Blurring the Line Between Reality and Fiction

June 27, 2011 3:02 am

Tags: Adobe, After Effects, CINEMA 4D, MAXON, Meleah Maynard, Photoshop

Ivo Horvat on the CG world he created for the award-winning Danish short "Peaceforce."

Set in Copenhagen in 2045, director Peter Gornstein's Danish sci-fi short "Peaceforce" offers a modern take on George Orwell's story "Shooting an Elephant." In the film, which recently won the prestigious Prix Canal+ at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in France, the world is in the midst of global economic collapse. Anarchy has ensued and Daniel (played by Cyron Melville), an officer with what is known as the Peaceforce, volunteers to investigate reports of a crazed elephant running wild causing injuries and death.

"Daniel follows the local man who told him about the elephant into the city, which has essentially been reduced to rubble, and quickly finds out something is wrong," explains Ivo Horvat, VFX supervisor for the film. Horvat, who worked on past projects with Gornstein, was involved with the film from the start. Using MAXON's CINEMA 4D, Adobe After Effects and Photoshop, Horvat created six CG environments for the 20-minute film. "Even as early scripts were being developed I was asked to figure out how to use visual effects powerfully and effectively in ways that would fit within the narrative as naturally as possible because subtlety was extremely important," says Horvat, who describes himself as both a matte painter and an environment designer. (See some examples of his recent work here:

Ivo Horvat, VFX supervisor for "Peaceforce," created six CG environments including this digital matte painting of a city in ruins.

Horvat's early concept art not only helped set the film's apocalyptic, industrial tone, it was also useful in attracting talent and ratcheting up financing for the project. And when the film crew went to Copenhagen for 12 days of shooting at four different locations, Horvat went along to see firsthand what would need to created or expanded on digitally. "We were lucky because we needed a certain level of decay and we lined up locations like a modern-day industrial power facility that had a lot of grime and machinery and a ruined factory that was almost completed destroyed," he explains. "We could never have art directed or built sets like those with all the crooked chimneys, debris and blast holes."

Horvat's concept art helped determine the look of the aerial shot that became the basis for this painting in which only the road and the armored vehicle are real.

Creating a believable, digital world

While the tone of "Peaceforce" is certainly dark and foreboding, Horvat's mission was to create environments that made clear the danger faced by the main character as he searched for the elephant without conveying a sense of hopelessness. After location principal photography was complete, he brought plates back to Los Angeles and began production. "I had other artists do matchmoves, rotoscoping and some modeling and then I began the process of reinterpreting the concept art to match the look of the photography, which was of course slightly different than initially planned," Horvat explains.

Known for his matte paintings, which have been used in many high-profile films, Horvat says his strengths as an environment designer are lighting, composition and photographic effects.

Horvat's artistry can be seen from the first shot in the film, which is heavily CG. There is a palpable sense of danger as an armored military vehicle leaves the safety of the Peaceforce compound to travel through the wasteland of a city that is now a war zone. Burned out cars, some real and some digital, can be seen as the vehicle, belching oil and smoke passes by.

"It looks like a simple plate to shoot, but it took several takes of the vehicle driving by at about 60 miles per hour, and a lot of playing with camera speed and lenses to get the composition that would best favor the background," he says. Once the painting was created and the camera projections devised and rendered out of CINEMA 4D, it was comped with the actual footage using After Effects. The process of integrating the projected and rendered painting footage with the photography included adding lens distortion, Horvat says, explaining that he measured the amount of lens distortion and applied it to the C4D footage so the two would move identically. (See shots from "Peaceforce" on Horvat's reel:

Horvat used C4D and After Effects to create a billboard promoting the Peaceforce that appears in the film. Shoddily attached to a statue of a famous general, the slashed and bullet-ridden board was meant to convey a sense of the Peaceforce's ineffectiveness.

One of the biggest challenges of matte painting is matching the photo-realistic look of the particular film you're painting to, Horvat says. While people assume photorealism is somehow an accurate version of the world, it's actually extremely simplified and limited. It's also necessary to match the aesthetic of a given film stock, which is largely determined by the film and/or sensor's 'latitude'. This film was particularly difficult, Horvat says, because it was shot on the Red. "It was wonderfully sharp, sometimes to a point where it was hard to match so I had to work at three to four times film resolution to ensure I had the highest sampling for rendering."

Of all environments Horvat created, the film's wide establishing shot showing the scale of the destruction of the city is the most striking. Expanding on a shot taken in Copenhagen about 60 feet above a heavily damaged industrial area, his matte painting includes a digitally created portion of collapsed bridge. In truth, he says, the only thing authentic in the shot is the roadway in the foreground on which an armored vehicle carrying the film's protagonist is traveling. "It took us a long time to find a damaged road surface like this and when we found it they were literally knocking down the entire factory on our last day of shooting," Horvat recalls. "We rotoscoped out some of the road and the car in the shot and completely replaced the environment."


Continuity is a challenge when filming in different locations. Here, foreground characters from one location walk into a CG environment designed to bridge the visual gap between both locales.

Taking a project from A to Z

For Horvat, one of the most enjoyable parts of working on "Peaceforce" was the opportunity to be an essential part of a core team of filmmakers working on project from start to finish. Though he has supervised several commercials and created digital matte paintings or overseen their production for many films, including "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Spiderman," "Speed," "Stuart Little," and "2012, this was his first turn as VFX supervisor for a film. "It was great working creatively with the director to devise shots for the needs of the story and its scenes and to be able to take the narrative needs of the script all the way from idea, to concept to finished film," he says.

"This was the most challenging shot of the project," says Horvat, describing the fully CG scene in which the main character drives through the tent city that surrounds the once-beautiful Danish Opera House. Comprised of hundreds of layers, including green screen extras, the movement was achieved thanks to C4D and After Effects' ability to easily share cameras.

Though the film was just 24 minutes long, it had a sizable budget; perhaps the largest ever for a film of this kind, Horvat believes. This helped the team create a density of visual effects that gave "Peaceforce" the feel of an epic Hollywood movie with high production value. "So we got enormous bang for the buck and made a huge impact on the film," he says.

Since its win at France's Clermont-Ferrand Festival, "Peaceforce" has been invited to the 201l Tiff's in England (often called the British equivalent of the Oscars) and the Toronto International Film Festival. It has also been invited to Telluride Film Festival and has been on television in Denmark and France. "It was really an amazing production to be involved with and I was fortunate to have had so much creative input from beginning to end of the entire process," says Horvat.

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Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at her website:


June 27, 2011

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