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Hercules VFX: Interview with Double Negative

Double Negative reveals the talent it poured into the incredible creatures that appear in Hercules, under the direction of Brett Ratner and VFX Supervisor John Bruno...

Double Negative reveals the talent it poured into the incredible creatures that appear in Hercules, under the direction of Brett Ratner and VFX Supervisor John Bruno...

Under the direction of Brett Ratner and VFX Supervision by John Bruno, Double Negative (DNeg), Prime Focus, Method Studios, Cinesite and Third Floor took this project on with the same steely focus as the Greek demigod, Hercules. Double Negative London and Singapore poured talent into some incredible creatures and 3dtotal was lucky enough to speak to the London team in the lead up to the release.

DNeg is a sizeable company, bringing some amazing work to cinemas as a matter of course. The aim of the company is to take their crews from one block-busting movie production to the next. You cant always keep exactly the same teams together, but when you can do that there is a wonderful camaraderie, says the studios VFX Supervisor for the Hercules movie, Ryan Cook.


Working on the show for a year, he raced around the shooting locations, bringing the best digital work together from his talented crew. There were a lot of creatures on Hercules, which was quite exciting, rather than lots of the same thing, there was quite a variety of monstrous, inventive creatures to work on. You get to know how each crew member ticks on shows as long as this, and Hercules is a show that really showed how much talent is working here.

Seven Labors

Double Negative was just one studio bringing Hercules world to life, creating the Lernan Hydra, Erymanthean Boar, Nemean Lion, Cerberus and three half-starved, savage blood-caked wolves. The idea behind the script was that there was a battle between what was real and what was imaginary.

Since all these creatures were hyper-real, the idea was to walk the line between fantastical and real, bringing them into 3D after the initial sculpt. Entrenching the idea that they were mythical and had to be extraordinary and imaginary. The Director, Brett Ratner wanted them to be real and quite plausible as well. Walking that line of being fantastic, but not falling off into fantasy.

There was a moment towards the close of production where a call came through from Brett Ratner. He asked what we could put together in two weeks to help the audience understand the Centaur characters a little more clearly. Two weeks later, a fully CG Centaur was in the marketing video on YouTube

Paul Riddle was co-VFX Supervisor and worked with the other vendors like Prime Focus and Cinesite. "There were crew favorites in creating the massive lion, the hydra and the boar, he says. Everyone loves working on creatures, so it was great in that respect. We could also tackle these isolated sequences with great freedom."

The first battle
There was a lot of extreme pressure put on Hercules troops in the first battle of the story. This was an extensive shoot involving a lot of choreography and Ryan was on set for the duration of the filming for this sequence, over several days outside of Budapest. The effects work was ultimately supportive, he says, but they were done in a way that emphasizes the action, rather than what distracts the viewer. For DNeg, it was mostly environment work, rig and safety removal and digital doubles, but there was an immense amount of work to be done.

Lion

The creatures that make up so much of the VFX work are part of what is the Seven Labors in the Hercules myth. The lion creature is a very large, very well built beast. The shoulders are steely, extreme and muscular. Our CG Supervisor, Julian Foddy took masses of photographs of real lions. All the animators went out to study the real movement of lions at London Zoo, so we could get used to their real mass, explains Riddle.

After Third Floors brilliant previz work, ZBrush was used almost exclusively on the creation of the Lion by DNeg. This was based on a real lion, created in 3D with expanded muscle-mesh and exaggerated features. After the initial sculpt on the client side, the creature supervisor, Andre Metello had the team take the creature apart and build it back up, as well as keeping the essence of the creature making sure the muscle system works for the exaggerated rebuild.

Digital lion v. Hercules

Digital lion v. Hercules

The main compositing issues we had with the lion, explains DNegs 2D Supervisor Robin Beard, was that it would come out almost too contrast-y. It was almost as though the fur occluded itself, making it look like a thinner coat than it actually was. Working in NUKE, the TD Sequence Supervisor James Etherington used some of the un-occluded renders and mixed them back in to give the coat a thicker, denser appearance. That seemed to work. The mouth, teeth and tongue required SSS and many passes for wetness and other lighting effects.

There was a single beam of light illuminating the whole area. Even though there was some spill of secondary and tertiary light, it was centered around the quite solid core. The 3D placement purposely almost over-lit the scene and the compositing team brought it back down with dust passes and diffuse filters. There was also set extensions and background plates placed in the shot as well so they widen out the shot.

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Empty cave plate before lion is placed. The CG lion with enlarged features pounces out toward Hercules
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Hydra

One of the many challenges Robin Beard and his team faced was indeed the interaction of these creatures with their surroundings throwing immense amounts of dust, snow, mud and blood around. The Hydra is a seven-headed aqua beast splashing around in water. There were moments when the team had to bring the digital double of Hercules to mix in correctly with the movement of the water, being thrashed about by the seven-headed digital Hydra.

