Head over to the website of visual effects studio Luma Pictures and you can watch a short YouTube clip of a prank played by its Melbourne office on their colleagues in Santa Monica, in which they pretended an air raid was happening during a Skype call.
The revenge prank (the Santa Monica office had pretended to the Melbourne team that there was an earthquake in Los Angeles only the day before) is a neat summary of what Luma is as a company – they make astounding visual effects from dual offices, and they have some fun in
But there’s a serious side to Luma’s work too, evidenced by the astounding work it has made. Among the many highlights of recent Marvel films are several Luma-made VFX sequences, including the metal-slated Destroyer creature in Thor, Ant-Man’s escape through a cardboard model in his movie, and a repeating confrontation between the dark Dormammu and Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange.
Luma has been making film visual effects since 2002 and has also worked on many other properties, from the Underworld films to No Country For Old Men and the Divergent franchise.
This might all sound like the work of a large VFX facility, but Luma has remained purposefully mid-sized and independent, reaching around 200 artists between its Santa Monica and Melbourne offices. That deliberate attempt to stay nimble and flexible has given the studio an edge in delivering effects services more efficiently than most.
At the same time, Luma has branched out into TV commercials, new media such as mixed reality and virtual reality, and animation. It’s become one of those VFX houses that the film studios and producers are eager to hire, and that artists are also extremely eager to work for.
So, how is Luma different?
The first difference is Luma’s dual localities. While several studios now have multiple offices, Luma has capitalised on having two locations that give it a footing in separate time zones and, with Melbourne, the ability to take advantage of creative industry government incentives.
CG supervisor Andrew Zink also suggests the two offices effectively tag team on projects. “We’ve built the infrastructure and technology in order to pass any element within our pipeline to one another depending on the time of day and our client’s needs,” he says.
Luma is a key proponent of using technology to help produce effects efficiently. The studio has a dedicated development team and was one of the early studios to jump on board Solid Angle’s Arnold renderer. Furthermore, artists are, according to Luma animation director Raphael Pimentel, “encouraged to forge their own ideas for tools and as a result work very closely with the riggers, pipeline developers on character rigs, motion libraries, user interfaces and shortcut tools to improve workflow.”
Perhaps one of the major differences from other studios – again related to technology – is Luma’s amalgamation of its lighting and compositing team. Artists in this area are affectionally known as lompers. “If you are a lighter, you will composite your shots; likewise if you are a compositor, you will light your shots,” explains Zink. “It was an out-of-the-box solution to promote an efficient pipeline between departments. As a lighter/compositor, you are responsible for seeing your shot all the way through from the beginning of the lighting pipeline to delivery of the final product.”
“This promotes our artists’ efficiency by giving them the ultimate control of their shots,” adds Zink. “From a compositing standpoint, when our artists breakdown their shots, they immediately know what passes they need to generate via rendering. The communication lag between compositor to lighter has been eliminated and essentially speeds up our daily workflow. Likewise, as a lighter generating your passes for your comp, you understand when and where you can optimise your light rigs and render settings in order to generate your passes necessary for your comp.”
Work on Hollywood films can be incredibly demanding, which is why Luma’s artists say inside the company there’s a culture that’s very different from other studios. A dedicated team ensures employees have a positive work/life balance, something that’s sometimes hard to do in the industry. “Luma’s culture team makes sure we have the most positive work environment and have fun between and after work hours,” says CG supervisor Alexandre Cancado.
Although the studio is not one of the largest, it did go from a small number of employees to 200 while having them operate on two separate continents. That was another challenge for the culture team. “Somehow we manage to get things done smoothly and we pretty much know everyone in both sides,” notes Cancado. “We all work hard but at the same time we have a great time. This wouldn’t happen without our awesome culture team. It can go from small things like having a snack break every afternoon to both crews going to Hawaii or Fiji,” adds Cancado, referring to the end-of-year breaks Luma takes its artists on. “I’m not sure if after all these years I would have the same passion for visual effects as I do now. Luma and its culture plays a very big part in my life and I’m thankful for it.”
Everything leads to Doctor Strange
Luma’s approach to design and technology – and culture – over the years recently culminated in one of the studio’s most challenging projects: visual effects for Marvel’s Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson. Luma was charged with some shape-shifting battles and realising the climactic Dark Dimension confrontation Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has with the evil Dormammu.
The shape-shifting scenes saw characters able to transform the environments around them inside what is known as the ‘Mirror Dimension’. Research into fractals was necessary to complete the work. “Animators worked hand-in-hand with the riggers and the development team to write a ‘fractal rig’ for the London alleyway battle and cathedral sequence in Doctor Strange,” describes Pimentel. “This fractal rig was used in Maya, real-time, giving the animators a visual representation of what would eventually be rendered and seen on screen.”
The challenges for the Dormammu confrontation were both creative and technical. First, Luma needed to match some psychedelic imagery established in the original comic books, and deliver a blacklight and almost fluorescent feel to the scenes. ‘How do these colourful drawings translate in the movie, and how do we make it look real?’ were the questions the Luma crew grappled with. Added to the mix was the villain Dormammu, who had to be made of smoke and fire. Ultimately he would be created from facial motion capture of Cumberbatch himself and some custom-built Luma effects simulations.
Then there were the various planetoids and bridges of the Dark Dimension which filled out the shots. The result was enormous amounts of geometry, something tackled by Luma’s development team to ensure the work could even be done. “Before the team was involved, some of our scenes took up to 40 minutes to open, we could barely change frames and our 128-gigabyte machines would quickly run out of memory. That’s how heavy it was,” says Cancado. “To solve these issues, our dev team had to replace old Alembic files, since these types of cache files were too heavy and slow for us to use. Multiverse was chosen as an option to replace Alembic files. Our development team had to work around the clock to make sure that this technology worked with our pipeline, our main renderer Arnold and other programs. We had to create a lot of proprietary tools to make it reliable and production ready.”
The big film visual effects are the most visible aspects of Luma Pictures’ output, but in recent times the company has made efforts to become more of a generator of its own IP and not only a service provider. Led by several in the company, including founder and executive supervisor Payam Shohadai and VP and VFX supervisor Vince Cirelli, Luma is planning an expansion into animated content and its own live-action feature filmmaking.
The idea is to leverage the artistry, skills and technology it has developed already in visual effects, but be the producer and owner of the work. It might just be the future of the industry in general, and Luma seems to be leading the way.
This feature originally appeared in issue 102 of 3D Artist. Subscribe today and never miss an issue!