Friday, 4 August 2017

Stuart Penn Reveals Alien Secrets

Last night I was privileged to attend a talk in London 
by VFX Supervisor Stuart Penn, talking about his extraordinary visual effects work for Framestore, one of London's leading visual effects houses, and now a global company with locations in Canada and elsewhere.

Stuart, whose VFX work includes Avatar, The Dark Knight, Iron Man 3 Guardians of the Galaxy, was talking about his recent work as VFX supervisor on Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.
So, what were the secrets behind this most coveted of VFX roles - working for one of the greatest living film directors on this legendary film franchise?

Stuart Penn
Animation students at Bucks know how lucky they are to be studying within easy access of London and the growing animation and VFX industry. The talk last night was hosted by Escape Studios in Shepherd's Bush and, like many of their talks, was completely free for students and guests.

Framestore Pipeline
London is very busy right now - the industry is growing and thriving. Framestore in particlaur is busy with many projects. Framestore are working on some of the biggest VFX projects in the world, with many new films and projects in the pipeline.

Alien Covenant - dividing the work
On "Alien Covenant", as on many film projects, the work was divided between a number of vendors, in this case between Framestore and MPC, with Framestore doing the work both in London and in Montreal. Montreal did the spacework - The Covenant colonisation vessel - and the chest bursters, London did the set extensions and face huggers - a total of around 80 shots.

The Covenant
The Covenant
The model for the Covenant was insanely complex - 3 billion polygons - and impossible to load up in one go. Of course, no-one can work with this level of detail; the model has to be loaded up in sections, or using low poly proxy models for animators to work with.

The Animation Challenge
The challenge for the two London unit animators assigned to the project was to animate monsters that aren't clearly seen. Not chance here for character development and personality, rather the animators executed quick shots of terrifying creatures, moving rapidly - and often dimly lit.

Spacesuits - the "EcoSuit"
The spacesuits started out as real on-set physical suits worn by real actors, filmed against a black background (no green screen here), all shot on a sound stage in Sydney Australia. The actors moved around on giant cranes, to simulate weightlessness.  But, in the end, the live action suits were all replaced digitally - only the face of the actors remained. It was easier in the end to replace the whole suit rather than digitally remove the pole arm and patch the remainder.

Lots of previz work was done in advance, especially the spacewalk shots, to figure out how to block out the sequence.

The Chestbursters began as physical models on set, so that the editorial dept can get started editing the movie, and develop their rough cut, even though the physical models would all be replaced.

Having a physical model also really helped to get the lighting right, and make sure the actors have their sight lines right - looking in the correct direction and making proper eye contact with the digital effects. 

The 3D digital model - which is what you see in the final shots - was built from the bones up, including organs and muscles, with translucent skin. The animators had to do motion studies to see how it would move, and breathe.  And, of course, they had to animate the creatures bursting from chest cavities - bringing to life the "violent, disgusting, and painful" nature of these scenes.

Hall of Heads
Framestore also did the "Hall of Heads", inside the "cathedral". The Sydney live action set did include some of these heads as real objects, with Framestore doing the set extensions digitally, using Lidar scans.

a Facehugger at work
This was Stuart's "favourite part". Again the team, began work with a real prop; a physical puppet which the actors could interact with.

Often the crew would shoot two plates: one with the puppet, one without, giving the VFX team the option to use either plate, depending on what was most useful.

The puppet could even walk across the floor of the set to help figure out the motion. Later, the animators did CG walk cycles, and tried some character development - how might the creature move? But in the end, most of the work was shot-specific, reflecting the fast nature of the cutting and the speed of the creatures' motion.

Again, Framestore built a complex skeleton, with a muscle system, skin and full anatomical detail, to make the animation feel as convincing as possible.

It was a real pleasure hearing Stuart talk - a meaningful insight into the work of a major VFX house. Many of the students there to chat personally with him after the talk over beer and pizza, and even exchange business cards. One of the great things about events like this is the access students get to senior figures in our industry - a rare chance to network and get your work noticed.

For more on the experience of studying at Bucks New University, come and visit us at one of our Open Days, take a virtual tour of one of our animation studios, check out what our students think of our course, and see why we're ranked in the top 12 creative universities in the UK.

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