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July 2014
Issue: July 1, 2011

ILM takes on 'Cowboys & Aliens'

By: Christine Bunish

SAN FRANCISCO — An alien invasion of the Old West. “From the VFX side it doesn’t get any better than a mash-up of the two genres,” says VFX supervisor/2nd unit director Roger Guyett of San Francisco’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the lead VFX studio for Cowboys & Aliens. “I always wanted to work on a western, but there are fewer and fewer of them. Add Daniel Craig, who’s a current-day Steve McQueen, Harrison Ford in a great character role and Jon Favreau, who’s a real actor’s director, and you have a winning combination.”

Guyett notes that Favreau didn’t want the movie to become “a parody, campy version of a western. It’s an honest story of people — outlaws, cattlemen, townspeople, Indians — uniting to fight a common enemy. Then you have the aliens and their behavior: what you do with them once you have them is what’s interesting.”

Although Cowboys & Aliens is based on a graphic novel, the film’s creators were more inspired by than committed to a direct translation of the book, he says. “We didn’t sit down and match the frames of the novel, but it was important to us that we remain faithful to the material.”

THE ALIENS

At press time the film had not yet been released, so spoiler information on the look of the aliens themselves was not available. Shane Mahan, one of the co-owners of San Fernando, CA’s Legacy Effects (www.legacyefx.com), developed the design for the worker aliens and built puppet parts based on them. ILM (www.ilm.com) devised what Guyett calls the “uber alien,” a kind of “second-tier intelligence within the species.” ILM crafted maquettes based on both types of aliens, which proved helpful to animators and actors alike, he notes.

“The physicality of the creatures give a certain understanding of it,” Guyett says. “If you actually build something, even out of polystyrene, and stand next to it, there’s an inherent reaction you get that’s very different from looking at artwork. Legacy’s puppet pieces also gave us great lighting references.”

ILM used its proprietary Imocap technology for close-up shots between aliens and human characters. “If you weren’t seeing a full-body shot, it was invaluable to get a physical sense of them,” says ILM animation supervisor Marc Chu. “Imocap requires a very small footprint on set, so we could dress a stunt performer in a suit, have him interact with people and the environment, track that movement and repurpose or alter it if need be.”

Having an alien performer also allowed “the camera operators to get something to frame up on” and the actors “something to respond to and thus deliver a better performance,” he notes.

The full-body aliens were keyframe animated. “This was a great show to be an animator on,” says Chu. “Coming from movies with a lot of motion capture, everyone had a real treat with Cowboys & Aliens’ keyframe animation.” Favreau gave the animators a lot of latitude in their keyframe animation for the alien faces, Chu reports. “He gave us the freedom to explore the aliens’ performances, to flesh them out as real characters.”

The basis for keyframe animation was Autodesk Maya, supplemented by numerous proprietary tools and the studio’s custom pipeline, says Chu. “We did a lot of great physical animation with a fairly small crew: 18 animators for nearly 300 shots. They really hit it out of the park.”

The aliens’ spacecraft was another practical-digital partnership. The enormous mothership is seen buried in the ground where it is conducting mining operations while small, swift, keyframe-animated Speeders fire bolos to grab people and reel them aboard for specimen study.

Production designer Scott Chambliss built a section of the mothership and embedded it in the ground on location in New Mexico, Guyett reports; another mothership section was housed on the Universal stage in Los Angeles. ILM created digital set extensions of these practical elements, including augmenting a large-scale practical explosion onstage with digital pyro.

ILM also built a mini version of the mothership’s tower, which it took on location. “We shot plates with the tower to see how it reacted to light as a reference for the CG version we created later. There was such harsh sun in the desert that the ability to see the color reflecting off surfaces in the light was an important point of departure for artists,” explains Guyett.

Shane Mahan crafted a model Speeder that Jake (Daniel Craig) shot down and crashed in town. “It flew on a giant gimbal at Universal,” says Guyett. “We used it for bluescreen work later on. But when Speeders fly they’re CG,” and so are the heat signature and smoke trails, created with particle systems, when they incur damage. 

“Jon has a specific language for the Speeders in flying and attack mode,” says Marc Chu. “You’d see a Speeder perform a maneuver and know if it was going into a normal flight or attack mode. He found a cool, fresh take on flying space ships.”

Chu notes that “it’s always a difficult task to make something feel realistic, and Jon relies on keeping things based in reality. So we tried not to make the Speeders too fast lest they look less believable — they had to have a sense of being grounded in reality so they’d tie into the aerial plates.”

JAKE’S GOT A GUN

Vancouver-based Embassy (www.theembassyvfx. com) also worked on the CG Speeders. Jake’s mysterious Blaster wrist shackle was another merger of practical and digital. A detailed prop was constructed in both closed and open forms, but its transformation to very effective weapon was entirely CG. “The prop couldn’t animate, and there’s real complexity in the way it unfolds,” notes Guyett. 

“It was interesting to design the HUD (Heads Up Display) for it — we’ve done a million HUDs, and we wanted something new, different and visually exciting. This one reads as a HUD but makes no sense to humans since it’s in the alien language.”

ILM devised watery-style effects for the way information is pulled across from the HUD and added the destructive blasting effects. “It’s the classic western man with the gun,” Guyett laughs, “but now it’s a suped-up ultimate hand weapon. It’s very suitable for a showdown.”

Although the showdown itself is immersive one-on-one combat, the movie features considerable scenes of destruction, he points out. “We did R&D within ILM for large-scale fire, explosions and smoke — it was one more trip around the dial from our work on Avatar. The tools we developed for that film made it easier to integrate elements for Cowboys & Aliens.”

Practical pyro was not an option when shooting on protected land in New Mexico, he says. Besides, ILM “wanted to choreograph” the destruction, too. “With our simulation programs we can develop the look of a 300-400-foot fireball with all the correct physics,” Guyett explains. “I had shown Jon (Favreau) what we could do in a quick test. He was blown away by the level of detail and complexity we could achieve and the ability to choreograph a very large event.”

The anamorphic photography of the stunning New Mexico locales often didn’t require digital set extensions, notes Chu. “They were such great backgrounds to start with that in some cases little needed to be done. In other cases entire environments were digitally manipulated by Barry Williams’s digital matte team.” 

He says that Cowboys & Aliens was not only challenging in its individual shots and sequences but also in its big-picture perspective. “It’s such a cool blend of genres; we wanted it to live up to expectations. Who doesn’t want to make a western and add in sci-fi elements? It’s a really fresh and exciting new genre, and we hope audiences will enjoy it!”