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Image Engine Creates Visual Effects for Zero Dark Thirty

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Navy SEALs raid Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.
Vancouver-based Image Engine recently provided over 300 VFX shots for the critically acclaimed feature film Zero Dark Thirty, which is now playing in theaters nationwide, and has been nominated for a 2013 Visual Effects Society award for outstanding supporting visual effects in a feature motion picture. This included creating the computer generated Stealth Hawk helicopters (top-secret military vehicles used during the operations), as well as augmenting the bustling military encampments with computer-generated environments, digital soldiers and vehicles.

Zero Dark Thirty really required the crew to push reality to the limit,” said Geoff Anderson, visual effects producer at Image Engine. “It was of critical importance to the filmmakers that the CG elements were as true to real events as possible, so we had to pay attention to every detail with rigorous scrutiny.”

Much of the action takes place in almost pitch-black conditions, which was one of the greatest challenges for the visual effects crew. “This zone had the thinnest light margins I’d ever seen,” said Chris Harvey, visual effects supervisor for the production. “It was a very important detail, to keep the film true to real events, but it also made it much more difficult to produce a convincing performance from the computer-generated elements. The crew did a tremendous job of getting things to be interesting, clear and technically sound in such a narrow band of light. This was achieved through highly nuanced look development and taking a creative approach to lighting each individual shot.”

A large team of VFX artists worked for over two months to recreate the feel of bustling military encampments, which were finished to a very high level of detail. This involved the addition of upwards of 400 digital soldiers, extensive background matte paintings, ground vehicles, planes and computer generated desert dust simulations. The dust clouds generated by the CG helicopters included detailed debris such as bottles, plastic bags, cardboard pieces and clothing, which all had to behave differently.

“High-end invisible effects, such as digital environments and hard surface animation, have become increasingly important core competencies at Image Engine,” said Steve Garrad, visual effects executive producer. “A film like Zero Dark Thirty relies upon Image Engine for highly nuanced, photorealistic effects, and I think the results speak for themselves.”

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