“Big things have small beginnings.” Prometheus’ David may have been referring to an artificially created form of biological warfare, but it’s a sentiment VFX studio MPC has come to embody too, having grown from a small startup to one of the global leaders in the industry over a span of 25 years. From a simple idea, a rough sketch, or a few words scribbled on a page, the studio has created endless feats of vivid spectacle that enthrall millions, whether through award-winning commercials, television or feature films.
Following World War Z, The Lone Ranger and Man of Steel, demand continues for the studio’s expertise, with its six worldwide offices currently working on no less than eight major motion pictures, including Godzilla, Maleficent, Guardians of the Galaxy and 300: Rise of an Empire.
It should come as no surprise, then, that 3D Artist jumped at the opportunity to visit the studio’s London facility, gaining rare insight into one of the most in-demand studios working in VFX today. Beginning with art direction and travelling through MPC’s world-class production pipeline to final compositing, we reveal some of the departments through which a film travels; from small beginnings to very big outcomes.
The role of the MPC Art department starts as early as the pitching stage on a project, with the team preparing concepts and reference material for studios and directors. “The Art department is made up of a core of artists highly specialised in character, environment and FX design,” says MPC art director Virgine Bourdin. “No single artist does one work – a final picture can be made with over six pairs of hands! We try to create our own internal pipeline; from storyboards through to character design and so on.”
The Art department’s spread of work goes from pitching through to production and includes full designs of unique creatures and tiny environmental details. “We tend to do big picture concepts for pitches and the more we stay working on the movie, the more we work on miniscule details,” says Bourdin. “We may have to clear up the little details on the exterior of a spaceship, like the patterns and textures, so the Assets department has a clear guide on what needs to be done next.”
The Art department’s responsibilities change from show to show, with the work sometimes based on specific creature or object creation and at other times around mood and atmosphere. One requirement remains constant, however: “It has to look original,” says Bourdin. “Those are the words spoken by every client. We need to see what the director’s style is, his vision, and translate that into a drawing. Ridley Scott, for example, had a production designer on Prometheus who is the most precise I’ve seen on any movie – he had mood panels and colour boards, which is quite rare, so we had to fit our work into that style and mood.
“For other jobs we’ll be able to plan out much more of the world ourselves. That’s why the initial part of my job is to define the context of what we’re working on, how much of a brief we’re working with, and break down the task so that we know how to sell the vision of the director.
“It’s a collaborative process,” she continues. “We don’t attach ourselves to the idea that a project is entirely our baby. We are part of team and work within the vision of the filmmaker.” However, it’s the nature of teamwork that makes the process so exciting for Bourdin. “For me the fun parts are the brainstorms we do and working with the artists on the floor. The brief is our quest and we’re all on the road towards it together. It’s that moment, when you’re creating something new, and having fun, that can create the wow effect. When you team and the filmmakers are saying ‘wow’, you know you’ve made something awesome.”
Once the Art department has produced a vision from the director’s initial brief, the 3D part of the process kicks into gear – although, often, the two teams are found working in tandem. “We’re one of the first departments to start on a show,” says Elliot Newman, global head of assets at MPC. “Essentially, as soon as we’re awarded work on a project, my team will be the first to get involved and figure things out. As such, we’re usually seen as the first department to take on work on a project and then we’re often involved in the final stages as well.”
While the Art department works on the research phase, mood panels and mood boards – establishing the broad strokes of the film – Newman’s team begins to take those things to develop them into fully fledged 3D assets for use throughout the pipeline. Some conceptual work can also be completed in 3D. “We might have a big creature to work on, so we’ll fire up ZBrush or Maya to mock it up in a looser way. We’ll then go through the design process iteration with the supervisors, directors, studio executives and so on,” Newman says.
MPC’s Assets team works on the full gamut of objects, whether that’s a roaring dragon or a bookshelf. “We do the whole thing, from hero spaceships to the smallest of props. We even model low-resolution geometry for matte-painting work, or we’ll build things for effects, such as simulation meshes, so FX can run water simulations that collide against objects.”
