Published on Wednesday, 12 February 2014 Written by Adriene Hurst

 

BEYOND ATLANTIS

Vine FX in London worked with producers at Urban Myths Films on the new BBC series ‘Atlantis’, telling the tales of young Jason who undertakes a deep-sea submarine dive to search for his missing father. But when the ocean overtakes him, he and the sub are swept off course to wash up on the beach of the exotic land of Atlantis, where he meets his friends Pythagoras and Hercules.

From the beginning, Vine FX’s work was an integral, on-going part of production due to the series’ very large visual effects and CG component. Vine FX’s work appears in over 1,000 shots in the 13-episode series, all of these requiring CG elements. The team created the world of Atlantis, creating matte paintings and building CG elements to replace the green screen behind the mostly minimal sets, and populated it with fantastic CG creatures and characters as each episode follows Jason’s adventures.

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Working Relationship

Nearly the entire shoot was completed on green screen stages built inside a large, former supermarket warehouse at Chepstow in Wales. The main location photography was shot in Morocco, including at Atlas Studios, which also served as much of the reference for the Atlantis environments.

VFX supervisor Michael Illingworth travelled to Morocco and Atlas with the series’ director, producers Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps, production designer Paul Cripps and the cinematographer to look over the location. CG supervisor Ivor Middleton’s team also visited the Chepstow sets periodically, but onset supervision was not a critical element of the production.

Instead, the two companies’ collaboration relied on two factors. Vine FX had established a good working relationship with Urban Myths Films during their recent work together on the successful BBC series ‘Merlin’, also involving a heavy visual effects and CG component. Also, the DP and his crew have subsequently become very experienced in anticipating what the VFX team will need in post in terms of plates, lighting and camera work.

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On-set Data Surveys

“On-set data surveys were handled in a number of ways and we had a team member dedicated to gathering the data we needed,” Ivor Middleton said. “For the Minotaur sequence, for example, we were provided with a LIDAR scan of the cave. For most other sequences we had an on-set photographer whose task it was to collect reference material either for texturing in 3D or for matte painting, capture all required HDRI imagery during the shoot, and take photo surveys and measurements of the sets and locations.

“We then used Agisoft image based modeling software to create an accurate geometry of the set to line up our set extensions. For example, the courtyard outside the temple of Dionysus was a location in Morocco, which was photographed in detail and created as a CG model that we could extend as we needed.”

All members of the production, in fact, established a close working relationship from beginning to end - from the producers, directors and camera crew to the Art Department and the actors. Preproduction discussions, which included Michael Illingworth, were held from January 2013, and before photography started on the episodes, a block at a time, the director, cameraman and producers joined the visual effects team at a pre-shoot meeting to talk about what would be happening on set and requirements for their work in post production, such as camera work.

Laying the Foundations

Ivor explained that a TV series such as this one needs a substantial ramp-up time to get the foundation work finalised before photography gets underway. For ‘Atlantis’, they started in February in preparation for shot arrival in June. “Between the creatures, environments and set extensions, we had a lot to build. Furthermore, even once animation and lighting begin, we were still building creatures for the later episodes. When the series shifted into broadcast delivery mode, we had to be fully prepared to complete an episode every week.

“We use an eclectic mix of software here, but our core CG pipline includes Maya, Mudbox, Zbrush, Mari and Photoshop. The characters are mostly modelled in Zbrush. We animate in Maya and also light in Maya using Arnold, our core renderer. Compositing is handled in Nuke.”

The Temple of Poseidon, where a lot of the action takes place, required substantial set extension work. The production had only built particular sections that they could move around easily to accommodate the close-up shots, but for the wide shots most of the environment was digital. For these scenes Vine FX would work alongside the production designer Paul Cripps, and do some of the concept work within their own art department. Then, together, all artists would figure out what should be built practically and what needed to be created digitally.

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Practical & Digital Sets

Only then would construction proceed, saving time and money. The temple interior included a number of massive columns, some enormous statues and a sculpture of a bull on a plinth. The production built only a few of the column bases, and everything else could be extended or fully created in 3D CG. Of the wide establishing shots only a few were completely CG. They preferred to include some live characters or set pieces to take their lead for lighting and looks during the build.

The 3D environment work was extremely varied. The Throne room was another set extension used multiple times, containing a series of partially built columns revealing green screen behind, which Vine FX replaced with the digital city of Atlantis and then topped up the remainder of the set. The temple of Dionysus only appears in one episode, a huge cavern with a large tree at the centre. Like the columns, only the base of the tree was practical - the remainder was completely digital.

