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Stephen Rosenbaum VFX Supervisor, Cinesite, on X-2

Monday, June 2nd, 2003 | Article by Tulay Tetiker

CGC: Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

SR: I have a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. I studied computer graphics. I was hired in 1988 by ILM in the very early days of the newly reformed Computer Graphics Department (after George Lucas sold the previous department assets to Steve Jobs, which became Pixar). I worked on The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park as a Technical Director. I won an Academy Award and a BAFTA for the work on Forrest Gump. In 1996 I followed my mentor Ken Ralston to Sony Imageworks where I was one of the VFX Supervisors on Contact. I also did some other shows there like Snow Falling On Cedars. A few years later I returned to ILM and was one of the VFX Sups on The Perfect Storm. I then went freelance and was hired by Cinesite to supervise X-Men 2.

CGC: What is your current project?

SR: I currently spend my days endlessly nurturing my vegetable garden. It is the necessary therapy required after a large and complicated show such as X2. I am in talks with a couple different projects at the moment; however, I can’t reveal what they are yet.

CGC: I heard Cinesite L.A. will shut down after finishing X2 – could you tell us a little bit about the future of Cinesite L.A.?

SR: Cinesite L.A. is shutting down the Visual Effects arm of its business. It will continue to offer Scanning, Film Recording, Mastering, and Restoration services. Cinesite London, however, is actually growing its Visual Effects group and is currently working on Harry Potter and other projects.

CGC: How many VFX-Shots did Cinesite produce for X2?

SR: Cinesite completed roughly 300 shots over a 6-month post-production schedule. The vast majority of the work involved complex 3D shots, much of which was highly abstract in concept.

CGC: How did you work together with Michael Fink, in regards to workflow?

SR: Taking into account the unusually short schedule, one main reason our work got done and looked as good as it does was because Mike and I had a very tight, collaborative relationship. He’s very smart, has a keen eye, and has a strong vision, yet he would allow me creative freedom to expand on his ideas. Typically, Mike would discuss an Effects concept with me. I would then sit down with my art director, Lubo Hristov, and we would generate a variety of illustrations that graphically represented these ideas. I would show them to Mike and then we would start talking and discussing what we liked and didn’t like. It was nice because we usually had similar ideas, or if not I could easily understand where and why Mike wanted to go a certain direction. Because I had a good sense of what Mike liked, I could direct my crew daily during shot production and progressively present the work to him as it evolved.

CGC: Was Michael Fink your primary contact or did you also talk to the director directly?

SR: Mike was my primary contact. Once he was happy with how the work was developing, he would ask me to bring it over and present it to Bryan Singer. Typically, Mike and I would engage Bryan as a team and we would lay out what we liked about the work at that point, and what still needed help.

CGC: How many people worked on X2 (please name also the different departments)

SR: I had approximately 90 artists on my crew. I had Digital Effects Supervisors, CG Supervisors, Illustrators, Technical Directors, Compositors, Animators, Modellers, Painters, Rotoscopers, and Match-Movers. In addition to the artists, I had roughly 50 more support people that consisted of Editors, Software Developers, Scanning and Film Recording, Systems Support, and of course my invaluable production staff.

CGC: What Software/Hardware did you use?

SR: We ran most of our software off of Linux and Unix. We had about 6 terabytes of file servers and a dedicated renderfarm. We also ran jobs from artist’s local machines. The Art Department worked on Macs using primarily PhotoShop 7.

CGC: Why was Houdini your first choice for 3D?

SR: I would say about half of our work used Houdini and the other half Maya. A lot of the shots involved effects animation – fire, smoke, ice vapour, light beams, etc. – and we found that Houdini is a little better at doing these sorts of effects.

CGC: Any proprietary tools? What was so special about those tools?

SR: We made great use of our proprietary particle system generator. It allowed us to create millions of particles for Nighcrawler’s “Bamf” effect in reasonable render times. This gave us the high quality smoky detail required. Cerebro also made use of this program as well as another proprietary program that generated volumetric beams of light. We also used in-house water simulation code for the lake shot at the end of the movie.

CGC: Who came up with the visual styles of characters like Nightcrawler or Kitty. How much influence did you have on the final look of the characters?

SR: Once Mike described the concept to me, I designed the visual style and action of each character’s effect. This included Nightcrawler, Pyro, Cyclops, Bobby Drake (Iceman), Rogue, Jean Grey/Phoenix, and Cerebro. What you see in the movie represents most of my original designs with Mike’s finishing touches on them.

CGC: Nightcrawler appears and disappears more than 40 times in the opening sequence. How did you achieve this look? What was challenging about the teleport scene?

SR: Nightcrawler involved developing the look of how he disappears and reappears, known in the comic books as a “Bamf”. We broke it down to 3 steps. First, his image transitions into smoke, streaming outwards. Then the smoke is drawn violently inwards to multiple points within the volume of smoke that was his body. The effect completes with a quick burst of residual blue smoke (the color of his skin) that lingers in the air. This effect was both creatively and technically challenging because it had to look more visually interesting than just a puff of smoke, yet it had to happen within 5-7 frames (1/4 second).

CGC: Could you tell us a little bit more technical details about Dynamic Smoke? How did you come up with that idea?

