As incredible as The Incredible Hulk is, even he needs some help in coming to life. For this latest reboot of the franchise, that help was provided by the special effects powerhouses of Rhythm and Hues, which did most of the special effects work on the film, and their neighboring Giant Studios, which worked on the motion-capture aspects of this successful film, which comes to DVD and Blu-ray on October 21. I was invited to these Marina del Ray studios, along with an assortment of other press members, to see how some of this magic was brought to life.
First up on the agenda was a tour through the facilities of Rhythm and Hues, a company that was founded in 1987 and made its first major breakthrough in the 1990s with the ever popular Coca-Cola polar bear holiday commercials. Today, they're one of the powerhouses in visual effects, with a credit list spanning over 120 films. They won an Academy Award for their work on Babe, were nominated for another in 2006 with their effects work on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and won their second Oscar for their work on The Golden Compass. They also won a Scientific and Technical Achievement Oscar for their pioneering work in building one of the industry's first film scanners, which takes a high-res picture of each frame, for them to work the effects onto. One thing I found interesting on the tour was that not only does Rhythm and Hues have this facility in L.A., which employs 350 full-time staffers and has the capacity for 750 with freelance artists, but they have two more facilities in India, which, "gives us a 24-hour production cycle," said our tour guide, Scott Byrd.
Towards the end of our brief tour we walked through a workstation area, which was quite bizarre and cool. For one, it was completely dark except for the lights from the computers, and these work stations were designed in a sort of tiki lounge sort of fashion. It was almost like a coven of vampires... in Hawaii. Cool stuff. We concluded our tour with Scott telling us some of the films they're currently working on, and they're some pretty big ones. Cirque du Freak, They Came From Upstairs, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Land of the Lost and Fast and Furious are all films they have in the works.
From there we were moved into the screening room where we were shown a pretty cool "sizzle reel" of Rhythm and Hues' work and we were introduced to Betsy Paterson and Kurt Williams, who both served as visual effects supervisors on the film, and a select group of their crew where they answered our questions.
What sorts of additional effects did you have to do for the alternate opening or deleted scenes?
Kurt Williams: Well, one of the things that is on the DVD was originally going to be, it was the possibility of being the opening of the movie. It takes place, basically, on an Arctic shelf and Banner is desperate, he's on the run, which is bringing back some of the original themes of the comic book and TV series. We wanted to put him in a stark place where, basically, he was at the end of the world. At that point, he wanted to try to end his life. The frustration come where he can't even end his life because he Hulk's out instead. Those effects were done, we shot them north of Vancouver. We actually went up on the glacier with Edward (Norton) and shot the majority of the scenes there. The rest of it was an environment we created from photos and other materials we received from up there. Not only did we have a partial Hulk-out to deal with up there, but we also had the entire environment and parts of it we couldn't actually photograph up there so it wasn't a very hospitable place to shoot. Oftentimes there would be a storm coming in and we'd all have to jump into the helicopters and evacuate. That really caused us to create this environment, this cloud, we had to put the sun in a particular spot, because we couldn't shoot it at the right time.
What sort of direction was given by the studio or the director about the look of this Hulk, as related to the other one?
Kurt Williams: Basically, when I started the movie, the whole idea was to return to some of the core material. The feeling of the movie was going to feel a little bit more like the TV show, that sort of heartfelt character, this tortured being. For us, visually, we returned to the comic book material. We looked at the thousands and thousands of comics that were produced over the years and we picked about a dozen of those to launch off in the character design phase, which we partnered with Rhythm and Hues and their character designer Aaron Sims. The direction we gave them was we really wanted him to be visceral. We wanted the skin not to be so gamma green. We wanted to incorporate some thing that were very natural. We put him in a real world. We put him in an urban location. We have him out in daylight and we had to create a character that you could light and integrate into that atmosphere and into those environments. We also gave them a little bit of direction from Marvel and Louis (Leterrier) with height. We sort of wanted to find a height that wasn't too big but that was believable. With regard to Abomination, it was important to Marvel that Abomination, when he did appear, was bigger than Hulk. We made him two feet taller and, although they're both gamma creatures and there are threads in there, Abomination has the gnarly bone structure and things like that. With Hulk, we also wanted to really be able to have Betty and the rest of the actors relate to this character in the scene, so it was important that we incorporated live reflective eyes in there. The hair almost became a character for us, as a part of the Hulk, so we went with the longer hair. With regard to Abomination, it was tough because, in the comic book, he has these kind of big ears and with the help of these guys, we were able to come up with what we thought was a unique gamma creature that really made Hulk a real underdog.
Betsey Paterson: I think, in a lot of ways, it was really useful to have that first movie there, to kind of experiment. They already knew that there were things that were going to work, and things that weren't going to work, so it was like having a testing phase before we even started. We knew from the beginning that we wanted it a little more grounded in reality, in the physical world. The Hulk is 9 feet tall and 1,500 pounds, how high could he actually go, with how strong he is?
The Hulk was really able to convey human emotion from his facial expressions, more than a CGI character ever did before. What contributed to that, because it's very tangible?
(Both Betsy and Kurt pointed at Matt Derksen, character rigging supervisor for the film.)
