FAULT Focus: Moving Picture Company’s VFX Maestro Sheldon Stopsack

A flaring storm of future sentinels, engineered from Mystique’s DNA and harnessed by nanotechnology, has descended upon X-Men: Days of Future Past. These sentient creations incorporate 100,835 blades and 1019 moving parts inside faces that open up as extra weapons against adversaries. The forces of nature transcend into a seamless computer generated and 2D empyrean, all orchestrated by the Moving Picture Company: a portal from the ultimate heights of technological potential to the world at large.

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Close-up still shot of a Sentinel in X-Men: Days of Future Past

MPC is a global, feature film VFX (visual effects) studio that has recently worked on heavyweight, large-scale international productions including the X-Men trilogy, The Hunger Games, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Powered by technology right the way through from initial concept art to final compositing and stereoscopic workflow, and punctuated by a labyrinth of seemingly-supernatural forces and immersive interactive systems, MPC has been awarded a prestigious Gold Lion in Cannes, an Academy Award for its contribution to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and a myriad BAFTA and Emmy awards.

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Sheldon Stopsack, VFX Supervisor at MPC

This week’s FAULT Focus interviewee is Sheldon Stopsack, VFX Supervisor at MPC. Since he first started in the industry back in 2002, Sheldon has progressed from his speciality in Lighting to oversee a combined symphony of R&D, CG modeling, Animation, FX and Lighting in his current role. Integrating bespoke and highly complex VFX has led to him managing multi-site projects for the likes of Skyfall, Harry Potter: the Deathly Hollows I and II, X-Men: First Class and The Chronicles of Narnia while he has also simultaneously spearheaded the company’s technological development projects (ACES implementation, Katana adaptation, etc) in London, Vancouver and Bangalore.

FAULT: Sheldon, you worked as CG supervisor on recent projects for MPC like the most recent X-Men film and Guardians of the Galaxy – and have since been promoted to VFX Supervisor for various upcoming projects.   X-Men: Days of Future Past marks MPC’s second return to the Marvel based franchise. The CG sequences, make-up effects and pre-visualization was initially headed up by 12 different VFX studios – after it was originally engineered with 528 shots by MPC. Tell us about the challenges associated with the production stage of the ‘future Sentinel’ sequences?

Sheldon: The development of the future Sentinel was probably the biggest challenge MPC faced during the production of X-Men Days of Future Past. We were involved with the design of the Sentinels from an early stage. Our in-house Art Department provided a wide range of concept work for the killing machines.

The final design of the sentinel incorporated the idea of having hundreds and thousands of individual blades, similar to Mystique’s shape-shifting ability. The biggest hurdle there was the pure complexity of the asset, [all the] while maintaining flexibility. We needed to have control over each blade to allow flaring, transforming, swapping for varying blade instances and shader variations.

At the beginning we looked into existing technology that could be adapted for our needs. MPC’sin-house fur and feather system called Furtility was one of them, however it became quickly obvious that we would need to develop a new system that scaled better for our needs. We ended up developing a new system for which we build a low resolution version of the sentinel.

Individual blades were represented by a much simpler five sided geometrical shape that acted as a proxy. These were rigged up in a traditional way, ensuring optimal performance for animators. From the blade proximity we then cached out point cloud data for position and orientation. But also blade ID and various other primVars.

At render time, we then swapped out the proxy representation for a full scale render model. Dependent on the state of the sentinel at that time we could use different blade types (eg, damaged blades) or use primVars to drive various shader attributes to change the sentinel appearance (eg refracted ice for Iceman or glowing hot as Sunspot).

A sentinel attacks Storm (played by Halle Berry)

A sentinel attacks Storm (played by Halle Berry) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The X-Jet, Cerebro’s crimson-hued virtual world where Xavier searches for mutants and Sunspot’s confrontation with the sentinels were all orchestrated in a CG environment by MPC. Tell me about the collaborative process with [Animation Supervisor] Benoit Dubuc and [VFX Supervisor] Richard Stammers – from concept to final composite? How were the fight sequences between the mutants and the Sentinels developed?

