Creating the iconic X-Men: Dark Phoenix brought great power, and great responsibility for MPC Film
MPC Film was the lead VFX studio on the latest X-Men installment: Dark Phoenix, and the work was led by MPC VFX Supervisor Greg Butler. The Jean Grey X-Men story includes an array of outwardly confronting physical and meta-physical stunts and powers. Autism on steroids, perhaps. The group of ‘supers’ are all housed, for their and the world’s benefit in Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Think of the Thunderbirds, but in a boarding school. There are confrontations, promises, betrayals and plenty of impossible scenes on Earth and space for VFX studios to play creatively. This was not missed by the team at MPC Film. VFXscience spoke with Greg Butler earlier in the month about the many challenges.
Butler joined MPC’s London facility as VFX Supervisor in 2005, leading teams on films including The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Jack the Giant Slayer and on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 for which he and his team won a BAFTA and nominated for an Academy Award for Outstanding Visual Effects.
From 2014, Butler ticked off as VFX Supervisor on Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, and American Sniper, as well as Digital Effects Supervisor on Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours and On-set VFX Supervisor on Fifty Shades Darker.
For the Dark Phoenix facial cracks effects on Jean Grey’s face, the first step was to create the crack pattern. For this, MPC had to define masks for the ‘zones of interest’. The idea behind this was the need for an art directable way to specify where the cracks were going to be placed on the cheeks, forehead, and hands. “Once these zones were set, we had to define the patterns themselves that would live within the boundaries of the previously created masks. The orientation of the cracks was semi-random. We also had the ability to bias the orientation of the cracks by a custom vector. We could make most of the cracks on the forehead point slightly toward the centre of the face to avoid any horizontal striping.
“These patterns were projected onto the Dark Phoenix model at a binding position,” explains Butler. “This was very important because it gave us the ability to transfer animation or patterns from shot to shot for continuity, and it allowed us to generate variations in one shot and then end up using it later in another one that fit better without any hassle.”
Next, MPC set about generating the procedural animation that made the cracks open and close. They set an initial state for the cracks, then appointed how a percentage of these face cracks opened or closed at the beginning of a shot. They also calculated the animation for other attributes such as the crack opening width and skin protrusion that would be used in the next step. “At this point, we had the crack pattern defined as polylines and the animation stored into their points, what comes next is to crack the mesh,” Butler explains. “At this stage, the crack pattern in polylines would be used to generate cutting planes perpendicular to the surface of the model being cut.”
They also generated adaptive subdivision around the area being cut prior to cutting it, to keep the mesh as light as possible. This gave them the possibility of having a high enough resolution to create a sub-pixel level of detail for close up shots without sacrificing performance too much.
Once the cut was done, the next step was to transfer the previously generated procedural animation from the polylines onto the mesh. They could then be used as weight attributes for the crack opening and protrusion displacement. This transfer was done by an attribute transfer operation based on the distance to the polyline and then masked by a surface (geodesic) falloff from the crack seam defined by another radius.
“These falloffs were very important in defining the look of the displacement, especially the protrusion as the falloff curve shape would become the profile,” Butler explains. “For the crack opening displacement, we also needed to define the vectors that would be used to pull the skin open. This was done by calculating a gradient (vectors pointing towards the direction of the lowest value of a given attribute in the neighbouring points), based on a falloff from the crack seams. Once those newly created attributes were defined, we were ready for displacing the geometry using them as weights and displacement directions. Last but not least we would put all this in shot space by interpolating the attributes of the binding position geometry with the animated one used in the shot.”
“This geometry based cracks system was originally prototyped by Yunus Balcioglu and William Morrison. Raul Boza continued the development into shot production and then ran the FX team that produced all of the work,” adds Butler.
And I bet you just thought it was all about making a pretty effect.
The Fifth Avenue fight scene was a classic superhero action scene, with the two sides meeting on a Central Park sidewalk, exchanging a few taunts and then breaking off into various attacks as they all try to get into the French embassy, where Jean is in talks with the aliens.
“I started on the film in July 2017 as the second unit VFX Supervisor and was involved in all of the shoot planning that preceded the stage and location photography. Phil Brennan and I would constantly talk through approaches to the setups and what we needed from the other department heads,” explains Butler.
