Watching the Watchmen with Intelligent Creatures!

April 6, 2009 12:36 am

Tags: Houdini, Intelligent Creatures, Lon Molnar, Maya, Nuke, Renderosity, Rorschach, VFX, Warner Bros., Watchmen

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

As a huge fan of the Watchmen graphic novel, I marveled at Warner Bros. Pictures’ movie recreation of Watchmen…which in turn piqued my curiosity as to the team behind the amazing special effects. Especially when I discovered that that team was the relatively newcomer, but rising star in the world of CGI magic, Intelligent Creatures.

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

I had the good fortune to connect with Lon Molnar (Intelligent Creatures’ CEO and Watchmen VFX Supervisor), to get the back story of Watchmen’s special effects, along with an inside look into IC's role in the creation of this new-age masterpiece of filmmaking.

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

Behind The Scenes With Lon Molnar

Dee Marie: Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit down with us Lon. Before we get into Intelligent Creatures’ work on the movie Watchmen, can you please give us a little history surrounding the creation of Intelligent Creatures?

file_428022.jpgLon Molnar: Intelligent Creatures came out of being under too much corporate red tape at a previous company, when all we wanted was to be creative. We officially opened the doors in early 2003 after many months of planning.

DM: Other than, “getting out from under the corporate environment,” what was your main motivation, your “prime-directive,” so to speak, for creating Intelligent Creatures?

LM: We wanted to create an environment that fully supported the artist. To give them an environment they could really excel in, and we could help nurture. A place where there was opportunity for growth.

DM: Besides creating a workplace that supports and understands computer graphic artists (which is very noble and unique in this age of corporate greed), what specifically sets Intelligent Creatures apart from other VFX studios?

LM: Anything that most competitors lacked vision in, we accepted as a possibility because we lived and breathed in the depths of animation and compositing. We understand firsthand what it was like. At the time Intelligent Creatures was created, most companies were run by those who lacked actual hands-on experience.

DM: Choosing the perfect company name is vital to standing out in this expanding industry. What is the back story pertaining to Intelligent Creatures’ name?

LM: The name came up over many meetings, and was actually cut when we had our shortlist. I took out our mission statement and read it out at a meeting, only to conclude that the name we cut was perfect, and the others didn't quite represent us.

DM: Being relatively new in the film industry, how many films has your company been associated with since its conception?

LM: We have been a part of over 30 films since inception. That's been our major focus: some small, others rather large.

DM: Which does IC prefer to work on, major production or small Indy films?

LM: We try to diversify. The smaller films have this intimacy about them. You have an opportunity to really be part of a group that are usually on the cusp of greatness.

The larger films are another beast entirely. You're usually in great company, working alongside some major vendors who've been part of an amazing body of work. So, it challenges you to push yourself that much further.

DM: Do the movie studios come to Intelligent Creatures with projects, or does IC bid on specific films?

LM: It's a little of both. There are certain people we have relationships with that will call us up with a new project they're working on and they want us to bid it. There's others we are extremely interested in and we'll chase them down because we're huge fans of the work…either the director or the actual material. There's also projects we'll hear about because studios think the work in it is suited for us. It's a good fit.

DM: Have there been projects that IC has turned down, or not pursued?

LM: We don't want to go after work we don't feel we can accomplish. We try to find something we feel we've been successful at in the past, or we have created something in the past that lends itself to the material.

DM: I understand that staff of Intelligent Creatures were already huge fans of the Watchmen graphic novel. How did ICs involvement come about for the Watchmen film?

LM: We had a history with Warner Bros. Pictures with the work we completed on The Fountain. A pretty heavy design and creative show for us.

DM: I had no idea that IC was behind the creative force of the breathtaking computer graphic imagery within The Fountain. I can see why the management at WB would be impressed by your work.

LM: We knocked that one out of the park and it really gave us credibility.

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

It was very challenging, lot's of shots, so I think the confidence in us was there. We really went after the Watchmen. And when the script came in with the opportunity to bid, the staff was really excited about the possibility of working on it.

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

DM: Was there something superficially that you feel swayed WB to go with IC?

LM: The staff really wanted to dig deep to whip up a test. We boarded the shots, took DV footage, tracked a CG head into it (an absolute nightmare), created an intro, added sound…really over the top…and before DJ (VFX Supervisor) called up to request us to do a test…I gave him the news that we were just getting ready to send them one the following day. It obviously went over well, we got the job!

DM: What software programs does IC utilize in creating their magical onscreen moments?

