Robots To The Rescue

deemarie · November 21, 2005 6:14 am

Giant Killer Robots Make Fantastic Four into the Real Thing Hmmm ... Giant Killer Robots makes Fantastic Four? Sounds like a hell of a sequel, doesn't it? But hold up: we're already getting ahead of ourselves. Let's stick with the news at hand. Considering the comic's pedigree, Fantastic Fourstarring Jessica Alba (The Invisible Woman), Michael Chiklis (The Thing), Chris Evans (The Human Torch) and Ioan Gruffudd (Mr. Fantastic)has been a very long time in coming. The undeniably human, unutterably cool, quartet of less-than-perfect superheroes is older than this reporter (and that is saying something), yet this is their very first live action trip to the big screen. The good news is that director Tim Story's version of the long-time favorite comic series is more than worth the wait, not least because of the astounding effects work of San Francisco-based GKR, who not only created the convincing flames powering Johnny "The Human Torch" Storm, but also used SOFTIMAGE|XSI to create incredibly realistic urban landscapes for him to fly through.
Fantastic Four represented a lot of firsts for GKR," says Michael Schmitt, Visual Effects Artist at GKR. "For starters, with over 200 effects shots, this is the biggest production we've ever worked on, although our work on shows such as Blade: Trinity, Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions prepared us for it. We were also the primary vendor on this show, which is another first for us. We worked on Fantastic Four for over nine months, during which time the project grew considerably in scope. We're used to operating with about 35 people, but we had about 80 working on this project. Typically, we like to keep things small and beautiful here, but we have the space and the pipeline to tackle the big jobs as well. It really is the best of both worlds." GKR founding partner Peter Oberdorfer served as one of the main VFX supervisors on Fantastic Four, working closely with Kurt Williams, the film's Visual Effects Director. Even with such close contact to the ongoing production, however, the mind-blowing effects and environments required by Fantastic Four proved a serious challenge, even to a bunch of immense homicidal androids. "Every job has its challenges," admits Schmitt. "There were effects shots on this show, however, where we were just scratching our heads, if not pulling our hair out, wondering how the hell we were going to get it done." Adding to the effects crew's scalp scraping was the fact that the film's denouement, a massive fight scene between the fantastic ones and their metallic arch-nemesis, Dr. Doom required a believable environment in which to occur. A fight scene on this scale could only happen in New York City, but it would have been impossible to shoot within the real thing. Never ones to shrink from a challenge, the Robots turned to their own talents and SOFTIMAGE|XSI: "We used SOFTIMAGE|XSI exclusively on all of the virtual environments," says Schmitt. "From the beginning, we knew XSI would be the best choice, mainly because the system would allow us to divide up a huge amount of data into Render Passes. In the end, it was mainly memory, organization and speed that convinced us to go with XSI when creating these caverns of Manhattan." And the superheroes fall into and fly through a great many of those caverns, causing untold damage and destruction as they do so. In order to generate a truly photo-realistic Manhattan, GKR commandeered a helicopter to capture aerial footage of the city's skyline and snapped thousands of reference pictures from high atop skyscrapers and right down at street level. "Using SOFTIMAGE|XSI helped a great deal, especially because it enable us to automatically create mental ray map files, which went a long way in avoiding time-consuming errors. That was a fantastic feature for us, because there were so many texture maps and so many models involved."
Although the team modeled and textured all the cars and people within the virtual environments, GKR's timeline was helped somewhat by a virtual library of buildings fortuitously provided by Twentieth-Century Fox. The image library meant that GKR could avoid the time-consuming task of modeling the many buildings in the scenes, but they were still faced with a seemingly unmanageable amount of data: "We used SOFTIMAGE|XSI to organize all the data, set up all the appropriate shaders, reattach textures and so on," explains Schmitt. "We then came up with a method of laying out a street and rendering out all the buildings, cars, people, etc., and making it look totally real. We started with one building and built a shader that allowed us to create about ten different render passes. There's an expression built into that shader that turns on by flipping from one render pass to another and therefore controlled which channel in the render we'd be using for that render pass. From that point, we were able to lay out scenes very easily, placing buildings wherever we needed them. Render Passes were then just set up automatically. Once we had one or two shots under our belts, the others proceeded very smoothly and quickly. It worked wonderfully." The GKR team also made a few new discoveries along the way: "With so many materials, we had to find a way to speed up the process," says Schmitt. "We discovered a way of using an Custom Parameter node, attaching an expression to it, and then driving it with a render pass. That really increased the speed of switching from one render pass to another, so we set it up and used it all the way through. It was great."
All supporting images within this article are copyright, and cannot be printed, published, or copied without written permisson from 20th Century Fox

We would like to thank our Guest Columnist Michael Abraham Article reprinted with permission from SOFTIMAGE|XSI July 4th, 2005

Article Comments

nemirc ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 21 November 2005

Thanks a lot for sharing that inside information. I may even try to do something like that one day B)

nickcharles ( posted at 12:00AM Sun, 27 November 2005

Excellent article Michael! I've been wanting to see this movie! Great inside info, indeed! Thanks! Nick