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Frantic Films VFX Embarks on New Line’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

VFX studio builds stereoscopic and creature pipelines for 3D feature film release from director Eric Brevig

Award-winning VFX studio Frantic Films VFX, a division of Prime Focus Group, recently served as a lead visual effects provider for the forthcoming stereoscopic feature film, “Journey to the Center of the Earth,� produced by Walden Media and New Line Cinema. Based on the Jules Verne classic of the same name, the movie is directed by Academy Award-winning visual effects veteran Eric Brevig. The 3D film is slated for U.S. release on July 11, 2008.

“Journey to the Center of the Earth� tells the story of Trevor (Brendan Fraser), a science professor who discovers a dangerous lost world on a quest to find his missing brother. Trevor leads his nephew Sean (played by Josh Hutcherson) down a volcano in Iceland to the mythical center of the earth. The group encounters many adventures along the way, including prehistoric animals and a slew of natural hazards.

Frantic Films VFX was one of three major VFX vendors tapped to work on the film, joining Hybride and Meteor Studios. The filmmakers came to Frantic Films VFX because of the studio’s expertise in creating believable digital water effects using its proprietary fluid simulation suite Flood, which has been used on a number of feature films, including “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,� “Superman Returns,� “Cursed,� and others.

Building a flexible, non-linear creature pipeline

For this movie, Frantic Films VFX created three digital characters end-to-end—the Razorfish, Plesiosaur and Trilobite—developing a flexible character pipeline using Autodesk 3ds Max. Custom plug-ins were scripted to manage data interchange from rigging to animation, modeling and lighting. This non-linear approach provided a more practical workflow; in the event that changes were called for, the team didn’t have to halt the entire production pipeline.

Frantic was responsible for 123 shots in a pivotal and frenetic 4 ½-minute sequence in which the film’s main characters stand atop a raft on turbulent 100 percent computer-generated seas, with upward of 100 fish and up to seven plesiosaurs all jumping out of the water. The actors were shot against green screen on an articulated raft set piece, with the CG Razorfish, Plesiosaurs, water, storms, a sail, and the bioluminescent glow the fish give off underwater all composited into the live-action plate. And while the scene was shot with on-set rain pouring down, Frantic Films VFX rotoscoped out a significant portion of the rain and recreated it in CG to ensure the rain across the entire scene was seamlessly consistent.

Said Chris Harvey, Visual Effects Supervisor, Frantic Films VFX, Vancouver, “Much of the Raft scene involved the actors interacting directly with the sea creatures, including one shot in which Trevor wrestles a particularly monstrous one. It was a challenge making these actor-to-digital character interactions look real, but doubly challenging because we were working in stereo. Depth perception tells the viewer if an object is in front of or behind something, so we had to keep that in mind when creating and animating the sea characters. That, combined with the fact that we were tasked with such a large number of elements in this scene all interacting with the live-action, meant we had one of the most technically challenging scenes to work with on the film.�

Believable fluids

With the Raft scene featuring an all-digital ocean, ensuring the liquid simulations were realistic was key. Frantic Films VFX used its in-house Flood toolset consisting of Flood:Surf, Flood:Spray and Flood:Core, all of which integrate seamlessly with each other and with Autodesk 3ds Max. The ocean shots utilized three different simulation tools depending on the complexity of the shot. Flood:Surf was used to create the overall ocean surface. In building the ocean surface, a medium-resolution display in a viewport using Flood:Surf provided an imperative interactive view of the water surface. Then, when rendered via the Nvidia Gelato renderer, included all the finer subpixel displacement necessary to create a believable liquid surface.

When characters or objects would interact with the ocean surface, Flood:Core was used to provide the gross displacement of the water and was then combined with the ocean surface simulations. Then, for the significant interaction shots that resulted in particles and spray, Flood:Spray was built to simulate these key splashes and interactive events.

Prior to writing Flood:Spray, Frantic Films VFX evaluated several tools and, in the end, made the choice to write its own particle simulator from scratch. Mark Wiebe, the company’s Head of Software, designed a custom particle-based fluid solver as well as surface blending tools, allowing the Flood simulation to blend back to the ocean surface in a controllable manner.

Developing the stereo 3D workflow

In addition to designing a custom character pipeline, Frantic Films VFX also built a stereoscopic pipeline. The studio looked at three different approaches to compositing before devising a process to composite in stereo, with the left and right eye accounted for at the same time. Custom plug-in tools were built by Frantic Films’ VFX R&D team led by Mark Wiebe, including one for Eyeon Fusion that manages the left and right eyes and separates them so that while compositing a shot, the artists could preview any element of the shot in stereo.

Explains Mike Shand, Visual Effects Supervisor, Frantic Films VFX, Winnipeg, “Stereo work has typically been completed by doing work on the left eye frame, followed by the right. We felt really good with our process of doing the compositing and effects simultaneously on each eye as one doublewide image, because right away, we had a review image in stereo. Every shot was in stereo at every level of completeness ”

The studio also built two screening rooms—one in the Vancouver office, and one in Winnipeg—so the VFX artists could review the sequences in stereo and in large format. These rooms boast silver screen HD resolution in full stereo projection, with polarized filters so when the artists don 3D glasses they get 1 to 2K resolution per eye, with DPX playback.

Frantic Films VFX also did custom development to facilitate how the metadata translated to the actual camera rig to simplify final 3D renders. The 3D camera systems used to shoot “Journey to the Center of the Earth� were equipped to change their interocular distance dynamically, making the process of tracking and then applying a basic offset to the second camera impossible. Fortunately, the cameras recorded additional metadata that captured all of the animated interocular movements. Frantic Films VFX wrote tools to extract this data and used it to generate the second camera. The tools also allowed for some additional tweaking to correct imperfections in the information recovered from the footage.

The creature and stereoscopic pipeline put in place worked so well, Frantic Films VFX was also later awarded the opening shot of the film, which involves a nightmare sequence in which Trevor witnesses how his brother Max disappears. Max is seen running through a cave, chased by a giant Tyrannosaurus Rex. As the opening title disappears, the audience sees a fossilized trilobite, and then an actual trilobite—created entirely by Frantic Films VFX—coming toward the audience.

Frantic Films VFX employed a team of 15 to 60 artists, programmers and simulation technicians on “Journey to the Center of the Earth� for the duration of the 12-month project. The Frantic Films VFX team was led by Vancouver Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Harvey, Winnipeg Visual Effects Supervisor Mike Shand, Visual Effects Producer Randal Shore and Head of Software Mark Wiebe.

About Frantic Films VFX

Headquartered in Winnipeg, Canada, with offices in Vancouver and Los Angeles, Calif., Frantic Films VFX has been operating divisions that provide visual effects for film and television, and VFX software development since 1997. Frantic Films’ VFX award-winning visual effects teams have worked on films including Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, Grindhouse, Superman Returns, X-Men 3, Poseidon and many others. The company’s software tools were developed to solve complex production challenges on in-house feature effects projects, and are also in use at many leading 3D animation and effects facilities worldwide. In November of 2007 Frantic Films VFX became a division of international post and VFX leader Prime Focus Group. For more information, visit