Friday, 8 May 2009

Watson's Universal Robots [Interview: Christopher Watson]

Christopher Watson was the Effects Supervisor for Eyeborgs – he was responsible for the robot concepts and designs and for producing almost all the CGI content of the movie. He kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the making of Eyeborgs. You can see more examples of Christopher’s work on the Pixellex Studios website.

How did you first get involved in Eyeborgs?

Several years ago, in 2005, I was in my final semester as an undergraduate filmmaking student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. I had benefitted from putting myself through a veritable VFX boot camp while there, creating occasional effects for my fellow film students' short projects, and Richard, a cinematography faculty member at the time, approached me about the idea of working on a small, low-budget sci-fi film filled with killer robots. I couldn't pass the opportunity up, and I've since been involved in developing the first feasibility tests, creating the look of the cg characters, and ultimately producing the visual effects for the final film.

Which 3D software packages did you use for this project?

Pixellex Studio utilized Autodesk Maya, Adobe After Effects, Photoshop, AnderssonTech SynthEyes, Imagineer Systems Mocha and Motor, and Apple Final Cut Pro.

Taking an example effect shot such as the Eyeborg walking along a rooftop, how do you get from storyboard to finished shot?

For most of the larger action sequences, storyboards were used, but in that instance, the shot only warranted a place on the day's shot list. During production, photographs of the lighting scheme (in this case, the direction of the sun), photos of environmental features, and measurements of the live action plate elements are taken. The shot is matchmoved and then laid out in 3d and the robot animation is blocked out and polished. The shot is lit and any texture maps for the plate elements and/or reflection maps are applied. The shot is rendered in several passes for reflections, shadow, occlusion, etc. The shot plate and renders are composited together and any rotoscoping of the robot's interaction with the background plate is executed. The final shot is rendered out and complete.

There's a commonly held belief outside the industry that thanks to CGI there's no longer a limit to what you can show in a film, although I think that underestimates the amount of planning that needs to go into an effect shot. Was there anything you wanted to do in Eyeborgs that proved out of reach?

I can only hope that we did justice to the realism and believability of the more ambitious shots, but for the most part there were very few VFX ideas in Eyeborgs that did not make it to the final film. One shot in particular that we were working on did not make it in. It was a rather intensive shot in Ronni's apartment when the bagged and battered LB lands after being thrown and wriggles inside the cloth, ultimately cutting itself out. We completed the animation and worked with the cloth simulation of the shot for what amounted to two weeks of production time, but ultimately scrapped it for reasons of time. It would have been a great comic addition to the scene and it was an unfortunate cut, but necessary.

There's an example on the Pixellex website of adding a car into the background of a scene from another movie - the kind of subtle effect that most viewers would never identify as CGI. Apart from the Eyeborgs themselves, what else is CGI used for in Eyeborgs?

We had the opportunity to add the window and framing in the alleyway scene when Jarrett is confronted by the SPYder. Another SPYder tosses several CG chairs during the Millennium Center shootout. Additionally, there were a multitude of stunts performed during production and many of them required wire removal. As an example, almost every shot involving Sankur's fall at the DHS headquarters falls into that category. The actor and stuntman, Dale Girard, was on a three cable pulley system suspended from a rather large rig assmbly anchored to the top floor balcony. The cables and rig all had to be painted out to produce the illusion of Sankur thrown from the elevator lobby over the railing and the ultimate fall to the atrium floor.

One theme developed through this movie was the trust people placed in CCTV images that were being manipulated. Given your own knowledge of image manipulation, do you think we should be worrying about this yet?

We're primed to pay attention to manipulated images when watching movies, but I would suggest that it's a consideration when watching anything on television, and today unfortunately that should include reports from reputable news organizations. That should make the conspiracy theorists happy.

Are there any plans to develop Eyeborgs into a game?

I think Eyeborgs would translate into a great videogame and I'd love to be involved if one is eventually produced.
With thanks to Christopher Watson, Pixellex and Crimson Wolf Productions. Related links: Quiet Earth's review of Eyeborgs here, my review here.

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