Get ready to be blown away. I definitely was when Aaron took me on a VIP tour. Tour of what? The Beyond the Mask classified visual effects archive room. “We built some awesome sets for the film. Now we’re just making them awesomer,” Aaron told me. He didn’t notice that I had sneaked my smart phone into the room and I snapped a few photos to show you.
Ok, so we weren’t in an archive room; what he showed me was all on his laptop . . . but it was incredible! But let me tell you about it so you can be as excited as I am. And I do have some top secret pictures to share. Don’t ask me how I got them. . .
After I had seen what the visual effects team is creating, it was time to do some investigating. So, I decided to talk to one of the expert artists on the team to find out just how this all works.
Meet Chris Arnold. He’s the lead 3D artist on the Beyond the Mask visual effects team. I was planning to set up a telephone interview with Chris, but switched my plans to involve Skype when I realized that it would be an international call. Chris lives in Ontario, Canada, and is a skilled artist in his field. Chris describes his job this way. “A 3D artist’s role can vary from modeling and texturing, to lighting and rendering digitally created objects and scenes. My role with a lot of the visual effects shots is to create 3D buildings used for the digital set extensions.”
Beyond the Mask will employ visual effects to enhance its story, as most films do today, but I wanted to know what the scale of this project was. How many visual effects shots are there in the film? I asked Chris. “I know that we have over seven hundred visual effects shots in the film, but you should talk to Luke, he could get you the exact numbers,” Chris says. Luke is the Visual Effects Coordinator and has been working out of the Beyond the Mask postproduction command central near St. Louis since August. So, I contacted Luke to find out just how large this project was. “We have 741 VFX shots currently, which totals around 65,000 frames of visual effects. This equals approximately 50.1 minutes of play time on screen. We have 27 artists on our internal team and are outsourcing some larger sequences to two other VFX post houses as well.” Obviously Luke likes numbers, and as his statistics might show, he is a bit of a computer whiz. Wow. The team is definitely taking this film up another level in excellence. That’s more visual effects shots than there were in the film Inception!
There are several sequences that Chris is directly involved with. “We have the rooftop chase sequence. We have the prison ship sequence and quite a few others,” Chris says. “We can make it feel much bigger and epic and photo real. For the rooftop chase, we have created over fifteen different 3D models for actual buildings of the time period that are then placed in the scene to create these massive city shots so that we can render them out and populate this 18th century Philadelphia world.”
I got to preview the rooftop chase sequence, so I followed up on it to see how the visual effects add to this one piece of the film. This scene is set in colonial Philadelphia. The crew built dozens of physical sets for the film, including an entire Philadelphia street. They also filmed at a number of the existing historic locations, but clearly the colonial city of Philadelphia doesn’t exist anymore. That’s where the visual effects guys come in. Researching historical aspects of colonial architecture and city design, they have been able to rebuild a very accurate city using CGI. The layout of the city is based on historic maps of the city, allowing the Delaware River, Independence Hall, Windmill Island, and other locations throughout the city to be just where they were in Franklin’s day.
Once the research is complete, there are three main roles in the actual visual effects creation process. “The majority of guys working on this are compositors,” Chris explains. “They do the effects which you don’t notice at the end of the day, but they need to happen to make the film seamless and to avoid drawing the viewer away from the story.”
Next there are the 3D artists like Chris who do the modeling, whether they are extending the existing buildings that were shot on set or creating new structures to add to the background. Here’s how he explains the modeling process. “In 3D you start out with nothing, and you have to create everything that you see. Essentially everything in 3D is made up of three elements. You have polygons, vertexes (which are points), and the lines which connect the points. Modeling is getting a digital world created in this very geometric way. When you start modeling, it doesn’t look like much. But after you add in the texturing and materials, and light the scene in very much the same way you would a real life set, you can create virtual objects and scenes that mimic reality quite well.”
Once Chris and his team have created the structures in 3D, the matte painters take it from there. “I do some basic texturing to point the matte painters in the right direction,” Chris says. “I add brick textures, shingles, windows, glass and all that, but in 3D it’s really hard to make things photo realistic. The matte painters paint on top of the 3D renders, and they paint in all the little detail like grime and grunge and add some lighting detail to make the light shimmer off the building roofs and all the little final touches which make it look photo realistic.”
The team has really achieved an incredible combination of history, digital science, and art, to tell a great story. I’m eager to see the final results of this project, and so is Chris. “I’m super excited,” he told me. “I think there’s some really big, epic shots that they’ve worked into the script. It’s obviously a massive challenge to achieve, but it’s going to be pretty amazing to see.”