Arguably the most famous comic book of all time, Watchmen is an epic story about costumed anti-heroes who live in a dark time and face difficult questions about their role in a society gone mad. Set in an alternate 1980’s, the story deconstructs the idea of the comic book hero beginning with the murder of one of their own.
Making a Watchmen movie has been a dream of many filmmakers over the years and it is finally on the big screen thanks to director Zack Snyder, who is best known for adapting Frank Miller’s 300. Audiences can now see Nite Owl’s ship in action, watch Silk Spectre take on a group of thugs and delve into the soul of the dark detective Rorschach.
To add visual effects to the film and give Rorschach his signature ink blot mask, Toronto studio Intelligent Creatures got the call. Houdini was used for all the mask shots as well as particle animations such as snow or a particularly gruesome severed arm from the prison riot sequence.
Bringing an Ink Blot to Life
A monumental task, approximately 97% of the Rorschach shots were completely replaced with a CG mask created and rendered in Houdini. Even the ink bleeding effect around the edges of the blots was created using a Houdini compositing network.
“Every Rorschach head replacement was lit and rendered with Houdini and Mantra,” says Jeff Newton, 3D Supervisor, Intelligent Creatures “Houdini was used for all of our Rorschach look development and pipeline right down to the use of fur for close up cloth fibers.”
To render the masks, Intelligent Creatures decided to go with Houdini’s Mantra renderer. The challenge here was to create cloth at an extreme close up and after conducting an in-house bake-off, Mantra was chosen. These shots were going to stay on screen for quite some time putting them under heavy scrutiny. The masks couldn’t feel like an effect, except for the obvious morphing ink blot used to highlight Rorschach’s changing emotions. Audiences couldn’t be distracted by the mask which instead needed to become an integral part of the storytelling.
“In our tests, Houdini’s Mantra renderer scored high,” says Lon Molnar, VFX Supervisor and CEO, Intelligent Creatures. “Speed and quality were both there, which satisfied me as a supervisor. The price was attractive with unlimited Mantra tokens which satisfied me as an owner.”
Houdini’s procedural workflow was fantastic for splitting up “modules” containing elements which plugged into Intelligent Creature’s pipeline seamlessly. Mantra provided an efficient and high quality renderer, utilizing openEXR flawlessly, which simplified the use of 3D elements in the 2D pipeline.
Particles and Dynamics
Snow was created using particles and dynamics which gave optimal flexibility when it came to taking creative direction. These tools provided very quick turnaround, and the randomization felt natural. Artists had control over any snowflake, and could control the effect with precision and ease. Artists could also make accurate estimates of turnaround time while maintaining high quality results.
Once the team was happy with the development work on the look and the lighting rig, all the solutions were packaged up into Digital Assets. This gave the team the ability to streamline assets, while only exposing controls that were needed by lighters.
In fact, many of the lighters had little to no experience with Houdini yet were ramped up quickly. The lighting rig used for Watchmen offered a simple interface with a lot of control for the artists. The challenge was to meet a certain standard. The lighting had to be solid with proper position and angle of light and enough RGB range within light and shadows.
At the same time the goal was to limit the number of 3D iterations. The team created a workflow that consisted of check frames every 10-20 frames, with a sign off on those frames before they rendered the shot. Most of the time the shot was good to go unless there was complex lighting or shadow changes as Rorschach walked through an environment.
“Keeping controls simple streamlined our workflow,” says Molnar. “Houdini allowed the pipeline developer to lock down certain attributes so nobody breaks the workflow unless it was absolutely necessary. This kept the artists working within a predetermined workflow which minimized the threshold for error.”
Raising the Bar
One of the key reasons Houdini was chosen for this project was the flexibility to make creative decisions within a procedural pipeline. “I didn’t see people pulling their hair out,” says Molnar. “I felt little pressure to keep the creative demands at bay.”
As a result, Intelligent Creatures could continue to raise the standard to see where their “look” limitations would be. They rarely hit a wall even with extreme close up shots. Hero shots marked by director Zack Snyder were the ones that were really pushed the boundaries of what was possible. With Houdini’s help, all of the shots were handled efficiently, although the render farm had to work overtime to accomplish such seemingly impossible tasks.
Only time will tell whether or not the Watchmen will have the same impact on film audiences as it had on comic book readers. Early reviews are positive and Intelligent Creatures excellent VFX work has clearly become a part of movie-making history.
This production diary from the Empire Magazine website show finals from the movie which feature Intelligent Creatures' work on Rorschach's mask using Houdini.