CGSociety :: Production Focus

22 April 2013, by Paul Hellard


Digital Domain gave CGSociety some unhindered access to the work they did in close collaboration with Pixomondo.

There were 804 VFX shots in Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion, split pretty evenly, with approximately 85% live action and 15% CG. Shot in Iceland and Louisiana in 4K with the Sony F65 camera, Oblivion is full of the most spectacular vistas, stunning, convincingly real vehicles and a storyline that keeps you thinking. Digital Domain VFX Supervisor Eric Barba worked as an integral part of the production team from the earliest concept to principal photography, to the creation of CG imagery and final integration.


In Obvilion, Tom Cruise plays one of the few remaining drone repairmen assigned to Earth, its surface devastated after decades of war with the alien Scavs. On one of his sortés, he discovers a crashed spacecraft with contents that bring into question everything he believed about the war, and may even put the fate of mankind in his hands.

Digital Domain’s work covered the range of visual effects, from planning the shooting approach to creating full CG sequences, digital doubles and vehicles to set extensions, explosions and natural phenomena to simple wire removal. All of the VFX had to carry Director Joseph Kosinski’s distinctive, design-centric aesthetic. Barba and DD worked closely with the art department to realize environments and vehicles, contributing significantly to the look of the feature.


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Animating Spheres

Steve Preeg, Animation Supervisor, and one of the Oscar and VES winners for Visual Effects on Benjamin Button in 2009, told CGSociety of the effort taken to make these vehicle/characters more real. “The drones in Oblivion had so few moving parts, just the eye and the two guns, but they have to be sort of characters in the movie. They’re a flying sphere so they aren’t very aerodynamic either so it wasn’t easy to make them look as though they could actually fly and not be too rigid and stiff. There were a lot of early animation tests that felt like they were running in circles.” The team had to make it look it was actually keep itself up, and hovering made it look too much like a bouncing ball. “It doesn’t have wings, so it didn’t have that lifting sense,” he adds. “There was a fine line between a little too much movement and something that doesn’t move at all. The Bubble Ship was so much easier because it had that feeling of a plane.”

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There were a number of different versions of the Bubble ship, and the cockpit glass had to be taken off and replaced in CG. A practical drone was built and DD used the CAD files to create CG versions; modeling, texturing, lighting and animating them. One of the biggest challenges was that the physics of the round drone crafts would have prevented them from being able to fly. Digital Domain worked with Kosinski and the art department to devise an approach whereby the drones have an exhaust system that emits from various vents around the structure that stabilize them and provide directional propulsion. The result is a cool-looking vehicle with plausible motion. Digital Domain also created the look and graphic design of drone vision; what the world looks like from their eyes.

The resource gatherers, also known as hydro rigs. These are giant mechanical structures that remove vital components from the world’s oceans, are fully CG. In one key sequence, the Scavs strike back by destroying them; creating fuel cells that they put in the water. When the resource gatherers suck these up, they explode. Digital Domain created the mushroom cloud and devastated, smoking shells of the resource gatherers, still partly on fire.

Jack vs. Jack fight In one key sequence, Jack (Cruise) fights a clone of himself. Of course, the fight is shot twice, with Cruise playing the role of Jack and then the clone. DD planned for having to do full head replacement and they didn’t know for sure if there was going to be any dialog but it saved them a lot of development time, when they found out it were no words. “But the full head replacement was planned, so we did an ICT session with Tom with full data acquisition for Tom,” explains Preeg. “In the end, the way it was cut, they shot it with Tom playing both versions of the clone, so we could take the B-camera footage and just composite Tom’s face on the body double.” There were eight or nine shots where they couldn’t use Cruise’s face where DD created a CG face and pasted it on top of the stunt-double’s face, sometimes a full head replacement, with his wearing of a ‘tracking hoodie’. The fight scene was shot twice, with Cruise playing the role of Jack, and then the clone. Barba and the DD on-set team of Jesse James Chisholm, Geoffrey Baumann and Viki Chan worked with Kosinski, director of photography Claudio Miranda and the stunt coordinator to choreograph the shots with Cruise and stunt actors in Louisiana.

The intention was to split the plates to create the shots, but in some cases the two Cruise performances didn’t match up. For those shots Digital Domain was able to replace Cruise’s face with a fully CG version. They captured a 3D scan of Cruise’s head on a light stage in a default pose, used keyframe animation to create the required expressions for each shot, and tracked the movements to Cruise’s body performances to integrate the CG faces onto the live-action heads, compositing the elements to create the final shots.

Split shift

While Digital Domain built the drone, and both the drone and the Bubbleship had live action counterparts on set, the virtual models were shared between the two crews. The back-and-forth of how the drone behaves and the Bubbleship flies “As the movie developed, something that Pixomondo did with the drone, it would get back to us that something happened with the drone,” explains Preeg. “There was a really open communication line about what things came up and there were a number of reviews and because Pixomondo is actually just down the road from us, either our Supervisor Eric Barba and Joe would drive over to do the review there or visa versa, but importantly, both supes would be at both sittings. It was good to have both Bjorn Mayer and Eric Barba together, just so information could be available to the rest of the crews.”

