Turning monstrous creatures into characters audiences can empathize with is no easy task. But that’s just what the award-winning visual effects house Image Engine accomplished when they created the aliens for WingNut Films and Sony Pictures Entertainment’s sci-fi thriller “District 9.” Director Neill Blomkamp chose Vancouver-based Image Engine to be the lead visual effects vendor for the film after admiring the complex creatures they created for the horror movie “Slither” and the miniseries “Kingdom Hospital.”
Texture artist Anna Ivanova taught herself how to use MAXON’s BodyPaint 3D to create the intricate blend of dirt, dust, paint and stickers that cover the aliens’ bodies in “District 9.”
Though the bulk of Image Engine’s staff worked on the film from the start, the crew eventually grew to 90 as they hired local and international freelancers to help out on what turned out to be a 13-month project. Digital effects artist Anna Ivanova painted many of the alien creatures’ textures working alongside texture artist Julianna Kolakis. Accustomed to working with Photoshop, Ivanova taught herself how to use BodyPaint 3D for this project so she could more easily paint the complex textures that make up the aliens’ bodies. “Most of the aliens had seams all over their bodies and BodyPaint allowed us to go from one seam to another with a projection brush, which solved a lot of problems,” she explains, adding that she also liked the ease with which she could move back and forth between BodyPaint 3D and Photoshop as she worked.
Stewart agrees that BodyPaint 3D was a necessity when it came to creating the aliens because there were so many different elements involved in the look of the characters. In addition to using shaders to layer the creatures’ bodies with dust and dirt, for example, each alien (there were hundreds in all) was adorned with different variations of paint splotches and stickers. Both the paint and the stickers, which the aliens had peeled off of garbage in the ghetto where they lived, were worn in an attempt to fit in with the humans around them. “They were trying to do what the humans did,” Stewart explains. “The paint seemed [to them] like graffiti and the stickers were tattoos.”
In all, Image Engine created 311 of the 600 visual effects shots included in the well-received film, using a combination of MAXON’s BodyPaint 3D, Autodesk’s Maya, Adobe Photoshop,DNA Research’s 3Delight and The Foundry’s NUKE along with Image Engine’s proprietary code base. In addition to developing the alien mother ship, digital helicopters and digital troop carriers, the bulk of Image Engine’s work involved creating a community of entirely CG aliens who populated part of Soweto, South Africa, called “District 9.”
Two other Vancouver VFX houses, The Embassy and Zoic Studios also contributed visual effects, along with New Zealand’s Weta Digital. “We are simply ecstatic about helping Neill achieve his wildly creative vision on this project,” says Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer. “Neill’s truly original take on the alien myth is guaranteed to leave audiences astounded.”
Walsh and Image Engine C.O.O. & Digital Production Manager, Peter Muyzers, worked closely with Blomkamp during pre-production and work on the film, which is a feature-length adaptation of Blomkamp’s 2005 short film “Alive in Joburg,” officially began in May of 2008 with the building of aliens based on designs by Weta Digital. Image Engine’s Creature Supervisor James Stewart led the development team while Steve Nichols, animation supervisor, directed animation. “Neill used the word insect all the time when he talked about the aliens and that’s what the designs were based on,” Stewart recalls. Over time, though, the faces of the aliens were repeatedly reworked to become even more insect-like. “We used a lot of beetle and grasshopper references to get the color and shells right,” he adds.
Created by Image Engine’s Asset Lead Nigel Denton-Howes, the alien mother ship was modeled in Maya and textured with Photoshop.
Image Engine animated the aliens using a combination of key-frame, rotomation and motion capture technologies.
Eventually, Image Engine’s artists came up with a library of 20 different variations of paint splotches, splatter and stickers that could be used interchangeably on any alien. “We would take the model (which was made in Maya) and paint random brush strokes directly on the bodies and then add at least three of these different texture variations,” says Ivanova who, along with the other artists used National Geographic magazine, as well as images supplied by a Harvard biologist Dr. Piotr Naskrecki, as references for her creations. “We didn’t really want to take liberties with our imaginations for this too much because Neill wanted everything to be based in reality,” says Stewart.
BodyPaint 3D also came in handy for fixing seams that appeared in difficult places, such as the UVs in the aliens’ necks. It also helped artists blend space between the creatures’ shells and soft skin shaders. “We basically did a rough paint from reference textures using BodyPaint’s projection painting and then we brought that into Photoshop for our details before using BodyPaint again to fix seams,” explains Asset Lead Nigel Denton-Howes.
By December, eight months into the project, the team had developed seven different versions of Christopher, the main alien in the film. They thought they had a final product in the mix, but it was at this point that Blomkamp decided the aliens needed to look much more like insects. “We redid everything and came up with a completely new head and face,” says Stewart. Because Christopher was the alien with the most screen time and the character audiences would empathize with most, special care was taken to come up with a face capable of emoting in human ways. “We developed shaders specifically for this alien so we could have dry, dirty, dusty areas, as well as the mucous areas, on his face,” Stewart adds. “The number of alpha channels it took to control things would astonish anybody.” Rendering was done using DNA Research’s 3Delight.
Despite his insect-like features, the emotion on Christopher’s face (the main alien in the film) is clear as he looks out his window in the Soweto slums. “The eyes, I believe, are the most important thing about this character,” says Ivanova, who, along with several other artists, used BodyPaint 3D, Photoshop and Pixologic’s ZBrush to get the look right.
One of the most challenging parts of the project, Stewarts says, involved blending the CG aliens seamlessly with their real-world surroundings.
Because the sun was the main light source in many of the shots in the Soweto ghetto, Image Engine artists used Maya to build a rig in a dome that included about 50 different lights with one main one standing in as the sun.
To animate the aliens, Image Engine used a combination of key-frame, rotomation and motion capture techniques, says Animation Supervisor Steve Nichols. Motion capture work was done by Vancouver-based Animatrik Film Design and it was one of the most challenging aspects of the project. “These aliens were more human than alien, so they needed to be able to move believably like humans, but also have something more going on” Nichols explains. “Animators rotoscoped a grey suited actor and used him as the base action and then added in on top more jerky motions to look more like insects.”
Getting the aliens to blend in seamlessly with the real-life setting of the Soweto ghetto was also hard work, Stewart says. Because the film was meant to look like a documentary, Blomkamp convinced South African officials not to bulldoze the slums, as they had planned to do, before shooting began. Textures had to be just right and compositing became a painstaking process. “It was tough,” Stewart recalls. “It became a collaborative art piece, really.”
Hard-surface CG elements, such as the alien mother ship, helicopters, troop carriers and several different vehicles, were created by Nigel Denton-Howes, Image Engine’s lead asset artist. The mother ship was particularly time consuming, taking months to complete. “It started out as a vertical ship but we ended up making it much wider so it would look more ominous and menacing,” Stewart says.
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at her website