The action in the scene had been choreographed in detail by Guy Norris, the second unit director. He used a process he called StuntVis, where the stunt performers would rehearse in mocap suits. Simon Kinberg (writer, Director) could then be presented with PreVis cuts of the scene that used the actual movements slated for filming.
Once filming began, the Main Unit went first, establishing the look of the shots and the blocking of the main cast. Second unit then took over the set, first on night shoots in Mount Royale overlooking Montréal, then on a large indoor set, dressed to look like a block of Fifth Avenue/E 79th Street in NYC. “I had a great collaboration with the other Second Unit department heads, especially lighting and SFX, as we often needed interactive passes for the different mutant powers,” says Butler. “We had Cyclops’ red light and impact explosions, Storm’s lightning flashes, and Magneto causing general mayhem. Props, costumes, makeup and FX all helped provide valuable information, reference and support to the visual effects work.”
Greg Butler tells me the process of creating Dazzler’s performance in the woods behind the X-Mansion was a combination of planned and freestyle design. When the scene was filmed, there was a reference concept giving a colour palette and general idea for the FX in the scene.
There were computer controlled lights that synchronized to the soundtrack and splashed a pattern of lights on the trees and actors on set. “This effect wasn’t so strong that we were tied to it, but it did give a useful base for compositing to work with,” leads Butler. “There were three aspects to the final effect: a flocking particle simulation we called fireflies; a bioluminescent like movement of lighting on the tree trunks and leaf canopies; and some momentary pulses of coloured volume we called auroras. We used the soundtrack in Nuke to control the amplitude and frequency of these effects, though in a subtle way. We also took some cues off Halston Sage’s performance.”
The main particle simulation was done in Houdini by Jaile Zhang, the same FX artist who also developed the demol effect that shows Jean Grey’s disruptive effect on her environment when the Phoenix force is building. The particles were rendered with volumetric passes that helped comp blend the effects together.
“We were lucky to have a talented compositor named Sharon Johnson in charge of the sequence. While waiting for the FX simulations to develop, Sharon created all of the bioluminescent effects on the plates in Nuke, assisted by some replacement tree passes from our environment team. Sadly, Sharon passed away during the post-production of the film, very soon after she had completed the Dazzler shots. Her loss was felt by our whole Montréal team and has given her beautiful work in this small scene a greater meaning for all of us.”
STEP IN TIME
I asked Greg Butler about the work on the explosive scene back at Jean Grey’s childhood home. Quicksilver is quickly shown climbing the time-frozen debris of the house where Jean Grey is confronted by the X-Men team. There is a lot of prep, with a lot of wires to hide.
“The paint prep for this scene wasn’t as hard as it could have been,” he says. “Our second unit stunt, SFX and costume teams were very experienced and considerate when it came to using wire rigs and SFX gear. We filmed a plate of Evan Peter’s stunt double running up a set of skeletal stair steps (as seen in the plate) and leaping into the air, grabbing at the space where we would be putting a digital Jean Grey.”
The prep team removed the wires, steps, SFX fans and other gear. Then MPC’s FX team then created a very slow motion explosion coming out of Jean’s childhood home using smoke volumes and lots of wooden splinters, beams and other general debris, including an old rubber boot. The animation team then timed a few large debris pieces to touch Quicksilver’s feet just in time to appear that he is stepping off of them instead of the stair steps that were really in the original plate.
The most complex shot on a frame by frame basis was the last one we completed. The scene is called Dinner Party (DP). We see Jessica Chastain leave the table to see what is bothering the family dog. When we see her return from the edge of the woods, she is an alien form that smoothly transforms back into human with a slight tilt of the head and swish of blonde hair. Transformation shots are always difficult and this one came up relatively late in the schedule. Originally the transformation was going to take place in a wider shot that would have shown the alien form actually kill the human and take on her shape in one continuous movement. This would have been very cool, but was more of a set piece shot than the more fluid, elegant and mysterious version that ended up in the film.
The main geometry transformation work was done in Houdini by Ambar Singh. It was based on his alien wound healing set-up that appears in a number of shots in the X-Men vs Aliens train scene. Once Compositing had renders of the alien, the human digital-double and the healing layers, they began blending it all together. It ended up being a very fragile shot that required very subtle timing and lighting adjustments to sell the effect. MPC had two great compositors on the shot, Mohamed Selim and Konstantinos Koutsolitas. They collaborated closely together throughout the final week of the show.