Images courtesy of Image Engine

Going otherworldly on "Independence Day: Resurgence"

Part 2 of 2 | Image Engine on their far out creature creation

Last modification: 22 Feb, 2018
10 mins

We sat with the outta-this-world creature creators at Image Engine to learn this and more when it comes to feature creatures and those far out aliens in the new, "Independence Day: Resurgence."

"We find small, subtle things to add, giving control to animation, extra blend shapes, or some texture detail that maybe doesn’t stand out but does draw your eye in right away."

– Barry Poon, Asset Supervisor

Read Part One: "Going BIG on Independence Day: Resurgence"


Tell us about Image Engine’s approach to creating new creatures. 

Barry Poon, Asset Supervisor: Our approach is to always use as much real-world reference as possible. We have an in-house concept artist we work closely with to develop our designs, or to further our client’s design ideas, and that gets buy-in and facilitates good direction before we start working on the production asset. We also hold team meetings to discuss the asset, any challenges we might have, and things we need to develop, and this lets us start testing before we get too far into production.

Mark Wendell, CG Supervisor: Because we don’t have armies of artists to throw shot work at, we try to front-load as much intelligence, design, and technology into our assets, our characters, our rigs, our look-dev setups, and so forth, as we can. That way, when artists get into shot work, they actually work and don’t need a team of shot sculptors to fix issues with animation or issues with various things that might happen. We put a lot of our effort into the technology and the asset build rather than piling people on at shot time.

Images courtesy of Image Engine 

Are there certain boxes you make sure you absolutely check each time?

Martyn Culpitt, VFX Supervisor: Every creature we work on is different than the last, and that’s what makes it exciting. When we start on a new one, we draw on lessons of what does and doesn’t work from the past. For "Independence Day: Resurgence (IDR), we looked at animals – horses, et cetera – that we felt were close to the Colonists and Soldiers’ unique, reverse-hock legs. We examined the muscle systems, as well as at the bone structures, to see how it all worked, then we built on that and made sure that it felt right. We do actually tick off boxes to ensure everything will work within itself and is as close to real-world as we can possibly make it.

Barry: We find small, subtle things to add, giving control to animation, extra blend shapes, or some texture detail that maybe doesn’t stand out but does draw your eye in right away.


Images courtesy of Image Engine 

What’s the biggest key to realism?

Martyn: I think the key for realism in all creatures, especially something that’s very human in its form, is the face. Everything else kind of comes second to that. We’ve spent a lot of time creating detailed shapes, breathing shapes. As humans, we always look at the face first – it draws us in and enables a connection. The aliens in IDR have a very intricate face that we added nostril flares, to, and muscle definition, to draw your eye. And they don’t have eyes, but you can see kind of a socket where it would be, and it glints like there’s something in there. It’s spooky. It’s building all those subtleties into the models that make all the difference.

"We’d walk around the kitchen pretending to be aliens…The animators were always around…'Can I have the shot be scarier? A little bit more excitement?'"

How did you establish how the IDR aliens would move?

Mark: (Laughs) In one of our early chats with the client, we asked them, 'How do you want these aliens to move, how do you want them to walk?' They said, ' tell us...'

Martyn: We were given so much trust. We were told, 'You guys are the character house, we want you to drive it and sell it to us.' It was a great place to be. So, we actually brought our own Mocap suits so we could do the motion. Mocap studios cost so much and whenever you hire people, it's never quite right and you end up going back to refine it. Having it in-house is pretty amazing and it was indispensable here.

Images courtesy of Image Engine  

Jason Snyman, Animation Supe:
 It was one of these inertial tracking systems, you could literally throw it on in 20 minutes. We’d walk around the kitchen pretending to be aliens, acting out a shot. The animators were always around giving pointers:  'Can I have the shot be scarier? A little bit more excitement?' You could do hundreds and hundreds of takes per day. And because the proportions of the aliens are very close to a human, the data transferred almost seamlessly and added just a little bit of detail on top in some of the shots. It’s a great base to block out sequences when the director is trying to get things together. We could go through and fill all the shots with an alien right out of the gate, and because our tentacles were a super easy system, we could even have that detail present in what we sent them.

