One Monster Piranha, Lots of Plug-Ins & 123 3D VFX Shots

Award-winning VFX studio Frantic Films VFX, a division of Prime Focus Group, created all that and more as lead visual effects provider for the recently released film, Journey to the Center of the Earth, the first fully live-action VFX-driven feature released in 3D. Frantic’s secret? The not-so-easy but infinitely rewarding process of developing and deploying a set of custom plug-ins for eyeon’s Digital Fusion 5, called Awake, to guide the 3D VFX workflow during what could have been a hellacious ride. The software arm of the studio has also made those plugs available to everyone else starting down the 3D road.

Sean Konrad, Frantic’s Pipeline Designer/Technical Director, “hovers between the studio and software division” of the company, giving him a very long and deep view of the plug-in development process. “A lot of these new plug-ins evolved out of tools we’d had before,” he says, “but the intensity of the Journey production forced us to put more into the existing tools, as well as create brand new ones to manage the complexity of the stereoscopic workflow. The grim reality is that native tools just can’t do an adequate job. We developed these out of necessity.” For example, Awake’s Lens Distort and Digital Camera Noise tools, created and used for Superman Returns, were only modified for the new release and weren’t used heavily during Journey VFX post. But Frantic relied heavily on other tools it has put into the pack, including Depth Blur and Stereo Image Stacking and Unstacking.

With a fully 3D pipeline, then, where do you start? “About two months before we started to work on the project, we got a few test shots and started looking at them,” says Konrad. “We thought about creating separate project workspaces for each of the eyes, so the idea was to work on the right eye and then copy everything that had been done for the right eye over into a new workspace for the left eye. But it became very clear early on that this setup would result in a lot of investment in time and hardware.” He and the team also discovered early on that the two cameras had exposed slightly differently when shooting the VFX sequence. “We were trying to determine whether or not the difference between the two could be reduced or removed, or if the threshold was large enough that a well rounded keyer could take care of it,” he says. “Our VFX Supervisor, Mike Shand, was trying this one day and found the workflow of copying and pasting tools too time consuming, and decided to combine the two images into a single frame by increasing the canvas size and putting the left image on top and the right image on the bottom.”

The result is Awake’s Stereo Image Stack plug-in, which combines stereo images, getting rid of the clutter of stereo flows. It works in tandem with Awake’s Stereo Image Unstack plug. “The idea was to be able stack images top-bottom, side-by-side, or interlace them in the output image,” says Konrad. “Scripting let us view only left or right only flows at any given time, meaning you need less time to generate previews. Prior to this, I'd been working on a system that would create a linked but separate workspace for each eye, such that the artist would get near final with work done on one eye, and then run a script that would spawn the second eye. We would use the right eye as a sort of layout, and have scripts to mark certain tools as being left eye specific (such as roto masks), so that future updates to the right eye could be ported to the left eye with another script. It became obvious early on that this was going to be wrought with problems.” For example, he says, mundane things, such as making sure mask connections updated to new tools correctly, or more critical problems, such as not being able to look at stereo issues “in an abstracted way in the same comp window. The stacking method that Mike Shand came up with provided an easy out. It made the process of compositing two eyes both intuitive and well managed.”

After the concept was mapped out, Konrad and Kert Gartner, Frantic’s 2D Technical Lead, went to work analyzing the workflow. “We identified early on what we would need,” he says, including these primary requirements: “To be able to work on a single eye; to be able to create masks independently for each eye, to be able to separate the images for processes that do image sampling such as blurs, as the act of combining the two images into a single frame would cause blurs to bleed through the median point; a way to view the images in rudimentary stereo in-comp; and a visible way to tell the images apart. The results are a few tools that allow you to select the eye the tool should be outputting and the eye that the comp is currently active with, so that you can work in stereo and in mono in the same comp.”

Beyond developing three digital characters end-to-end and the entirely CG water and mist (using Frantic’s well-known Krakatoa volumetric point renderer), Frantic also created a CG sail for the raft itself. “The nice thing was that the director, Eric Brevig, really considered it to be a character as well,” Konrad says. That echoes what Brendan Fraser, the film’s star and also an executive producer, said on the record when Journey came out: The Piranha sequence is his favorite in the entire film.

Konrad says that working on the film opened his eyes to the breadth of artistic and technical choices available to 3D filmmakers. “What’s going to happen when more of these 3D movies get made,” he says, “is the language of 2D film will have to change significantly. As the 3D medium matures, there will be a lot more interesting uses of 3D that will result. I assume people like James Cameron [with films-in-progress like Avatar] are doing with 3D what Hitchcock did when he analyzed his films. Hitchcock found that moving the camera right created a sense of forward momentum, and moving the camera left created a sense of foreboding. Unfortunately, a lot of that language is diluted when it’s in a 3D environment. Journey did a lot to clarify that new language, and it will be a wild ride as we all map it out together.”

The Awake plug-in pack has a list price of $299 and is compatible with Fusion 5 and higher.

By Beth Marchant, StudioDaily