniques to reach our goal. There were some technical animation on the feathers of the parrot, to be able to get the right simulation from the fluid solver but there was no feather simulation on the feathers.”
Work on the digital sharks began immediately as the job was awarded. There was endless hours of documentary films like Planet Earth to study shark behaviour and underwater photography in order to prepare for the task. “We made a digital shark using Maya, Mudbox and ZBrush. Once we had made one photorealistic shark we were happy with, we started creating variations with slightly different textures and sizes. We also had to make a custom close up shark with plenty of details for a hero close up shot when the shark gets slain on the raft. “We needed to find a good balance between natural behavior and action and from the references we found, the big sharks are a little mellow and the smaller sharks tend to lash around more,” adds Jacobson.
The biggest challenge for ILP was the high detailed water simulations that had to be created for the movie. One of the major scenes is when the sharks are attacking the parrot in the water. This scene was made from scratch in the computer. The final water simulation took about a week to simulate, it consisted of hundreds of millions of particles that they used to create a surface mesh to render in V-Ray. “By the end of the project, this shot alone took up approximately 10 terabytes of disk space,” says Kaupang.
The compositing was done in The Foundry’s NUKE software. In addition to all compositing of CG elements, there was plenty of complex clean up work such as removing a rubber shark that was used on set and reconstructing clean plates in order to put our digital shark in the scenes. The underwater shots required careful study of references and artistry in order to nail subtle changes in color and depth haze and balancing levels in order to make our digital shark integrated with our live action plates. Additional particles and debris were created and composited to bridge the live action with our CG elements.
“This was an extremely exciting project for us to work on, and we would like to extend our thanks to the all people involved in this project,” says Arne Kaupang. “Even though the production budget was huge in Nordic measures, it is still a fraction compared to the international blockbuster movies. We still feel that we managed to create some of the better sharks shots seen in film to date.”
“There were about 500+ VFX shots in total that were done by the Scandinavian VFX studios Fido, Gimpville, Important Looking Pirates and Storm Studios. All the online VFX (creating new water horizons etc) were done by Storyline Studios and California Post in Norway. A crew of around 150 artists in total. The VFX budget was a fraction of what is normal in a typical Hollywood movie. Super talented artists all around that made my job as a VFX & Animation Supervisor much easier. The movie opened up here in Norway in August 2012 and is due for release worldwide in April 2013. We have also made an all English spoken version of the movie, and we shot all dialogue scenes twice. First in Norwegian, then in English for the international version. And due to this we also had to recreate a lot of the VFX and background matte paintings twice for those shots,” add Kaupang.
Other studios involved in the creation of KonTiki:
GimpVille was one studio that worked on selected sequences in KonTiki.