Stammers Talks X-Men: Days of Future Past VFX

Richard Stammers, production VFX supervisor from MPC, discusses highlights and advancements from Bryan Singer’s acclaimed return with X-Men: Days of Future Past.  MPC handled the full CG future Sentinels and interaction with the Mutant cast; Digital Domain was largely responsible for ’73, including the early Sentinels and Washington destruction; Rhythm & Hues did the Beast transformations and airplane mayhem; and Rising Sun handled the Quicksilver speed effects.

What was Bryan’s VFX brief for this version?

I’d not worked with Bryan before or on an X-Men movie. I really liked what he had done with the franchise and I had been a fan since the first movie. It was great to work with someone so astute and incisive about the x-men universe. He was great at pitching ideas that were not only spectacular and entertaining for the fans but served the story in an exceptional way. Discussing this with Bryan gave me better insight as to what was important to match from the previous films and what could be changed or improved.

For example, Bryan really wanted to update the Mystique transformations: he wanted to see shots that he hadn’t done before. What this largely boiled down to was that he wanted to spend more time seeing the transformations which meant that we had to put in a lot more detail so they would hold up to close-up scrutiny. Principle of the transformations remained the same with the flipping scales, but we managed to integrate this better with some really great lighting onto our live action characters. We had one shot which was an extreme close-up of Mystique’s thumb transformed to Dr Trask’s thumb and this required lots of detail with much smaller scales than what we have previously seen.

Tell us about the Wolverine’s spiritual transport effect and how that was designed and achieved.

Kitty Pryde’s power allows her to transport a consciousness back in time to that person’s younger body, in our case it’s wolverine in 1973. She has to use her power constantly to hold him there so we needed to design an effect that we could see change during the course of the movie as Kitty get weaker. I want to create a subtle energy effect, which we could tie to a practical light effect. Our gaffer and DP [Thomas Sigel] worked with the SPFX team to create an adjustable mini light rig that would attach to Ellen Page’s palms that would illuminate Wolverines head and her hands. For the effect itself, I wanted something that looked like strands of glistening cobwebs, without it looking too much like lightning or a plasma ball. MPC did the effect really nicely and they incorporated a good sense of flow from kitty’s hand to Wolverines head.

We achieved this by first roto-animating Kitty’s hands and Logan’s head to get their 3D position and movement. Then we use a custom-built rig that connected locators on Kitty’s palms and Logan’s temples with a group of dynamic curves that would later form the “filaments” in the energy effect. The curves were animated with a series of deformers and followed Kitty’s hand motion with an adjustable “slip and smooth” so that they would follow her action but smooth out high frequency kinks and jitters. The roto-animation, curve data and locators were cached out and passed to comp where the final effect was created entirely in Nuke using PRMan as the renderer. We used a mixture of noise patterns, particle systems and smoke elements to get the look, with lighting generated by a point source in the palm of Kitty’s hands that could also be used to add light to Logan’s head where necessary, and multiple small point sources travelling through the effect to help create the feel of energy flow. Then we layered on glows to create both the optics of looking at the effect and a sense of the effect lighting the atmosphere around Kitty’s hands.

Talk about the concept behind the Sentinels.

We have two types of Sentinels in our movie, both were very different designs given the time period in which they appear. The 1973 Sentinel represents an early prototype where as the future Sentinel is a super advanced version drawing on advanced technologies that allows it to be super agile and transform and adapt its powers to combat the mutants it is hunting. I worked with John Myhre, the production designer, to outline a brief based on Bryan’s and the script’s requirements and then we appointed two design studios to produce different concepts for both Sentinels.

We used the London art departments of both Framestore and MPC to do initial designs and ideas based on our requirements, and after this first round of concepts and brainstorming we felt Framestore were best suited to the 1973 Sentinel and MPC to the future Sentinel. For the 1973 Sentinel, we gave Framestore references of ‘futuristic’ product and car design from the 1970s and these influenced the shapes and colours of the paneling.

These robots needed to be ‘Magneto proof’ and therefore made of space age polymers i.e. mostly plastic so we found ways to take ideas from modern robotics and ‘retro-fy’ them in plastic for more of 1970s look. All cabling needed to be either hydraulic or pneumatic hosing which proved an interesting design challenge, but if you don’t think about it too much, it works visually! Once Framestore’s design was approved by Bryan and the studio we employed Legacy FX to build a full size 18 foot tall Sentinel that could be used as a static prop during shooting. For animated shots Digital Domain built the CG version based on Legacy’s model. This was modeled in Maya and rendered using VRay.

