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Friday, January 6, 2012

VFX | Breaking Dawn's CG Wolf Pack

There are far more complications to deal with than Bella’s underlying feelings for Jacob. Although the newlyweds have decided to prolong Bella’s entry into the world of vampires, a steamy honeymoon encounter leaves her pregnant with a vampire baby that threatens to kill her. When Jacob, Sam, and the rest of the wolf pack discover Bella’s secret, Sam demands that the wolves kill the baby as well as the Cullens to protect their tribe from the vampires. Instead, the wolves form two packs: one on a deadly mission, the other hoping to save Bella.  

VFX, Breaking Dawn, CG, Wolf Pack, Tippett Studio, making, breakdowns, news

 Even if you are strongly committed to Team Edward, the attraction and loyalty demonstrated by Jacob cannot be ignored. Nor can the performance of Jacob’s alter ego in the film, the russet brown werewolf.

Tippett Studio introduced the CG wolf pack during the second movie in the Twilight series, New Moon. The studio’s task was to generate five realistic computer-generated wolves, each with a distinct look and representing one of five Native American youths in the film, including Jacob. The youths, who shape-shift into the creatures, are mortal enemies of the vampires and patrol the forests outside the town, guarding against any new vampire threats.

For New Moon, the artists modeled and animated the creatures, which appeared in 60 shots. For the next film, Eclipse, the artists created eight of these creatures. For Breaking Dawn – Part 1, they upped the ante again, this time with 10 CG beasts that appear in approximately 150 shots throughout the movie. Yet, it was more than the additional wolves that raised the creative bar in this endeavor. 

VFX, Breaking Dawn, CG, Wolf Pack, Tippett Studio, making, breakdowns, news

“The work on Breaking Dawn was a big step up in complexity,” says Eric Leven, visual effects supervisor at Tippett. “One scene was nothing but wolves having a conversation; they’d be in the center of the entire scene and have to have much more emotive performances [than they would in an action shot].”

According to Leven, another scene showed the wolves fighting the main characters, with significant wolf-to-vampire contact. “We had done fight shots in previous Twilight movies [with the wolves], but now they would be the focus of the scene,” he notes.

To generate the initial wolves for New Moon, the Tippett team used Autodesk’s Maya to build the surface model for the wolf structure, and then used Autodesk’s Mudbox for displacement sculpting. Afterward, the modelers slightly altered each model to give each of the five initial creatures a slightly different look. For the fur, they used the studio’s then-new fur tool, Furator, to style and groom the hair.

In New Moon, the artists at Tippett inserted the animals into various shots in which the creatures are shown running and jumping; in some scenes, they are more static, although breathing heavily. In Eclipse, the wolves reappear in more shots with even more animated action. 

VFX, Breaking Dawn, CG, Wolf Pack, Tippett Studio, making, breakdowns, news

However, when it came time for the wolves to assume a larger role in Breaking Dawn, the Tippett modelers decided to rebuild the fur on the wolves, making it easier for the group to work with the CG creatures in the shots. “It made turnaround faster when we needed to change something, like the color palette from the art department, or to integrate more subtle wind animation from the effects animation department,” Leven says. 

In addition, the modelers redesigned the face rig of the puppet. “Over the last two movies, the model had grown very complex, and we learned a great deal about what we did and did not need in our rig to create certain performances,” explains Leven. “So we were able to get rid of things we didn’t need and add new functionality.”

The redesign also gave the characters a more realistic look within the finished shots. “They need to be recognized as wolves, with all the correct lupine behaviors, and yet still maintain their human counterpart personality,” explains Leven. “For example, you need to know the difference between Seth and Jacob just from their pantomime and performance, even though at first glance they both look like the same giant wolf. But if you watch the scene for a beat, you’ll know who is who.”

Even though the changes helped raise the aesthetic level of the models, the team still had to proceed cautiously to ensure that the look of the pack had not changed drastically from the previous films. “We were always reviewing shots [from the other movies] to make sure we were in the ballpark,” says Leven. “But in the end, we knew we were dealing with the ‘Lassie Factor.’ That is, there were a dozen different Lassies, but only her mother would know the difference. As long as Jacob and the wolves felt right, we knew no one would be able to tell the difference.”

As they had during the past movies, the crew hand animated the creatures for two main sequences: one in a lumberyard and the other a huge battle with the Cullens. 

According to Leven, Tippett designed both major scenes—from the words used in the script to the finished shots. This includes the storyboard design, the animatics, the scratch dialog track, the editorial decisions, and helping to oversee the work on set. To this end, senior VFX supervisor Phil Tippett, along with Leven and Eric Marko, traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during some of the filming, and then Tippett and Leven were later joined by location set supervisor Devin Breese on set in Squamish and Vancouver, Canada. 

According to Leven, the lumberyard scene was the most challenging. That's because it is filled with a great deal of subtle performances among multiple wolves, each with a unique personality. Although there is voice-over for the segment, the wolves had to “act” and “communicate” with the audience, as opposed to other heavy-action shots in which they are running through the woods or fighting with a foe. Here, there was no hiding behind action. The entire scene comprised simply the digital beasts, which had to carry the scene with the weight and emotion of real actors.

In the lumberyard, the wolves have a conversation telepathically. It is here where Jacob, the hero, has a stand-off with the leader, Sam, after Sam orders Jacob to kill Bella and her child. During this confrontation, the other computer-generated wolves watch and react through facial expressions. 
“Balancing the line of a lupine creature while treating these characters as people in wolf forms was one of the most difficult tasks of the movie,” notes Leven. “Treating them as characters, from the director all the way to the animator, is the key; at that point, they can be directed like any other actor in the movie.”

According to Leven, the lumberyard scene was developed and planned for months before it was shot—to the degree that the team created their own temp voice and music tracks. By the time they got to the set, they knew exactly how the scene would play out and how to shoot it. “There was no question on the day of, ‘How are we doing this?’ We were so meticulous with our planning and had the director’s sign-off, the changes in postproduction were minor, and it was just a matter of making the performances work.”

The second scene is entirely different—rather than emotive, it is action-filled.  In this big battle segment, Jacob is joined by two other wolves as they try to protect the Cullens from Sam’s pack. “It was a chance to get down and dirty with the wolves, and it’s the first time they really fight with any of the main characters,” notes Leven. “So it’s almost two sets of good guys battling it out…we weren’t sure who to root for.”