Canuck FX shops dazzle on summer blockbusters

When the Hulk, Indiana Jones, Maxwell Smart and 'a love guru' swing into town - not to mention a host of plesiosaurs and a T. rex - it makes for some large-scale entertainment. It also means great special effects years in the making, with shops from Winnipeg to Toronto and Montreal having a hand in their creation.

When the Hulk, Indiana Jones, Maxwell Smart and ‘a love guru’ swing into town – not to mention a host of plesiosaurs and a T. rex – it makes for some large-scale entertainment. It also means great special effects years in the making, with shops from Winnipeg to Toronto and Montreal having a hand in their creation.

Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 3D action/adventure flick starring Brendan Fraser, tapped into a wealth of talent in Montreal for everything from dizzying CG backgrounds to destructive dinosaurs, created using stereoscopic pipelines new to many of the shops.

Read on for how Canadian talent created everything from the insides of a volcano to life during the Great Depression and an entirely CG Air Canada Centre.

INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

Release date: May 22
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Producer: Lucas Film
Tools used: Photoshop, XSI, Flame and Shake

Canadian connection: Montreal-based Rodeo FX had a hand in 14 shots on this Steven Spielberg action flick, including complex composites involving plate and character reconstruction. Rodeo also worked on the background matte painting work throughout the film.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK

Release date: June 13
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Producers: Marvel Enterprises, Marvel Studios, Valhalla Motion Pictures
Tools used: Autodesk Maya, DNA Research 3Delight, Shake, The Foundry’s Nuke

Canadian connection: Toronto’s soho vfx provided everything from effects, CG props and an entirely CG helicopter crash for this locally shot big green moneymaker. But you can’t get much bigger – or greener – than providing fully digital characters of the Hulk and the villain Abomination, as soho did in two sequences.

Major soho efforts include a scene in a bottling plant in which the Hulk is chased by soldiers, which combined live-action photography with a CG Hulk and CG water tanks and forklifts. And when Abomination destroys cars in New York City, that’s soho’s work, too.

After providing FX testing last year for the film, B.C. shop Image Engine was brought on board by the film’s visual effects supervisor Kurt Williams. Image Engine provided 75 shots in total, with the bulk of its work focused on augmenting and extending plate photography for the Harlem brawl sequence in the finale. The shop’s crew worked on an extensive CG city build, digital background work and subtle enhancements including steam from roof vents and shifting clouds.

The team also provided on-set supervision, with three weeks in Rio de Janeiro.

Watch for: the blood drop – a two-shot sequence where Hulk alter ego Bruce Banner’s gamma-infected blood falls three stories in the bottling plant, landing in bottles on the conveyor belt. Ultra-close-up CG animation and sophisticated re-timing of the plate elements helped Image Engine master the shot.

LairdFX in Toronto was responsible for much of the physical destruction and explosions seen on screen. From custom rigs for flipping cars to crane rain and zoom boom systems, LairdFX helped create the physical world of destruction the CGI Hulk finds himself in.

Toronto’s Deluxe was responsible for all the dailies, including the Brazil portion. The company created a VFX/scanning DI workflow, which Deluxe’s Nick Iannelli says ‘allowed the scanning of all VFX in Toronto, with the remainder of the DI scanning and color grading done at Deluxe/EFILM in Hollywood.’

THE LOVE GURU

Release date: June 20
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Producer: Michael De Luca Productions
Tools used: Autodesk Maya, DNA Research 3Delight, Massive

Canadian connection: One can’t get more Canadian than Mike Myers and hockey, can one? The Love Guru shot at the Air Canada Centre and Casa Loma, and other locales in Toronto, Oshawa and Myers’ hometown of Scarborough.

Soho vfx used Massive and rendered with 3Delight to build and populate a fully digital version of the ACC for hockey scenes in this comedy. It also composited Myers’ head onto a young actor’s body in some flashbacks, using Shake from Apple to perfect the pint-sized Myers, who plays Pitka, an American who’s moved back to the States to be a self-help star.

GET SMART

Release date: June 20
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Producers: Village Roadshow Pictures, Mosaic Media Group, Mad Chance, Callahan Filmworks
Tools used: Autodesk 3ds Max, eyeon Fusion

Canadian connection: Filmed in Quebec, this comedy about bumbling Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, stars Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway and Alan Arkin.

