From Figment to Pigment: Giving Shape to Vermillion

September 18, 2007 1:55 am

Artists give form to vision. In the creepy short film Vermillion, a painter brings his ideas to life using ancient pigments with special powers. The film itself was also borne of an artist’s vision – that of Director and VFX artist Aaron Sims. And it took shape largely through Sims’ expert application of SOFTIMAGE|XSI.

The idea for Vermillion had languished along with many other film ideas in Sims’ fertile mind for years while he focused on his ‘day job’ – creating makeup and digital effects for industry pioneers Rick Baker and Stan Winston, on films like Men in Black, The Nutty Professor, Fantastic Four, AI, and War of the Worlds.

“After working in visual effects for twenty years, I had a clear idea of the kinds of films I would like to see myself,” Sims said. “The next evolution for me was to create my own.” So in 2006 he joined with producer John Norris to start White Rock Lake Productions in Los Angeles. In its first year White Rock Lake provided services to ten films for Warner Bros., Legendary Films, and other companies, while also producing Vermillion, its first original production.

With several complex visual effects sequences involving CG characters emerging from live-action backgrounds, Vermillion is hardly standard fare for a short film – or a first production effort. And that was exactly Sims’ intention. To get studios interested in his original films, Sims needed a showcase piece that demonstrated his filmmaking abilities – everything from direction to photography to production design and character creation, especially since many of Sims’ film concepts are ‘creature’-focused, or VFX-laden projects. 

As an expert Softimage user, Sims turned to his favorite tool to craft his showpiece, using SOFTIMAGE|XSI to create the 3D effects and characters, and all of the compositing, storyboarding, lighting, pre-vis and set design as well. He said, “XSI is designed for an artist. It works like my brain does. So when I sit down and try to figure out the simplest method to get from point A to point B no matter what it is, I execute it through Softimage. It lets me achieve what I need to quickly.”

Pre-production and Production

Initial storyboards for Vermillion were created in 2D. However, when producers brought them to the location, they realized that many of them didn’t work with the set’s physical limitations. When the original storyboard artist was unavailable to re-do them, Sims started mocking up the boards in 3D using SOFTIMAGE|XSI.  Realizing the power of 3D to inform production decisions, Sims reworked the entire set of boards, in a week. 

“The importance of the 3D was that it answered many of our questions,” said Sims. “If you’re on set and find there’s a wall in your way and you can’t get the shot, that’s it. If you’re in the 3D realm you can build and measure the set and change your plans ahead of time. There are so many limitations to traditional methods. 3D provides more answers.” 

Creating the set in SOFTIMAGE|XSI first also helped with the final set design. “We had lots of furniture to bring in. Having even rough 3D models helped us place everything beforehand instead of having people wandering around the set asking, ‘Where does this go?” 

The lighting process was also heavily influenced by Sims’ 3D environments. Norris said, “Adam Sampson, our DP, was blown away by the 3D storyboards. He was able to go back and forth within the virtual set, apply a quick rig to something, pose it, and try different lighting directions. Aaron works so fast in Softimage that to build these environments and characters wasn’t a daunting task. It was incredibly helpful.”  He added, “I have never been in a situation where someone has used a digital tool like this. We’re taking this approach into our feature films.”

Visual Effects

While Sims’ use of SOFTIMAGE|XSI during pre-production and production facilitated practical decisions, it was in VFX and character design that the tool became the medium for his significant creative talent.

To create the effects of having the painter’s works come to life, Sims developed a many-layered distortion process that blends 3D objects with the live-action environment. “We applied this sort of effect for the invisible woman in Fantastic Four, and I wanted to take it further. It’s perfect for the concept I was going for here of blending fantasy with reality,” Sims noted. “This character’s whole world is a painting. As the figures move, the surrounding area is being painted around it.”

Sims used the distort function in the FX tree in the software’s integrated compositor, expanding and distorting the images behind the focal animated object. The effect of a CG cat emerging from the canvas and meeting its watery end sets the tone, while the emergence of the painted image of the character Liz provides the climactic example.

When she appears in the corner of the studio it’s first as a distortion that forms gradually into a 3D object.  Sims explained, “As she forms, the image solidifies and pulls the background in. For the plate shot we used an actress with motion capture. That animation was applied onto a 3D model and rendered using the lighting of the scene. We rendered the FX tree in one pass and applied many different effects to individual layers.” 


