X-Men: Apocalypse picks up ten years after the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past, with Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) all on very separate paths, until Apocalypse is awakened to find that he does not really enjoy the 1980s. Visual effects were covered by a range of companies and we spoke to three of them. Digital Domain, who handled the opening and who helped define the new Magneto ‘metals of the earth’ look starting at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, Rising Sun Pictures, who nearly stole the show in the last X-Men film, returning once again to slow down time with Quicksilver and Cinesite, one of many companies who also contributed to this summer blockbuster.
X-Men Apocalypse was shot on the Red Epic and the Phantom Flex 4K for high speed photography. The DOP was Newton Thomas Sigel, who was also the Director Of Photography on X-Men: Days of Future Past.The film was graded at Company 3 and delivered in both 3D and mono at 2.35: 1 aspect ratio. Most of the film was shot and made in Canada. Legacy effects provided the complex special effects suits. Most notably they made the elaborate suit of Apocalypse, worn by a nearly unrecognisable Oscar Isaac, ho most recently played Poe Dameron in Star Wars.
The visual effects were supervised on this film by visual effects legend and multiple oscar winner, John Dykstra. Among his many films, Dykstra was also on X-Men: First Class and he has previously worked with many of the vendor teams from around the world. Dykstra is a towering figure in visual effects, both literally at 6’4″ and in terms of his vast career.
His approach is to base everything, as much as he can, in the logic of something from the real world. Even if the effects are fantastic, the logic needs to hark back to something the audience knows from their own experience. While he isn’t constrained by real world physics he uses it as a baseline. He believes there needs to be an ontology of the film that comes the everyday or an audience will not buy into the incredible visual effects of a film such as X-Men Apocalypse.
At the start of the film we are introduced to an ancient Egypt ruled by Apocalypse. Digital Domain worked primarily on this entire opening recreating a vast army of Egyptians and the massive destruction of the pyramid sequence. Digital Domain also provided the first assistants, or original Four Horsemen, who introduce the audience to a more visceral level of violence in this film.
Bryan Singer decided to provide this film with much more graphic deaths (see Wolverine’s blood bath later). This is first evident with the ‘Pretzel guy’ death sequence Digital Domain produced inside the pyramid chamber. This death, and the incineration of other hapless guards attacking Apocalypse, was something that Digital Domain worked on but were unsure if they had gone too far.
One can only assume after Deadpool, film makers in the Marvel world are considering taking the action and language of their films further to appeal to a slightly older demographic. Of course nothing in X-Men approaches Deadpool, but this film required its visual effects teams to push the boundaries of previous X-Men films in terms of what the viewer see, vs. what was sometimes previously implied.
Lou Pecora was the visual effects supervisor for Digital Domain. Pecora was nominated for this work on X-Men: Days of Future Past along with Richard Stammers,Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer.
Pecora’s team not only ‘folded’ the ‘Pretzel Guy’ guard, but they also incinerated the other solders in a very vivid fashion. “The way the guys hit the wall.. the way I described it to John Dykstra when I was pitching the idea was…the idea of slime/methyl cellulose, with a skeleton inside,” says Pecora. “So when the guards are thrown against the wall, it stretches out and yet it is contained so as it stretched out you can see the skeleton and the liquefied organs through it..and John was like ‘I love it – let’s do it !’ And then we had to do it… and it was very tricky to pull off for a one off shot.”
Although Digital Domain ended up doing a large number of complex visual effects shots, they were only really used once. For Pecora personally, this film “in general, had more one-offs than any film I have worked on,..we have these multiple deaths – all one offs. Later we have this underwater work for one shot, followed by this amazing above the water shot, again for just one shot.”
Producer Simon Kinberg has stated that this film has more mass destruction than any of the previous X-Men films. “We’ve spent the most time talking about creating a character that’s the most powerful mutant villain that we’ve seen in the X-Men movies so far, more powerful than Magneto or the Phoenix,” says Kinberg. “The kind of scope and scale we’re talking about is like a disaster movie featuring an extinction-level event. We’re talking Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich-style moviemaking, which you’ve never seen in an X-Men movie or any superhero movie.”
This elaborate set of destruction sequences start with an Egyptian attempt to kill or at least bury Apocalypse under a collapsing Pyramid.
The original plate photography was very small for the exterior parade and establishing shots. “There was just a few feet of the procession and the ‘boat’ or barge that Apocalypse is sitting in…there was a hand full of extras,” relates Pecora. The shot contains 295,000 extras (agents) animated by Digital Domain’s own in house crowd software and rendered in stereo. Pecora says “that took a long time to get right.” The shot was not only rendered in stereo, but rendered at an over sampled 4K and then reduced to 2K for better image quality. Originally, there was meant to be 500 extras on set but “in the end I think we had closer to 25,” Pecora joked. “All the agents were based on actor’s scans in wardrobe”.