Big effects were needed to match the film’s broad humor. Enter Digital Dimension (based in Montreal and Burbank), which provided 163 photorealistic shots. From CGI dust to adding a plane racing alongside a car, Andrew Roberts, 3D supervisor at Digital Dimension, says ‘advanced development tools enabled us to achieve a greater level of photorealism.’

Mechanical effects for Get Smart’s four-week Montreal shoot were handled by Quebec’s Intrigue Productions. Its efforts included an explosion at a building in Old Montreal, bullet hits in a shoot-out and a car flying out of the Smithsonian Institute.

KIT KITTREDGE: AN AMERICAN GIRL

Release date: July 2 (wide)
Distributor: Alliance Films (Canada)
Producers: American Girl Brands, Goldsmith-Thomas Productions, HBO Films, New Line Cinema, Red Om Films
Tools used: Photoshop, Nuke

Canadian connection: Directed by Kingston, ON native Patricia Rozema, this comedy/drama filmed in Toronto, with Abigail Breslin, Julia Ormond and Chris O’Donnell starring. Based on books inspired by the doll line, this is a feel-good flick featuring a plucky heroine.

Toronto shop Mr. X used Photoshop to create matte paintings and Nuke to composite the period shots, all helping to recreate Cincinnati in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

Toronto’s Deluxe was responsible for the dailies.

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH

Release date: July 11
Produced by: Walden Media, New Line Cinema
Distributor: Alliance Films (Canada)
Tools used: eyeon Fusion, Autodesk 3ds Max, Awake (a proprietary plug-in for eyeon Fusion), Flood: Surf, Flood: Spray, Flood: Core, NVIDIA Gelato, SynthEyes, Boujou, Autodesk Mudbox, Pixologic ZBrush, Project Flow, XSI, Maya, 3D Equalizer, Lightwave, Zbrush, Photoshop, Autodesk Inferno, Flame, Shake, Smoke & Lustre, Digital Fusion, Combustion, Roto/Paint, Frame Cycler

Canadian connection: Adapted from the Jules Verne classic, this 3D adventure shot in Montreal and pulled in four Montreal post shops and one in Winnipeg to provide the dinosaur-sized effects.

Winnipeg’s Frantic Films‘ expertise in creating believable digital water effects caught the attention of Journey director Eric Brevig. Enter Flood: Surf, Flood: Spray and Flood: Core, Frantic’s proprietary liquid simulation toolset. Frantic also created the razorfish, plesiosaur and trilobite creatures end-to-end.

In addition, Frantic devised a process to composite in visual stereo, building custom plug-in tools to manage the left and right eye and separate them, making previewing any element of the shot in stereo possible.

The company’s work was so well-received that it was awarded the opening shot of Journey, which sees a trilobite headed toward the audience.

Watch for: the four-and-a-half-minute sequence in which the principals stand on a raft in turbulence on a 100% computer-generated sea, complete with 100 fish and seven plesiosaurs.

Montreal’s Hybride, recently purchased by Ubisoft, worked on Journey for more than 15 months, providing a total of 18 minutes of screen time – 234 stereoscopic VFX shots – to the film.

Character and object animation including glowbirds and snapping plants, and interior and exterior environments such as a volcano, grotto and mushroom grove were handled by Hybride. It also contributed organic effects including embers, lava, smoke and dandelions.

Montreal-based Mokko Studio provided images for four scenes, and was awarded the final scene. Explosions, the CG environments and VFX smoke were all Mokko contributions. It put together a stereoscopic pipeline for the studio from recreating a CG stereo camera to setting up to screen for dailies.

Location and miniature photo shoots in Italy, Portugal and Montreal were undertaken by Montreal’s Rodeo FX, which delivered 24 shots. Its work involved concept art, matte painting, compositing and FX.

‘Our shots sandwiched the movie and included the storm and cave shots that prompt the cave collapse leading to the characters’ journey, as well as the volcano and vineyard shots when they emerge from the volcano at the end of the film,’ says Nina Fallon, producer at Rodeo FX.

Now-defunct Montreal shop Meteor Studios (see story, p. 14) put heavy manpower into Journey, with much of its efforts focused on a massive T. rex that chases the principals through his lair. Animation supervisor Aaron Gilman says the team spent nearly a year and a half developing the look of approximately 75 shots for the film – including 45 involving the T. rex. Meteor took five or six sequences from modeling through to final compositing.