ILM goes in-depth on its Amazon jungle VFX for ‘Eternals’
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- December 23, 2021
And how the VFX studio managed to pull off that ‘Revenant’-inspired shot.
Industrial Light & Magic was behind one of the principal Deviants sequences in Chloé Zhao’s Eternals; the battle that takes place at Druig’s camp in the Amazon rainforest. Here, working with production visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti, ILM orchestrated a swathe of environment builds and extensions, and extensive creature work and interaction with live-action actors.
It culminates in a dramatic scene between Ikaris (Richard Madden) and a Deviant, which pins down the Eternal in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the bear scene in The Revenant, which ILM also created.
ILM visual effects supervisor Daniele Bigi, CG supervisor Peter Kyme and associate CG supervisor Edmund Kolloen detail these Eternals shots for befores & afters.
b&a: What were some of the first conversations you had with Stef Ceretti and the other filmmakers about this sequence?
Daniele Bigi (visual effects supervisor, ILM): There were a lot of questions about the Deviants, about how they should behave and how powerful they were supposed to be against the strengths of the Eternals. There were also very, very practical questions about how big they were going to be. Chloé wanted to shoot in as realistic a way as possible, especially for the jungle environment.
To be honest, the answers to those questions came quite late, something that we learnt during the process. They shot different plates, different takes, and in many shots we had to stitch cameras simply because we determined later on that to achieve what the director wanted we had to put together and stitch together multiple cameras, and figure out how to reframe and sometimes to slightly alter the camera movement to frame in the appropriate way to tell the story.
b&a: I loved how complicated the Deviants looked. In terms of the build and any kind of rigging and FX, how complicated are they?
Peter Kyme (CG supervisor, ILM): The Deviants were extremely complicated. We were fortunate that approved concepts for the Deviants were already extremely detailed, amazing looking concepts. And I think Stef was really keen that we didn’t lose anything in translation to actually bringing these things into real moving assets. They were also keen for them to really have a lot of personality. There was discussion around basing them on different animals. They also needed to be something that was kind of grotesque.
There were some interesting tests that we did quite early on. One of the initial tests we did was, we called it internally the ‘Mononoke’ effect, which involved having rippling waves flowing through the individual fibres that make up the Deviants. But it was one of those things where the implications of having that effect had knock-on impacts for how you create the creatures, how you model them. Because, it infers this degree of separation between all these different components.
Daniele Bigi: One of the key components to them, in terms of rigging and modelling, was this idea that we couldn’t really represent the creature with a single surface. Normally you do a character, it could be as complex as you want, but you have one surface and then you can add as much detail and displacement as you want. In our case, we could not approach it in a typical way. We had to create an individual mesh. And the mesh needed to be able to separate, to pull apart, expand, and we need to see other mesh underneath.
Peter Kyme: And, of course, that was multiplied over the number of Deviants that we ended up having to design. The amount of negative space means you’re designing almost a volume of a creature rather than just a surface.
Edmund Kolloen (associate CG supervisor, ILM): We also had a quite intricate shading system that allowed you to simulate a glassy depth in the surface, which gave you another layer of depth. We had underlying veins and other kinds of surface detail inside the mesh. It looked like it was further sculpted inside it, so when you moved around it, there was a nice parallax in there.
Then not only did it have to be complex on its own, but it also had to then morph into another type of being throughout the film. Some of them were extremely complex going from a four-legged type of creature to a biped with wings. But they all had the same underlying design language. They all had to feel the same, even though they were all wildly different creatures. That was another tricky task to make sure that they all felt that they were coming from the same world.
b&a: For the jungle environment, what was there on the shoot, and how much of it is ILM adding foliage and extra trees?
Daniele Bigi: I must say that when I first went there, I was quite surprised about the look of the jungle even though we were in the UK. They made it look more like what you would find in a forest, it was quite impressive. Of course, when we then received the plates we realised that we could enhance it even more. Thanks to our environment department, supervised by Clement Gerard, they made the jungle more dense and even more lush. We added extra trees, vines and different types of plants. There were quite a lot of touch-ups, pretty much for every single shot.
The other component that was a bit more tricky was the lighting. They shot during the day and they obscured quite a lot of light. We ended up with a very small dynamic range in our plates. The range from dark value to really bright value was very, very limited. And our Deviants were really complex in shading and there were quite a lot of transmissive and translucent and specular qualities to them. The idea, of course, is that everything was obscured and everything was quite dark.