One of the most unusual sets appears in the show’s opening submarine sequence in which the only built set piece is the sub’s interior. “When the viewer is outside looking in, you see Jason in the live action set within the CG sub exterior, surrounded by the CG water environment and ocean floor. With the production designer, we chose a real submarine to use as reference. Depending on the camera, the underwater set extension required us to create the sub itself, the ocean surface above, the floor below, plus the particles, volumetric lighting, light fall-off and caustics needed to provide realism. These shots proved to be quite challenging,” said Ivor.

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Projected Matte Paintings

Because of the on-going need, scene by scene, for such large, detailed environments that were critical to the story, they chose from the full range of approaches, from fully lit and rendered CG to a single 2D matte painting. Many shots used a combination of techniques.

‘Atlantis’ makes use of numerous matte paintings, finished to 4K resolution. When building the Temple courtyard, an exterior shot, they created geometry extending the set upward to match the Morocco location. This work would be partly rendered and then passed to the matte painters for further detail and projection in Nuke back onto their geometry. Doing all of this within the CG department, out to the final render, would have been too costly and time consuming. Instead, their work would include a base texture for the matte painters and the basis for perspective needed for the projection, resulting in a 2.5D approach.

As mentioned, the looks for the city of Atlantis were developed from the photography shot in Morocco and some of the sets at Atlas Studios. However, Julian Murphy wanted to avoid a classical Greek style in the environments, looking instead for a more ancient, mysterious atmosphere. The team referenced pre-classical and Minoan architecture, even Mycenaean and Egyptian, and used earthy sandstone colours in the buildings.

Classical Menagerie

Vine FX’s CG creatures for the series included the Minotaur, a two-headed lizard, Satyrs, the Campe, a Harpy, skeleton soldiers, the Furies and Medusa – most of which draw from Greek mythology. The opening sequence featured the Minotaur as well as the two-headed lizard. Later on in the series a group of Satyrs appeared which look like a combination of an old man and a chimpanzee, and also the Campe, an old hag with a scorpion’s body.

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Typically they received concept art work for these characters from the Art Department. Concept artist Martin Rezard sculpted the creatures in ZBrush and, once the designs were approved, turned the files over to the Vine FX team where the artists continued working on them until they were ready for modelling.

“This workflow suited the tight schedule we work under for the show,” explained Ivor. “We needed to have a firm idea of how the creature or character should look before we could get started on the effects it will need, that is, building the skeleton, controls, muscles, animation and photoreal texturing and shading.“

Facial Motion Capture

Their digital creatures’ and characters’ performances were all keyframed, but the Satyrs and the Campe required specialised facial animation generated from facial motion capture. Vine FX asked Ten24 in Sheffield, England, whom they had previously worked with on ‘Merlin’, to scan the actors and deliver prepared meshes with textures. Their job was to capture the actors’ likenesses and expressions, with the added challenge of working on set in order to access the actors while they were wearing their facial prosthetics, created by make-up effects artist, Mark Coulier, and carefully applied according to Martin Rezard’s concept art. 

Ten24 brought their portable 30-camera head scanning rig to the Chepstow sound stages to work with Vine FX, the production, and the Dimensional Imaging facial performance capture team and their equipment. Known as DI3D, Dimensional Imaging from Scotland provides animation data in the form of pointcache data that can be applied to mesh topology. The data can be supplied for Maya, Lightwave, Houdini and other 3D applications, and they can also supply dynamic, high resolution textures and normal maps.

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The Last 10 Per Cent

Vine FX’s job was to stitch all of the creature components together and add textures. Ivor said, “When the 3D-related facial motion capture sessions were scheduled, the CG team attended as well. Vine’s artist Lon Krung created a large number of very detailed, 16K resolution textures for the creatures and characters. To make assets like these really look their best, when it comes to adding detail it’s the last 10 per cent that takes the most time but makes the most difference. Many of the characters have fur, for example, for which we used Peregrine Labs’ Yeti fur software to give that extra layer of detail and realism.”

The creature known as the Furies became the primary simulation effect Vine FX created for the series. “The Furies are similar to dust devils but is comprised of ghoulish, tormented hags flowing through it. Our initial brief was to design a swirling dust and sand effect that subtly hinted at something more sinister,” explained Ivor. “The style of the design came about through a series of discussions with Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps, where we presented a variety of different effects we felt would be achievable within the time constraints of a broadcast show.

