Filed in: Awards, Camera, Contender Portfolios, Featured, Film, News, Visual FX
|

Contender – VFX Supervisor Andrew Whitehurst, Ex Machina

December 9, 2015 | By

Ex-Machina

Ex-Machina

An educational background in fine art doesn’t directly suggest a career in visual effects. Andrew Whitehurst recalled with a smile that “If I’d been asked what I’d end up doing, I wouldn’t have said VFX.” Combine the arts with “an interest in the moving image and an interest in computers,” though, and the stage is set for a career that has so far included work in the effects departments of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, two Harry Potter installments, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, among many others. Most recently, Whitehurst’s work on Alex Garland‘s film Ex Machina has displayed a level of complexity and elegance that suggest something of a return to those fine-art beginnings.

Whitehurst, along with many other people associated with the project, refered glowingly to a well-run production involving a meticulously-organized preproduction effort. “Alex Garland and the production company came to Double Negative at the beginning of 2013. They had already some concept art and an idea of the scope of the work… it’s not a massive budget production so they wanted to work out how to get the best bang for the buck from the start.” Highlighting these concerns was the fact that the visual effects department would shoulder such a huge responsibility in the creation of a lead character, Alicia Vikander‘s Ava.

LR-gleeson“The initial conversations for the first three months or so were presenting ideas for the design of Ava, making suggestions as to what we could do with costume, to get the most in camera, where it made sense to replace with CG and where it didn’t given restrictions of time and budget.” While the number of discrete shots was not large by modern standards (Whitehurst recalled that his department dealt with perhaps 350 in all), the duration of these shots was often long, averaging around 200 frames and peaking at a 1,600 frame monster over a minute long. Given the notorious difficulty of matching the tiny, subtle motions of a human being in CG, Whitehurst’s team put in “a massive effort of developing new tools… building new ways of rigging the character to give us the flexibility that we needed… I cannot think of any other project that Double Negative’s done that has that level of complexity.”

Interacting with this situation was the decision, by cinematographer Rob Hardy, to shoot the production using older Cooke anamorphic lenses – the Xtal Express series built in the early ’80s – reputedly the very set used on Return of the Jedi. These lenses, plus Sony‘s F65 camera system, created an image that was capable of great resolution but with characteristic edge softness. Whitehurst considers this a welcome opportunity to match the computer-generated and live-action photography. “They do fall off – you can match that… you’ve got a lot of resolution but because it’s anamorphic you’re cutting quite a large chunk of the sides off once you’ve desqueezed it.” Whitehurst’s on-set effort during the six-week shoot involved his own constant presence, with an additional VFX data wrangler to shoot lighting reference and occasionally others to perform laser scans of the on-set environment.

LR-A46-1600x0So efficient was the production that the filmmakers were able to replace more of the Ava character with computer-generated imagery than had originally been planned. This work – principally relating to the back of her head and neck – was motivated by a need to maintain the character’s clearly mechanical appearance “in the closeups – if you hadn’t replaced the head and neck you might have started to drift a little.”

In discussing the design of the robot, Whitehurst refers to luminescent undersea creatures. “We were always talking about her needing to feel organic up to a point but also feeling very mechanical. You don’t want her to feel like some sort of Steampunk creation, there’s a certain sense of otherness that you get from undersea creatures that are bioluminescent.” The work of building and rendering Ava was performed in Maya, with some help from Houdini, and rendered in Renderman. The film would be finished in 2K resolution at Molinare.

There was, Whitehurst recalled, no sudden, last-minute rush. “It was possibly the best example I can give in my career in terms of planning out what we were going to do. I think we did pretty well in terms of managing the time of the crew. I think most of them are still speaking to me so I regard that as a bit of a moral victory!”

BTL Production Listings

Video of the Day

The PA 101 for Military Veterans workshop is a 3 day free workshop created by Navy Vet Mark August.