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June 19, 2009

Visual FX from HELL


One of the most memorable aspects of the much-loved (by both critics and fans) but sadly underseen DRAG ME TO HELL is the ending of Sam Raimi’s supernatural thriller (SPOILER ALERT: that conclusion will be discussed heavily in this piece, with photos from the sequence—so if you haven’t seen the film yet, read no further). Even if you see it coming, as some people have claimed to, it’s a hell of a note to end on, and has sent audiences out buzzing.

When it came time to bring this finale to the screen, Raimi (who also scripted the Universal release with his brother Ivan) looked to Academy Award-winning visual FX house Tippett Studios (CLOVERFIELD, BLADE II, STARSHIP TROOPERS), which also ended up contributing to the opening sequence and the moment in which heroine Christine (Alison Lohman) snorts and swallows a fly. Matt Jacobs, who has been at Tippett for 13 years now and served as co-visual FX supervisor on the project, found DRAG to be anything but one. “I was a huge fan of Sam Raimi’s pictures, like ARMY OF DARKNESS and the other EVIL DEAD movies. I didn’t actually realize when we were working on it, until we actually got to see it at the premiere, just how much DRAG ME TO HELL was like those films.”


It was actually DRAG ME TO HELL 2nd-unit director Bruce Jones who led the production to Tippett, as he also supervised the digital assignment alongside Jacobs and Thomas Schelesny. “[Jones is] somebody we’ve worked with often here in the past,” Jacobs explains. “He has produced shows for Tippett Studios and he knows what our strengths are. DRAG ME TO HELL needed rather large sequences—we did about 40 shots in total. There were a lot of elements that went into them. He wanted to come to us because we’re used to dealing with elaborate scenes like that.”

And elaborate that final setpiece is, as Christine, who has incurred the wrath and the curse of an aged gypsy woman (Lorna Raver), meets the fate promised by the movie’s title on railroad tracks. Jacobs explains just how much went into creating that one last spine-chill, between coming up with a visual scheme and crafting the precise moments that occur within it. Tippett Studios didn’t rely solely on pure CGI, but blended practical (including actors and a miniature) and digital elements to create the best look they could, each picking up where the other left off. “That was shot mostly against a greenscreen, after Christine falls back on the tracks,” Jacobs explains. “There were train tracks built, and actors with monster arms on who actually reached up and grabbed Alison. We ended up augmenting those arms, which were made out of rubber, and color-correcting them, as well as adding CG arms we built to augment the effect, trying to have more of them clutch at her at certain cues. And we also had to find a way to make the practical arms look longer. We ended up having limb extensions that kind of looked like burning stumps. They basically resembled charcoal in red-hot light, and could really extend out of the environment so we wouldn’t have the truncated arms just end.”

The detailing didn’t end there, as Raimi’s overseeing of the FX sequences involved specific notes about when and where everything should take place. “He definitely knows the picture he wants to make, and he’s got a really good memory for what he has shot and what was in each take,” Jacobs explains. “When we were making Christine’s skin look like it was peeling and blistering at the end, he had a definite idea of how much of the actress he wanted to see. He wanted her to look affected, but also very recognizable. A lot of the other back-and-forths between production and the visual effects department had to do with editorial decisions, such as, ‘What’s the proper time for him to come up and grab the girl?’, or when the effects should actually turn on in that whole ending sequence. There were certain cues that we had to address. When the train comes by and streaking over Christine’s head, Sam wanted to see her at certain phases of her desecration, so the train actually became a device to create this staccato effect over her. He had definite input on what those beats should be, and that rang true of the work we did for the entire picture.”

That’s not to say that Jacobs and his crew, including lead compositors Jonathan Knight and Joseph Bailey, animation supervisor Tom Gibbons, set constructors Andy and Bart Trickel and lighting TDs Jim Aupperle and Larry Weiss didn’t make their own creative additions to the film. “We heard that part of the effect of Christine and Juan [the boy who suffers a fiery fate in DRAG’s prologue] being dragged down would actually involve seeing into hell, so instead of going with a digital approach and doing a matte-painting type of thing, which is industry standard these days, we went for building a miniature,” Jacobs reveals. “We had some model-shop people come here to the studio and help us build a stage where we could shoot practical elements like that. We shot the miniature, supervised by Lorne Peterson, and that went into all the shots where you see down into hell, which was supposed to look like an infinite cavern with white-hot embers and fire, to give the impression that she’s really getting dragged down into an inferno.

“We used the RED hi-def camera [provided by Miguel Ortega, one of Tippett’s modelers] to shoot it,” he continues, “and that was great, because it gave us flexibility and more rapid feedback on what we had just shot. And we also shot some high-speed elements—mostly fire and smoke—which we filmed at several hundred frames per second. Using that made the flame effects actually look bigger. That was one of the more interesting parts of working on the picture, being able to shoot a miniature.”