Bringing the live-action HD footage together with Sims’ effects was the job for Editor Karl Kimbrough of Alter Ego Films. Because the production was shot in 24p HD but didn’t have budget or access to an HD deck, the post crew needed an intermediary format – DVCam – to get the project into the Avid system.

Kimbrough, a long-time commercial, TV, and film editor, knew that planning the post workflow in advance was critical to a `no-surprises’ process. DVCam records at 30 frames per second, so they had to insert a 3:2 pulldown to accommodate the format. Once it was digitized into the Avid, the 3:2 pulldown was removed and the project was edited in native 24p. Kimbrough then created several test cuts with Media Composer and sent EDLs and project files via the Web to the post facility where they were batch digitized into Avid Symphony, which would handle the film’s online process, proving the workflow.

An experienced Avid editor, Kimbrough had always worked on hardware-based Avid Media Composer systems until Vermillion, when he used Media Composer software. “I expected to be compromised speed-wise, but Media Composer didn’t wince at all. If anything the rendering may have even been a little faster than I’m used to. The color correction tool in particular was smokin.’ It’s great too because when you get to that point when you layer things up – vignetting, painting, color correcting – you can lower the resolution with that little yellow/green button and speed right back up.”

Both the vfx and the editing processes were aided in post by the HP workstations that powered both SOFTIMAGE|XSI and Avid Media Composer. Said Sims, “The 64-bit system is amazing; it rendered huge geometry without a problem. We saw a big improvement over 32-bit systems. It’s really stable.” 

Kimbrough noted, “I’ve cut with Avid, Final Cut, Adobe – everything. I’ve always chosen Avid if the budget allows, but a lot of times with indies you’d either be begging someone for time on an Avid or you’d have to use a software product.  Now that Avid is available as a software solution, it’s fantastic. Nirvana.”

During the editing process, Sims saved his VFX sequences as high-resolution TIFF files that could be opened in Media Composer, giving Kimbrough temps he could use to move the cut along.  “Working between Softimage and Avid was a very streamlined process,” Sims said. Final effects shots were rendered out to QuickTime files for the Symphony online session.

“This film was something that for me was on the threshold of new technology,” said Kimbrough. “Doing special effects on a short film with a tight budget is pretty much unheard of. Aaron went way beyond what people typically do. He is one of the few people I’ve ever worked with that can digitally explain something that’s not there. I was able to cut for timing and pacing purely through his communication about things that were totally abstract.”

It’s his ability to communicate his vision that Aaron Sims is counting on to get his feature film ideas, like the creature-laden Tethered Islands, sci-fi thriller Residents, and four others – into production this year. After proving his abilities and 3D approach to filmmaking on Vermillion, Norris is confident.

“Studios are nervous about spending dollars on things they can’t see. Aaron’s ability to use Softimage helps us tremendously in the development stage. When we go to a pitch, we come with three dimensional versions of our characters – and even rough animations. It gives studios and finance companies a clear idea of the film and the style and makes it easier for them to trust the vision the director sees because they can see it too.  It’s a tremendous competitive advantage.”

All content and images within this article are copyright ©2007 Avid Technology, Inc. All Rights Reserved.,
and used with special permisson. Use of this content without written permission is prohibited.

About Softimage Co.
Softimage Co., a subsidiary of Avid Technology, Inc., delivers innovative 3D animation tools to digital artists in the games, film, and television industries. Its product line includes SOFTIMAGE|XSI, the most advanced 3D software for modeling, animating and rendering; SOFTIMAGE|FACE ROBOT®, the first product for lifelike facial animation; SOFTIMAGE|CAT™, a complete character animation system plug-in; and ALIENBRAIN®, the leading asset management solution for artists.
  • For more news from Softimage, visit their website.

September 17, 2007

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Article Comments

FutureFantasyDesign ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 20 September 2007

Looking at the variety of ides at WRLP, I was astounded and amazed at the beautiful work being created by thier associates. I bookmarked this page and will revisit it often. Ariana

Vremont ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 21 September 2007

I hope all your movies get made :-) It looks awesomely freaky and incredibly talented!

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