The popular Resident Evil video games have spawned three films, with the latest installment achieving dramatic box office success this summer. One of the factors attracting audiences to the latest installment is the high level of detail and realism found in the visual effects shots. Fans of the RE movies and games have come to expect high impact visual effects and Toronto studio Mr. X played a lead role in helping deliver the goods in over 510 shots for the film.
“From my experience, feature film is becoming more and more challenging and brings with it an increasingly complex set of problems,” said Dennis Berardi, Mr. X president and visual effects supervisor for RE: Extinction. “There is the classic volume and time scale issue where the film maker’s needs are growing while budgets are shrinking. We are therefore constantly looking for ways to deliver on the filmmaker’s vision while not getting caught short.”
To address the demands for RE: Extinction, Mr. X changed that way they approached the most complex shots by building flexibility, speed and performance into their production process using Houdini from Side Effects Software.
“Before we got started, we had to work out how the pipeline was going to work.” said Berardi. “Houdini helped us envision the end game for various shots to get the best result.”
CGSociety met Resident Evil’s VFX Supervisor, Evan Jacobs, briefly when he was at the Digital Media Festival here in Sydney. He spoke of the massively overheated conditions (60C) he and the rest of the crew experienced in the production down in the desert in Mexico. There was a vast reconstruction of the lost Las Vegas streetscape and the astonishing job that the CG crew had in front of them. They recreated crowds of undead, CG crows, the gas tanker crash, and the match moved pile of cloned copies of Alice, played by Milla Jovovich.
Back at Mr. X, Ben Simons, visual effects artist, set up Houdini to deliver a wide variety of shots including the final stand off scene.
“We used Houdini to model and animate the tentacles of the tyrant in the final battle sequence,” said Simons. “We integrated wire dynamics into our animation rig in Houdini. These wires were then used to model the tyrant’s tentacles and allowed each tentacle to relate to itself, and the environment around it. This integrated approach meant that all the dynamic properties such as mass and gravity were embedded right in the model.”
When the tentacles in the scene collided with each other, the room and the Alice character, all these embedded dynamic properties made it possible for Mr. X to easily update simulations. The resulting solution was very reliable and responsive to the changes requested by the film-maker and the production team.
“Not only did we save time but we added a sense of realism to the animation that would have been hard to achieve with a traditional approach. We were able to run multiple iterations of our shots to explore all the production team’s ideas on the fly,” said Simons. “The beauty of Houdini’s procedural system is that it allows us to make a change that ripples through the whole network in one click.”
The power of Houdini and its node-based workflow really showed itself when Mr. X began designing the environment dynamics for the final standoff scene. One area of focus for Mr. X was interpreting the visual effects gap between the artistic conception of the opening scene and the post battle scene concept provided by the film’s producers. Bridging the two shots with special effects meant moving from a dining room where the two opponents faced off against each other and the final shot where the battle is over and the room’s floor boards are ripped apart.
“In the final fight scene, we used Houdini 9 to create the room itself. In Houdini 9 you can couple dynamic networks together and use one to drive another.” said Simons. “We produced one rigid body system to model the floor then we set up a procedural explosion that fractured the boards so that they extended from the Alice character towards the tyrant.”
Not only were the explosion and force dynamics easy to work with, but Mr. X was able to quickly integrate a fluid-based dust simulation into the explosion. Using about 50 different dynamic operators, the volume-based fluid box representing the whole room was able to integrate with the rigid body simulation of the floor boards and create a result where the whole fluid box was pushed apart in reaction to the explosion.
“So much of this effect is not seen by the audience because we didn’t render the fluid directly. Instead we used a process called advecting where we added particles to the air and a dust render to the particles,” said Simons. “The beauty of it is that the dust reacts directly to the movement and explosion of the floor board in a seamless but adjustable model.”
Raising the bar
Using Houdini allowed the team at Mr. X to do highly creative and detailed work that moved the meter on creative quality while creating a production environment where they could work with the film director to quickly and easily channel his vision for each effect.
“Houdini helped us work efficiently and do a lot of smart work up front but the biggest benefit was how it changed our production process,” said Berardi. “We set up a room where Paul could come into Post Production and direct the amount of force, spread, amplitude and debris. In these sessions, he got exactly what he wanted right there and then.”
Berardi credits the approach as being a big reason for why Paul Anderson hired Mr. X for his latest project, Death Race, with a bigger budget and bigger demands for visual effects. Film-making is a highly personal business and directors demand and expect the best from their effects team.
“Resident Evil Extinction was a number one movie for a major studio [Sony] and allowed us to get some real street cred in the always competitive film industry,” said Berardi who noted the success Mr. X enjoyed with the film can be traced back to the pitch process and what it takes to gain the confidence of film makers.
“When a director challenges you to achieve his vision he doesn’t want hear about how you will limit the scope and scale of his creativity. He wants to hear how you’re going to push the limits,” said Berardi. “To succeed in this business you have to pitch with passion and have confidence in your team and the tools they use. Houdini gives my team more confidence and allows us to go for it without reservation and that is a great recipe for success.”