The Moving Picture Company, Framestore and Method Studios employ new techniques and state-of-the-art technology to create fierce creatures, animated environments and a fiery monster for Wrath of the Titans. Barbara Robertson meets the artists behind the effects
Set 10 years after Clash of the Titans, the sequel Wrath of the Titans finds Hades (god of the underworld) and Ares (god of war) teaming up to sap Zeus’s life force, release the imprisoned Titan leader Kronos, achieve immortality, and rule the world.
Can demigod Perseus, now a simple fisherman, rescue his father from the Tartarus prison, and save the world? Not if a two-headed, fire-breathing creature, a family of giant Cyclops, an army of insanely vicious Makhai warriors, and a 1,200-foot-tall pyroclastic monster can stop him.
Critics hated it. The aggregate review site Rotten Tomatoes tallied a low 25 per cent approval rating from the reviewers. But they slammed Clash, too, and it scored $492 million at the box office. And of the 20,000 plus Rotten Tomatoes users who rated Wrath, 70 per cent liked it.
Audiences love spectacle, and when visual effects artists have fun creating spectacle, it shows on screen.
“I got into visual effects to do big monster effects like this,” says Anders Langlands, CG supervisor at The Moving Picture Company (MPC). “A fire-breathing Chimera? A 1,200 foot-tall volcano dude? That’s what excites me about the work we do and the films we work on.”
Three leading Soho-based houses worked on The Wrath of the Titans
Three Soho-based studios provided the majority of those effects. MPC’s crew of around 350 in London and in India, led by Gary Brozenich, handled an opening dream sequence and two action sequences, one with the Chimera, and the other the climactic battle with the Makhai army and the pyroclastic Kronos.
At Framestore, visual effects supervisor Jonathan Fawkner’s team of 110 artists created two back-to-back action sequences that began with the Cyclops and carried on through a complicated digital labyrinth.
Method Studios’ 100 artists working in London and Los Angeles, and supervised by Olivier Dumont, established Kronos and the underworld. Heading up the visual effects effort was Nick Davis, who has received an Oscar nomination (The Dark Knight) and four Bafta nominations, and who had supervised visual effects for Clash.
All the studios used a combination of Maya for modelling and effects, Houdini for effects, and Nuke for compositing, and each of the studios developed new techniques for creating the effects.
Most of the work centred on character animation – in this film, even the environments are characters.
When Hades and Ares betray Zeus and lock him in Tartarus to feed his power into Kronos, the walls of Tartarus break and the monsters are free.
According the Geek mythology, the Chimera is a monstrous fire-breathing female creature composed of the parts of three animals: a lion, a serpent and a goat... the goat would have been great!
The first one we meet is Chimera, a two-headed monstrous creature that attacks Perseus’s village. One head breathes a flammable vapour; the other breathes fire.
“We knew straight away that we needed to plan these shots,” Brozenich says. “We had a rhinoceros sized, two-headed creature running through a tight set piece with narrow corridors representing an ancient Greek fishing village.”
Hauling a big stuffed animal with the muscle mass of a rhinoceros across a large distance to show scale and how much space to keep clear was impractical. So, for close-ups, Sam Worthington (Perseus) rehearsed with a hand-operated head rig that was built by the special effects department, and then interacted with a green head or stunt actor in a green suit during filming. Otherwise, the crew relied on a carefully plotted map that designated which people attacked by the Chimera would be stunt actors, and which would be CG digidoubles.
“The Chimera wreaks havoc through this fishing village, gnawing on people, picking them up, throwing them around,” says animation supervisor Greg Fisher. “It’s a great action sequence, the kind of fast‑paced action animators love to do.”
Animators based the Chimera’s performance on that of a lion, but gave each head its own personality. The heads work together, but the goat head, which spewed vapour, was twitchy and nervous. The lion head was catlike. “We considered having the heads on top of each other, but eventually we decided to have them parallel,” Fisher says.
Once the animators had created the performance, a second rig bolted onto the animation rig added muscles, skin sliding, jiggle, and other secondary animation. “We have a tech anim department that fine tunes all the wobbles and muscle fires, taking the keyframe animation to the next level,” Fisher says. The studio’s Furtility tool helped the crew give the creature its coat.
Framestore moved straight from Dobby and Kreacher for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I to creating the Cyclops for Wrath of the Titans. “We took those tools, [and] polished and improved them,” says Mark Wilson, CG supervisor.
