You may remember earlier this week when Below the Line ran interviews with Weta Digital’s VFX Supervisor Sheldon Stopsack and Animation Supervisor Carmelo Leggiero, talking about their work on the Amazon Prime Video sci-fi action flick, The Tomorrow War, starring Chris Pratt.
If you’ve watched the movie already, you might remember that absolutely epic action set-piece where the human military forces’ Deepswell base is overrun by literally thousands of Whitespike creatures. It’s one of those unforgettable moments that separate a good action movie from a great one.
We spoke about that particular scene with Director Chris McKay, but Stopsack and Leggiero were in the perfect place to talk about how the Deepswell environment was created and how Weta created the illusion of that partially-practical, partially-CG location being overrun with alien creatures.
“As an asset, it’s absolutely overwhelming when you look at it,” Stopsack said about the Deepswell base. “I think the concept work that came our way early on, was already suggesting the level of intimidation, to be honest. You saw that it’s gonna be big, but you don’t really know what you’re up against until you actually start digging into it.”
“[Carmelo and I] went out to visit the practical location, Georgia Power, an actual active power plant on the outskirts of Atlanta — and this is pre-COVID. You get onto this power plant, and you’re like 10 stories high, and you look around, and it’s like, ‘Okay, this is already pretty big,’ and you realize this is only meant to be a fraction of Deepswell. Then you get the understanding that, ‘My God, this is going to be massive!’ We had a good back and forth with the production design and Jamie [James E. Price, overall VFX Supervisor] and Chris obviously, basically to kick things off and have sort of the initial idea, describe the foundations of do’s and don’ts and what features do we look for? And what is it that we would like to avoid, basically?”
“What we did first was we received a pretty comprehensive scan of Georgia Power, which was covering the whole practical location,” Stopsack told us. “We basically sliced it out. Obviously, we had access to a pre-viz model that was suggesting the scale. What we did first is we tried to find a home for the practical location to basically plonk onto the main rig, in Deep Swell. Deep Swell was comprised of four different rigs — there was rig one through four, and they’re all sort of laid out on decommissioned oil rigs, connected with bridges and gangways in between.”
“We found this home base for Georgia Power, and then really sort of started building the world around it,” Stopsack continues. “With anything that massive, it’s intimidating where you [wonder], ‘Where do you even begin?’ A big kudos to the modeling and layout department here. Obviously, Weta has a bit of a history in dealing with large scope environments, but those guys really pulled it off, because we laid out the foundation of the main core structures, then we started building it up, building it up, building it up. We knew we had to go to granularity, that we could go into this asset and have all digital shots that are taking place anywhere we would like within this massive environment. That just meant you couldn’t have enough detail. There was no point where you can say, ‘Okay, we’re done here.’ It was almost like, ‘Now we have all the grated floors laid out. Let’s vary them up. We need some holes, we need these ducting systems, we need the nuts and bolts.’ It was basically taken to a level where I was absolutely stunned that the guys could A. Put it all together but B. Still keep it efficient enough that it was coming through our shots department, who we were able to light it. And then effect it with the effects team, because there’s a lot of destruction that had to be imposed on the structure, as well. They’re all things that needed to be considered. It was just a labor of love, and the guys here really just sort of building it up to the finest level of detail that was required.”
Leggiero proceeded to explain how there are different teams at Weta who handle the Whitespike aliens close-up vs. when there are thousands swarming from a distance. “We have the animation team, and then we have the motion editing, and then we have the crowds team. Each one of us is at a different level of distance from camera, let’s put it that way. Animation does everything that’s closer to you, and it’s a bit more bespoke, and it needs to be perfect. As further back we go, then it’s like 10 to100 creatures, and they all still have really good motion, but they’re not as bespoke, because we use a big library that we build ahead. Then crowds does everything even further away, and they can put like 5,000 to 10,000 creatures. They have their own AI system, so they know — for example in Deepswell — where to go, how to go over obstacles, and knock through obstacles and stuff like that.”
Stopsack jumped back in to add a bit more context of what it takes to create thousands of different Whitespikes for scenes like the Deepswell attack. “I think it’s worth noting the library you guys built. After we finished the pitch work, and we started knowing what the character was like, you guys instantly started working on this library, and there was almost a seamless transition. You ended up building hundreds of different clips, and they all catered for all these different characteristics and needs, whether it’s charging or walks or sort of snaking onto anyone. The swim was in there. You had it all, basically: Turns, falls, stumbles, anything awkward that you can think of. It was massive. When I went back into the library, I realized how much work you guys had done up front. This was incredibly useful for us, because the motion edit team, as you say, they were utilizing every single bit of it.”
“For them, it became almost like mocap data, basically” Leggiero confirmed. “They had all this data they could then just stitch together and go from a walk to a run to a jump to an attack to a death. They had everything, and I wouldn’t say easily, but [they] just had everything that disposal to create anything we wanted.”
The Tomorrow War is now playing on Amazon Prime Video. You can read our previous piece on the VFX here, as well as our interview with Director Chris McKay.
Photos courtesy and copyright © 2021 SKYDANCE PRODUCTION L.L.C. AND PARAMOUNT PICTURES