This film focuses on battle. What do you find yourself constantly battling in VFX work?

Mark: It would have to be time. Ideally, we would have schedules that would allow us to finish everything in one department before moving into another but the reality is that all departments end up working simultaneously on shots – Lighting is working while Comp is working, while Animation is working while assets are still in progress. We just have to get as smart and efficient as we can about managing that very dynamic process. This is where some of the work we’ve done in integrating our asset management system with Shotgun helps us. For example, we have a system that lets artists cache out the work from their department, like animation caches, and they do basically a QC render off that, the render goes to dailies, and shows up in Shotgun. The supervisor reviews that work out of Shotgun and when it’s approved, we flag it approved in Shotgun and that talks back to our asset system and approves the package that hands it off to the next department. Having that level of integration for QC’ing, and keeping track of all the paperwork of where the assets are coming from and what’s been approved and what’s not been approved, is kind of key to living in that crazy simultaneous, everyone-is-on-the-same-stuff environment.

"We hit them with an early animation test of Mocap, an alien doing some disco dancing… they actually really appreciated that we were having fun."

 It’s about having a pipeline that’s streamlined so that most animators spend time dealing with the animation itself and don’t have to worry about any technical issues that come up, whether it’s an updated rig or something else. It helps us iterate a lot of ideas and finesse on animation. Even when animation gets approved by the director, we still want to push the bar and make it look even better than what we’ve presented. Everything here makes that possible. Having a nice robust pipeline that’s super user-friendly is instrumental in that.

What was it like for you as digital artists, to go back and look at the original 1996 film?

Martyn: A lot of us grew up watching that movie and really enjoyed it. We were all very excited to get an opportunity to work on IDR and to stay true to the original. 

Barry: I think those live-action puppets are amazing because the most skilled people on the planet put so much time and energy into building them. Everything they add on set – the goo and slime and wetness – it’s real, you know? Looking at that is incredible. And watching the Blu-ray with the director’s commentary was a real eye-opener, seeing how many shots were miniature. There was an interview with Roland about his choice with the puppets. The technology wasn’t there yet for him to do it in digital, so I think now, we’re able to add weight to the characters, more realism, with technology at the point that it is.

Images courtesy of Image Engine

Did you create any Easter Eggs that paid homage to the original?

Mark: It wasn’t quite an Easter Egg but during one of the earlier reviews of production, we hit them with an early animation test of Mocap, an alien doing some disco dancing. It went over really well – they actually really appreciated that we were having fun.

Jason: It was also a great test to see if the tentacles would work in the severe circumstances.

"We always strive to make our creatures better. Every project is different, and with each, you grow."

Images courtesy of Image Engine

What were your main takeaways from IDR?

Martyn: We learned a lot about large-scale environments, especially on the Foliage sequence. We have nearly half a million plants within this sequence and all of those plants are simulated and have interaction with the aliens and actors, as well as having water and fog and all those different elements in there. It’s all about how to view that stuff quickly, make decisions quickly on interaction, as being able to render it and get it through the pipeline – especially when dealing with that much geometry. We built systems that we can view in Maya for lazy loading, that gives an approximation of where things are in space without necessarily having to load the thing in full detail. We also learned a lot about water and did a lot of work with surface and interaction. The guys walked through the water, hitting plants with their legs, with things floating on the surface. We did a lot of R&D and progression with that.

Does the novelty of making aliens and monsters for a living ever wear off?

Martyn: (Laughs) I don’t think so, no. We always strive to make our creatures better. Every project is different, and with each, you grow. Having interaction with talented people, having them learn with you, is so exciting. For me, what we do is as much art as it is technical.

Maya is the foundation for most of Image Engine’s work, from assets into animation. Their lighting tools are an in-house package based on a Gaffer toolset, that sits on top of a Maya session. Image Engine continually refines their integration of Shotgun and Maya with their asset management system, Jabuka.

IDR was made with products available in the Autodesk Media & Entertainment Collection.

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  • M&E Collection
  • Maya
  • MotionBuilder
  • Shotgun
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