LM: We use every trick in the book when necessary. I personally have experience in multiple software platforms, so I don't usually like to stick to one and be set in our ways. That being said, about a year ago we completely overhauled our software for efficiency and quality reasons. We've brought in Houdini, along with our existing 3D software, Maya, and added Nuke to our 2D pipeline. These moves created a solid backbone for our Watchmen pipeline, allowing us to bring our creative up to the required standard needed for such a demanding film.

Rorschach: Bringing A Superhero To Life

Intelligent Creatures major CGI function within the movie was to create the constantly shifting inkblots littering the face-covering of the Watchmen’s erratic anti-hero, Rorschach. The method in which they created the madman’s mask was achieved by altering the actor’s facial features through “complex cranial and facial-motion tracking.” They then went on to arrange the reconstructed CGI morphing headpiece flawlessly between the actor’s non-computerized scarf and fedora.

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

On the surface, the above technique may seem like a simple task. However, considering that the character, Rorschach, plays a major role within the movie, the seamlessness of the CGI integration within the live-action figure, contributed greatly to the movie’s suspension of disbelief.

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

To further complicate the process, it was not just a matter of creating moving black blobs upon a material surfaced mask. Intelligent Creatures had to perfectly sync the mouth (along with all movements of the face), with the computer generated inkblots upon the mask’s structure. To do this, IC used a “match animation process,” by “developing an elaborate animation rig driven by the facial tracking markers.”

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

When queried about the process, the ICs promotional department expounded, “The Look Development Team reconstructed the cloth fabric of the practical mask right down to the cross-hatching and hair like fibers. These minute details were created through the use of complex Shaders and 2D workflows, including fur and cloth Shaders to emulate the rim lighting captured in the live action plates.”

When asked if there were specific areas that were more difficult than others, IC added, “It was critical that the inkblot animation pipeline retain flexibility and speed to promptly address any changes required by the Director and Supervisor. For this task, IC enlisted the talents of seven classically trained animators to facilitate our pencil drawing approach.

“This method was achieved by creating pose-to-pose animation on a 2D plane for an entire sequence. That surface was then wrapped around the 3D model of the mask. This process preserved the continuity of the inkblot within the entire sequence and allowed the lighting team to pre-light each shot prior to applying the inkblot treatment.”

On the question of other challenges, such as the effects of the lighting of the film on the final production…“Lighting the CG head and mask was a significant under-taking. In order to sell the mask as a non-CG element, IC had to re-produce all the shadows created from the source lights by the fedora and other objects. Together with the shadow creation, the off-white fabric produced a challenging palette of subtle variations and layering of colors that needed to be captured in every frame, all of which had to be blended into the final shot (environments, gore, etc.).”

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

Other VFX created for Watchmen by Intelligent Creatures, included, “a variety of New York City street environments, set piece extensions, blood, gore, snow and breath throughout the film.”

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

Although the Intelligent Creatures’ team created a technique using noise generation to “break up solid edges of any shape,” specifically for Rorschach’s mask, they found that the technique could also be used on other applications and applied to future projects.

© Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures

Intelligent Creatures Show Reel - The Making of Rorschach
(Click the picture to view Quicktime in new window,
or view small format in the Renderosity Video Center)

Again, I would like to thank Lon Molnar and the talented team at Intelligent Creatures for allowing us the opportunity to look inside the creative process that went into the making of the Watchmen’s most impressive magical moments.

I know I am not alone in stating the obvious…everyone at Intelligent Creatures Rocks!

We look forward to Intelligent Creatures’ future film endeavors, and invite you to visit the following:

All supporting images were used with permission from Warner Bros. Pictures Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures © Warner Bros. Image Courtesy of Intelligent Creatures. All Rights Reserved. Supporting images cannot be copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission from Warner Bros. Pictures and Intelligent Creatures

Get to know industry leaders and professionals
as they sit down and talk candidly with
Contributing Columnist, Dee-Marie,
Author of "Sons of Avalon: Merlin's Prophecy"

April 6, 2009

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Article Comments

Sarte ( posted at 3:37PM Mon, 06 April 2009

That's pretty cool. Too bad the movie cut a lot from the book.

deemarie ( posted at 9:47AM Tue, 07 April 2009

Hey Sarte, Thanks for taking the time to post a comment. That is the problem with movie renditions, there is never enough time to put everything in :]

Dave-So ( posted at 6:27AM Wed, 08 April 2009

I haven't read the book, however, Watchmen was one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. The CG was fabulous, and now I know who was behind it. Kudos bigtime.

deemarie ( posted at 11:15AM Thu, 09 April 2009

Hey Dave, Thanks for your comments and I agree with you totally about the movie and the amazing CGI work from IC.

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