The blending and cooperation of CGI and physical FX is heartening to hear about at a time when there still seems to be a struggle (and debate in fan circles) between the two approaches. Jacobs, a compositing artist for many years before becoming a supervisor, weighs in on the subject: “Well, there’s a time and a place for everything. And some things you can’t do practically all the time, especially today with the rapid turnarounds. Most of the talent pool these days is in the computer graphics side, and there are fewer people who have the knowledge of how to build and shoot a miniature and other practical effects. The design that goes into doing those two types is different, and so the talent pool for doing that kind of work has changed. To paraphrase somebody who was talking about this, there’s a certain sense that digital/visual effects look right but practical effects feel right, and that’s why you get away with a lot more when you actually shoot something practically. You know it’s a real thing. And the digital side—not to hate on it myself—sometimes suffers from being computer-generated. You’ll buy a lot when it’s actually shot with a camera.”

Jacobs and his team are currently firing away at their next gig: providing the look of the werewolves in this fall’s highly anticipated NEW MOON, the next film in the TWILIGHT saga, in which he says the creatures will be purely CG. For now, he takes pride in his talented crew’s fine DRAG ME TO HELL efforts, which take a step in the right direction of warming fans’ hearts toward the use of digital elements in genre cinema. (fangoria.com)

Posted by dschnee at 6:39 AM

June 13, 2009

Drag Me To Hell FX Guide Rundown

For the Hell sequences in Sam Raimi's Drag Me To Hell, Tippett Studio augmented miniature photography with various digital elements. Visual effects supervisor Matt Jacobs gives Ian Failes a run-down of Tippett's work for the film. (fxguide.com)

Can you give me an overview of your work for the Hell shots?

Tom Schelesny and I were the visual effects supervisors for Tippett Studio on the project. Tippett worked on two major sequences in the film. One was the opening sequence of the little boy who has been cursed and is dragged into Hell. Most of that work was doing augmentations to the set. Hell starts to open up and the earth cracks. We had to add light rays, smoke, embers and fire. In one shot, which didn't actually appear in the picture, there was a demon - this creature called the Lamia which resembled a goat and had a Hag's head. That was actually a shared model with other facilities that was given to us. We had to do some work internally for our Lamia shots, using shaders. It was basically taking this grand hall that the kid was in, cracking the earth as he is pulled down to Hell, while this gypsy woman watches. So there were several shots of the kid and then a couple of reverses of the woman trying to take the curse off of him.

What was the other main sequence you worked on?

MJ: It was the end of the movie, when the girl, Christine, is dragged to Hell. She thinks she is free of the curse. She and her boyfriend are going to take some sort of train trip. She gets to the train platform, and (this is a bit of a spoiler) comes to find out that she in fact hasn't because of this button her boyfriend produces. She realises that she hasn't passed on the curse to someone else because of the button and what the button actually means. So she falls onto the train tracks. We did a large set extension there. The train itself, the train station, and everything other than the girl and an eight foot square of railroad is a massive set extension. So the train is bearing down on her and at the same time the demons from Hell come to drag her down there.

Bruce Jones, the studio visual effects supervisor and producer on the film, shot Christine on a greenscreen stage with a section of train track inside of a trough. He had some actors with green coverings on and rubber arms that they used as demon arms to reach out and drag her down to Hell. We did some augmentation for the set and for the rubber arms, trying to make them look a little less rubber and little more demon-like.

We also shot a Hell miniature here at Tippett. Lorne Peterson, who used to be with the ILM Model Shop for 30 years, came over to help us out. The look that they wanted for Hell was a massive cavern. So the miniature involved a bunch of stalagtites hanging down. It's supposed to be a white hot core, almost completely blown out to the point where we're supposed to see the stalagtites, but it has the heat of Hell. So when we filmed the miniature we filmed with a lot of smoke elements and lighting passes. We had a couple of different kinds of smoke and we also used dry ice. Electric fans were used to try and get different characteristics like wafting out through the hole. We also tried different tricks and lighting scenarios on the miniature to give different rim light effects.

For the miniature shoot, lighting of the miniature was handled by Jim Aupperle, a lighting TD here at the studio with extensive experience in lighting practical and miniature visual effects. Andy Trickel and Bart Trickel wrangled set construction, lighting and grip. The miniature was supervised by Lorne Peterson. The RED camera was provided to us by Miguel Ortega, a Tippett Studio modeler and independent filmmaker.

We added fire and embers and smoke to the shots. We also added a lot of heat distortion ripples, which were basically just a warp effect. Those were the principal elements that went into making Hell. We put those underneath the train tracks. There's a whole idea that as Hell opens up, the rocks underneath the train track are pouring down into Hell. This is like a hole that opens up, demon arms reach up to grab Christine, fire's shooting out, embers are going everywhere and there's heat distortion.

