"We started our shot production for "Westworld" in early February 2016. The size of the team varied depending on what episode we were on. At times we were about five people and other times around 15. In total, we delivered around 65 shots.
We were so excited when Jay Worth (VFX Supervisor) approached us. The show looked promising, and there were a lot of cool shots planned. Our goal is always to deliver the best possible quality, and for all the VFX we did on "Westworld" the most important thing was that shots helped drive the story. I think the first season turned out to be incredible and I’m proud of our contribution to the show.
In general, the challenge was to deliver high-quality shots for all our sequences. A few of the extra tricky ones included creating a young version of Anthony Hopkins, a big terraformer digging up dirt and rock and the sequence of the robot boy opening up the face."
-Bobo Skipper, VFX Supervisor, Important Looking Pirates
Steam trains, futuristic stations, and terraformers
We worked on a range of different effects for all "Westworld" episodes but two. The variety of shots we did was fun.
For a few episodes, we did steam trains driving through the Westworld park. We added train tracks, a steam train with its cargo cars and steam pumping out of the engine.
For episodes 2 and 10, we did futuristic trains stations. The work involved set extensions and animated trains. The original plates were shot at the LA convention center. Parts of the balcony, escalator going down to the platform and a smaller part of the platform and columns are live action, the rest was replaced with CG.
Train plate and final comp - Westworld, 2016. Image courtesy of Important Looking Pirates
In episode 4, we worked on the sequence where we see a huge terraformer altering the landscape of the Westworld park. We modeled and animated this enormous machine tearing through rock. Also, we simulated smoke, rock, sand and a field of agave plants.
Another cool sequence we contributed to was the Robot Boy in episode 6. The effect was opening up the boy’s face to reveal his robotic skull. We made a digital version of the boy and modeled the skull and all the mechanics within. The biggest challenge with these shots was how to solve the hair. We explored a few different techniques and ended up doing the hair entirely CG. When his face is 'closed' we mixed in some of the original plates onto our animated face. As the face opens up, we transition to a full CG render of the whole head.
'Robot Boy' shaded grey and final comp - Westworld, 2016. Image courtesy of Important Looking Pirates
In the last episode, we worked on the opening sequence when we see Dolores skeletal structure and inner parts. Apart from building and animating her mechanical body we also created her skin from the neck down (the first shot in the sequence has a practical skin prop, the other shots the skin flap was done in CG).
She was shot wearing a blue suit, and we replaced her body and parts of the stretcher she was on. A lot of effort went into modeling and rigging all the part so that they could function and move correctly. It was incredibly exciting to work on this character!
Dr. Ford’s face replacement
We also did face replacements for the shots when we see Dr. Ford in his younger days. It was fun and challenging to take on a face replacement for such a known actor as Anthony Hopkins.
We started out with a scan of Anthony Hopkins in present time. To the scan, we then matched up to a head model with proper topology, in both high and low poly versions. All shapes and surface detail were transferred from the scan to our model.
Our mission was to make him look about forty years younger, so we collected a bunch of references to him from the 70’s and 80’s. We carefully lined up our model to photos in different angles.
The low poly head was used to quickly make bigger changes to the face which were then automatically applied to our high res model. The last modeling step was high detail sculpting. Some of the surface detail from the scan could be used in the final asset, but we had to smooth out and adjust his wrinkles and lines in the face.
We rigged the face with a FACS based approach. We referenced Anthony's facial expressions from photos of him when he was younger, which was then sculpted and piped into our blend shape combination rig.
In the original plate was a stand-in actor playing Dr. Ford. His acting was the base for the animation. We started out by matchmoving the head movements to match the plate and fit the body language. We then tweaked the head movements to work with Anthony’s facial expressions. We explored a few different expressions and acting for Anthony. A lot of attention was on getting the eyes and mouth right.
The textures were created in Mari. We used a mix of projecting reference photos, hand painted skin textures and procedural maps.
For shading, we mostly used the Anders Langlands alShader for Arnold which works well for skin shading. The shaders were tweaked using our own light rig in which you can develop the look in a range of balanced light scenarios. The last tweaks were made in a shot context to make the skin tones blend in with the stand-in actor in the plate. We rendered everything with Arnold and used Yeti to add all the facial hair.
In the original plate was a stand-in actor playing Dr. Ford. We removed his head from the plate save the hair, which we extracted to put on top of Anthony. The head shape of the actor in the plate did not match Anthony, so we had to reshape the hair for it to fit Anthony's proportions.
We use Shotgun as a base for project management, and a lot of customization has been made to incorporate it to fit our workflow and pipeline.
Maya is a great multi-tool where you can do a wide variety of work. It is our go-to package for the majority of our work. We are quite open-minded when it comes to software and choose tools best suited for the task at hand. We use software such as Houdini for FX work and also Clarisse for scene assembly and rendering for some shows.
We are always in the process of creating and improving new tools for our projects. For instance, the facial rig for Dr. Ford was done with our FACS based rig. We also used MtoA; Peregrine Labs Yeti for hair/facial hair, and Houdini for smoke/rock/dust simulations.
We are a multi-renderer facility, and we believe it is important not to be religious about software in general. If you are unbiased and keep an open mind, it is easier to choose the best software for the job you are facing.
For all the character work on Westworld, we used Arnold. It’s perfect for preserving detail in skin shading and also handles hair/fur very efficiently. For shading, we quite often work with Anders Langlands, alShader and also use shaders written here at ILP. Besides Arnold, we also used V-Ray for the train station sequence.
Character work render times were between15 minutes and an hour. For some of the heavier set extensions and shots with simulation, we averaged on 1-3 hours.
For the most part, we rendered the shots with both motion blur and DOF. Although, for a few of the interiors like the train station, we sometimes added these effects in comp. In general, we are big fans of nailing a shot mainly using a beauty render.
Lighting and Look Dev
Some shots really stretched our team technically and artistically with lighting and look development. Nailing the model, animation and look on Young Anthony was the biggest challenge. In the end, it came down to lots of iterations and attention to detail.
Modeling and rigging such a complex character as Dolores was, of course, another huge challenge. She had lots of parts and cables that were all connected, and all the body parts that we modeled needed to be tested and tweaked to make sure she could move and function as a human. For instance, designing and placing the hydraulics so she could lift her arms and legs freely proved a big challenge.
We have a decent sized permanent infrastructure with 80 workstations and 116 dedicated render nodes.
Our farm consists of 2U chassis; each chassis is populated with four nodes, which gives us excellent compute density at an attractive price. In total, we have 116 nodes in the farm. The render nodes are a mix of 12, 16, 20, and 36 cores and 48 - 128 GB of RAM.
We didn’t utilize any cloud rendering on "Westworld" although that is something we do from time to time. It’s a challenge to dimension your infrastructure to meet demands and requirements in business with very uneven workloads.