In a breakthrough project, Luma Pictures served as the principal visual effects supplier for The Cave, Lakeshore Entertainment’s horror thriller opening today, delivering more than 200 visual effects shots involving photo-real digital creature and environment effects shots. The project is the largest to date for Luma—and marks an important transition for the studio into photo-real creature projects, previously reserved for the industry’s largest visual effects facilities.
The Cave tells the story of a team of cave explorers who become trapped while investigating an immense subterranean environment in Romania. The explorers encounter a variety of strange creatures that have adapted to life in the cave, including, most notably, a species of giant winged beasts with a particularly nasty disposition. Much of the underground segments in the film were shot on location in Mexico. Other scenes were shot in a giant water tank on a sound stage in Romania. Luma’s role principally centered on two tasks: producing 3D versions of the creatures and creating elaborate set extensions for the film’s underwater environments.
Although the live action sets where quite large, the film’s director wanted to suggest a cave system that was far more extensive than was possible to construct on the selected sound stage. Luma Pictures artists created several large and detailed digital matte paintings and 3D set extensions to accomplish this goal. With the creation of highly articulated, 3D set extensions, the production was able to use the same practical location to serve as several different film environments through changes in lighting and set dressings, thereby reducing filming costs.
“Our 3D sets and matte paintings helped director Bruce Hunt to suggest an immense variety of topography within the cave environment,” explained Shohadai. “There are wet caves and dry caves. Some have ice; others are defined by towering cliffs. Our team spent a lot of time giving each environment a richness of detail that makes them feel real. They also contribute to establishing the intense atmosphere of the film.”
The most challenging part of the project involved the creature effects . While, for some close-ups, an actor in an articulated body suit was used, a large number of the creature effects were done in 3D . Once the director saw the level of detail and realism that Luma was able to achieve with the CG creature model, the decision was made to add VFX shots to showcase the creature even more frequently. The creature was designed by renowned creature specialist Patrick Tatopoulos (I, Robot; Godzilla; Independence Day), who provided Luma with a maquette for use as reference in producing a digital model. Artists also spent considerable time studying real world creatures with similar anatomical features in order to give the digital creature lifelike movement.
“The creature has the ability to fly, to swim, to crawl on floors and to climb walls, and that made it very challenging to animate,” explained Shohadai. “Its body features had to be adapted in order to function naturally for all those movements.”
While in many instances the creature appears as an apparition in the background or otherwise separate from the actors, many shots involved direct interaction with humans—a great challenge for a VFX production. One shot, for example, has the creature fighting with an actor while flying through the air. For that shot, the actor was shot against green screen while dangling from a rig. As a result, Luma artists had to tailor the creature’s struggling movements to match the way the actor was twisting and turning on the rig to make it appear as if the creature was causing the actors movements.
Adding to the challenge was the fact that the lighting on the actor did not match the lighting of the intended background environment footage. Luma overcame that hurdle by creating a digital double for the actor with lighting to match the environment into which he was placed. Artists were then able to apply lighting and shading from the double to the real actor for a seamless blend.
Another shot shows the creature dragging an actor through an underground stream. “The actor was pulled by wire in an underwater environment that had no lights except the head lamp the character uses in the film,” recalled Shohadai. “This resulted in an oddly lit actor against black, which looked somewhat artificial. Resolving that problem required a lengthy compositing process.”
Adding to that challenge was the need to produce shots quickly at a high level of quality. To speed work through the pipeline, Luma software programmers wrote plug-ins to enhance yet simplify file referencing, render submissions and similar tasks, they also created a common GUI to make it easier for artists to use the in house tools. “In addition, we also developed a great project management and tracking application,” noted Shohadai. “It’s more robust than commercial offerings and even the custom built systems available at many larger facilities. We are now able to manage and deliver finished work for a show with the efficiency of a studio two or three times our size.”
Another aspect of the production worthy of note is that it was primarily accomplished on the Apple Macintosh platform. Although, in the past, visual effects houses have shied away from the Mac for large scale film work, the stability of the OS X operating environment and the emergence of Mac versions of high end tools such as Shake are beginning to change minds, according to Shohadai. “Many people have not viewed the Mac as a viable platform for ‘serious’ effects ; but photo-real creatures interacting with actors is about as serious as visual effects get—and the shots look incredible.”
Luma Pictures collaborated with senior technologists from Apple and from several leading software vendors in setting up a production environment capable of handling large scale film projects. The results include some 60 G5 workstations, a large G5 Xserve render farm, G5 Xserve servers and approximately 17 terabytes of storage. After a good deal of advance research, Shohadai noted, “We concluded that Mac OS X was best suited to the way our artists work, and it has turned out great.”
Luma is currently in production as the primary visual effects studio on the much anticipated sequel to Underworld, Underworld: Evolution. “We are raising the bar another few notches on this sequel, with bigger shots, much more creature work, and large, elaborate CG sets,” explained Shohadai. “We focus on doing whatever it takes to exceed the expectations of the production – that is why clients come back to us again and again.”
Additional recent credits for the studio include feature films such as Into the Blue, A Lot Like Love, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Crash. Additionally, Luma recently completed a 6-spot, CG-intensive Nike commercial campaign for Wieden & Kennedy.
For more information, visit: http://www.luma-pictures.com