So we needed to figure out a way to sometimes open up the canopy in CG to allow extra light to come in and then get the shading to shine, to really see those beautiful creatures. This meant we sometimes had to replace the canopy to play with the light as we wanted. That was quite a lot of work for lighting in order to manipulate the plates and think about the canopy not as a black box, but as an opportunity to change the configuration of the trees and play with the light.
b&a: At some point Ikaris brings one of the Deviants up out of the canopy. How did you tackle those wider views with a full Amazon jungle?
Peter Kyme: Those were treated as a unique environment by our generalist department. The team did a really good job of building that out. I think there’s probably shots in the movie that you maybe didn’t even register as being a CG shot, like some of the establishing shots, because the team just did a phenomenal job of putting that environment together.
Edmund Kolloen: I think what sold it for the audience was that you’d have this incredible establishing shot that shows the forest with rivers snaking around and all that stuff, which totally brings you there straight away, and then you dive into it. The department did an incredible job building those environments.
b&a: In terms of what happens on the ground in the jungle, there’s some great attack moments, but one of the big ones involves what I might call the ‘Revenant’ shot of the Deviant on top of Ikaris. I’m so curious about how that was captured, given that you couldn’t have been sure of the exact size and orientation of the Deviant?
Daniele Bigi: I think it’s one of the best shots in the sequence. And our colleagues work on The Revenant was the reference, even Chloe mentioned those really long, beautiful shots in Revenant and she wanted to do something similar, obviously with a sci-fi twist. So everything was done with a hand-held camera, she wanted the camera to be really, really close to the ground. She wanted the camera to move freely, very quickly.
The shot was so long that they couldn’t really do it in one go. They had to split the action into three distinct sections. The first section was when Ikaris is inside the cabin and is fighting the Deviant. The second section was when they are out and they are jumping out of the cabin. Then there was the end section when Ikaris really tries to fight back and starts to blast his eye beams back at the Deviant.
The big challenge for us initially was when we received the plates and we had to stitch them together. We ended up going in and out of the camera path, and then sometimes we had to diverge and take over with a full CG camera. We had Lidar scans, and the cabin was ultimately fully-CG since it had to interact with the Deviant and the eye beams from Ikaris. And the idea here is that the eye blasts were even lighting up his hair and all the leaves and making things move around.
So, we ended up with a very large section being full CG, in the middle of the shot, to make Ikaris interact with the Deviant. Which means at times we completely replaced his body. We ran cloth simulations for everything, because we really wanted to see the Deviant touching and ripping apart and interacting with the clothes and with the body of Ikaris.
And then, for many frames the face is also full CG. We needed to get very, very close to his face, but we wanted to keep the performance as much as possible from the plate. We would render the face completely in full CG to get the accurate lighting from the eye beams, and then in comp, we combined the plate with those extra passes and it worked very well.
The other thing that we did for the Deviant, we had a different model and texture for different stages. We had dynamic mattes that we used to figure out the interacting point between the eye beams and the Deviant face. And those mattes were triggering a different shading and a different displacement. You can really see in the shot that every time the Deviant is getting blasted, flesh is coming down to the ground, blood is coming out, scars are appearing.
Edmund Kolloen: That digital double work is some of the best I’ve seen. They were built to a great standard for the screen, but they were really spec’d up to look fantastic, which actually helped us later on because we also used these same assets in the Eternals augmented reality app. A lot of the work that we did in the film translated directly into that side of things as well.
b&a: How challenging was that interactivity between live action and CG?
Edmund Kolloen: Well, in the past we tended to render different elements from different departments. But at ILM now, we’re trying to join as much up in the same world as possible. So in lighting, we do render more FX potentially than in the past, which definitely helps with the integration.
Peter Kyme: Also, when we’re in the cabin, there were some interesting challenges around the plate of Ikaris. He’s leaning into the cabin in the plate that we had. But when he’s leaning he’s actually on a support pad so there was this spongy kind of motion with his arm and his contact point that meant that it wouldn’t really look correct, ie. he was meant to be on a hard wooden beam. So our FX guys came up with a system where the actual beams are made to pivot as though the wood is flexing. It is a tiny little touch that you might not even think of, but it really sold the interaction.
b&a: Finally, how did you tackle that Kro transformation?
Daniele Bigi: What we had to do here was transform our second incarnation of Kro into the digital model of Kro that Weta Digital had made. There are only three or four shots, but you can see all this detail of every single muscle moving and deforming and becoming something else on this new Kro. And on top of that, there was also this celestial energy running inside the body and illuminating and shading light inside the muscles while it’s transforming.