The anti-gravity of Rodeo FX
The screenplay for ARRIVAL, written by Eric Heisserer and adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life” – is ingenious in that it finds an entirely new angle to the alien ‘invasion’ film. Without giving too much away, their manipulation of the perception of time is the key to this truly unique story. Montreal-based Rodeo FX was brought onboard for the anti-gravity sequences in the Paramount alien story ARRIVAL during the Spring of 2015. Their work extended to recreating the weightless effects within one of these immense craft the aliens have landed in twelve locations. Underneath one of the huge ships, a door appears.
After being lifted up toward the door on an army scissor-lift, the linguist played by Amy Adams, a scientist by Jeremy Renner and the small crew of army personnel, find they are able to leap up into a re-directed gravity field. This allows them to float up and find their feet on the rough wall of the tunnel and then make their way inside.
The Overall VFX Supervisor Louis Morin wanted this complex effect to be seamless. But he didn’t want to do any wire-work on this sequence. Rodeo FX VFX Supervisor Arnaud Brisebois said Morin wanted some tech-viz so he could then reverse-engineer the workflow.
“Our Pre-Viz team, led by Alexandre Ménard built suit characters starting from scans from a live suit,” says Brisbois, “and they imported this data into ZBrush to generate the displacements. We retrieved all the wrinkles information from the scan data, then brought everything into Maya, creating six different versions of the suit to fit the different actors’ measurements. We then followed this exact Pre-Viz data and created specific camera movements into our workflow.”
These were then fed into a Techno-dolly on set, with the actors in the specific lighting specs. There were passes done on both vertical and horizontal sets for the back plates which was the tunnel. What followed was a series of reverse angle shots of the actors, called ‘face-plates’ as these were against a completely black background.
In the Haz-Mat suits there are interior-illuminated helmets on each of the characters as they are ‘doing the jump’. “This was helpful because we could do all the head tracking while they were wearing that piece of the suit, the face helmet with the glass on the front,” says Brisebois. “The other characters could be placed in the background in CG, and the background wall of the tunnel or scissor lift platform. We hand animated the body performance with the Haz-Mat suit as a CG character. From then on, we were able to more easily lay out the shot and fine-tune the final result.”
Jean-Sébastien Guillemette, CG Supervisor says the back-lighting of the tunnel sequence was hard but also a lot of fun to work with. “Thanks to the PreViz, before we began shooting, we had a very clear idea of how these scenes would look. When there is a very strong light on one side and no light at all from the other, you usually know what the result will be. Sometimes you never know how it will turn out after Digital Intermediate (DI), because there are so many ways to contrast, or lift the blacks or anything like that, but we just had to match it all in the CG. But as far as lighting and comp-ing the shots, it was a very traditional workflow.”
“This was all key frame animation,” explains Guillemette, “with the live-action actor’s face and the interior of the glass of the helmets matched onto the character. The actors were on the ground at all times. We could play a bit with tilts and orientation, referencing what their characters were doing, turning around and grabbing the tunnel wall, holding boxes, that sort of thing.”
Comparing this to the spacesuits and weightlessness recreated by Tim Webber and his crew in Alfonso Cauron’s GRAVITY isn’t valid, since here for the ARRIVAL crew at Rodeo FX, there were no rigs at all.
“In one shot, there is a real Haz-Mat suit and a completely CG animated suit, beside one another. A most unforgiving shot yet there is no clue to which is which,” says Guillemette. “That said, that suit was a real nightmare, being crinkly, bright orange fabric, and white on the inside. We had to study that material for ages to get it right.”
The Heptapod Alien
Celebrated Concept Designer Carlos Huanté opens up about that alien creature in ARRIVAL.
“At the Concept Design stage, we went in every direction,” says Huanté. Most of the artwork done for ARRIVAL was created as thumbnails by Huanté, right up until he was close to the final design. “Director Denis Villeneuve wanted something that was almost esoteric, something unconventional. Some clients say that but Denis actually meant it.”
“I loved the story immediately after reading the script; it was realized perfectly.”
“The Aliens worked well and didn’t outshine anyone. The one thing Denis and I were going for was that it should be like a whale-type being. I wanted the upper torso to feel like a man but not be a man. I wanted to give them good shapes to shoot for drama, so I was thinking of the drama the volumes would create as much as the local design or esthetic. The anthropomorphic quality of the upper torso would give the audience that relatable aspect that they would register as intelligent. Of course, I have very strong opinions on how they were realised. Not just on this film but on any project I am involved with.”
Carlos Huanté doesn’t use CG tools when he is designing creatures, opting to work in clay and 2D for concepts at all stages. He’s been known to set up final versions in ZBrush to prove a design when he is close to the final. “It is only good as a production tool or the stages between design and production,” he adds.
Carlos Huanté handed off clay marquettes of the concepts he created, to Villeneuve and VFX Supervisor Louis Morin well before Hybride FX then began recreating the Heptapod in CG. “I am so impressed with the presence they were given,” says Huanté. “The white smoke, and the ‘hands’, emitting the ‘ink’ for the logograms. These were always part of the world of the aliens. That milky white haze evolved and became the smoke as we worked. A great project to work on, a great director.”