Matt Smith, the Compositing Supervisor at DD says there were 370 shots, heavily composited needing to be delivered. “The footage brought in with the Sony F65 camera is the sharpest footage we’ve ever seen. We have a team of veterans here at DD, as well as some key freelancers as well and the key was the quality of the plates being delivered, it almost looked CG-sharp from side to side,” Smith says. “We had to bring in a few different tools we’ve developed in different shows to work with the plates for grey matching and abberation, but the lenses they used were really clean and the plates were very clean to match into. There were some pretty amazing Iclandic vistas.” Not being a stereo show, the Oblivion crew at DD were able to bring some of their 2D tricks back after a run of 3D shows.



Digital Domain created the TET, the all-CG giant inverted-pyramid-shaped space station that controls the drones – both its exterior and its interior, based on concepts from the art department. A small practical stage was built to shoot plates, but everything else is digital. The TET is a vast monolith, 30 miles long, and was a challenging element to texture and light. Digital Domain was also challenged to create shots that communicated the TET’s scale accurately when the tiny bubble ship flies toward it. The interior of the Tet is a series of three inverted pyramids leading to the chamber where Sally, herself an inverted pyramid with a pulsating texture and red lens-like eye similar to the drones’, resides. Artists created a sense of scale inside the Tet largely through atmospherics.

"Something that is 30 miles wide and featureless doesn’t lend itself immediately as being able to show its scale," says Greg Teegarden, the CG Supervisor at DD. " In one shot you can see it from the ground, and can make out that this huge craft is in orbit. In some shots it can be seen with the bubble ship, so the sense of size is easier." Sometimes the DD crew had to cheat a little to give the right yawning vista of scale. Steve Preeg says there wasn’t a ton of change from the PreViz on what Joe wanted to see, other than some camera angle cheats, but the addition of what Konisky would call ‘space-dust’ helped a lot. “Every part of that TET played mind games with you because you’re trying to understand the scale. Being that the vehicle was in space, usually there is no atmospheric falloff, and very little textural detail.”

“The TET scene was the biggest setup for the 3D team,” adds Teegarden. “We had to generate everything from scratch. Apart from the part digital double of Tom (Cruise) sitting in the Bubbleship cockpit, and part of that was practical.” Digital Domain was working on the interior of the TET which was to be seen as a vast empty space. Not even any floors to speak of. “Until you see the brief you don’t know what you’re getting into. Because it was all ‘virtual’, that task fell on us,” explains Teegarden. “You don’t really know until you start building it.”

The scale of the TET was an adventure to create as well for the Digital Domain crew. It had more to do with treating the space inbetween the viewer and the TET itself, than the surface detail itself, because the surface almost looks the same far away as close up to it. “It was up to the texturing and the lighting team to convey the sense of space,” adds Teegarden. “Then the compositing team headed up by Matt started to layer in the atmospherics. It cascaded through all different departments to sell the idea this was a really large space, not just outside the TET, but inside as well.”

Matt Smith worked on TRON and had a great experience making entire scenes that were completely CG, where the department had to build the large arena scene and emit that same scale. “There were echoes of this in the approach to the TET in Oblivion,” he explains. “It was something we’d done with this director before and coming into this, I had a great degree of confidence we could get together and do it again.”


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Jack and the drones attack the Scavs’ base camp, and the Scavs fight back, trying to engage the drones to steal their power supplies. The Raven’s Rock base camp was an actual abandoned power station location in New Orleans, but there is a flythrough of the Rock hideout that was the most CG-intensive shot in the movie for Digital Domain. In fact the 500-frame is the longest shot in the movie. The entirety of the Ravon’s Rock interior was built in CG for that one shot, which encapsulates digital doubles, smoke and fire of the destruction of the alien’s hideout. “Because everything was CG, we could control everything, which in a way made it easier,” says Preeg. “Like, if you need another element, a layer or a depth pass or something to integrate, it’s easy to do.”

The Raven Rock interior gave the compositing team the most challenges in the Oblivion lineup. There was a mix of challenges in fact. “These Drones come in and light up the interior of the Raven Rock, in completely CG surroundings that had to match the plate that was brought in. The level of destruction happening all around the central plate shots,” says the Compositing Supervisor Matt Smith. Meanwhile, Greg Teegarden’s work on 2012, where they had to create the Grand Canyon yawning earth opening, gave him a history to fall back on, as it were.

While following a drone beacon into a hole in the earth’s surface Jack nearly falls into a deep chasm that drops into the remains of the New York Public Library, where Scavs are living. Digital Domain extended the live-action library set to create the CG chasm and multiple floors it breaks through, as well as augmenting the shots of the scuffle with gunfire, explosions and multiple CG Scavs. The New York Public Library was on a large set built in the New Orleans stage. In the story, Jack rappels down, gets caught just before a drone turns up and wreaks havoc. There was a bunch of digital doubles for this sequence because of the the gymnastics involved at the end of a rope.


There was a whole toolset developed to help create the goggle views in the binoculars. The views of Jack out on patrol as seen from the base station had to be complete with convincing dry static, range markings and graphic overlay.

Some were given a procedural flickering technique and generated some pretty interesting effects like heat distortion to give a foreign look through the use of drone-vision, a bit of alien technology. They also took references of florescent light and real-world flicker, which we introduced into the New York Public Library sequence, which was a pretty chaotic sequence. Heat distortion has come a long way. Teegarden used motion vectors to smear the vision into blending with the background. “This made the VFX effect of foreground fire that much more interesting and convincing,” he adds. “We brought that up another few steps since earlier shows.”