Saturday, 5 August 2017

Alien Covenant Secrets Revealed

I saw the original "Alien" movie by Ridley Scott when I was just 12 years old - far too young really (I was terrified) - but since then I've always been fascinated by this most stylish of horror film franchises.

Framestore VFX Supervisor Stuart Penn (AvatarThe Dark KnightIron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy.) is about the same age as I am, and clearly could not resist the chance to work on Scott's latest instalment - Alien Covenant.

Penn gave an excellent talk about his work on the film at Escape Studios last thursday - a fascinating insight into how the movie got put together.
So, what were the secrets behind this most coveted of VFX roles - working for one of the greatest living film directors on the latest Alien movie?

Stuart Penn

What's happening at Framestore?
Tons of projects. Framestore are super busy, part of the recent boom in VFX work in London that shows no sign of stopping. Framestore are working on some of the biggest VFX projects in the world, with many new films and projects in the pipeline.

Alien Covenant - dividing the work
On "Alien Covenant", as on many film projects, the work was divided between a number of vendors, in this case between Framestore and MPC, with Framestore doing the work both in London and in Montreal. Montreal did the spacework - The Covenant colonisation vessel - and the chest bursters, London did the set extensions and face huggers - a total of around 80 shots.

The Covenant
The Covenant
The model for the Covenant was insanely complex - 3 billion polygons - and impossible to load up in one go. Of course, no-one can work with this level of detail; the model has to be loaded up in sections, or using low poly proxy models for animators to work with.

The Animation Challenge
The challenge for the two London unit animators assigned to the project was to animate monsters that aren't clearly seen. Not chance here for character development and personality, rather the animators executed quick shots of terrifying creatures, moving rapidly - and often dimly lit.

Spacesuits - the "EcoSuit"
The spacesuits started out as real on-set physical suits worn by real actors, filmed against a black background (no green screen here), all shot on a sound stage in Sydney Australia. The actors moved around on giant cranes, to simulate weightlessness.  But, in the end, the live action suits were all replaced digitally - only the face of the actors remained. It was easier in the end to replace the whole suit rather than digitally remove the pole arm and patch the remainder.

Lots of previz work was done in advance, especially the spacewalk shots, to figure out how to block out the sequence.

The Chestbursters began as physical models on set, so that the editorial dept can get started editing the movie, and develop their rough cut, even though the physical models would all be replaced.

Having a physical model also really helped to get the lighting right, and make sure the actors have their sight lines right - looking in the correct direction and making proper eye contact with the digital effects. 

The 3D digital model - which is what you see in the final shots - was built from the bones up, including organs and muscles, with translucent skin. The animators had to do motion studies to see how it would move, and breathe.  And, of course, they had to animate the creatures bursting from chest cavities - bringing to life the "violent, disgusting, and painful" nature of these scenes.

Hall of Heads
Framestore also did the "Hall of Heads", inside the "cathedral". The Sydney live action set did include some of these heads as real objects, with Framestore doing the set extensions digitally, using Lidar scans.

a Facehugger at work
This was Stuart's "favourite part". Again the team, began work with a real prop; a physical puppet which the actors could interact with.

Often the crew would shoot two plates: one with the puppet, one without, giving the VFX team the option to use either plate, depending on what was most useful.

The puppet could even walk across the floor of the set to help figure out the motion. Later, the animators did CG walk cycles, and tried some character development - how might the creature move? But in the end, most of the work was shot-specific, reflecting the fast nature of the cutting and the speed of the creatures' motion.

Again, Framestore built a complex skeleton, with a muscle system, skin and full anatomical detail, to make the animation feel as convincing as possible.

It was a real pleasure to hear Stuart talk to students about the film. Many of them got to chat with him personally with him after the talk over beer and pizza, and even exchange business cards. One of the great things about events like this is the access students get to senior figures in our industry - a rare chance to network and get your work noticed.

To find out more about Animation Apprentice, click here for a link to Frequently Asked Questions. To sign up for our September classroom at Animation Apprentice, follow this link.

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