“We had just one of the blocks that they knock the posts out. And then we had to build the whole city around that,” explains Pecora. “For the interior, that was a pretty impressive set that was built. It was not that big of a room but it had these really impressive statues built, and extraordinarily well-detailed and painted. When I was standing in there, I felt as if at any moment Boris Karloff would jump out…it was really well made, and so we didn’t have to do a lot of work to extend it!” The interior did require a lot of work though, as the sun lights up the capstone and starts Apocalypse’s transformation.
The design of the pyramid was as if the whole structure had been built as an elaborate ‘Rube Goldberg contraption’. The notional pyramid has as much volume below as above, as there is a nearly empty inverted pyramid space below the main pyramid. Thus, when the whole structure collapses, the entire stone mass of the original pyramid would entomb Apocalypse. This also worked as a plot point allowing a huge fall down to the bottom – providing time to move Apocalypse’s armour and encase him against harm.
John Dykstra’s desire to reference the real world is seen everywhere in the inside of the pyramid. The way that the light plays as caustics referenced lasers being fired in mylar tubes. The way the energy from the capstone feeds down in golden veins that turn into fingers, beginning Apocalypse’s transformation, is reminiscent of circuits.
The way Pecora pitched the look of the veins to Dykstra was as “an electro luminescent wire inside a himalayan salt crystal,” to which Dykstra replied “Yes – that’s what it’s like!” This is why Pecora so enjoyed working for Dykstra, as he could reference something to him, and then his team could receive a very specific direction that they could turn around quickly to show to the director. “I really enjoy working with people like that – I really do,” says Pecora.
The only thing that Digital Domain struggled to quickly lock down was the end of this sequence when the ‘veins’ become more like fingers that reach out between the two bodies. While the final film was very close to the concept art, the team got there by a roundabout route. “We both got seduced by these videos of non-newtonian fluid…so we made a version like that and we tried various things. And then Bryan (Singer) saw it and said no, it has to be circuits. I love his thinking that the paths were already laid for these circuits, it exists almost invisibly in the air and then the ‘gold’ flows through these patterns to connect across I responded with, ‘Okay, that is cool, I can do that – give me a week’ and that is what ended up in the film.”
The sequence was rendered in V-Ray, with the destruction simulation calculated in Houdini. Digital Domain found V-Ray worked well, not only for direct rendering of CG elements, but also when matching to practical and SFX lighting. In the side of the altar there was a built-in array of LED lights, so there are some shots where the ‘veins’ are practical, and so the team had to match and allow intercutting. One of the senior V-Ray staff worked directly with Digital Domain, adding features to help Digital Domain’s CG supervisor with the metallurgy that the team explored for this sequence.
Digital Domain also had Apocalypse arriving in the 1980s. As the sunlight touches him for the first time in centuries, Apocalypse breaks out to discover the world of Michael Jackson, Madonna and rap music…none of which seem to impress him.
John Dykstra’s desire to be rooted in reality is truly presented in Magneto’s Auschwitz sequence.
The team referenced magnetic lines of force, tubes of electrostatic inductance or simply Faraday tubes, which are known to any high school science student. The solenoid forming pattern was the link Dykstra wanted for Magneto’s destruction. If one looks at the concept art released prior to the film (directly below), the destruction is more circular and not particularly original. Digital Domain suggested the lines of force concept and this was adopted not only for the Auschwitz sequence, but it was also the template for all of Magneto’s major sequences of this type.
Pecora’s design approach on this went much further than just their idea of magnetic loops. While they did base the loops on a real mathematical formula, they did not stop there. “So it is based on real magnetism, but then we scaled them up and sit them up,” Pecora explains. “Now we have the destruction arcs based on a real formula, which John loved, but now we have to tie it to a weather event.”
Dykstra wanted to do supercell clouds, which are real thunderstorms that have a mesocyclone with a vast rotating updraft. “They had to be huge in the sky but localized as well.. so now we have the challenge of doing localised weather events above the loops,” says Pecora.
The team then extended this to a notion that maybe the metal would become heated up as it was compressed and manipulated. This heat would generate steam, which in turn would form a vapour which would collect around the loops. “If you look closely we have a layer of metal, and attached concrete, there is a layer of dust and debris falling off that is compressed,” explains Pecora. “Then more dust, vapour and then the clouds. So it is all broken into layers but there is some justification for every layer – they are not just there because they look pretty.” So even if the notion of pulling metal out of the ground is ‘magic’, the visuals provide enormous credibility so the audience can connect with what they are seeing.
