View Full Version : VFXTalk Interviews Luma to Bring You the Magic of The Covenant

May 25th, 2007, 07:44 AM
10384 VFXTalk is pleased to present you with a exclusive interview with the VFX team at Luma Pictures covering their recent work on The Covenant! This film was a VFX extravaganza and Luma handled nearly 80 shots including some of the most complicated fx sequences. Their work included everything from digital fx, full cg sets, compositing, roto and matte paiting to digital doubles! Get ready to be blown away by truly magical visual effects in this awesome interview!

May 25th, 2007, 07:45 AM

Luma Pictures
http://www.luma-pictures.comLuma Pictures is located in the diverse Abbott Kinney district of Venice, CA. We started about 5 years ago with about 10 artists and a plan for a studio that could be completely artist driven that does great work on big projects. Today we are about 50 people and have managed to keep our original philosophy, routinely taking on challenging projects with large shot counts as a primary vendor. We pride ourselves on working smart and having a good time doing it. Our work can be seen on such films as Mel Gibsons Apocalypto, No Country for Old Men, Underworld: Evolution and The Holiday.

The Covenant
http://www.luma-pictures.comFour have the power. One will stop at nothing to possess it! The Covenant is about four young men who belong to a supernatural legacy are forced to battle a fifth power long thought to have died out. Another great force they must contend with is the jealousy and suspicion that threatens to tear them apart. The covenant stars a host of hot up-coming actors such as Steven Strait from Sky High, Taylor Kitsch from Snakes on a Plane and Laura Ramsey from Lords of Dogtown, and was directed by Renny Harlin whos films include Die Hard 2, Driven and Exorcist: The Beginning

Official Website: http://www.sonypictures.com/movies/thecovenant/
Theatrical Trailer: http://www.apple.com/trailers/sony_pictures/thecovenant/

Lumas work on The Covenant included the major battle sequences between the two main characters, Caleb's transformation sequence, and the opening sequence of the film as well as a few smaller sequences.

http://www.luma-pictures.comFor the opening sequence of the film Luma had to create a digital environment to compliment the blue-screen footage shot for the film including stormy sky, lighthouse and surrounding cliffs and a detailed, high res rock face for the opening shot of the film. For the battle and transformation sequences, Luma was tasked with the design of the effects as well as the execution. In working with the director and the visual effects supervisor on the film Luma refined the look of the effects as a sort of liquid ethereal energy, a departure from more traditional sort of "witchcraft" type of effects. The idea was that these characters could summon this energy from the world around them and channel it into powerful weapons.

To execute the effects Luma created a variety of visual components from churning balls of liquid energy, undulating plasma fields, drifting smoke like contrails, charged particle wakes and shockwave bursts. In creating these, they relied on Maya's particle and fluids tools as well as some quality animation to generate the elements, mental ray to render the various occlusion, refraction and sub surface passes required and sophisticated Shake compositing to integrate them into the scenes. Many of the shots also required digital doubles that would mutate form, shifting from solid to liquid to particles and back again during various scenes.

We put your questions to the senior team at Luma and they were answered by the following people:

Payam Shohadai, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor
Vince Cirelli, Visual Effects Supervisor
Steven Swanson, VFX Producer
Justin Johnson, Digital Effects Supervisor
H Haden Hammond, Sequence Supervisor

Lets jump in and see what they had to say!


The effects in The Covenant were absolutely amazing! How many shots were required for completion of your work on the film, and how long did the entire project take?

Payam: This show was about 75 shots for us with and took up over 5 months of production time. Much of the time was spent working with production on the ‘look development’ of the effects themselves.

What sort of freedom were you given in creating the looks for the sequences you were in charge of and how much of a role did the director (or the script) play in determining the look and feel of the VFX shots?

Payam: Sometimes productions involve new ideas that come up after the design of the film has been completed. This requires everybody to come together in post production and collaborate on what a new effect should look like. Initially we get a general direction that is not too specific and we begin to explore different variations on that direction internally. Ideas get bounced back and forth between us, the VFX supervisor, and the director until there’s something that we agree would look eye-catching, it is really an evolutionary process.

Could you share with us planning process you follow for the VFx you used in the film, from pre production to final stage?

H Haden: When we first got the plates for the film, I went through and drew a rough sketch of the effect on a hero frame for each shot to get an idea of what it should look like in the end and what it would take in order to create the effect. Then, when I got an approved cut of our shots from production, I put together an animatic with just spheres and cylinders with bright colors expanding and extracting to show where each effect would happen. A different color was assigned to each element (like green for the lightning bolts, and yellow for the whisp cloud, and red for the powerball) with very temp animation and a key to the side so you knew what was what when you looked at it.