“We see the Cyclops’ anatomy, so we had to make sure our sculpts were anatomically correct. We knew we had to work on muscle simulations, skin sliding, wrinkling, and high‑resolution skin deformation.”
The studio’s character tool chest includes Maya as the main tool, Mudbox and ZBrush for sculpting, Mari for painting, and RenderMan 16 for rendering.
“RenderMan 16 was a breakthrough,” Wilson says. “We could fully ray trace all of the Cyclops, do a single pass render, and have things looking good in our first pass.”
Maya’s nCloth solver drove muscle simulation, and in-house tools slid the skin. Custom RenderMan shaders used muscle tension information applied by animators to trigger wrinkles and dynamic displacement maps for extra detail. “We had about 100 displacement maps for the Cyclops,” Wilson says.
Framestore artists created 100 displacement maps to help texture the Cyclops, shown here with Perseus (Sam Worthington)
Before the live-action shoot, the crew experimented with motion capture using an in-house capture volume. “We tried capturing a normal person and scaling him to 30 feet tall,” Wilson says. “We put weights around his ankle to give him more weight.”
For the actual capture session, they hired Martin Bayfield, a seven-foot-tall former rugby player. “He was the biggest person we could find,” Wilson says.
The live-action crew shot the sequence with a pre-viz created at MPC in mind. Then, using the live action footage, MPC had Bayfield perform a final motion capture at Shepperton Studios.
As he ran, the crew could see their CG Cyclops moving through the live-action forest and direct Bayfield’s actions accordingly. They processed the data using IKinema and handed it to the animators.
“The most difficult part was the facial animation,” says animation supervisor Paul Chung. “We had one eyebrow.” The animation team decided that when the character faces screen right, they’d pretend that eye is the left eye, and vice versa. Then, because an eye sitting on top of a nose doesn’t have any cheek fat to push up the lower lid, they had modellers add fat on top of the nose.
“The Cyclops needed to show pain, fear, relief and anxiety,” Chung says. “But anger was the main thing.”
Inside the labyrinth
Once Perseus stands the Cyclops down, the creatures lead him, Queen Andromeda, and Agenor to Hephaestus, the weapon-maker. Hephaestus takes them to the door of the labyrinth, which leads to hundreds of doors in cylinders that go on forever. Although there were sets for close-up shots and small corridors, the crew more often filmed actors on greenscreen stages.
To build the labyrinth, modellers created cubes that the technical directors stretched into various shapes, duplicated, and then stacked to create individual doorways. For textures, they used photographs of Stonehenge and other large expanses of rock, and then chipped at the blocks procedurally using Houdini until their stonework looked like that on set. The final model had 30,000 doorways.
“[The labyrinth] was so big, we had to instance our geometry, which made working with it hard because there was no way to visualise it until we rendered it,” Fawkner says.
“Proxies were even too hard to handle, so we instanced everything into little place holders. And, of course, it had to be animated as well.”
Although the studio used RenderMan 16 to render Cyclops, they chose Arnold to render the labyrinth. “It was 78 stories high and on the move all the time,” Fawkner says. “Arnold really chewed through the geometry. And as soon as we put lights in, we got volumetric lighting, as well.”
Fawkner body tracked footage of all the actors filmed on the greenscreen stage and created matching CG stand-ins for lighting. “It’s expensive to do all that body tracking, but it made such a difference,” he says.
“Initially I wanted the CG dummies just for casting shadows, but when I used them for lighting reference, they came into their own. Because all the lighting was physical, we could introduce bounces, lights, and other stuff that made sense for the photography. We could light the environment until the CG dummies looked like the plate photography.”
Kronos in Tartarus
Method Studios created the underworld prison environment in which Kronos is trapped, and the pyroclastic monster himself until he completely breaks free and moves above ground; MPC takes over at that point.
In Method’s first sequence, during which Hades and Ares trap Zeus, Kronos is a sleeping piece of rock. In the second sequence, he grows bigger and lava flows from him as he sucks power from Zeus. In the third, he breaks away from the mountain while Perseus tries to free Zeus. Because the monster is 1,200 to 1,500 feet tall, the crew used laser pointers to show actors working on greenscreen stages in Shepperton Studios where to look.