Even though the production did not shoot plates at Auschwitz, it is was clearly important for the plot that the characters return to where Magneto lost his family.
The team had good photographic reference of Auschwitz. While the CG buildings are not 100% accurate, they are very close those in Poland today. The filming of the foreground actors was done at John Abbot College in Montreal, Canada. The main structure behind the actors is the college, digitally modified to look like Auschwitz. But in some shots, it is simpmly the live action building that was behind the 4 ‘Horsemen’ and Apocalypse on location.
For the wide shot of Auschwitz seen from above, the team used reference from a BBC documentary on the Concentration Camp, Auschwitz, The Nazis and the Final Solution. “We studied the drone footage in that.. and of course there is a large amount of historical respect you have to have for the material, you can’t take too many liberties of it,” Pecora explained solemnly, “Somebody said to me during the shoot ‘I don’t want anything left of that damn camp by the time we are done with this sequence.’ Obviously that place stirs up a lot of emotions and I was surprised at my own visceral reaction to the first renderings of it… my stomach turned and I wasn’t expecting that… which made it a little hard to just make effects notes on it.”
Michael Fassbender.s performance made this sequence, his acting perhaps being its strongest here and the associated death of his family. “I was really proud we got to work on this,” comments Pecora.
But it was not all somber. Pecora commented that John Dykstra and certainly Bryan Singer are “movie nuts”, so the team decided to include some easter eggs. For example, in the debris that Magneto first lifts up at Auschwitz, for one frame you can clearly see the coin that he used to kill Kevin Bacon two X-Men films ago (X-Men First Class). John Dykstra was the visual effects supervisor on that film and he actually spotted the coin in dailies yelling out “Hey you got the coin – terrific – I love it!”
Inspired by John’s positive reaction, the team went a little further…
Another one of the off sequences that Digital Domain had to do was metal ships being drawn out of the mud at the bottom of the ocean. But the script never specified which ships!
The ship that is lifted off the seafloor is the USS Indianapolis that was discussed in JAWS by Robert Shaw’s character Quint. In JAWS, Shaw tells the story of people being taken over many days by the sharks after the ship sank from two Japanese torpedoes.
“We modelled the Indianapolis, we even put the torpedo holes on the right side – in the right place – exactly like that boat was hit …. in a little homage to JAWS,” says Pecora. “When I spung that scene on John he was great – let’s do it!”
Rising Sun Pictures
One of the most memorable scenes in the previous X-Men movie was Quicksilver’s prison break of Magneto. Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) returned in this film to once again provide Quicksilver with a show stealing, crowd pleasing visual effects montage that is both clever and funny.
Rising Sun Pictures did both the Quicksilver rescue, and the re-building at the end of the film, along with some other isolated sequences such as the tree destroying scenes. But it is Quicksilver’s dash to save the children of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters that fans once again gravitated around when the film was released.
Visual Effects Supervisors Dennis Jones and Tim Crosbie at RSP oversaw their teams work, which once again involved complex high speed Phantom photography on green screen.
The sequence starts with a bee slowing in flight to a near stop. Several of the X-Men are coming back from a visit to the local mall, just as the Mansion is exploding. Luckily, this is also when Quicksilver appears and sets to work getting people out of the way of the rapidly expanding blast.
The entire sequence is set to the score of the Eurythmics Sweet Dreams, and RSP designed their sequences to this soundtrack from the beginning. “This was an order of magnitude more work than the last one,” comments Crosbie.
In this sequence, Quicksilver needs to actually carry many children. They filmed “as much in camera as possible – so there was as much as possible of getting the kids on wires, rigs or model movers and then it was up to us to stabilize them,” says Crosbie. The kids became ‘digital maquettes’, which are not quite as complex as digital doubles. The team could move these maquettes and pose them.
For each character, the team would do a very simple match move to the photography of the child actors and then do a single frame match move and then a simple translate/move from the first frame of the shot to the last frame. This would be used as a basis for the compositors to stabilize to – since clearly one does not want to lock them in the frame but move them as if locked in time. Once they are stabilised, the team could move them in a very calculated way through the frame.
In summary, the principal photography provides the correct lighting and perspective changes as the actor is, say, wheeled by the camera. But the move is too bumpy to be used, plus the actor’s limbs might now be all but still enough. The footage is then stabilized and compositing corrections are added for any localized movement errors. But now the actor is not moving across frame. The movement is then inherited and re-introduced from tracking to the maquette.
