This February, a new genre of film, a zombie romantic comedy (a.k.a. zom-rom-com) was released into cinemas. Jonathan Levine's Warm Bodies blends elements of horror, teen angst, humor and the power of love – all with the help of LOOK Effects. CGSociety dug up an exclusive look at the zombies and work on a CG City.
Warm Bodies is a tongue-in-cheek wrap on The Undead, a genre that, to my mind, had been ‘done to death’ (pardon the pun] that has in recent days been welcomed as #1 at the US Box Office. Filled with 'just-about-dead' beings, called the 'Boneys', and premised by the plight of the remaining humans holed up in a walled city, all this would not have been possible without the VFX from this team of artisans from LOOK Effects. Over a period of approximately ten months, their Vancouver facility opened its doors, built a team of about 45, structured a character animation and VFX pipeline and produced around 350 shots for the show. Their work included extensive character animation on ‘the Boneys’, an evolved form of zombie that plagues humanity, and the creation of a fully-digital city where the action takes place.
Working with the director and creative team, LOOK Effects had extensive input into the look, feel and movement of these most-extreme undead. The VFX team began with a motion capture approach and shifted to primarily using good old-fashioned keyframe animation. Combined with the work of the modeling, texture and lighting team, the result is a photo-realistic army of skeleton monsters who terrorize the heroes in a series of hand-to-hand battles and generally menacing encounters.
Many crew working on Warm Bodies in Vancouver, were brought in from further down the coast especially for the production. Others were dragged across from New York. Back when the project came up, LOOK Effects didn’t have a studio in this popular western Canadian city. “In fact this was the show that helped the case to set up the office and hire a full crew to work on the show,” says Mat Krentz, the digital FX Supervisor.
Mat Krentz started out at Rainmaker Entertainment as a compositor some eleven years ago. He travelled to Australia, the UK and back to the West Coast, just to see what other offices were doing. But in the end, he wanted to get back to Vancouver and this was the answer to his calling.
Animating the zombies was a particularly challenging part of the shoot because they began with some experimental MoCap. “But it came back with a very twitchy, jerky kind of movement with a particularly stiff vibe to everything, and just didn’t look right,” Mat explains. “It looked quite exaggerated and as soon as we put it onto the skeleton model, immediately we could tell it wasn’t going to work. It was the quickest switch to key-frame animation ever attempted.”
The resulting mix of keyframe work, and the guidance of the MoCap data they already had, gave the LOOK Effects crew the freedom to build the zombies into strong, menacing creatures, and this helped them sell the power and strength of the key zombie characters a whole lot more than they would have been able to. “There were a lot of controls in how the final effect was created using the key-frame,” adds Mat.
“In the end, we layered these ‘spasm’ motions over the top of the animation, which helped out, and gave the zombies a little more chaos,” adds Dan Krutscke, LOOK Effects Visual Effects Supervisor. “We were given full frame headshots, very detailed faces, all kinds of angles and construction.” One of the LOOK Effects Creature TDs set up a pipeline for the animators and wrote up tools for the animators to do facial expressions and blend shapes. No muscle rig was used but everything to do with the key animation was created in Maya.
CG Supervisor at the Vancouver LOOK FX facility Dmitry Vinnik says the full screen faces of the Boney was a particular challenge.
"We developed a pipeline here that allowed us to use multi-tiles resolution EXRs," explains Vinnik. LOOK FX used ZBrush and Mudbox, generating 32-bit EXRs for the displacement, while for texturing they used MARI with all the maps baked out.
"Some of the scenes with the mummified zombies were very dark, and the Boneys were dark anyway, so if you put them in the bright sun, they wouldn't look like much," explains Vinnik. The further the Zombies were away from the camera the lower res maps were loaded, so the rendering could be sped up. The shots that included 12 to 30 zombies in a wide, LOOK FX rendered them all in one layer.
"In terms of displacement and extras we went pretty wild with tiles with 16 tiles just for his face," Dimik says. "Our lead modeler Jerlmer Boskma and the small team sculpting in ZBrush, ended up doing doing 32 tiles for displacement just in the face and the neck area in the close ups. They had to hold up pretty close up, full frame."
At a very late stage, an establishing shot was called for that showed off where the zombies lived as well as where the humans lived. A sweeping vista of a CG city with matte painting plates and tons of assets showing this run-down city, enabled the setting up of the entire view of the show’s locations. “Of course, the first thing we did was employ as many CG artists as we could, and locked down the camera motion so we could keep all the projections and mapping,” explains Mat Krentz. There were hook-ups between the projection of the skyline plates in CG, with the live action plates where the action takes place at the tail end of the sequence. “The photogrammetry is a quick cheat.”