Of course, the job has its exciting moments too, such as the creation of the Prometheus ship in the film of its namesake. “When we started, it was essentially a block model with additional lines drawn on top to suggest surface detail, as well as some paint studies to show what the logos would look like on the side,” says Newman. “However, a lot of details such as what sort of metal it was made from and which carbon materials to use was decided by us. For the build we had to consider the metals, plastics, dirt, dust, damage and so on.”
The team even considered the interior of the model, for when it is later blown apart. “We knew which parts needed to be destroyed and from what angle, so we knew that it couldn’t just be a hollow surface and that there had to be a form to it – some structure underneath. You always tailor the build to the context of the shot. In this case it was a slow-mo destruction shot, which is one of the hardest because you’ve got nowhere to hide,” Newman continues.
It’s the challenge of the work that makes it so rewarding, though. “As challenging as the job can be, it’s a great culture to work in,” Newman explains. “It’s a balance of creative and technical thinking with cutting-edge technology. We’re forever using new gadgets, tools and techniques. Every day, every project is different.”
Rigging the models sent over from the Assets department is the next stage in the pipeline – a task that’s become increasingly complex with the rising expectations of audiences and filmmakers alike.
“Our involvement on a show can vary, but for a creature show we’ll normally be included reasonably early on,” says MPC global head of rigging Tom Reed, who has over a decade of experience at the company. “We can bring along ideas about anatomy or structure for a creature and start talking about how the limbs might move. We suggest ideas based on nature but from a technical perspective. We also work with modelling if face shapes are needed, or making sure topology is correct, or even mundane things like naming objects to ensure they’re pipeline-ready.”
It’s the creature shows that usually prove the most complex for the Rigging team. “Our muscle rigs are always very tricky, particularly with dragons and such,” explains Reed. “However, we’ve been doing muscle rigs for a number of years and we’ve got a good toolset that enables us to take things from previous features and add to them. Because we script everything, we’re able to build on the shoulders of our past work.”
One exciting early career moment that stands out for Reed is Voldemort’s nose – or lack thereof – in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “That was a difficult one. How do you replace Ralph Fiennes’ nose?” asks Reed.
“We worked with the Roto-prep department so they could work in key frames and then we’d project that back to clear out the back plate. We also worked with R&D on feature tracking, so we could track markers from the camera and project them back onto an object space. Then there was a rig that would follow those, which had basic distance measures between different trap points, which would then drive blend shapes. This was at the time we were starting to build the pipeline as well, so it was very exciting developing an efficient method. Things have moved on a great deal from those days, but it stands out as a project where I learned a great deal.”
The Rigging department works very closely with Animation, with a lot of back-and-forth between the artists. “Some of the more technical animators might rig something up with locators and constraints, then we’ll take that back, pipeline it, work on it and maybe develop some nodes to make everything work faster – that kind of thing. It’s all very collaborative,” Reed explains.
Although the rigging process is largely technical, there’s also a big focus on both the artistic and scientific facets of the role. “There’s a huge amount of research that goes into anatomy studies or locomotion,” says Reed. “For example, we got a paper from Cambridge University, which was produced decades ago, about rectilinear locomotion and how snakes stalk their prey. Also a palaeontologist from San Diego has given talks about the differences between carnivores and herbivores and why they walk the way they do.
“These are topics interesting not just for riggers, but for the whole gamut of artists involved in trying to make something real. Once those rules of nature are broken, it’s very easy to lose believability, no matter how good your subsurface scattering or muscle dynamics!”
Like the Art, Assets and Rigging departments, Animation’s involvement can start early in the pipeline at the pre-production stage. “You need to start establishing character movement and style at an early stage – sometimes before they’ve started shooting,” explains Greg Fisher, global head of animation.
“Pipeline-wise we obviously get assets made in the beginning and then there’s a lot of conversation between Rigging and Animation to develop the rig as we go along. Once the animation has progressed and we’re moving towards the end of the show, we start working on what is called technical animation, which is work such as muscle deformation and cloth.”
