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Sarofsky's Photoreal Shadow Magic and Other VFX Secrets From "Captain America: Civil War"
- Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016
CHICAGO and HOLLYWOOD
In May of this year, "Captain America: Civil War" made its historical box-office debut as the fifth largest opening of all time and the third largest opening for a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, contributing greatly to the record-breaking success of the Captain America franchise. Currently the year's number one box office film globally, "Captain America: Civil War" has now grossed over $1.153 billion.
Meanwhile in Chicago, it's well known that design-driven production company Sarofsky has expanded on its previous role as the main-on-end (MOE) title designer for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," by earning MOE duties for "Captain America: Civil War" – along with work on more than 20 visual effects shots in the latest movie. With last month's widely celebrated release of the blockbuster on Blu-ray, Sarofsky is now at liberty to detail its imaginative behind-the-scenes wizardry.
In June, MAXON heralded Sarofsky's use of its Cinema 4D (C4D) software suite in creating the MOE titles that company principal and executive creative director Erin Sarofsky has described as being completely different from anything else they've done for Marvel (where the company's credits also include "Ant-Man" and "Guardians of the Galaxy"). Still, Sarofsky's team has largely kept its other project secrets confidential – until now.
Shadow Artistry in the MOE Title Sequence
Appearing immediately after the film's final scene fades to black, viewers see a debris-laden surface where the first titles appear – "Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo" – strongly lit from five angles with spotlights. In this initial frame, even the stones and other objects cast long, dramatic shadows. But in the subtlest of poignant design surprises, when the second title appears for screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, anyone paying attention will notice that the shadows cast by the words have taken on a life of their own, assuming forms that are easily recognized by fans of Marvel and Captain America. The highly creative, artful techniques employed to pull off these visual feats over nearly two minutes is a perfect testament to Sarofsky's own superpowers.
"Whenever something looks simple, that's when you know it was ready hard," Erin began. "It was quite a chore to get the fake shadows we designed and animated to look photoreal. Finding the line between what's real and what's not is pretty fascinating, especially when what you're doing is obviously fake. We spent many painstaking hours figuring out the exact right formula to make it all work… and look simple."
That insight casts more light on the studio's choice of C4D as its main 3D application for the MOE design and production. A more detailed discussion with Erin, creative director and main title designer John Filipkowski and VFX supervisor Matthew Crnich revealed even more. All agreed that C4D's new Take System was a key to separating the project's many render layers and various animated elements within a single project file. "That helped us accommodate the updating of individual object passes across the whole sequence, which saved enormous amounts of time and enhanced the team's ability to collaborate efficiently," John confirmed.
"C4D's MoGraph effector modules that allowed us to create complex animations procedurally were also very important," he also confided. "We can actually attribute the project's deeper levels of photorealism to this insanely streamlined workflow."
The Cases for The Foundry's Nuke, Adobe After Effects and Autodesk Smoke
Seeing the MOE project through to completion also involved the creative use of The Foundry's Nuke system for final compositing, and Autodesk's Smoke for 4K finishing. Worth noting, Nuke, Smoke and Adobe After Effects were all mission critical in the company's workflow on its 22 VFX shots completed for "Captain America: Civil War."
Working through the film's VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw and VFX producer Jen Underdahl, Sarofsky's VFX assignments largely involved plate manipulation and compositing, which according to Matthew, lent itself to keeping the entire pipeline in Nuke. "The screen animation elements were designed, animated and rendered in After Effects and then sent to Nuke for compositing," he said. "Essentially, Nuke's powerful toolset was the key to us being able to visually match our CG design elements into photographed scenes. Beginning with the solid camera track NukeX provides, that camera solve allowed our artists to paint out the tracking makers, generate better rotoscope shapes and then composite-in the screen elements."
While the team was also able to handle color in Nuke, the addition of animated elements created in After Effects presented yet another challenge. For that aspect of the solution, preferring to keep some company secrets, Matthew referred to Sarofsky's proprietary color process built within After Effects, which now allows them to easily pass color data between the applications.
One more benefit of building the compositing pipeline around Nuke was the ability to render all deliverables from within the application. And in a final nod to Autodesk, Smoke proved to be essential in allowing the team to view daily renders from Nuke on a large-format, color-accurate monitor. Complete project credits are available upon request.
"Overall, the process is really involved, the hours are nuts, and the effort is off the charts, but it's so worth it for all of us when we hear how much the clients and fans love the work and when we see it on the big screen," added Sarofsky's executive producer Steven Anderson.
For Erin, who has previously commented on the rising knowledge of her studio as a design leader and a growing VFX resource, her takeaways remain highly personal. "With this being our second Captain America movie with the Russos and the Marvel team, it's especially great to be working with people we know, like and have developed strong, respectful working relationships with."
To learn more about "Captain America: Civil War," please visit http://www.captainamerica.com.