International visual effects company Pixomondo recently completed 81 visual effects shots for the 3D adventure film Journey 2: The Mysterious Island from New Line Cinema, Contrafilm Production and Warner Bros. Pictures. A follow-up to Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, much of the action-packed adventure takes place on a strange island in the middle of nowhere packed with extraordinary life forms, mountains of gold, deadly volcanoes, and more. Pixomondo was one of seven vendors who contributed to the 430 total VFX shots in the film, with five of Pixomondo’s 11 global facilities working on the project.
“Most of the VFX sequences in Journey 2 were pretty unique so I parceled work out to different companies based on their strengths,” said film VFX supervisor Boyd Shermis. “Pixomondo did some previs for the film and I was so impressed by their work, I had to have them do the VFX on those shots as well. The sequences they delivered were some of the most challenging and render-intensive in the whole film – almost all virtual CG environments with hundreds of layers.”
Using concept art, underwater photography and real-life sea creatures as reference, Pixomondo set to work in January 2011 creating the sequences in which the mysterious island collapses into the ocean as the characters race to find the submerged Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine. In the underwater caves, the crew encounters a massive eel, whose electricity they must harness to jump-start the sub and flee to safety by navigating collapsing land masses in a race against time.
“Production had a stand-in for the eel, which gave us an idea of what they wanted proportionally,” explained Pixomondo VFX supervisor Bryan Hirota. “From there, we designed this sort of semi-bioluminescent, giant moray eel crossed with a dinosaur. In nature, you don’t actually see electricity crawling on eels but that visual cue was an important part of the story. We ended up concocting a Tesla coil meets Jacob’s Ladder effect that conveys what is needed but isn’t completely outrageous. It was a bit of a challenge but I think the end result accomplished everything we set out to convey.”
“You can really feel the peril in the final climax by the way the eel moves in those shots,” Shermis added. “The weight and fluidity of the predatory creature make it really feel like it is on the prowl and the characters are in imminent danger. Pixomondo did a phenomenal job.”
In addition to developing complicated, full CG environments and the electric dino-eel, Pixomondo created a late-addition Easter egg shot for the end credits in which the miniature elephants – thought to have drowned with the sinking of the mysterious island – are shown sporting gills and swimming towards the sunken island. Once the camera movement had been established, Pixomondo modified the elephant assets created and animated by Trickster and Atlantis assets created by Method to look like they belonged in the underwater environment created by Pixomondo. Pixomondo then built out the underwater environment resulting in a wide sweeping shot teeming with activity.
“With the underwater environments, we had pretty broad creative license under the directive of ‘make it look interesting’ along with some specific actions that served the story,” Hirota said. “Our shots were so large in scale we wanted to fill them with lots of little areas of interest. A huge open space can feel very empty very quickly if you don’t add enough activity, so we referenced a lot of nature photography, adding diverse, realistic fish and jellyfish to help sell the massiveness of what was going on. For the most part, we designed our shots and then would present them back to Boyd who would decide what was working for him or not.”
“One of the things Pixomondo came up with to fill the underwater space were these amazing jellyfish – a school of which scatters to reveal the Nautilus,” said Shermis. “The way they captured the fluid motion and transparency of hundreds of jellyfish – all shown in 3D – is remarkable. It’s one of the most beautiful underwater creatures I’ve ever seen.”
VFX for Journey 2 was a global effort for Pixomondo. The company’s Los Angeles office served as the lead facility on the project and helped create much of the giant eel. Many of their artists had just wrapped work on Green Lantern so they already had a solid team of character animators in place. Especially talented at volumetric rendering and dynamic simulation, the Berlin office was well equipped to tackle the FX-heavy shots that involved underwater cliffs cleaving, clouds of silt dispersing in the water and lava oozing out of cracks. Pixomondo Burbank also contributed animation, while Shanghai and Beijing contributed roto and paint work. Communicating via cineSync and Skype, Hirota was able to remotely supervise and guide the various international teams as well as convey client feedback as needed.