In terms of complexity within animation, Fisher cites Wrath of the Titans as one of the most challenging projects to date, featuring such creatures as the two-torsoed Makhai. “The challenge there is how you make something like that feel real anatomically and then translate that design into animation,” says Fisher. “There was a lot of back-and-forth about where to put the two spines, how they would merge together, how you would place the extra set of arms… It was quite a complicated process. What looks good as a still image might not necessarily work as a moving character.”
Despite the popularity of motion capture, the majority of MPC’s work remains key framed. “Wrath of the Titans was fully key framed,” says Fisher. “As an animator myself, it’s not that we don’t like motion capture – it’s a good tool – but animators like to key frame and give their creative input on their work. More often than not if you’re shooting motion capture, it’s before you’ve shot the movie. You may have good intentions for what you want to do for that specific shot, but when you put it in the movie three months later the director may not be happy with it, so you end up key framing it anyway.”
For Fisher, it’s the people, rather than the tools, that make MPC the master of animation that it is. “Animation is a creative medium, so it’s about that skill of the animator, rather than the technology they’re using,” he says. “What excites me is key framing, and bringing something to life by hand. That comes from your passion, your heart and your love for the art that you do.”
“At MPC, FX is whatever volumetrics is,” explains head of FX, Joan Panis. “That could be smoke, fire, water or particles such as dust. The landing of the Prometheus ship on LV-223 was a really nice shot using lots of these different volumetrics. We also created all the water works in the storm sequences in Life of Pi, and we created destruction effects, using our custom proprietary tools, in the Smallville battle in Man of Steel.”
MPC’s bespoke destruction tool is Kali, an impressive toolset developed for the hyper-kinetic VFX sequences in Zach Synder’s fantasy film Sucker Punch. It has been a mainstay in the studio’s pipeline ever since. “Kali is based on the DMM solver – a Maya plug-in – that we’ve incorporated in our own way,” states Panis. “Kali enables us to make bending, tearing and deforming objects that we couldn’t achieve with the traditional rigid-body systems.
“If you have a plank of wood, for example, then there are some very technical terms, such as Young’s Modulus, which inform how much the material will bend or strain before fracturing,” continues Panis. “We have all these attributes that we can change in the material. Wood doesn’t tend to stay bent once it’s bent, it will return relatively to its original form, whereas metal, once it is bent, remains bent and deformed. We can play with all of these attributes within Kali.”
Kali’s ability is particularly evident in X-Men: First Class, when Magneto tears a ship apart using two huge anchors. The tearing, snapping, bending and breaking of the yacht is an impressive feat indeed.
Flowline, Scanline’s hydro-fluid-simulation and fire-rendering software, is another popular choice in the MPC FX department. “We’re one of the only ones using this tool,” enthuses Panis. “It’s powerful in the sense that it enables us to create awesome volumetric effects.
“On Wrath of the Titans, for example, when Kronos comes out of the volcano you get these big, fiery plumes that are kilometres long. Flowline can handle these volumes well and still display all of the details. It enables us to get that detail very quickly. We also did the water on Life of Pi recently over at Vancouver and there’s the whole sinking of the Tsimtsum sequence. All of that was done with Flowline and the end result is really quite impressive.”
“You could divide my job into three different areas,” says Patrick Leda, global head of lighting at MPC. “There’s a technological aspect, where I am responsible for pushing technological advancements in lighting and pipeline. Then we have the managerial aspect of organising the team of artists, mainly in London but also in our other global facilities. The third aspect is more creative, where I can get involved directly on a show, in which case I will be supervising lighting or look development. It can be quite varied on a day-to-day basis.”
In terms of pipeline, Lighting works very closely with Look Development, coming into the process almost parallel with Texturing, right after work on the assets has begun. “Texturing will start building the first pass of textures, then they’ll pass them to Look Development and we test them in our standard light rigs for day, night, interior and exterior shots,” says Leda.