What was by the far the biggest challenge in term of visual effects in this movie, and how did you overcome them? Was there a different treatment? A new techique?

H Haden: The biggest challenges in the project were making Sarah vanish and then reappear in the bed and as part of the same sequence, making Caleb turn into Chase. We worked at coming up with a unique way of making them “evaporate” that was pleasing to the eye. For Sarah, we thought it would be a good idea to somehow make her turn into a smoky vapor at a specific frame and then have her whisp her away in a specific direction. To achieve this, we took the actual color from the plate and applied it to a 2D maya fluid container. We then decided which frame we wanted her to dissolve and began the animation at that frame.


The challenging part was creating the effect of her turning into a vapor in a single frame and then strategically dissolve into a drifting mist. To achieve this, we had to manually choose different frames and different sections of her to dissolve away at specific times. For instance, her face dissolved separate from here body, her left shoulder at one point and here right at another.


We had multiple fluid renders that would need to be introduced at the correct time to make it look right. A great deal of work was done in compositing with timing and various rotos in order to bring this sequence together, but in the end, its one fluid move.


What tools do you use? is it all shake and maya or do other tools play a large part in getting the job done for you? do you also have any in house plugins and scripts that you use on a regular basis?

Vince: Luma is predominately a Maya and Shake house, but we have a philosophy of trying to use the best tools for the job so we use others as well. As I mentioned previously, we have a substantial amount of customization that has been done to Maya in order to integrate it into our database including our own asset export and referencing engine as well as our multi-pass metal ray rendering system called the Nexus which outputs pre-composed Shake scripts that get reasonably close to a final composite. We also have a library of macros that we have developed over the years for Shake handling everything from advanced channel controls, color keying tools, custom layering nodes and various other macros to make the compositing job easier. We also develop shaders and tools for specific shots or shows. In this case, We used a dielectric shader for the power-balls that one of our TDs wrote. It gave us a great glassy look with some nice refraction.

Did you use any in house scripts for controlling the dynamics or was it just the maya based mel scripts. Did you use any pyro technique plugins for maya to create the fire related dynamics ?

H Haden: We use standard Maya/Mel based scripts. For the pyro plugins we started with basic Maya fluids and tweaked the effect to achieve the look we wanted.

During the compositing process, was there a need to utilize Maya camera data in Shake's 3D compositing environment for certain shots?

H Haden: We didnt use any 3D cameras in Shake for this project. We generally our own matte painting tracking tools in Maya to integrate

Was it necessary to write any custom 2d tools to help the compositors out?

Justin: The use of Shake gives us the opportunity to create macros for a variety of purposes. There are color macros for log to linear conversion and custom lookup tables to view comps in the correct color-space. There are Layer macros such as IColor, Overlay, and very robust light wrap macro called Fuse that is used constantly. These macros have become a integral part of the way we comp here. – JJ

Which sequence would you say was the hardest one to work on, and why?

H Haden: Caleb's death at the end of the film was very challenging. In order to execute the sequence we had to combine a mix of blue screen footage, live action plates shot at different speeds, CG humans, fluid and plasma FX, CG rain, fire, explosions, background replacements and various mid shot speed changes.


With such a variety of different elements and effects, all with their own unique timing and speed, making sure all of the elements looked like they were moving in pace with the action was alot of fun.


Was most of your liquid energy and plasma lightening procedural or did you have to keyframe a lot of it, in order to get it 'just right' ?

H Haden: We did have a rig for the lighting bolt that was basically a nurbs tube extruding along a curve and that value could be animated along with the width of the bolt itself. That was something that needed to be geometry to get the correct refractions and specular hits in order to make it look believable. The effect was entirely hand keyframed so the animators had a lot of fun with it.



When you first got the script did you have to spend a lot of time planning the work-flow, pipeline, and specific tools, that you needed for your team?

Justin: For this show we were not brought in to the project until much later in the production schedule in order to help production resolve some of the more complex shots. We are generally known for being able to do a great job on difficult shots in a tight timeframe. The process is more or less the same, we just have to transition to a parallel workflow, with design and execution happening simultaneously. In these cases, we rely more on creative thinking than tool selection in order to get the job done. In addition, since our pipeline is more comp centric anyway, we push a great deal of the final look development into that part of the pipeline.

Whats your workflow like? With large teams on a large job i am sure you need to manage the process properly.

