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Step By Step: Evan Almighty

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Universal PicturesEvan Almighty was designed to have visual effects of mythic proportions, and a raft of houses—including the big facilities Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Rhythm & Hues (R&H)—contributed to this Noah”s Ark comedy. But alongside R&H”s photoreal CG animals and ILM”s flood simulation was an interesting contribution from the Los Angeles-based shop TeamWorks Digital. With its veteran Visual Effects Supervisor David Allen at the helm, TeamWorks temporarily set up shop at Universal Studios to wrangle disparate digital elements in several sequences. One of those sequences included a climactic scene that was added to the film well into postproduction. To achieve it, TeamWorks used an approach that Allen considers “postviz.”

“Postvis is anything that is composited using elements that are already shot,” he explains. The previz methods that have become standard practice today are useful as basic planning tools, but Allen thinks the visualization process is evolving. “Not to take anything away from previz, but that”s more like storyboarding. Postviz gets you closer to the look of the finished film. When people realize that you can add real footage to a visualization, they want to do it.”

Evan Almighty blurred the line between previz and postviz because the challenge was unusual. Director Tom Shadyac decided to add a dramatic shot that depicted Noah”s ark sailing down the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—moving straight towards a window in the Capitol building Committee Room. In response, the people inside the room scatter and flee. “It was if the ark was parting the Red Sea,” Allen says.

Of course, that footage had to be created. A scene originally shot from a POV inside the Committee Room showed very different behaviors among the actors, including John Goodman. The visual effects team would film actors running around a bluescreen version of the Committee Room, and Goodman would be filmed looking out the window as the ark approached.

“We did have some shots of people running towards camera in the original scene, so there was some footage that we could use,” Allen recalls. “But for the most part we had to re-shoot. John Goodman had to be filmed on bluescreen since the shadow of the approaching ark had to be cast over him. We had the intention of comping in footage from the previous Committee Room shoot as a background. We didn”t rebuild the entire set—only what we”d need to integrate the actors” new movements.”

In advance of that bluescreen shoot, TeamWorks Digital created visualizations in Autodesk Maya to depict how the bluescreen shot could be choreographed. This helped established how many people would be needed to populate the shot and where they should go. “We prevized three cameras from four different angles to match the camerawork used to shoot the set originally. The camera wasn”t moving, which was a saving grace!”

Fortunately, the film”s Visual Effects Supervisor Doug Smith had gathered a massive database detailing the plate photography, so Allen”s crew had ample information to re-imagine the scene. The resulting Maya clip became an essential reference tool when VFX Shoot Supervisor Mike Wassel oversaw the bluescreen photography.

Once the actors were shot against bluescreen, TeamWorks used Apple Shake to create the temp comps that would be sent to ILM for final compositing. Allen”s team integrated the bluescreen photography with elements that needed to appear in the Committee Room window—including ILM”s 3D model of the ark and a background plate of Washington, D.C. In addition, TeamWorks provided a 3D model of a balcony that extended beyond the window. That was modeled and rendered in Maya, with some 2D touches done in Adobe Photoshop. TeamWorks created a shadow of the ark that moved across this balcony, accentuating the ship”s approach.

Final elements also included live action plants—shot against bluescreen and placed on the CG balcony. “There”s light hitting the plants, so we had to determine where the shadow of the Capitol fell,” explains Allen. “It became evident, as we did postvis, what the look of the shadows would be.”

TeamWorks handed off all this material to ILM as Shake files. “We comped everything at 2K, because if you hand off a 2K file everything is already built at the right size. We prepped for any eventuality. Once ILM had all the elements and the postviz, they did their own work based on what they thought was realistic.”

Assignments like Evan Almighty have affirmed Allen”s opinion that postviz processes provide a way for different visual effects houses to collaborate more efficiently. “Postviz is the logical next logical step. Directors and visual effects supervisors want previz to see scenes before they shoot them. The next step would be to see things before they are comped—and before anyone spends an exorbitant amount of money and time!”

Credit Roll
Director: Tom Shadyac
Visual Effects Supervisor: Doug Smith
Bluescreen VFX Shoot Supervisor: Mike Wassel
VFX Producer: Lynda Thompson
VFX Plate Producer: Gary Thorp

For TeamWorks Digital:
Visual Effects Supervisor: David Allen
VFX Supervisor: David Allen
VFX Artists: Matt Kelly, Doug Aiken, Jeff Kalmus, Mark Duvall, Chad Hofteig
Media Manager: Steven Allen