« Jackson's Kong finally unveiled | Main | King Kong is Released! »

December 12, 2005

1 Week To Go,

(Ok, 2Days!?!) The second to last production diary covers the New York City Times Square premiere and after party... great stuph, check it out: "Post Production Diary - 1 Week to Go!"

Here is a nice spread on some of the visual effects on Kong,

Bigger and Badder
How Weta Digital Bulked Up for King Kong

By Barbara Robertson
December 1, 2005 Source: Film & Video
VFX supervisor Joe Letteri has won two Oscars, a Technical Achievement Award, and an Oscar nomination in the past three years at Weta Digital. Now, he’s doing something really big: Peter Jackson’s King Kong. We got him on the phone, a month from his deadline on Kong at Weta’s Wellington, New Zealand facilities, to talk about the new technology and techniques Weta devised to meet Kong’s many challenges.

Size Matters
Weta Digital grew from around 420 people to slightly over 500 for Kong. Letteri drafted Ben Snow as co-VFX supervisor early and, later, added two more top supes (see sidebar, below). "We have about 20 to 25 percent more people," says Letteri. "System-wise, we’ve about doubled our capacity in terms of render farm, disk space, and everything since Rings." As on previous films, Weta built its pipeline around Alias’s Maya, Pixar’s RenderMan and Apple’s Shake. Massive software, which had moved armies for Rings, managed the digital people and vehicles that populate Weta’s digital New York.

"We also used [Digital Domain’s] Nuke a bit because it has a nice ability to work with 3D, so it’s good to help build environments and do pre-comp," says Letteri. "And we still have Infernos here."

For Rings, Weta used a separate company for DI, but for Kong, they created an in-house DI department based on a Discreet Lustre system.[Color Supervisor Peter Doyle worked with Supervising Digital Colorist David Cole and Lead Colorists Billy Wychgel and Melissa Hangleon.] "We also streamlined and improved things in the back end — the hardware side, the networking and infrastructure," says Letteri, "and we had one big philosophical change in the pipeline: We are more geared toward pulling information together at render time than carrying it through individual scenes."

What does that mean? Technical directors now light and move low-resolution proxies rather than highly detailed geometry, whether they’re juggling complex scenes or complex characters. The high-resolution geometry rolls into RenderMan at render time.

"With a creature like Kong, you don’t want to open a Maya scene and have all the fur in it — and you obviously can’t open up a scene with all of New York in it — so we built a system that uses proxies," explains Letteri, "Everything is actually generated at render time. The system outputs whatever the camera is seeing whenever it needs it."

Working with proxies is not unusual. Studios typically use RenderMan’s RIB archives to see low-res on screen and then output high-res at render time. But rather than relying on RIB archives, Weta integrated a more flexible custom system into its pipeline.

"I’m guessing we’re not the only ones doing that," Letteri says. "As you start building bigger and more complex scenes, you still need fast feedback and turnaround time, and this is the only way to manage it. You can’t wait forever for things to update."

In addition, Kong’s demands required the creation of new simulation and motion-capture tools. New fur software made the ape hairy, new fluid-simulation software moved oceans, and new motion-capture tools helped animators ape Kong.

Super-Sized Sims
"We had a fairly good fur solution for Rings, but there wasn’t all that much fur," says Letteri. "And, there are good fur engines available — Maya’s got fur, and there’s also Shave and Haircut. But, when it comes down to putting five million hairs on Kong and making sure you can control what they’re all doing for every shot, you need your own software. If something doesn’t look right, you have to able to open it up and figure out what’s going on."

The fur-simulation software and new fur shaders generate, groom and animate Kong’s five million hairs when he moves, manage collisions with other objects, ruffle his hair in the wind and allow it to get dirty and muddy.

The crew also wrote a fluid-dynamics solver to create an ocean for Kong’s voyage to New York. The problems with commercial tools they had used and tested whirled around interaction and scalability. Some fluid solvers could manage an entire ocean or waves breaking around a boat, for example, but not both at the same time.

"When you need waves breaking off a boat in a whole ocean, it gets complicated," says Letteri. "We needed something that would do the broad solution and the small, specific solution where there is interaction."

Gorilla My Dreams
Of course, one of the biggest challenges in the film was its star. Modelers created Kong— and the digital doubles he interacts with— in Maya with help from a new tool Weta calls Mudbox. "It acts more like a painting system than a modeling system," says Letteri.

Looking for Mudbox?
See Also: Official Mudbox demonstration by Petey Konig at CA/MB Workshop! June 9-12-2006 in Montreal

To breathe life into Kong, rather than rely solely on keyframe animation for the CG gorilla, the crew turned to techniques and the actor who had created the Ring’s Gollum: they motion-captured Andy Serkis. Like Gollum, a gorilla has similar musculature to a human, even though the body and face shape is different. This time, though, the crew captured Serkis’s face and body simultaneously and the animators used data from Serkis’s performance for facial expressions as well. New software made it possible for animators to drive the CG gorilla with the mocap data or with keyframe animation, and a new system interpreted Serkis’s facial expressions before mapping data onto the 3D model.

"This is an expression-based system," says Letteri. "The software looks at the dots on Andy’s face, figures out what his expression says— that he’s sad, for example— and then applies that to Kong. We’re using mocap not just to move geometry around, but to actually interpret the actor’s expression and apply that to the character’s expression."

While Kong had to seem believable, Weta’s digital double for actor Naomi Watts had to be real. To capture Watts and create her double, the crew turned to Paul Debevec’s image-based Light Stage system at the ICT Graphics Lab. "We’ve moved more into image-based lighting than in the past for real actors and for real materials for set extensions," says Letteri.

As work on the production nears the end, Letteri sounds pleased. "We’re swamped right now, but it’s going well. The show is so big that people could take on large sequences and run with them. It’s given the crew good opportunities." And, perhaps, another Oscar nomination?

Bring In The Supes
At the start of the show, two-time visual effects Oscar nominee Ben Snow (Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, Pearl Harbor) came aboard as co-visual effects supervisor. And then, during the last few months, two more heavy-duty VFX supes were brought in: George Murphy, VFX supervisor for Constantine, The Matrix Revolutions and Reloaded, who won an Oscar for Forrest Gump, and Scott Anderson, who received Oscar noms for Starship Troopers and Hollow Man, and won for Babe.

"A big chunk of the movie takes place in New York, another big chunk on Skull Island, and another on the voyage, so we broke it down roughly that way," Letteri says. "Ben is supervising and shepherding many of the big scenes on Skull Island and New York that we started early on. Scott picked up the new New York shots, and George has a lot of the coverage of Skull Island."

Joe Letteri’s Academy Awards History
2005 Oscar Nomination for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for I, Robot
2004 Oscar for Best Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004 Technical Achievement Award for groundbreaking implementations of
practical methods for rendering skin and other translucent materials
using subsurface scattering techniques
2004 Oscar for Best Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
In Focus
Joe Letteri began his career at Industrial Light & Magic, where he was CG supervisor/artist on The Abyss, Jurassic Park and Casper. He was an associate visual effects supervisor on Mission Impossible and visual effects supervisor on Magnolia. Universal’s Kong, scheduled for release December 14, is his fourth film as visual effects supervisor at Weta, following the final two Lord of the Rings movies and I, Robot.


Posted by dschnee at December 12, 2005 8:08 AM