Payam: Initially, Luma was, as most fledgling studios are, working on a one shot, one artist principle. As a result of going through several creature centric films, we have taken an active approach in resolving asset management. Every project has its own unique challenges, weather it is fur, cloth, water sims or anything else, we have had to develop a strong asset management base in order to allow us to work in an adaptable pipeline. Much of the work centers around export controls and reference management, with a strong emphasis on communication throughout. We have developed in-house tools for managing asset export, with several levels of built in controls.

With such a large in house team, how do you manage co-ordination between your artists on a project of this size?

Vince: The team size varies quite a bit depending on the project and while we maintain a pretty substantial staff, we do take on project hires when the show requires it. Management of so many artists in a complex pipeline requires a substantial effort and this has been an area of focus for us over the past 2 years. Our primary goal here at Luma is to make sure that the Artists spend the majority of their time being Artists and dont get bogged down in a quagmire of minutia and bureaucracy. To that end, we have developed a huge library of tools to automate tasks ranging from file naming and versioning to asset export control and preflight checks. We have automated render submissions that notify Artists up and down the pipeline when there are new rendered elements or new assets for them to use. We even have tools to allow the supervisors to review animation or comps and export assets or prepare shots for delivery as part of the review process. we have a really great MySQL Database Backend that ties directly into Maya and Shake that allows us to monitor tasks and elements as they move through the pipeline and provides an easy mechanism for artists to communicate with each other.

As an example, as a Lighter here at Luma, the process of creating a new scene involves a series of queries to the database to determine what type of assets and elements are required for a shot and the scene files are automatically constructed based on feedback from the Artist and the appropriate files, mel scripts, animation curves and tracked cameras are added to the scene. This leaves the lighter more time to focus on lighting the scene and less time on setup.

How often did the clients visit your studio to see the shots in progress and are there any tools or procedures you use to make remote collaboration a smoother process?

Steven: In most cases, we try and minimize the need for directors and other supervisors to come to our shop for progress updates and reviews. These people are very busy and we respect that, that’s why we try and get the most out of the interactions we have with them, being sure to take really good notes. Progress updates are handled thru FTP and through our extra-net and most of the feedback is delivered via email, AIM or on the phone. When it comes time for major milestones, we use Rising Sun Research's cineSync software to collaborate on shot details remotely. All in all, we find it most effective to keep all of the channels open throughout the process so that the production side can communicate on their terms and so that we can work into their workflow - and not try and shoehorn them into ours.


So do you have a in house asset management system or do you use a commercial one such as alienbrain

Steven: We work according to the "hero" method with models, textures, shaders, tracking data, animation and effects components being "published" into the pipeline. This way there is only one file to manage distribution of, that is backed up by several versions of "working" files. All versions are tracked via a mySQL database, so at anytime in the process, you can see what working file exported what hero file and who exported it. The same method applies to elements of a composite. Artists who create elements, lighters, matte painters or FX Artists, publish their work to the compositors through a element management tool so that their are certain pre-flight checks in place as well as compositor discretion as to wether or not an element is acceptable. In addition, all of our files are stored on a clustered file system, eliminating the need for multiple servers and multiple asset home directories.

When the team is faced with the challenge of creating a certain effects shot/scene...what are the typical work patterns you follow? And is the final result always as you originally envisioned it, or does the process often change and adapt as new ideas or challenges arise?

Payam: The process is always evolutionary and collaborative. We try and start by getting as much feedback from the director as possible, in some cases sitting down with them and sketching out ideas on frames from the sequence. We then bring our own talents to bear trying to come up with interesting an new ways to achieve the look that the director is looking for. Throughout the process we continue to revise and refine the effects. We always put ourselves in to a sort of quasi-ownership mode on every project, that is to say that we look at it as if they were our own creation and treat it as such. The result is that we are constantly looking at ways to make the shots better, even if the idea comes along later in the process.


Rendering, Grading and DI

How do you 'grade' special-effects? Things like fire and lightening still need to be composited into the scenes in a way that they dont look '2d' - how much of a challenge is this?

Payam: Most projects have grading done on the entire film, so they usually contract a company that specializes in Color Grading and DI. We generally grade the shots internally to match the original footage and provide mattes as needed in order to better control elements in DI. We tend to do a significant amount of research to try and figure out how things that are naturally occurring, such as lightning, looks in real photography. Often this serves as a starting point towards achieving a a more fantastic effect because of the artistic nature of creating a film, but it is important to understand some of the fundamentals before modifying them.

whats the size of your renderfarm and how long did it take to render the particle systems out? seems like at film res there was a ton of number crunching going on there!

Vince: Our render farm is pretty good size, about 200 processors. We also have a render management application that we created to take advantage of idle processing time on workstations. We have always relied on being really efficient with our resources and we prefer to work smart and do more with less rather than throwing tons of tech at a problem.