The orchestration of the sentinel fighting our hero mutants was an important part for us and, of course, for the client. Benoit handled this part incredible well. The challenge was introducing the correct mix of agility without competing with the scale and weight of each sentinel. Richard had a clear idea of what the character of these sentinel was supposed to be. Throughout the process Benoit and his team blocked out each individual shot and went through various iterations of animation. The challenge here is to find a consistent language. Even though the Sentinels are impersonal futuristic killing machines, it was important to have a uniform and distinct characteristic.

Sheldon and MPC’s work on display in Guardians of the Galaxy

Sheldon and MPC’s work on display in Guardians of the Galaxy

Your work on Skyfall was an altogether different challenge – a hybrid approach that included over 1300 visual effects shots ranging from the MI6 building’s explosion, the Komodo Dragon casino attack, the Merlin helicopter crash at the manor and the London Underground encounter. What was your methodology with regards to the CG sequences and explosions for Skyfall? How did you manage the workflow amongst the various VFX offices?

Projects like Skyfall are very different from a typical VFX project that requires unreal effects work. The goal here was almost to hide that fact that any visual effects work were used and to provide the audience with an experience that they don’t question – or ideally even notice. Even though realism always plays a key role in our work, it is much less forgiving on something like Skyfall where our work needs to blend in with the non VFX surroundings.

On Skyfall we had the pleasure to work with Steve Begg as the client VFX Supervisor. Steve is a real veteran in the business and planned the helicopter crash into the Manor as a miniature shoot. The resulting plates gave us a great basis to work from.

To add more realism to the crash we decided to replace larger parts of the helicopter adding more natural movement, vibration and crumbling. We re-projected the plates onto a roto-animated version which was matching the miniature shoot perfectly. This re-projection then got baked out into a texture pass and which we partly reused on the enhanced animated version.

Newly revealed areas or destructed parts were filled in with a full CG version of the helicopter, which obviously had to blend in perfectly. A similar approach was used for the Lodge itself. We had to sell the impact with a lot more fx simulated destruction with explosions, fire and smoke. In addition we spiced up the plates with a lot atmospherics such as wind and downdraft.

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Voldemort’s killer spell in action, as visualized by MPC

How did you transform the fantasy world of wizards in the climactic showdown with Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort as Lighting Supervisor for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows I & II?

As Lighting Supervisor at the time I was overseeing the entire processes from Look Development of all character and assets to final Lighting all shots MPC was involved in.

It was a great experience to be involved in the last two Potter Movies which brought the series to an end. MPC obviously had a long history with the Potter Franchise and we wanted to finish it with a spectacularly high quality of VFX. Even though both parts were worked on almost simultaneously, we took a huge leap between the two by introducing a complete new shader library, which was a further step for us into the physical based direction. This made it a bit more difficult to re-use existing Look Development that was done for the first part, but the benefit of having a more accurate shading and lighting result made it worth the effort.

With the last two Potter movies we were also facing a new level of complexity when it came to fx rendering – and it certainly gave us a taste of which direction the industry was going and what future requirements would need to tackle.

Marvel's Guardians Of The Galaxy L to R: Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) Ph: Film Frame ©Marvel 2014

Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy
L to R: Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt)
Ph: Film Frame ©Marvel 2014

What other projects can we expect from you and MPC in the near future?

MPC just finished working on The Guardians of the Galaxy and it has a wide range of new projects already lined up, including Disney’s The Jungle Book, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Night at the Museum 3, Frankenstein, Into the Woods, Cinderella and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1.

I am currently preparing my next gig, which is Terminator: Genesis

Interview: Rocio Frausto
Edit: Nick Artsruni
Images: Courtesy of MPC (unless otherwise stated)

FAULT Reviews: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

DISCLAIMER: This writer only watched the first Hunger Games film the night before attending the preview screening of the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Firehaving missed it in cinemas and somehow dodged the hype . If you have arrived at this review of the sequel uninitiated then watch the first, fantastic, film now.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire follows Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) soon after their triumph at the annual death match after which the series is named. The audience had been left in a state of uncertainty – relieved at their joint survival, but also apprehensive at the Capitol’s machinations. But the Games only exist to provide measured hope as a temper for a totalitarian fear; and from a wintry opening scene the regime proceeds to pulverize the former with a heavy-handed enforcement of the latter.

