VFX Super Vision by Framestore CFC

Superman Returns is the most keenly anticipated blockbuster of 2006, with the legendary Man of Steel’s first outing in nearly 20 years the subject of feverish speculation and anticipation around the world. Directed by Bryan Singer, the Warner Brothers Pictures production opens in the US on 28th June and in the UK on 14th July. It stars Brandon Routh as Superman, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane.

Needless to say, visual effects play a key role in Superman Returns ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® the previous set of four Superman films largely predated computer-based visual effects, so a new generation of VFX artists were getting their first shot at one of cinema’s true legends. Framestore CFC is proud to have been not only the sole London facility to contribute to the movie’s digital VFX, but also to have been responsible for the film’s climactic sequences, the thrilling culmination of the whole adventure.

A team of up to 70 Framestore CFC artists and technicians worked for eight months on 313 shots for Superman Returns. They were led by VFX Supervisor, Jon Thum, who says, “Our work encompasses huge CG environments of oceans, crystal rocks, water interaction, a seaplane, a helicopter and Superman himself; this is all mixed with 2D elements of mist, waterfalls, layered skies and various green-screen elements. There was only one partial set built for all of this action, so our contribution was substantial.”

Superman Returns finds our hero returning to earth after a five-year absence, during which time he returned to his home world of Krypton, only to find it a radioactive ruin. Lex Luthor, now a rich and powerful businessman, has once again found Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and stolen a crystal similar to the one used to generate the Fortress itself in Krypton’s image. Luthor uses the crystal to initiate the birth of an island that he intends to grow to become a whole new continent, with himself as absolute ruler. Can Superman possibly stop him?

Framestore CFC’s work on the film centres on Luthor’s island, the environment around it, and Superman’s showdown there with Luthor and his henchmen. Superman flies to the island as it begins to rise from the ocean. A Kryptonian crystal has engendered the island, and so its underlying structure and look is crystalline. Landing on the island, Superman confronts Luther and his goons. Unbeknown to Superman, however, is that the fact that the islands very fabric is laced with Kryptonite. In other words, the entire island is toxic to Superman, weakening and threatening to destroy him. A fight with Luthor is followed by Superman plunging off a precipice and sinking below the surface of the water below. Only a nail-biting rescue by Lois Lane, arriving (and escaping) in a seaplane, prevents disaster. Regaining his strength by flying high into the upper atmosphere, Superman returns, dives beneath the waves, bores deep under the island using his heat-vision, and finally raises the entire monstrous land up into the air and out into space.

A significant technical feature of Superman Returns is that it was shot on the Genesis camera, one of a new generation of digital movie cameras. This is the future of filmmaking, precipitating changes in the post production process. “The first thing I did,” recalls Thum, “Was install a digital projector on our floor, turning our Avid suite into an ad hoc projection room. With no need for shooting out, I was able to review the progress of VFX shots, watching them in 2K projected large on a large screen in the final delivery format, mere minutes after the renders were complete. It was a great new way to work.” The new set-up promises to be very popular with clients, too, as they can now view their work-in-progress projected large at any point in the process.

The CG team were led by CG Supervisor Justin Martin. One of the most demanding areas of CG research and development was the ocean. The team developed their own techniques for creating the roiling waters, pipelining their work through Houdini and Maya, feeding into Renderman, and then composited in Shake. In addition, the CG team had to break up the (CG) set, smash crystal columns, and break up rocks from the rising island. For this, they pushed Houdini’s dynamics to the limit, expanding its choreography abilities, and building on previous techniques developed for earlier shows such as Blade II, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Thunderbirds.

Of the sequence of the seaplane struggling through a ravine to escape the still-growing island, Martin says, “This was a tricky one ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® the CG elements included the crystal rocks, the plane, and some of the water elements. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from previous projects, it’s to use live elements whenever possible ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® so the waterfalls were mostly real ones. The ocean material, on the other hand, was CG ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® because of the shots needed and the fact that shooting plates of water as stormy as required is almost impossible.” Martin adds that ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® somewhat to his surprise ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® the crystals posed much more of a challenge than the ocean work. “Managing the complexity of the crystalline geometries, and how much would be in each shot was a real headache,” he says, “Whereas with the oceans we had a look established quite early on, and it was just a case of refining it and going back and forth with the compositors.”

As is more often the case these days, the team were frequently required to deliver shots in which there were no (or very few) real elements ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® a blank canvas, as it were. The matte painters – led by Matte Painting Supervisor, Martin Macrae – played a crucial part in such situations, with their artistic eye helping to create compositions and lighting schemes that instantly worked. Photoshop and Maya were their main tools. “It was pretty much like Lego,” says Macrae, half jokingly, “We had to basically build a 3km wide island, on a scale that none of us had previously tackled, so we needed blocks that we could easily assemble and tweak.” For Macrae, the hardest part was to make the full CG shots look convincing. “Essentially you’re dealing with a pure fantasy environment,” he says, “One that doesn’t occur in real life ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® and our job was to make it look ‘natural’.”

The overhead shots of the island, seen from Superman’s point of view as he nears Luthor’s base, were created with a combination of techniques that were repeated throughout Framestore CFC’s shots. The first involved procedural textures for the crystal rock, 3D waterfalls and projected 2D elements where possible. The second, led by Martin Macrae, involved projecting matte painting onto the rendered geometry to create extra detail – a technique that produces better results, but only works for small camera moves.

Gavin Toomey led the compositing team, having also attended the shoot in Sydney, following on from Thum’s initial stint there. Of what proved to be a pretty arduous compositing job he says, “As with previous very heavy-render projects such as Troy, we didn’t use any beauty passes ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® everything was re-lit in 2D. So we had a couple of guys building the template scripts to begin with, concentrating on the ocean and the rocks.” Working in HD did not faze the team.

“When you’re working in film, you’re always aware that when it’s shot out it will, to an extent, be a ‘forgiving’ medium. HD is much crisper and more demanding in that respect. At the same time, you have to make the material look like what the audiences expect their films to look like. The art lies in knowing when to stop piling on the detail, keeping it implicit rather than explicit ?‚àö√ë‚àö¬® nailing the point at which it looks photographic.” Overall, though, Toomey feels that the challenges presented by the project were well worth the extra effort. “In the end I think that some of the 2D elements really help sell the shots,” he reflects, “It was great to have a chance to get our hands dirty with the TDs.”

With much labour behind them and the finishing tape in sight, the production handed Framestore CFC one final surprise six weeks before delivery was due. “Our end sequence of the island rising out of the ocean was re-cut,” recalls Thum, “And the island put back to concept. Meeting this challenge required some?‚àö√묨‚àÇradical reorganisation, let’s say. The fact that we turned it all around in time is something we are justly proud of.” Thum is not alone in his admiration for the team’s work during this last burst of activity. Says Superman Returns VFX Supervisor, Mark Stetson, “The late-schedule design changes we threw at Framestore CFC put us all right out at the edge of risk. Jon Thum, (Framestore CFC Producer) Robin Saxen and the team responded with a sequence that was hugely improved, and still finished on the schedule we agreed. It made the movie better, and I am very grateful.”

And now? Their superhuman efforts over, the mild-mannered Superman Returns team at Framestore CFC are taking a well-earned rest?Ķ

Directed by Bryan Singer
Director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel
Produced by Bryan Singer, Jon Peters and Gilbert Adler
Released by Warner Brothers Pictures

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