"There are huge vines hanging in the foreground, but steamy swamp and digital matte painting of a deep dark forest behind all the action."

There was a lot of previz, but there was also a lot of animation done to help make what theyve created, work for the shot length. The animation supervisor at DNeg, Nathan McConnel and his team did a great job of blocking it out and bringing a final stage to the director. The collaboration in landing this sequence was a huge effort, says Ryan. Brett was really open to allowing the team to come up with visual solutions for this watery battle.

Plate shows guide ropes, practical water and background blue-screen
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Hydra sizes up against the digital Hercules
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Studio plate before deep compositing and placement of Hydra
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Hydra sizes up against the practical Hercules. Deep forest background
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Key shot of the Hydra against the shining moon
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Citadel

Production Designer, Jean-Vincent Puzos had a football-pitch sized quadrangle area created, up to the height of the first floor. It included huge open spaces akin to a wide square. This included a large refugee camp to one side and the first section of stairs that lead up to the temple to the front. This was created in full 3D, with higher detail in the center where most of the action takes place.

There was also a lot of aerial work, so the set itself was extended with the background mountain and deep environment work was attached to this as well. These were very loosely based on some landscapes in Croatia showing mountains, as seen along the coast, says Cook. I went back and did some hi-res digital photography and aerials to use as reference and plates for that sequence as well. These were used in 2.5D NUKE projection with some of its profile, to make up the background from different angles.

On top of the peripheral mountains and distance haze, the Citadel had to be populated as well. There was the refugee camp to one side but the quadrangle was full of soldiers. Half filled with extras, these were filled with elements and sprite shots from other sessions. DNeg's in-house crowd simulation software helped with generating others required.

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The Citadel practical set for Hercules
Dressed with background mountains and hero statue
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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View of the quadrangle set for the Citadel. Set with far distant-set extensions, dust pass and better flame
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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Two-shot dialogue shot with panels ready for extensive background set replacement
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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Citadel practical set with green-screen tarpaulin ready for digital set extension complete with statue, hills, building caps and atmospheric passes
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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Mountains and plateau views from the Croatian countryside. The final view shows the Citadel and surroundings placed into position
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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Lower view of Citadel practical set with green-screen tarpaulin ready for digital set extension complete with statue, hills,
Ezra troops, building caps and atmospheric passes
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Wolves

This was awarded to DNeg as John Bruno had seen the work the studio had done on CG wolves in the Bourne series of movies. There were also real wolves brought onto set, so there was referencing, down to one-to-one matching for the look but not the behavior. We couldnt find real wolves that had an aggressive enough look and we wanted to build them up, says Cook, so we used them for lighting reference in backlights and firelights.

Moonlit wolves greet Hercules surrounded by slain bodies
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Fire-lit faces of fierce-looking wolves. Nice doggie!
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Fire-lit faces of fierce looking wolves
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Fire-lit faces of fierce looking wolves
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Final frames of Hercules taming the wolves
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Boar

The form of this large beastie kept very close to the original design by Rob Bliss. A lot of reference from a BBC documentary about large boars gave the team a lot of guidance about how messy the guys can be. Andy Middleton is a senior matte painter at DNeg and generated some incredible work to bring that feeling of dirty, mucus-wet power of the boar. This creature was battling Hercules and at some point is shown full-screen, in very high frame rate, up to 200fps. Nowhere to hide.

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Massive wild boar chasing down Hercules in the forest. At 200fps, everything in this close-up CG collision was on show.
The screen becomes a tangle of teeth, tusks, tree, snout and spit!
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Probably the hardest shot of the boar was when it rams the tree and the tree explodes, adds Cook. Being at 200fps or so, you really get a good close up look at the beast, and the dust, breath, and snow in NUKE and the tree shattering, filling the screen with powerful imagery.

Two separate meshes were built for this collision. One mesh for the muscle and one for the skin of the boar. With the inertia of the crashing animal, the dynamics of the skin sliding over the muscles and when the tree is hit, there are extra dynamics thrown in on the top of all of this. Added to that is snow caught in the fur, the spit, the startled breath, the snow shaken from the branches above coming down in a heavy wave. This was full-on close-ups, so much detail on it, says Beard, small debris and large debris, all going everywhere, all through the lens, all built in CG. The detail in this shot is worthy of a latter purchase of the Blu-ray right there.

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Watch out for that tree! Hercules leaps out of the tree to bring down the massive beast. Fog and snow continues to dominate
the scene
© 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Hercules was a relatively good show for DNeg, says Cook. I think there were about 300 shots for us, although sequences always change, but in the end I think it was about 300. For the number of tough technical challenges in the story, we did have a really strong team in both London and Singapore.

Feature by Paul Hellard

Related links:

Head over to DNeg for more of their work
Check out the official Hercules website
Enjoy sculpting characters and creatures? Try our ZBrush Character Sculpting book

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