Furious Particles and Fluids

“During the R&D stage of the project we had decided to use a combination of Maya nParticles and Maya Fluids to create the Furies - the fluids were emitted by nParticles and the fluid motion was influenced by the movement of the nParticles. Using nParticles meant we were able to get the general motion of the dust creatures quickly and then layer on the more organic, swirling motion of Maya Fluids.

“We found we could get a nice look by rendering Maya Fluids in the Arnold renderer. This is the first release of Fluids in Arnold, so it meant adjusting our workflow to account for the different way that Arnold handles volumetrics. Arnold Fluids, as well, have significant differences in the way they look compared to Mental Ray or Maya renders. Arnold was especially good at picking up fine detail in the Fluids and made lighting the scenes more manageable, as it was possible to switch sampling and get reliable feedback quickly.”

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The final HD renders took up to two hours per frame when the Fury was filling frame. One of the main difficulties was to get the fluids emitting in a convincing way. They ended up with several particle emitters and at least two fluid containers for each shot. One Fluid creates the ground level dust, less buoyant like a rolling fog, the other one whips around forming the ‘dust devil’.

They wrote in-house scripts to enable the render farm to handle the time-hungry fluid caches. “The tortured faces within the Furies are an additional effect which is blended together at the compositing stage,” Ivor said. “We created a mini-creature rig our team used to animate the distorted faces, and the resulting geometry was cached into an Alembic file which was used to emit dust-like nParticles and Fluids passes. In total we had 34 fluids effects shots to push through our CG pipeline, which certainly kept our render farm busy.”

Facing Limitations

An element of their work, especially at the pre-production meetings, was advising on the feasibility of approaches to certain shots. In this case Vine FX could act as a resource to help decide how much could be done in camera and how much could be done digitally in post while balancing the project’s time and budget. The producers were mindful of the fact that they had a television series to turn out, and aware of the limitations.

Ivor said, “Generally, on very large feature film productions, the VFX vendors will be handled as a separate cost added on after the shoot. The production works out the desired shots to achieve using visual effects and their projected cost, and the vendors try to make them work within that allowance.

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“But in this case, we become a part of production from the outset and at times suggest special additions to our shots that we knew could contribute to the story. A physical example is the Medusa sequence in which some soldiers have been turned to sculptures. Because building all of these sculptures was going a to be major undertaking for Paul’s team, Vine FX suggested that that the task could be done faster and more cost effectively by the CG team.

“On the other hand, we would also alert them to tasks that we knew we couldn’t do as they wanted, on time or on budget. An example of this was a chain that a two-headed lizard was to have around its neck and drag around the set. When we explained that this would actually take quite a lot of time to create, Julian Murphy, our executive producer, agreed to drop it from the story. We would have had to devote an extra artist to it who would have been more useful working on the animation - which is what really helps tell the story.”

Integrated Workflow

This project needed a full-sized team of about 40 artists to handle all of the work needed to complete the range and numbers of fast-moving, feature-film style effects across the 13 episodes. They established a workflow that allowed both the production and the artists the maximum amount of time to refine their work and make final edits.

Once the editors had delivered a loose cut to the team, the animation was blocked out fairly quickly and returned to the editors for them to determine, with Julian and the director, how well it worked, if it was tight enough or needed another shot. This in turn helped the animators avoid wasting time on unnecessary moves. “Once that essential animation is finalised, our job is actually concerned with refining the looks,” said Ivor. “For example, we can start lighting the scenes before the animators completely finish their work, which gives them a little extra time to tweak right up until the compositors need the final render.

“This is where it’s useful to have some generalists on board as well as specialists, that is, artists that can jump from one task to another to keep a steady but fast pace. Some worked primarily on modelling and texturing, but also some lighting if needed. Animators, on the other hand, tend to specialise and need that single-minded focus. We had a team of four dedicated animators who worked steadily from April 2013 until delivery in December.”

It was also important to monitor their work closely across the diverse environments and characters to avoid compromising a set or model in favour of any others. They wanted to push everything to a high but manageable level. “Sometimes in television work you can see where corners have been cut,” Ivor said. “But we aimed instead for realism and a consistent, believable quality. Because the show was shot on film, not digitally, it has that filmic look built into it which we wanted our work to match in tone and feeling.”   www.vine.tv

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images © Urban Myth Films Ltd