SR: We started by matchmoving a 3D model of Nightcrawler to his action in the photographed plate. We could then texture map his image onto the model and birth particles within the body volume and off the surface. The smoke that blasts outwards and hangs in the air after he disappears is particles run through a custom fluid simulation. The concept Mike originally described required residual smoke after Nighcrawler Bamf’d. He wanted something other than just ordinary thin smoke floating in air. We came up with a technique to make the smoke swirl in the wake local to each part of his body’s motion. So, if you see his arm move one way and his leg move another, smoke will trail in the respective direction of that appendage.

CGC: How about the tail, is it CG all the time?

SR: Most of the shots in which you see Nightcrawler’s tail are CG. I tried to shoot using a practical rubber tail when it was a short or tight shot. Sometimes, however, this tail would smack Nightcrawler in the face when performing a stunt and we would have to go with a CG tail. Of course, when the tail needed to perform some specific action, we would have to make it CG, as well.

CGC: When Nightcrawler crawls up the ceiling was this effect achieved by wires or was it a cg ceiling?

SR: Most of the shots where you see Nightcrawler crawling up walls or ceilings were performed with a stuntman on a wire rig. The ceilings often only partially existed or were not there at all in order to accommodate the wires extending down to him. We digitally patched or created entirely new ceilings.

CGC: Anything challenging about Nightcrawler?

SR: Creatively, we really stressed-out about the look of the Bamf. It is somewhat of an abstract effect and could have been designed 100 different ways. Given the number of frames to perform the action, we knew it couldn’t be overly complicated; yet, we wanted it to have a lot of visual punch each time you saw it. We did a lot of R&D before focusing in on something that looked cool and was technically achievable.

CGC: One effect which strike me most was when the girl Kitty fell through the bed and the ceiling how did you do that?

SR: Kitty was designed to “phase” through objects by having parts of the surface she is about to make contact with reach out toward her body. When you see her drop through the ceiling, it appears as if the ceiling is wrapping and stretching with her body positions. The original photography had Kitty on wires falling through a hole cut in the ceiling. We patched the hole by painting a new ceiling piece and then rotoscoped Kitty to hold her in front of it. We also painted-out the wires and sped-up her landing on the ground (It was a little slow because she was on wires). Since the actual effect only lasts 5-6 frames, I had our art department illustrators paint the ceiling frame-by-frame to conform and stretch to her body position. Shadow and shape detail in the paintings were key to making it look believable.

CGC: Regarding Cerebro: you used the same proprietary, volumetric software tool used for the “bamf” effect – for which scenes? Could you tell us a little bit about the “Tetrads” and “Map Beams”?

SR:When Cerebro is operating, we needed to add atmosphere to the environment in order to give it scale. Various high-resolution smoke elements were created using the same proprietary particle system software as the Bamf. Also, I wanted a way to subtly indicate the connection of the lights on the map to the people flying around the environment. We created volumetric beam elements (Tetrads), because the camera flies through them and they needed to maintain resolution despite their proximity to the lens.

CGC: RE “Iceman”: how did you achieve the freezing-effect, I mean especially the scene where he builds up this wall of ice in the school.

SR: The first thing we did was collect time-lapse photography of ice forming and examine it. Using the background photography, I had our art department draw still-frame variations of the ice progressively growing between Logan and Strycker. Once the desired look was approved, we broke the effect into 3 stages of ice development. The first stage looked crystalline with long spikes of ice. The second looked like a thin sheet of water freezing over the ice spikes. The third looked like the ice was solidifying into a thick block. This affect was achieved entirely as a Renderman shader.

Related Links:

www.cinesite.com
A few films Stephen Rosenbaum worked on:

2003 X-Men 2 – Visual Effects Supervisor
2002 MATRIX 2: RELOADED – Visual Effects Consultant
2002 MATRIX 3: REVOLUTIONS – Visual Effects Consultant
2001 K-19: The Widowmaker – Visual Effects Consultant
2001 BIG TROUBLE – Visual Effects Supervisor
2000 PAY IT FORWARD – Visual Effects Supervisor
2000 THE PERFECT STORM – Visual Effects Supervisor
1999 SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS – Visual Effects Supervisor
1997 CONTACT - Visual Effects Supervisor
1997 THE POSTMAN – Visual Effects Supervisor
1996 MICHAEL – Visual Effects Supervisor
1995 STAR WARS: EPISODE IV SPECIAL EDITION - Senior Technical Director
1995 DREAMWORKS SKG (Logo) – Senior Computer Graphics Supervisor
1995 THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD - Senior Computer Graphics Supervisor
1994 DISCLOSURE - Senior Technical Director
1994 FORREST GUMP – Computer Graphics Supervisor
1993 JURASSIC PARK – Senior Technical Director
1992 GENERAL CINEMA (Trailer) – Senior Technical Director
1992 DEATH BECOMES HER - Technical Director
1992 MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN - Technical Director
1991 TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY - Technical Director
1990 THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER - Technical Director
1989 DIE HARD II - Technical Director
1989 BACK TO THE FUTURE, PART II – Technical Director
1989 THE ABYSS – Assistant Technical Director

Related Links

Cinesite

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