What's the "accuracy" of the TD renders compared to what the shot should look like? What do you guys get in production? How far do they dare to go?

Justin: Our pipeline at Luma is extremely compositing centric. The artistry that is done on the lighting side has to take into account that the renders will be broken down into every possible element. There are about 15 passes on average that get delivered to comp. The compositors have template Shake scripts to combine the passes in a way that the renderer would normally combine them. Doing things this way cuts down on the expensive process of 3d rendering. Each light is broken into two separate passes, diffuse and spec. Color, ambient occlusion, reflection, subsurface scattering, and other various matte passes are all delivered to the compositor as individual elements. - JJ

When creating visual effects of the more elaborate kind like these. How do you work with the graders on the picture? Is everything a DI, that gets graded first and then sent over to you or do you have to 'guess' what the look might be and then grade the footage into that general direction?

Payam: The grading process varies a bit per film. In some cases, we have a lot of collaboration with the Graders and can send over a lead compositor to work directly with them to resolve style frames and in others, we are not involved as much. We prefer to work closely with the Graders in order to produce the best result and have a great relationship with many of the vendors in town.

Did you have real time digital on set (I assume so), if so how were the DI‘s done in a fast manner, and hardware/software used?

Payam: We dont do Grading in house, but prefer to collaborate with other DI houses.

When it comes to equipment, what do you think Moore’s Law will bring us over the coming years and how do you think this impacts the digital content creation industry as a whole?

Vince: Recent advancements in GPU power and Multicore Processing have been a great help and consistently improve our workflow but the reality of it is that much of the success of an Effect comes back down to the Artist. The more firepower you have, the more an Artist can push the quality and complexity of an effect. This raises the bar every-time you complete a project and since nobody wants to see the same effects over and over again, it falls back on the Artist to continue to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems.



How about some general info regarding how these fine artists got into the business, what they think are important for young (or all) artists to know/do, and the future of Shake?

Steven: We tend to look for good generalists when it comes to Artists. We prefer a sort of Jack of all Trades, Master of Two or Three type of candidate. The reality for us is that if you are working on a show that needs a complex pipeline, you want go-to guys in key spots who know one thing really well, but the more you know about the next link in the chain, up or downstream, the better off the project is. Compers that know how to light and lighters that know how to comp simply communicate better.

We are planning on sticking with Shake for the time being and waiting to see what the next incarnation brings. That being said, we are always willing to consider the options. There are some interesting things about Toxic that we may consider for instance.

What was the major difference you felt working on The Covenant vs tthe Underworld sequels, since they both have a similar genre?

Payam: Every movie is a bit different, but this one was definitely more of an FX film, with much more work involved with the design of the effects. For Underworld: Evolution we were also the lead on the film and were involved from the beginning and with this one we were more of a hired gun. That being said, I know that many of the Supervisors here look at The Covenant as some of our best and most challenging work to date due to its complexity and the fact that we had the chance to work with production on the design of the effects.

Also, Luma did creatures from The Cave, Underworld, and Primeval. Do you see Luma as one of the premier "creature houses" in the industry now?

Payam: I think that Luma is in somewhat of a unique position in that pretty much no other house in our range has done as much creature work as we have, with same level of quality and complexity. We have kind of been on an evolutionary path with creature work, challenging ourselves in new ways with each project and we are to a point now where the pipeline is really stable and can support pretty much any kind of creature you want to throw at it. On The Cave, it was more or less one creature in multiple sets. On Underworld: Evolution we built so many complex werewolves, vampires and hybrids that was hard to keep track of who was morphing into what, when and how. On Primeval it was a simpler creature with a really challenging water environment that had to be done almost entirely with sims. So each step of the way there were new problems to work out, new boundaries to push. We just need a movie about a flying underwater werewolf that breathes fire to come out, and then we will have a full spectrum.

What cool, mega feature films are in the pipeline next for Luma?

Payam: We just wrapped up work as the Primary VFX company on the Coen Brothers next film, No Country for Old Men, and will have another high profile show to add to our belt in the upcoming Summer blockbuster season.

June 5th, 2007, 02:15 PM
How much do you charge for such a project?

March 23rd, 2008, 01:09 PM
well i will wait for next film "No Country for Old Me" form luma film.... i liked the way they work in tight time in pipeline.... .and good use of maya fluid...
can u ppl tell how this "Alein-brain"

June 25th, 2008, 10:15 AM
Absolutely Stunning Q&A sesson! Thanks Vfxtalk team!!