For Quicksilver himself, there was a full CG character with full hair, skin and animatable clothing. In the master shot of Quicksilver moving across the floor as it explodes (above) Quicksilver on screen is a mix between actor Evan Peters, transitioning to his stunt double, Colin Follenweider, which then transitions to a digital double.
In addition various characters needed to have detailed digital doubles also made:
- The two kids Quicksilver carries out (surfs out) on the coffee table with. Their detail was almost as high as Quicksilver’s but their rigging was much simpler.
- The four kids which are tossed out of the bay window, were one level just below the two above.
- The dog, Tautan. This was a combination of a model / stunt dog, and a face replacement on a real dog. The hope had been to use deformers on a projected textured CG dog, but in the end RSP had to do a fully rigged dog. Tauntan was scanned and matched to the principle photography and then animated traditionally.
There was also a huge amount of assets that had to be made from desks to goldfish. On the previous film the team had to add a lot of props to the scene, while on this film there was more matching and replacing of props. While reference material was especially useful for timing and matching, as any DOP would have noticed when watching the film, the movie camera manages to hold exposure with the library books and explosions all in the one frame. In reality, if the camera team exposed for the explosion’s fireball then the books in the library would be vastly under exposed and vice versa.
RSP was always going to have to provide a lot of prop matching to correctly integrate the vast dynamic ranges inherent in such sequences. In the film this looks perfectly believable but there is no hope of exposing for both on set. The production was fully aware of this from the outset. Stil,l John Dykstra made sure that RSP had as many in-camera explosions and break away sets as was safe to film.
Quicksilver and other elements on set could be shot at up to 3000 frames a second, which means that the camera was required to move very quickly. For the camera to track with the action – when slowed down – it needed to move extremely fast on set, up to 90 mph. Just one second filmed at 3000 fps is just over two minutes of screen time, which is an eternity for a single shot in any film.
Beast and the dog were filmed with a point of view framing. Unlike the face replacement CG dog, Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy / Beast) was filmed with air cannons on green screen and then composited over the house set background.
The backgrounds for the Beast and dog ‘extractions’ were actually stills. It was “just a guy walking through the sets with a 5D (Canon stills) camera and we just stitched them together in our editorial and added the correct lensing and motion blur to sell the shot,” says Crosbie. “That was relatively simple to do and worked well..until they got outside, where there was nothing”. The solution for outside the mansion extraction shots was to use the fully CG house from the right angle and then build the garden as needed.
The sequence such as Hank’s POV while being extracted was filmed on a wider lens than similar shots in the last film, so as to reveal more of the sets behind the actors. This house ‘witness’ camera retraction look (or officially shot 118QR-2090) was filmed on a 12mm lens (mono). 3D Equalizer was used for the tracking and it provided the lens distortion model to match to. This meant that the CGI material had to all be 10-20% over scanned so when it was distorted to match, it was safe.
The explosions were simulated in Houdini when real explosions could not be used. The house was going to be a projection of the actual building onto rough geo but the team decided to switch to a full CG build of the mansion. “I think this was probably the best modelling we have ever done – the whole mansion is beautifully built by the texture, shading and lighting team… I think they produced a pretty magical setup” commented Crosbie.
The team primarily rendered in Arnold “as it got such a great ray tracing response” In the previous film they used Mantra and they still used Mantra for a few explosions in this film. Crosbie has nothing but praise for the outstanding physics and light optical modeling in Arnold. “We found that while Mantra was awesome for volumetrics … but especially you get into fidelity in the blacks – Arnold just kicks arse. It is awesome – really good physics.” He also felt that Arnold excelled in response for the daylight exterior shots of the mansion and all the dynamic range one sees in these sorts of shots.
RSP has been exploring Houdini’s OpenVDB for volumetrics. All shots were composited in Nuke. With all but one minor room LIDAR scanned, RSP could use this data for camera matching. They also got photogrammetry of all the props using Photoscan.
The main turnover was in August last year, with layout and blocking until about the middle of November. Only once layout was finished did the team know how much detail was needed on each asset. “We knew these assets were going to be huge, so we were very careful about which ones we wanted to focus on”, explains Crosbie.
The footage was either Red or Phantom, either way it was converted to linear light OpenEXR and then adjusted for the reduced dynamic range of the Phantom, especially with clipping in the highlights. This involved using the different channels and information from the red and blue channels to repair the green channel. While it might be easy to be critical of clipping, the camera is running at thousands of frames a second. The sequence was worked on in mono and post converted. Other sequences away from the mansion which RSP did, such as the young Scott in the toilet block, were delivered and mastered in native stereo.