The future Sentinels were developed under the idea that Mystique’s DNA had been weaponized to give them advanced abilities of transformation and adaptation, so the design incorporated a scale texture to be reminiscent of Mystique’s powers. They never needed to speak so Bryan did not want a mouth, they essentially needed to be emotionless and relentless killing machines. Given that this would be very restrictive from an facial animation point of view it was essential to design the facial features with a good level of malevolence. Movement of these sentinels needed to be incredibly agile and not limited by the speed expected of a 12-foot-tall robot. The scales themselves became a very important part of the design and animation which triggered a fluttering wipe of transformation across the body. This proved to be very technically challenging and MPC’s rigging and software teams worked together to develop a system that allowed modelers to lay out nurbs patches that defined the placement and orientation of the scales covering the sentinel’s body. These scales were then procedurally generated in Katana at render time, pulling attributes from the animation rig to create rippling effects and time out material blending to allow the Sentinels to transform from one surface to another.

How was Quicksilver’s effect done?

One of the best signature sequences in the movie was involving Quicksilver disarming guards in the Pentagon kitchen where the fire alarm sprinklers have been set off. His power of super speed is usually only represented by a subtle motion blur streak, but in this sequence time slows down so we can see all of Quicksilver’s action in detail against a backdrop of the near static rainfall. Magneto has also raised pots, pans, and cutlery into the air triggering the guards to shoot at our heroes. Quicksilver deftly disarms each guard in turn while the bullets slowly crawl towards Magneto, Xavier, and Wolverine.

Quicksilver’s action and super speed allow him to run around the circular walls of the kitchen and tackle a number of the guards in one rotation. Shooting the sequence involved a number of tricks to get the desired results-we started with super slow motion 3-D phantom photography at 3,200 frames-per-second, so we can speed ramp to almost frozen and establish a live-action quality of the real sprinkler rain. Once in ‘Quicksilver time’ everything in the air is virtually static and was created as a CG element. As he runs through the rain he creates a tunnel void and streams of water fly off his body, atomizing in the process. The speed of his motion creates a drag on the objects still in the air and these get pulled in his wake. Rising Sun Pictures created an immense library of fluid and ridged body simulations that tied in perfectly to all of Quicksilver’s actions, and the bullets that carve their way through rain (and soup).

One by one Quicksilver takes great joy in puppeteering the static guards into positions where they can punch themselves or fall over so when we return back to normal speed there is a payoff crescendo of awesome stunt choreography where all the guards end up unconscious on the floor. Each of the puppeteering shots involved the guards standing perfectly still and allowing Quicksilver to move at normal human speed and move them into new positions — these were photographed at 120 fps to give us extra frames if we needed to speed up the shots. In post, we had to do a little bit of body stabilizing to make sure everyone was really still and were not wobbling from Quicksilver’s movement interaction. From this we created a detailed body roto animation of all the actors and the objects in the scene so that we can place CG rain, cutlery and vegetables around them. The 29 shot sequence is entirely handled by RSP in Australia and their team did an excellent job of bringing many subtle nuances to the screen that can be enjoyed many times over with repeat viewing.

What makes Days of Future Past unique?

What I think you have is a perfect storm of a great script, two great casts, and Bryan back at the helm, which brings back the gravitas of the first and second films. A bigger overall budget and more efficiency in visual effects since the first two X-Men allowed us to do the larger-scale visual effects that fans expect from a summer tent pole blockbuster. We were able to cover all our major sequences in our previsualisation process [with The Third Floor] and we went through numerous iterations to get the action beats to flow well and expand the story.

We also set up a virtual camera system so that we can ‘shoot’ the previs and involve Tom Sigel and our 2nd unit director Brian Smrz in the creation of these shots that were then cut together by John Ottman, the editor. Our previs became a very successful shooting guide as a result. We reused the previs onset for our virtual Simulcam setup. This allowed us to see the animation and set extensions as a live playback for framing and timing references while shooting.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Cinematography, Clips, Movies, previs, Production Design, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production

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