To build the model, Method received a low-res sculpt from MPC to use as a starting point, and then added details using ZBrush. “A big element of our work was creating the lava,” Dumont says. “We needed to work in different scales. Lava coming out of an arm looks different from volcanic eruptions. We used a mixture of simulation and sculpting to get nice shapes and textures.”
The artists ran simulations in Houdini, setting parameters to create various forms, from liquid to cool states. “When you run a simulation, you get a point cloud moving along, so you can use that velocity to move a sculpt,” Dumont says. “We’d sculpt the lava, texture it, and then let it move with the flow.
We simulated just enough points to get a realistic move. It worked because the shots weren’t too long, and lava stretches, anyway. But, when the deformation was too stretchy, we’d switch to another sculpt. To have simulated all the details we got with sculpts and textures would have required so much power.”
When the modellers at Method built Kronos, the creature was supposed to stay locked to the mountain. That changed when the director wanted the sequence when Perseus arrives to have more tension.
“We had to rethink everything,” Dumont says. They ended up adding an external body driven by a rig made of connected solid pieces that moved and crushed each other, but didn’t penetrate. Tools built in Houdini cracked the parts of the mountain that collapsed when Kronos emerged and reduced them to dust. Compositors working in Nuke added 2D elements as place markers for embers, smoke and fire. Once Davis approved the shots, CG artists created the 3D effects as needed.
Meanwhile, an army of eight-foot-tall, two-headed, six-armed Makhai created at MPC attacks the human army that will try to hold Kronos at bay. “Picture creatures so intent on killing they have no awareness of self-preservation,” Fisher says.
“We looked at martial arts reference, but it was too refined. We ended up filming ourselves fake fighting, and then we went all in. You have to animate all the body parts from day one or the other components look like add-ons. The Makhai is a complicated character with a complicated rig, and the animation was complicated. The difficult thing was figuring out how to shoot the actors interacting with the Makhai and getting the eyelines correct.”
Fisher rehearsed with the stunt actors, who fought with someone on stilts who usually wore arm extensions.
“It’s really hard, though, to replicate someone getting smacked in the face by an eight-foot-tall creature with arms the size of my torso holding a spear,” Brozenich says.
Zeus and Hades (who’s had a change of mind) combine forces to defeat the Makhai, but Kronos has emerged from the mountain. Perseus rides to the rescue on Pegasus.
“We had a huge amount of CG effects,” Brozenich says. “And we did a lot of element shoots with the special effects guys who exploded big petrol tanks in a quarry. You can’t beat the real thing, but you could never shoot a 1,200-foot-tall pyroclastic element. We’d achieve what we could with effects and integrate the live action elements.”
Compositors led by Jonathan Knight worked hard to give Kronos a sense of scale. “We did the standard things,” he says, “adding haze in the distance, and lots of layers of elements to give a sense of chaos and distance.” A base level of CG pyroclastic smoke covered Kronos. Compositors added 2D elements of dry ice shot in very slow motion to get slow moving, billowing smoke.
“In real-world space, there was about a half mile between his forearm and the back of his head,” Knight says. “So, we might put 30 or 40 layers at different points of depth between the hand and head and backside of him. It was a big collaboration. The CG effects department worked on huge pyroclastic clouds and massive fluid renders, and the 2D department filled in areas with smaller bits of smoke and debris.”
At the end of the film, Perseus… well, the story doesn’t matter all that much, does it? Not if you’re one of those moviegoers who can appreciate spectacle for the art that it is and visual effects for the artistry and hard work required to create them.
Animating The Cyclops
Must heavyweight characters move slowly? Animation supervisor Paul Chung says “no”
“I think it’s a mistake to slow heavy characters down to show their weight,” says Paul Chung, who had supervised animation for several feature films at PDI/DreamWorks before joining Framestore.
“They just land differently. People sometimes think that the motion has to be smooth and slow. Slow looks like slow motion, not real timing. Many obese people move quickly. You have to study how to apply that to the character. It takes longer for a heavy person to get going, but then they can move really fast at a constant speed. And when the character strikes with a big object through the air, that has to be fast.”
“The Cyclops tries to hit Perseus and misses all the time,” he continues. “When he misses in the forest he hits trees. The wrong thing to do is have him move slowly through the forest. The way to show his weight is to have the tree react in the correct manner; to show how the weight transfers from one thing to another. And make sure something on the ground reacts.”