Then, eventually, the hole closes up and the rocks begin piling back in on themselves as the train passes by. Christine turns into what we called the 'Desiccated girl'. It involved adding cracks and fissures to her face and then giving that to the compers to manipulate even further to make it feel like she was really drying up. Then in one of the last shots in the movie, you see her all dried up. Her skin's peeled back and her hand has turned into more of a husk. She's dragged down into these rocks and she disappears forever into Hell.

fxg: It sounds like there was a nice mixture of practical and digital effects.

MJ: For us, we wanted to use the miniature so we could have something photographic in our pocket as opposed to using just a CG approach. That gave us the ability to photograph this thing and immediately have something. It meant that everybody knew what we were making. To paraphrase someone else, there's this idea that while CG stuff might look right, photographed things feel right. It made more sense for the number of setups we had to do, for the time we had to do it in and the resources that were available to us. It was actually a really great experience to be able to work with some of the people like Lorne Peterson on making a miniature.

We were building this thing and dressing it to camera, as opposed to what you would do in CG. You know, 'What's the back of the cave look like?' Sometimes things get overbuilt in the CG world. We really just built what we needed. We've got a stage here at Tippett, with lights and the right gels and the smoke machines and the ability to film these elements here. It made perfect sense for us to go with that approach, as opposed to building it digitally and then wondering if it was going to look right.

fxg: It's great to hear that miniatures are still being used.

MJ: They get used a lot more than people think. I mean, Kerner Optical's up here in the Bay Area. They're still busy right now and we've worked on projects with them. Of course, Phil (Tippett) goes back to the days of ILM, so he's got a lot of relationships with people at Kerner. It opens us up to using those people's talents and their knowledge for what we're doing. It's not just locked into doing everything by modelling it digitally and then rendering it and all that stuff. Like I said, the photographic stuff just feels right.

fxg: What did you shoot the miniature with?

MJ: We used the RED camera to shoot the miniature. It was great because we were able to have instant feedback on what we were shooting. We shot a lot more footage than we ended up using, which was nice. The resolution was helpful too. We prevised out pretty well the dimensions of what we needed to build and the scale of it. That was an interesting process, again, to take what we knew we had to build in the computer based on our matchmoves to the plate and realise that we had to build everything down to one-fifth scale. We worked back and forth between the computer and what we had built on stage. When we brought the footage back into Shake, everything was lining up pretty well. You push and pull things a little bit, or you scale things up a little, but most of the footage dropped in relatively quickly in the comp.

fxg: What tools did you use to do the fire and smoke effects and the molten rocks?

MJ: We ended up shooting a bunch of high-speed fire elements with a Phantom camera. I think it was over 100 frames a second on most of the stuff to reinforce the scale and slow down the fire to make it look like it was travelling further. We did the same thing for the smoke elements for the miniature. We shot these mostly at 50 frames per second on the RED, and that way the smoke had the appearance of a larger scale. For the fire elements, once we'd filmed them at a higher rate, it was up to the compers to corner-pin, track them in and make them work for the shots. For the rocks, we mostly used nParticles which is Maya's newer particle simulation tool. Lead compositing was done by Jonathan Knight and Joe Bailey. Tom Gibbons supervised animation on the project, and Larry Weiss was the lead lighting TD for all of our CG assets.

fxg: What were some of the bigger challenges on this show?

MJ: Probably the biggest impact for us was editorial decisions, on what beat certain things might have to happen. The pace of the picture, and the pace of the end sequence really drove it. It was all about performance beats. That could even come with some of the elements we were putting in the shots - when a railroad pipe broke, when you saw fire, when you saw a CG hand come up and grab Christine. Those sorts of things were driven more by editorial to enhance the cut. (fxguide.com)

Posted by dschnee at 6:05 AM

June 9, 2009

NEW MOON Trailer Sets New Record Online + Reaction

Seth Meyers needs to weekend update with this shit, Really!?! Seriously, "the trailer views on MySpace set a new record for the site with a total of 4.2 million online views within the first 24 hours and a total of 7.8 million within the first seven days", wtf, really?

Film's First Movie Trailer Receives 10.6 Million Online Views in its First Week Through Launch Partners MySpace and MTV

LOS ANGELES, June 9 /PRNewswire/ -- The movie trailer for Summit Entertainment's THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON received 10.6 million online views in its first week from the trailer's domestic launch partners, MySpace and MTV. The trailer views on MySpace set a new record for the site with a total of 4.2 million online views within the first 24 hours and a total of 7.8 million within the first seven days. After being seen by 5.3 million viewers during its broadcast debut during the 2009 MTV Movie Awards, the trailer also received a total of 2.8 million online views on MTV.com within the first week.

