While Tarsem Singh delivered a family-friendly interpretation of the Snow White fairy tale with Mirror Mirror, his fellow ex-commercials director Rupert Sanders reworked the story into a dramatic, action-laden piece for the Twilight generation.
Snow White and the Huntsman – which is now out on DVD – casts the titular character as a sword-wielding warrior, and the Queen as a woman with serious issues… here the conversations with her beloved mirror take place only in her mind.
The Mill came on board early in the film’s development, bidding on several shots including those involving the mirror.
According to Hernandez, the concept for this effect was of a reflective surface that melts from its frame and takes the form of a living statue that appears to communicate with the Queen (played by Charlize Theron).
“When the filmmakers came for a tour of the studio we showed them the Naiad water creature we created for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” says Hernandez.
“We were also able to demonstrate our recent R&D for the Sinbad TV show, which included a liquid creature and another composed entirely from salt. I think they were impressed that we were able to get involved at the early creature design stage, taking the job right from A to Z.”
Hernandez worked with just one FX artist for the first three months of R&D, then, after receiving the first turnover of the backplate, a team of just six people worked on the shots for a further six months.
“I think the clients liked that approach,” says Hernandez. “With a lot of productions there are so many layers, but here they could deal with me directly and get any changes made very quickly.”
A SENSE OF FREEDOM
After shooting live fluids reference footage, the next stage was to start exploring exactly how to build and control a creature that transforms from metallic liquid to a solid form.
“The clients were amazing in terms of the freedom they gave us,” says Hernandez. “We tried a variety of fluid solutions. Then one of the guys tried some tests with Maya nCloth, which gave a very heavy, metallic look. They immediately loved that one.”
Once a first edit of the live footage was passed over, Hernandez was able to see how the camera cuts could aid the Mirror Man’s transition from reflective surface to solid creature, breaking it down into three different stages. In the first, the mirror melts into a cloth-like form and travels across the floor. In the second it rises to take on a human shape. And in the third it’s fully formed and conversing with the queen.
“For the first stage, we had strands of cloth forming on and pushing out from the outer area of the mirror geometry,” explains Hernandez.
“That required a lot of drapes in Maya, and then extra tweaks in Houdini to snap it back against the mirror. His second form was by far the trickiest: we created a human rig that could fit into the sculpt, and animated it backwards from a standing position, to one knee and then onto the floor.
“Then we ran a cloth simulation, using a single massive sheet and some custom tools to get it falling smoothly and snapping to the sculpt. After that we animated the guy and cloth descending. We then had to develop further tools to make the transition from simple cloth form into something more liquid. It was pretty horrible, basically!”
For the final part of the sequence, the team was charged with creating a candle-like effect on the Mirror Man. “They wanted liquid flowing across his body,” says Hernandez.
“In the end that effect was dropped completely, and instead we simply went with a draping base and a fully rigged and animated top section. The tricky bit was that the character’s movement had to be very subtle, and as any animator knows that’s actually very difficult!”
The fact that the Mirror Man doesn’t visibly speak meant that complex facial animation wasn’t required, but it also meant that conveying the sense he was living, breathing and communicating was somewhat challenging. The Mirror Man’s speech was broken down into phonetics and used to time appropriate body movements – though even this was limited by the fact that the character’s arms are folded throughout.
“Everything was keyframed in Maya, and then on top of that we added some cloth simulation, just to give some animation to the neck creases,” says Hernandez. “Again it had to be really subtle, so we only added around 10 per cent of the sim onto the mesh.”
The renderer of choice for the project was mental ray, with multiple passes rendered to allow full control in compositing.
“We had four different layers of reflections – super sharp, 50 per cent glossy, 75 per cent glossy, and 90 per cent glossy – and then passes including diffuse, ambient, direct lighting, indirect, direct and indirect specular, normals, Fresnel, UV… there were a lot of utility passes.”
Hernandez says that the biggest challenge lay in the need to artistically control the reflections on the creature.
“They wanted Charlize [Theron] to be reflected, yet still look pretty and have her performance easily visible.”
Although he admits that the months spent on such a technically and artistically demanding project weren’t always easy, Hernandez is proud to have worked on a sequence that puts a new spin on a scene familiar the world over.
“What’s great is that there was real purpose to the effects work in the sequence. It’s such an iconic moment in the Snow White story… the iconic moment, really. It felt like a massive privilege to work on it.”
The Mill team helped develop an on-set prop utilising a RED camera fitted with a short lens, for the capture of Charlize Theron’s performance.
“I also did a set survey using the Sphereon [a 360-degree, high dynamic range camera system], which gave us a 12K HDRI of the whole environment,” says Nicolas Hernandez.
“Then I reconstructed the set, mapping the HDRI in, and recreating every light source including the main fire and candles. That gave us a primary 3D reflection for the Mirror Man that was physically correct. Then for Charlize, we faked it with a 2D reflection placed onto a card in Nuke, which was reprojected with lens distortion. If you look into a reflective cylinder you end up looking like an elongated pin, so doing it correctly in 3D would have been impossible.”
“Metal is never perfect – it always has smudges, smears and scratches on it – so when the Mirror Man is in liquid form we added all these elements procedurally. We then worked with a lot of handpainted noise, scratching and dirt, creating them as 16K textures in Mari. It’s when you multiply that with the other layers that you get a photoreal appearance.”
Title: Snow White and the Huntsman Released: UK 1 October; US 11 September Formats: Blu-ray/DVD Distributor: Universal Pictures UK (UK), Universal (US) Watch out for… The way the Mirror Man slowly rises from the floor, and the subtle breathing and body movements as he speaks to the Queen