CG Society: Coordinating Another Alien Invasion

CGsociety’s Paul Hellard gets a look in on Cinesite’s work for the Battle: Los Angeles. The film follows a marine platoon that’s battling against an alien invasion. Cinesite’s Ben Shepherd was that facility’s VFX Supervisor, responsible for a tally of 110 shots.

There was also a fair bit of asset swapping between the studios too. « A lot of people, did a lot of work, on a lot of stuff, » says Shepherd.

Cinesite were approached after the director, Jonathan Liebesman, had seen their work on the HBO series ‘Generation Kill’. Their mission was creating masses of military hardware such as helicopters and gunships, as well as the commander alien.

The Cinesite crew were involved in key sequences such as the opening shot of a smouldering Los Angeles, a sequence in which the marines travel from Camp Pendleton to Los Angeles, and the final battle sequence.

Before: LA

Before: LA

Shepherd reminds me of the work he did on ‘Lost in Space’. « There were 30 shots, and they took three months, » he tells me. « Now the pace is more like 300 shots, in three months. » Ben Shepherd has ‘Prisoner’ for TV work behind him. Then came ‘Alien v Predator’, ‘Underdog’, ‘Harry Potter 4’. Alien creatures and screen action is in his blood.

The team at Cinesite also had to create Hovercraft type of vehicles that the aliens migrate back to. There were only a couple of choppers on the actual set. They revived some helicopters from their work on ‘Generation Kill’. « Jon wanted us to use them, updated and upgraded to work with the alien feel and the future military hardware visuals seen on ‘Battle: Los Angeles’. There were a couple of additions to it but pretty much, there were military choppers like CH46s, H10s, Super Cobras, then there were HumVees, Abraham tanks and those sorts of things all over the set, » says Shepherd. « The place was crawling with ‘boy’s toys’. »

The aftermath of a battle on Santa Monica Pier, and the ongoing ground battle with the aliens pushing forward was another sequence Cinesite had their work cut out on. The sequence where the aliens landed served up the giant rings of smoke. This was the way the meteors containing aliens were shown landing at the Santa Monica beach. These were all done with Maya Fluids. « We wrote our own proprietary renderer which solved the problem of gathering the best rate for creating this, » explains Shepherd. « We added extra frequency detail, so we could do a lo-rez render on the initial run, then you break it up on the farms to add more detail. »

There was a mix of foreground real choppers and a bunch of CG helicopters in the background, weaving their way thru the falling meteorites. The devastation on the beaches were created with Massive.

Even though the location appears to be Santa Monica, a lot of work was actually shot just outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. « I’m not sure if it is just Louisiana but they let you blow up, absolutely anything you like. The fireballs and smoke effects can be as big as you want them to be. »

After: LA

After: LA

« The Pyrotechnics guys were having a ball. We were setting explosions up that were so big, they were singeing my eyebrows, » says Shepherd. « One day early on, there was this gigantic, 20 meter wide smoke ring, rising up into the air. We all said if we had to make one of them in CG, no-one would believe it. And it was at that point, the director Jon Liebesman yelled out, ‘Wow, I want it in my movie!’ … We all fell about. »

Like the obelisk in ‘2001’, these smoke rings become the unexplained ‘non-form’ of the aliens. In Battle: LA, there are just ‘smoke rings in the sky’. In the end they are one of the key ‘telling-points’ of the movie.

The Cinesite crew had to create a selection of different infantry aliens from a template created by Hydraulx, and then Cinesite created the commander alien, which was then passed over to Embassy and Hydraulx for further adaption. Later in the film, there is a hovercraft ‘dumb’ platform making an appearance, based on the Embassy work done in Softimage.

Shepherd says that Cinesite is mainly a Maya, Renderman, Nuke and Shake house, using a lot of Massive in features work as well. Many of the figures down on the beach and the airfield were created as both soldiers and civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, all in Massive. Most of the alien vehicles were done by the Embassy Visual Effects house in Softimage.

Los Angeles has had its fair share of destruction in films lately. « The ‘Battle: LA’ was a challenging show but nothing was particularly difficult, » says Shepherd. « There was a sequence later in the film where the soldiers are trying to locate the alien command centre in the sewers. Trudging thru the steaming sewers tunnels, there’s a bit of a fire fight. But the finale is our favourite, where the soldiers call in an airstrike. There is a lot of compression shockwaves elements where the ground around each bomb is replaced with CG ground and everything shatters in a widening circle. »

Obviously proper military advisers were on set. There were a lot war reference. Heavy artillery. Tracer fire. Helicopter miniguns. This stuff is all over YouTube.

Shepherd jokes that even though Cinesite had only 110 shots, it felt like every shot had everything thrown at it. And every shot was different. It was difficult to put together a pipeline because every shot was very individual. « This was great for the artists, because it got them to play and build within it, » says Ben.

The crew at Cinesite for ‘Battle’ was a tight one. « This was a small crack-team, like a commando unit really, » explains Shepherd. « There were a couple of modellers, four animators, lighters, compositors and supervisors, they topped at 36. Split between 3D to 2D. The director wanted us to throw everything at this too. » The crew would be filling the screen with smoke, atmosphere, dust and debris. Liebesman wanted this to be reminiscent of the thick ash in the air seen in ‘Ground Zero’.

« When a project like this begins, you are given a few artists you ask for, for their particular expertise, » explains Shepherd. « One half, you’ve worked with before the other half you haven’t, and there are the usual moves and shifts as we get to know those who are doing the best work. Some are better hard body modellers than others. One guy in particular was responsible for just the alien antennae lookdev and building, » explains Shepherd.

Somewhere in the world there is a ‘crack team’ that goes from projects like ‘Alien v Predator’, to ‘District 9’, from ‘Skyline’ to ‘Battle: LA’, then to the next one. The team brought together for the latest shoot’em up science fiction from space is one such A-team. Enter the crew of ‘Battle: Los Angeles.’

Jon Liebesman didn’t want to go with making this a 3D stereo production. Especially since the budget wasn’t geared up for a stereo creative, the only option would be to convert it after production. « We’re glad to say he wasn’t interested in converting this to 3D, » says Shepherd. « It is so hard to pull keys from loads of smoke, dust and clouds of ash. »

Live action for the production of Battle: LA was just under a year, peaking thru August 2010. There was quite a break between set work and work back in the studio in London.

« There’s one shot where the entire length of the beach is revealed, » Ben describes. « There are 15 or so meteorites falling, with the smoke rings and water splashes. We really threw the kitchen sink at the scene here. » There was a time when Shepherd had to ask another of the supervisors if he was overdoing it. « Tell me, is this awesome or is this just ridiculous, I can’t quite put my finger on it! »

« No, mate, it’s awesome, » was the reply.