The achievement is not only a record for MySpace, but also surpassed the views of the third and final trailer for the first film TWILIGHT, which received 3.2 million views in its first 48 hours online.

THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON starring Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, and directed by Chris Weitz will be released November 20, 2009.

Posted by dschnee at 10:51 PM

June 7, 2009

Drag Me to Hell: Tippett Enjoys the Ride

Drag-Hell05_Burned.jpgMatt Jacobs of Tippett Studio divulges what it was like opening up hell for the new Sam Raimi shocker. Includes major spoiler images.

Beware: Major Spoiler Images Included Below

There was no kicking and screaming to entice Tippett Studio to work on the two hellish set pieces for Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi's return to horror about a loan officer (Alison Lohman) cursed by an old woman after not getting her an extension on her mortgage.

"We did not have much direct contact with Sam Raimi (Bruce Jones, the overall visual effects supervisor, served as liaison), but this was a lot more fun to work on because I'm such a fan of Evil Dead and Army of Darkness and horror overall," admits Matt Jacobs, Tippett's visual effects supervisor on Drag Me to Hell.

"And now that I've seen it, I realize what a return it is to those pictures," Jacobs offers. "But Raimi is particular about what he wants and has a real sense of where he's going. I'd say one of the more interesting aspects of it was editorializing the effects: the beats that we knew to hit…"

The "drag me to hell" sequences Jacobs refers to consists of a floor opening up at the beginning and a child being grabbed by demonic arms; and a train mowing someone down at the end and, again, the person being pulled down by the same demonic arms.

"The most interesting thing we did on the show," Jacobs continues, "was we built a miniature for the shots where we're looking in hell instead of using a digital approach because of the resources we have here at the studio, and we incorporated the help of some of ex-ILM model builders. So we went about building a small prop -- these stalactites looking down into hell and it went underneath the train track. We also used it for the opening sequence when this boy is dragged into hell. And it was a good approach. We used the RED camera and we shot it here at the studio. And it actually made getting the hell look a lot more direct and a lot faster, I think, than going through the usual computer CG pipeline because when you shoot a miniature, you're a little more locked in to what you're doing -- it's more of a calculated approach."

When we shot the miniature, we pulled out our smoke machine and our lights and we dramatically lit it, we backlit it, we ran multiple passes of different types of smoke and then we relied on old comping tricks and brought those different passes back in and mixed them, moved them against each other and tried some remapping to reinforce the scale. And we used different elements to create this hell hole."

Of course, CG also figured prominently in the two sequences. It can be seen in the opening encounter with the creation of fissures in a marble floor along with some fire and ember elements. The whole aspect of opening hell up with the fissures, according to Jacobs, was so you would see the face of the rock underneath. Then there was a miniature shot down into hell. The opening of hell was subsequently blocked out in animation.

The end sequence, meanwhile, was comprised of everything in Tippett's arsenal. "We did a lot of set extensions shot on a greenscreen stage with a small bit of track. We used photographs of a train station that were provided to us, we created a CG train, train track extension, background, the other platform, photographic elements of other people on the platform that were provided to us, which we had to comp into the shot, and then there was this whole aspect of hell breaking open. For that, we did pretty extensive dynamic simulation of the bed of rocks that lay around the ties on a railroad track. And those had to be pouring into hell the entire time, so we used Maya's nParticles for that. We created CG demon arms that looked like the rubber arms used on set.

"One thing we did also to augment the rubber arms used on set because they looked truncated. So we went in and matchmoved those arms, we did some color correction to bring them down and look more demonic and then added a glowing stump to give it some visual interest and make it blend more into the background."

Oh, yes, Tippett also created a rather bothersome fly in CG: "Those were a little more complicated matchmoves and getting the fly to look right was a challenge. We did one shot, in particular, where the fly actually comes in and lands on the camera and we rack focus to the fly and rack away. It was fun to bring down the wall and see the fly interact with the camera."


Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.

Posted by dschnee at 9:35 PM

June 1, 2009

New Moon Trailer + 1rst Day Back

So you can actually watch something in good quality on youtube now? I'm into that, here's the New Moon Teaser Trailer shown on the MTV Movie Awards last night...

OK, as of today, I'm now officially and fully on board working on the Untitled Sports Movie, aka whatever, it's New Moon! I've been out since the first week of April on baby duty while my wife needed to return to work for a short time. It's been amazing having so much time with the little man, seeing him grow and change so much in such a short time, I'm very fortunate. I'm also super excited to be back at work though, went a little stir crazy? you bet'cha.

Anyhow, lots of work to be done, enjoy the animated gif some fangirl created, it's our shot from the teaser trailer, a solid delivery of our transformation and cg wolf, don't fret, it's gonna be bettah! :)

Your thoughts on our CG Wolf and Transformation?

Posted by dschnee at 9:05 PM