“We can quickly see how the assets work in different lighting environments. That’s when the back-and-forth between Texturing and Look Development happens and you can think about how the asset in question is going to look in a shot. You move to a more shot-centric way of thinking, so when you set up your shaders to do something, you have to think about the context. Is the asset going to be big on the screen? Are there a million of these characters or just one? Based on this you make decisions on whether or not you’re going to ray-trace or how you’re going to do subsurface scattering and so on. Once an asset is approved in Look Development, that’s when we pass it on to lighters.”
Typically lighting is one of the most demanding aspects of production, and as such MPC has a distinct approach to its shows. “We have a structure where the lighting leads have their own group of TDs under them,” says Leda. “The lighting leads give them the first notes, then during dailies they come in and the CG supervisor, the lighting supervisor, or possibly the VFX supervisor will look at the work and have a discussion about it. It’s a collaborative process with the goal of improving the image in question.”
One particular sequence that Leda remembers is the horrific transformation of Hank McCoy into the ferocious Beast in X-Men: First Class. Here the team faced the challenge of matching the on-set lighting. “There are standard techniques that most people use, like taking HDRIs of the environment, or using spheres for reference,” he says.
“We often do a laser scan of the scene on the set and that also gives us additional information about the actual physical position of lights. However, you quickly realise that the information that you’ve gathered is only going to get you to a certain point. That’s where the more creative side comes in, understanding what the physics tell you, seeing what the render is giving you and working out why it’s not quite looking right. You have to interpret the scene: is the shadow sharp enough? Is the angle right? From information like this you understand what you have to do.
“Usually the foundation is as technical and as physically accurate as it can be to begin with, then the last 10-15 per cent of the process is the more creative aspect,” Leda adds. “Those are the two core ingredients that make a good lighter – understanding the technical aspects of lighting while also having a good eye for the creative side.”
Doug Larmour, global head of compositing, details why it’s the details that ultimately matter most. “Compositing is an incredibly important part of the VFX process, particularly for MPC as we strive to create photoreal images,” he tells us. “In terms of how compositing works at MPC, it’s the final link in the chain. It’s the discipline that pushes a shot from being CG to looking 100 per cent naturalistic and photographic.
“It’s important to recognise that reality is not perfect,” he says of the compositing craft. “Reality is a multitude of imperfections that the human brain instantly recognises… For instance, if you look at Life of Pi, how much water is on that lens? How much do the lights smudge and arc? All of that additional work is what made it look so good and helped Life of Pi win an Academy Award for visual effects.”
An example of how these imperfections transform an image to perfection is when the eponymous Prometheus makes its landing on the alien planet of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic. “First the plate came in and we graded that to make sure there was a balance grade between all of the shots in that sequence,” Larmour explains.
“We then put a lead artist on what we thought were the key shots to drive the look for every other shot in the sequence. The Compositing team worked with the Environment team to build up the sequence exactly as the filmmaker requested. We graded the foregrounds at that point and waited until CG had a first version of an animation of the ship landing.
“We then did some work on the thrusters, as it was decided that, rather than the FX team working on them, the comp team could take over. The thrusters were a fire element that was wrapped around a cylinder and animated up and down. The environment and 2D lead on the sequence worked on trying to get the right amount of mountains in place, then the right amount of smoke and mist on those mountains. You only see about 30 per cent of the effects rendered for that shot. Everything else is from our vast library of 2D elements of smoke.”
If there’s one point that everyone at MPC agrees on, it’s that every day presents a unique challenge for the studio to undertake. Whether it’s transforming a crude scribble into a mythical creature, assembling a horde of undead killers or making the imperfect perfect, MPC is pushing to provide the very pinnacle of VFX excellence. “Everyone wants to have something on their reel that looks awesome,” concludes Larmour. “In feature film VFX I don’t think you get anyone who isn’t interested in what they do. At this level, people want to be the best effects artists they can possibly be.”