Visual effects in Logan: Interview with Soho VFX studio
At least nine studios were involved in creating the visual effects for Logan. Some of these worked on the main characters and digital doubles, whereas the rest were responsible for Logan’s claws and wounds. Soho VFX studio in Canada created Pierce's robotic Hand, many CG vehicles in chase sequences, and other significant visual elements of the movie. Berj Bannayan, owner and VFX Supervisor at Soho VFX studio, shared more with RENDERU.COM.
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RENDERU.COM: Could you tell us about yourself briefly? How many years have you been in the CG industry, and what projects have you worked on?
Berj Bannayan: I've been in the visual effects industry since mid 1995, when I started working as a software developer at Side Effects Software. Over the course of a couple of years I would work on some of the tools that would eventually become Houdini. I moved to a visual effects studio in 1997, where I began writing software for use in a number of films, including the first X-Men. In 2002, I left and co-founded Soho VFX with Allan Magled, and we have worked on a variety of feature film projects including The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and now, of course, Logan.
RENDERU.COM: Do you remember the moment that you decided to become a CG artist? What was it that inspired you?
B.B.: I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so seeing Star Wars as a young child was definitely formative for me. Over the years, I thought that I would become a visual effects artist in some way, but in the end I decided that being a software developer was something that I would be best at, and it would allow me to contribute to this industry. Films such as Jurassic Park and Toy Story (which both came out while I was in university) were very inspiring.
RENDERU.COM: Producing Logan was the first time that you’ve worked with production VFX supervisor, Chas Jarrett. How was your collaboration with him?
B.B.: Yes, this was the first time that we had worked with Chas. He was a real pleasure to work with. He has a very technical mind and a great eye for details. He always knew how to get the very best out of each shot.
RENDERU.COM: Which sequences in Logan did you work on?
B.B.: The main sequences we worked on were Plant Escape: the chase with the limo pulling the fence, and onto the chase with the train, and the impact with the train. In that sequence we had CG claws and blood for Logan and Laura, many CG vehicles including the limo, motorcycles, jeeps, and, of course, the train. We worked on Highway Journey: all of the robotic trucks are fully CG, and at the end we removed greenscreen riders from the horses. We also worked on the Eden Battle: we did a number of shots in the final battle sequence, the biggest of which was the fully CG truck (called an MRAP) that Rictor lifts into the air and drops on X-24. We also produced Pierce's Hand: throughout the movie we replaced a greenscreen glove on the actor with a fully digital robotic hand.
RENDERU.COM: What software did you use?
B.B.: Modelling, rigging, animation, and lighting are all done using Maya. Texture painting is done with Mari. Dynamics and simulation work is done with Houdini. Rendering is done with 3delight. For compositing we use Nuke.
RENDERU.COM: What was the most challenging part?
B.B.: The biggest challenge, I think, was that we were creating real objects meant to exist in a real world; Pierce’s hand, all of the vehicles, and all of the dynamic effects were meant to represent a gritty reality that you don't often see in superhero movies. Every department had to really focus, and put effort into creating CG effects that were indistinguishable from reality. From Pierce's hand to all of the smoke, and dust, and blood, to the fleet of CG vehicles (many that we designed and built from scratch), all had to plausibly exist in the real world, and look as real as if they had shot real objects on set.
RENDERU.COM: Could you explain the process of creating the desert escape in the limo sequence?
B.B.: The Plant Escape sequence was an extremely complex undertaking for us. It was a large action sequence in which digital vehicles, characters, dynamics, and set pieces had to seamlessly cut with their real counterparts from shot to shot. The first task was for us to build the various vehicles: the Limo, Reaver trucks, and motorcycles, as well as the train itself (the train being the largest and most complex). Production supplied some concepts for how they wanted the robotic train engine to look, and then we began a long process of designing, building, and texturing the engines as well as a variety of freight cars and their cargo. The limo was a particular challenge, since we had to match the real limo that was shot on set perfectly. We would be cutting from real, to CG, and back again from shot to shot. The fence that Logan crashes into and drags along the ground in the middle of the sequence was also fully CG.
Once we had all of the vehicles built (and while texturing and general look development was in progress), we worked through all of the blocking of the various parts of the sequence: the chase to the fence, the fence crash, dragging the fence backwards, the chase to the train, and finally crashing the jeep into the train. There were a number of entirely (and almost entirely) CG shots. The crash into the fence, as well as the train crashing into the cars is an example of this. We also had a number of CG motorcycle riders that were used where safety wouldn't allow real stunt people to work. All of this was accomplished through hand animation combined with, and enhanced by, simulated effects. Every department in our studio and every artist was at the top of their game in making this sequence as realistic as it is.
RENDERU.COM: Could you tell us how you created Pierce's robot hand?
B.B.: Pierce's robot hand represents the bulk of the shots we did on Logan. We started from a couple of concept images given to us by production. Over the course of a couple of months in the summer, we turned those images into a fully functional robotic hand. It was a very challenging design and engineering process. We wanted to keep the general feel of the concept images, but also to make the hand believable as a real object. An object that could function mechanically, as well as looked like it had some history and use behind it. It was a very collaborative process with production. We would try out some ideas and get feedback, and then continue building. The end result has fully functioning mechanical components, and realistically built and shaded materials. From the various coated and layered metals and plastics, to translucent fingertips to the coating of desert dust on the hand; everything needed to look 100% real. A particular challenge in the rigging was that they didn't want the hand's movement to be too faithful to a real human's hand. Production wanted it to still feel somewhat robotic, so we limited some of the degrees of motion in the fingers and thumb, which gave the animators some challenges in performance. Each shot was first cleaned up in compositing, and had the camera, and the actor's arm and hand tracked in 3D. We were given great HDRI images and lighting reference for each shot, so the lighters were able to quickly get things looking real, and then the compositors did all of the final integration with clothes and other objects in the scene.
RENDERU.COM: Could you summarise your experience of the project: what did you take from it?
B.B.: This was a fantastic project for us. We worked on over 300 shots on the movie, doing some of the most complex and photoreal work that we've ever done. We took the opportunity to build new shading and lighting pipelines that allowed us to give the director the reality that he wanted to represent. I'm incredibly proud of all of the work our artists put into this movie.
RENDERU.COM: What is your next project?
B.B.: We are looking at a number of upcoming projects, but currently we are working on an episodic TV series called The Mist, and a few projects that are still in development.