Image courtesy of Method Studios.

VFX for scary movies: A look at Rings

7 mins

Meet Rudy Grossman - DFX supervisor at Atomic Fiction Montreal – now a part of the Method Studios family. A while back, Rudy worked on a movie called RINGS, the third installment of The Ring franchise.

I like all movies, but I must admit that working on visual effects for horror films tends to be the most fun because you end up working with directors that give the visual effects groups a lot of freedom and a lot of creative leeways. I often feel like those are the films where we end up having the most creative fun, regarding coming up with artwork and suggesting new and fun ideas to help the director tell their story.

Horror movies usually focus on visual impact, and they're often not taken as seriously as some of the bigger Hollywood big budget films. It's a great mix to jump back into a horror film after every two or three big-budget films because it's just fun to be like, "Hey let's just come up with some crazy ideas and see what works."



The most difficult aspect of creating fear with CG is achieving realism. If it doesn't look like something that was shot on set, if it looks fake, or if it draws attention to itself, then there won't be anything scary about it. The most important thing is that it feels real and that it has qualities which people identify as creepy or scary. Most people are afraid of things like insects or snakes, they're afraid of the dark, or they’re afraid of dying, so visualizing these realistically will usually instill fear in the viewer.



The shot of Samara coming out of the TV was tricky. In the first movie of the series, The Ring, the VFX broke the third dimension in the film by making Samara crawl out of the TV and into the protagonist’s living room. In RINGS, the TV screen is face-down on the ground, and Samara lifts it and pushes her way out from under it.The actress who performed it had this creepy, unnatural way of moving, so tying the visual effects to her performance fit well together. When blending live action and VFX, planning is everything. The live action shot itself was well thought out; our Visual Effects Supervisor, Aidan Fraser, was on set working with director Javier Gutiérrez, to make sure that what was being shot would work best for the visual effects process.


Rings, 2017. Image courtesy of Method Studios.

Rings, 2017. Image courtesy of Method Studios.


The general process for determining what will be a visual effect in a film all starts with the script.  The director will read through the script, and there could be descriptions in there that will read something like, “she looks in the mirror, and her skin falls off,” for example. The director then considers how they want to visualize this through a camera, how do they want to shoot the scene.  Then working closely with the Visual Effects Supervisor and the core production crew, they will determine what will work well as a practical effect or what should be created as a computer graphic visual effect.  Ideally, the on set shoot is then collaboratively planned for what best suits the requirements of those choices.

We used a lot of different methods to create the overall look of the various visual effects in Rings combining 3D computer graphics with a lot of 2D or 2 & ½ D, utilizing traditionally 2D compositing techniques within a 3D space. We had the most fun exploring techniques and ideas for how to get results in newer and more innovative ways. Having that open playground environment allows us to test out ideas, which we can also develop further on other films and future projects. Those new methodologies evolve and grow into new ways for us to create complex visual effects.



The most challenging shot in RINGS would have to be the cicada swarm that happens toward the end of the film. The shot begins with a swarm of cicadas on a window; they start coming in and then gather onto a cell phone. Samara – the film’s antagonist – rises out of the cell phone from the swarm. This was a lot of fun for a lot of reasons. For one - anytime you're creating a swarm of something, it's more difficult than just doing two or three hero-animated characters. I should correct this by saying that I wouldn't categorize this as the most difficult shot I've worked on in my career, but I would put it up there as one of my most fun challenges.

A lot goes into a shot like this: FX, animation, lighting, compositing, rigging, modeling, lookdev, textures, matchmove, roto, and paint. In the end, there's a lot of different skillsets that collaborate tightly together for a shot like this to come together. Every one of them is equally important: if one job isn't done correctly, the result won't look good.


We began by looking at a lot of previous examples and visual effects of swarms, and there’s something that always feels strange or unrealistic about this type of effect. You’ll notice the insects are all running on stacked layers, when in reality, insects don't all stay in a pyramid structure of layers – they're crawling under and over each other as though they're crawling up to something, and they'll crawl over other insects to get there. If one insect has too many other insects attached to it, it loses its grip, and that whole clump falls. One or two of them might catch themselves on the way down, but the rest of them still fall, and while they're falling, they might knock other ones off. There’s no such thing as a neatly layered swarm!



We wanted to maintain the look of a chaotic and realistic swarm; we needed to ensure that the insects all had a unique and individual mindset and weren’t just a simulation. That was the most complicated part for us. To get that effect, we ended up developing a whole new system, where we merged a lot of different crowd simulation methods in one. Maya was our main hub for everything, but we also used Houdini to do a very complex particle simulation, where we could control the over and under crawling, grouping, and clumping of cicadas that would then fall. Finally, Golaem was a key asset in the process, as it’s great for controlling and blending animated performances.

Behavior animations were created in Maya, with animators developing different types of behaviors, which were then fed into Golaem, which used its AI to determine what behavior to dial into and with that all being fed by a complex simulation of the particles themselves. Getting all those pieces together gave us this quality to the performance, which I think was very realistic beyond what is normally achieved in visual effects for this kind of project.

On top of that, we picked out a couple of specific insects, which would then be hero animated and added into the overall performance. The thing I'm proud of here is when looking at the film, you can't tell the difference between which insects were animated by hand and those that were part of the crowd system because they're all so well integrated. They all had the same look, the same lighting, the same overall process.It was well thought out regarding the shooting, and the set up was well planned to support visual effects.

It was a fun crew to work with, and the production gave us a lot of opportunities to explore and develop that world inside their film. That’s the most rewarding thing – to feel like we're helping tell that story.

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