The fact that the two films in this series are, in many ways, fairground mirrors of each other, is reflected in their respective straplines. A direct crossover from the books, the first film’s ‘May the Odds be Ever in Your Favour’ is set against ‘Remember Who the Enemy Is’ in revelatory fashion. The first film establishes background before dwelling extensively on the Games ritual. The sequel, in reflecting on the widening fractures, personal and societal, that threaten to unbalance an unnatural status quo, targets the true enemy in the fictional world of Panem.

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Katniss’ first battle in the arena is seen originally as a heroic fight against the cruel establishment: by taking the actions she does, we are led to believe that hers is a direct fight against the unjust hierarchy of Panem. By contrast, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire gradually unveils the levels of a deeply embedded dystopia, and the increasingly drastic measures it will take to preserve the illusion of a benevolent dictatorship.

Although the Games remain a horror to the characters, the audience begins to question whether the Game itself is any more dangerous than the world of escalating brutality that lies beyond the dome. Katniss’s dream of escape from the system – apparently promised by her victory in the first film – begins to die with the realisation that she can only lose while its authority is accepted; instead she and her allies must reject, and utterly shatter, the rules that confine them.

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When put together, the two films are cleverly constructed – that much is undeniable. The narrative arc of the first film reflects that of the sequel, albeit in an almost horribly inverted fashion. Where the brutal day to day grind of life in District 12 is seen as nightmarish in the first film, here it is almost seen as an escape from the unmentionable horrors of the Games arena. Similarly, where the first film presented the journey to the Capitol as a fleeting flirtation with fame and fortune – albeit one that the protagonists, knowing what was to come, never really bought into – here it is revealed as a descent into horror.

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Elizabeth Banks as Effie is impeccable

Against this grimmer backdrop the audience meets an even bigger supporting cast: all of them walking clichés at heart, but so vivified by the acting behind them that it doesn’t matter. Some have returned to us even better than before. Elizabeth Banks as Effie is impeccable; Woody Harrelson creates depth for mentor figure Haymitch with finesse; and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) becomes ever more disquieting as he steps out from the background. And of course Caesar (Stanley Tucci), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and many more once again bring Panem to life.

Foremost among the newcomers is Philip Seymour Hoffman, precise as the manipulative games master Plutarch. Sam Claflin performs well as returning tribute Finnick, and the brief scenes for Johanna (Jena Malone) and peace officer Romulus Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) were a pleasure. Sadly, this film is too crowded to continue singing their praises – and often the few glimpsed promises were just that. On the other hand The Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues to intrigue the audience with longevity and friend/foe guessing games, and this writer got caught out until the last few scenes.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman (right) is precise as the manipulative games master Plutarch

The problem with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, as the second act in a quadrilogy, is its self awareness. Director Francis Lawrence‘s deconstruction of the dystopia oversteps the mark of what one can achieve in a limited time frame (even though this film is still over 2 hours long). The original introduces the protagonists, the Games and the people at the heart of the insanity; the sequel tries to delve into that and expand on the world of Panem. Where the original has a strong narrative and ends in a satisfying resolution, the sequel is essentially a lengthy set-up for what is to come. Whether intentional or not, the overall mood becomes disjointed.

Although the film brings many of the same positives – among them beautiful visuals, excellent scene building and subtly visceral combat – it also suffers much more seriously from a burgeoning amount of material to cover. Between the drama, tense action and the racing, but sometimes predictable, plot, the audience is overburdened with emotional demands. Lawrence and Hutcherson are great in their roles, but have particularly suffered in this film. Their characters’ personal struggles, and Katniss’s conflict with the all-too-obvious destiny laid out for her, stretch any initial anticipation or interest thin.

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President Snow (Donald Sutherland) becomes ever more disquieting as he steps out from the background

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has to be judged as part of an ongoing series. Ultimately it is a well made and a thoroughly entertaining watch, but relies on the strength of the original Hunger Games and the promise of more to come. If we had to recommend either of the films as a stand-alone thenwe would likely chose the first. But then, how could you watch either and make a conscious decision not to hunt down the other immediately?

Make no mistake – we’re already looking forward to The Hunger Games part 3.

 

Words by Charles Conway
Edit by Nick Artsruni