As Quicksilver can move at any speed he wants (he is not binary on/off) the sequence requires multiple speeds of action: human speed, 100 0fps (high speed look), and 3000 fps (when the world virtually stops). Of course in movie logic, he ramps between speeds for creative reasons and :cause it looked cool,” jokes Crosbie.
RSP had a team of about 45 artists for seven months on the previous film. On this film, RSP had closer to 150 artists for eight months. The team also ran this production as a more parallel agile pipeline as the team took stock of lessons from the first film. All in all, RSP’s exceptionally good effects producers estimated that their Shotgun database had to track 20,000 to 30,000 tasks – all connected and dependent – to pull off the Quicksilver Extraction sequence.
RSP also did several other Scott Summers / Cyclops shots, including the tree splitting sequence when Scott first arrives at the school. Interestingly, the oak tree that the RSP team split in this scene was a photoscan of an actual aok tree in RSP’s home town of Adelaide in South Australia. Planted in 1920 just down the road from RSP head office. But no trees were harmed in the making of this film – only a couple of C stands!
MPC completed around 992 shots for X-Men: Apocalypse. Teams in Montreal, Bangalore and London created the epic Final Battle Sequence, the Cerebro Room and multiple Mutant Powers including; Archangels Wing’s, Nightcrawlers ‘Bamf’, Magnetos and Cyclops city destruction powers, Mystiques body blades, Jean’s Phoenix, Storms weather control, Psylocke’s psionic sword and whip.
The biggest and most challenging sequence was the final battle in which the X-men fight against Apocalypse and his 4 horsemen. MPC created (and destroyed) a full 3D digital replica of Cairo. Based on reference photographs of the area, modellers built a library of around 60 buildings using Maya and ZBrush and textured them using MARI and Photoshop. Layout then used in-house tools to build up a detailed 3D map of the center of the city consisting of around 150,000 individual assets, whilst the outskirts of the city were created as digital matte paintings. MPC’s FX artists then created a library of the devastated elements of the city.
MPC’s work included some of the film’s most impressive and complex destruction sequences. A mixture of Maya, Houdini, MPC’s destruction tool Kali and compositing in Nuke were used to reduce Cairo to rubble. In the sequence, Magneto shifts the earth’s magnetic fields using his intensified mutant powers, destroying iconic locations including New York City, Sydney and Cairo.
MPC worked up this final global destruction sequence using stock footage to recreate the various locations, artists used curves to demonstrate the magnetic force radiating from Magneto and FX artists used Kali to destroy the locations.
One of the most iconic mutant scenes undertaken by MPC, was the transformation of Angel into Archangel. Injured from the cage fight, Apocalypse uses his powers to re-construct Angel’s wings into metal. For this sequence, the modelling team created a digital replica of Angels upper body and animated formers to represent ribs sliding under the skin. After this painful body structure change, MPC used some of Angel’s larger feathers, manipulated them to line up with the Archangel wings, and then coated them in metal, using a metal shader to perfect the fine details.
During the sequence, Nightcrawler knots his tail around Angel’s neck. MPC replaced the prosthetic tail worn on set with a CG appendage and added subtle wrinkles and skin sliding over the muscles. MPC also updated Nighcrawlers ‘bamf’ effect using Houdini.
Towards the end of the battle scene Jean transforms into The Phoenix to fight Apocalypse. MPC used keyframe animation and added in cloth simulations to make the movements appear more natural, whilst fluid and particle simulations were used to emit the pulse of energy. MPC then took the digi-double created for Apocalypse and modelled his internal structure, so that when The Phoenix tears his body apart layer by layer, volumetric simulations could be used to disintegrate each layer.
Finally MPC brought the Cerebro Room to life. Various looks for multiple sequences were needed for these sequences, most of which were completed in compositing by exploring the limits of 3D in Nuke.
In one of the bloodiest sequences in the film, Wolverine is released while several of the X-Men are held captive. To help with this sequence Cinesite contributed a set of shots. Most significantly, the hanger and Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler dimensional jump shots. This needed to match earlier particle system animations in terms of his negative space gas implosions.
Nicolas Chevallier led the small team at Cinesite in Montreal that got involved at the end of the show to help finish the film. One of the things that Chevallier was happy with was how quickly their work was accepted and approved by Dykstra. Both Dykstra and Singer gave the team very clear direction and in turn the team found they could deliver high quality finals that hit the mark quickly. In total the team did about 30 shots in the film.
The Cinesite team did the environment work and jet hanger. The jet asset was a pre-existing asset that the team took over and used. One of the challengers was that the film was shot in native stereo, so the team were glad to have a very efficient stereo pipeline.
Cinesite had 20 people working on the project from matchmoving, stereo prep, animation, lighting and compositing – which is not a huge team.