Matt Derksen: There was a lot of reference from Ed Norton. A lot of it comes down to the rigging. Just the unique thing that this particular character does, it's the first time that I've ever seen the skin slip over the bone. I didn't do that much different, facially, for this show, even though there was motion-capture face, we do a lot of motion-capture and we had key frame animation as well. Really the rigging was the big deal. Just when he raises his eyebrows is 10 times better than any other character I've worked on.
I noticed in the demo that for the facial features you used some sort of paint for his face. I've never seen anything like that before, it's usually all the dots. Is that a new technique?
Betsey Paterson: Yeah, it is. The previous systems have always used the dots, but if you think about it, you maybe get 32, I think, points that you're reading off the face. This system is a face mask. It's a sort of sponge paint so the computer can read thousands and thousands of points. If you saw some of those really grainy looking pictures of Edward Norton, that's actually data off of his skin, so we get so much more information. Even though we didn't use a lot of it, in terms of the actual scenes, it helped us build the facial structure itself.
Where do you think that you made your mark, your fingerprint, on this film, that really sets it apart from the rest?
Betsey Paterson: I think in a lot of places. We really tried, from the beginning, to get a human character as possible. A lot of the CG characters that we've done, have been monsters or creatures or animals, but we really approached Hulk from the beginning as a human, a human CG character in the film. We worked very very hard to get his likeness in his blood flow. I don't know if you can see it, maybe in the Blu-ray, but his blood actually pumps through the veins as much as possible. I think it's just really adding a level of detail that I haven't seen in a character before.
From there, we all walked down the street to the folks over at Giant Studios, who handled the motion-capture work for the film. This company was founded in 1999 and they've worked on a number of high-profile films in their time such as recent films like The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and the upcoming James Cameron film, Avatar. We were led into a huge room adorned with cameras all around and a little "scene" set up for us. We also were greeted at the studio by Candice Alger, CEO of Giant Studios, and Matt Madden, VP of Production and Development. After watching another cool little "sizzle reel," we were treated to a little demonstration by Madden where he showed us how this whole mo-cap thing really works.
It's really quite fascinating, actually. I'm sure if you've seen a special feature in a effects-laden film, you've seen someone in a mo-cap suit before, and the one we saw here was really no different. There were about 50 different points on the suit, which was worn by an actor named Gavin, and it was interesting to find out that there were allowances made by the computer for the actual movement of the suit on his body, for parts that might slide even on a skin-tight suit.
They showed us how they proportioned the actor to the actual character, and what adjustments they have to make to make a 5-foot-something actor able to appear as a 9-foot Hulk on the screen. Madden said that mo-cap was used in a few different ways, one of which was quite intriguing as well. While some was used in pre-viz, but another way was where, "you actually shot the practical photography first, and Rhythm and Hues tracked the camera motion from the live-action shoot, and gave us that camera motion and we brought it to the mo-cap stage." I wouldn't think that they would just shoot essentially blank footage of backgrounds, pretending there is a fight scene going on between Hulk and Abomination, but that's exactly what they did. They showed us some video of how they did this, showing us the actor, Gavin, acting through an already-shot scene. The stuff they can do with computers these days...
The next method was the completely CG route, where, "you're not at the expense or at the mercy of a live-action photography and you have virtually any camera position that you want," said Madden. They then loaded up a completely computer-created environment and we then realized that the mock-up on the stage, which consisted of a number of wooden boxes and a large scaffolding, all equaled something in the digital world. The wooden boxes represented cars on this street on the screen, which looked already devastated by the Hulk. What was also cool was there is a virtual camera operator that is capturing all the action, and can essentially get any shot in the world with this device that looks like about a 10 inch TV with these funky handles on them. The handles are so the operator can swivel the cam up or down in this virtual environment, and, with the other controls on the device, you can get crane shots that are physically impossible while just standing on the ground, and much more. Of course, there isn't a lens to this camera, and he's not even pointing it at the actor himself, but it's tied into the numerous real cameras inside the facility and he can move anywhere inside this digital environment.
They then proceeded to put on a little demonstration, with Gavin walking around in full Hulk mode, acting it out with the roars and everything. When we see him flip over a box on the stage, on the monitor we see a big green monster flip over a car with the greatest of ease. Then the camera man yells "Helicopter" and Gavin/Hulk turns around and shades his eyes from the bright helicopter light that's coming from the helicopter on the monitor. Of course, Hulk don't like helicopter so Gavin runs to the other end of the stage, jumps on some cars/boxes and leaps up to grab onto this edge of the scaffolding/helicopter. He starts shaking the whole thing and before he lets go, the digital helicopter is crashing in the distance. He gives us one more big Hulk roar before ending the scene too much applause from us in the press corps. Damn that was cool. We also got a laugh when Gavin, still as the Hulk, started putting the stage back in order, essentially cleaning up as the Hulk. Priceless.
And with that, our day in the CGI world of The Incredible Hulk. It was quite an informative and entertaining day... although it would've been cool to give that mo-cap suit thing a spin. Maybe I'll ask for a suit and a huge warehouse with 80 mo-cap cameras for Christmas. Stranger things have happened... Anyway, The Incredible Hulk smashes onto DVD and Blu-ray shelves on October 21, where you can see all the incredible CGI and mo-cap magic for yourself. Peace in. Gallagher out!