How 'Watchmen' Crossed SFX's "Uncanny Valley"

Watchmen Trailer

There’s something in Watchmen that breaks ground never before explored by a live-action movie. It’s no specific scene or even a particular sequence. It’s the perhaps indefinable moment when a moviegoer stops thinking of Dr. Manhattan as a special effects tour de force and just sees him as another character interacting with the likes of Nite Owl, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre or some Viet Cong soldier begging for his life. “Doc,” as his creators affectionately call him, has become as real as Malin Ackerman or Matt Frewer, even if there’s a hypnotic blue glow coming from behind his irises.

Here’s the kicker. Everyone marvels at the performance of Billy Crudup as Manhattan, but like the character he portrays his actual body has been consumed. What we are seeing is an almost purely animated creature, even if his origins were once purely human.

In the animation world, there’s a phrase called the “uncanny valley.” It describes how since the creation of the process, the more human you make an animated character appears, the less believable it becomes. Over most of the decade, films ranging from the CGI-derived Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within, and on through the likes of Polar Express, Monster House and Robert Zemekis’ Beowulf have been coming up with more and more “realistically” rendered characters. What they end with more often than not are human-looking things that move like old Gerry Anderson super-marionettes and are as expressive as George Romero zombies.

Manhattan jumps over that valley as easily as he can jump to another galaxy. In other words, the FX and animation wizards under the aegis of VFX Supervisor DJ DesJardin (who’s credits run from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon through X-Men: Last Stand), have set a new standard. They have crossed the uncanny valley.

“I used to joke that one of my goals was for people to walk out of that studio thinking ‘Wow! Billy Crudup really worked out for that part,’ admits Kenn McDonald, director of animation at Sony Imageworks, the studio actually responsible for Manhattan. “I didn’t want them to think the character was really CG. I wanted them to think, when effects really are well done, they should be invisible as far as the audience is concerned. They should not think about the effects.”

What many might not realize is although Watchmen is titularly a Warner Bros/Paramount production (yes, with Fox getting a legal cut), DesJardin actually farmed out a lot of the VFX work to other studios.

“It comes with the territory,” DesJardin said. “We used something like nine different facilities for the effects. For instance, I targeted Sony Imageworks right away because of their movies like Polar Express and Beowulf. I figured that was probably the best motion capture rigs I was going to see. They understood a lot about how the face worked and all those details. I figured if we could start with them on Doctor Manhattan, and work up from there, we would be in pretty good shape.”

Other people DesJardin brought in was a fellow FX wizard Pete Travers, especially for the explosive final sequence of the death of New York, Vancouver’s Frantic for the Glass Palace and Mars, while he worked on Rorschach’s mask himself.

Still, when Manhattan first appears on the screen, the vividness and forcefulness of this animated performance is undeniable. You can thank McDonald for that.

“Some of it is new technology, but a lot of what works on Doc, especially in the facial performance, is we’ve been doing this for a while,” says McDonald. “I was the sequence lead on Polar Express. I was the Animation Supervisor on Beowulf. A lot of my key people and animators came with me on Watchmen. We’ve got to a place where we’ve figured out how to do this. We now concentrate on what are the small things, the details that make something like this work. We’re just getting better and better at it.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t developments in technology. There certainly are. It’s certainly getting better and better. Since it started, developments in computer animation have been incremental, but twenty years have gone by and I would personally say that we’re now maturing. We are ready to enter the adult stage.”

That also doesn’t mean Crudup wasn’t important.

“It was a combination of Billy’s performance, the character itself, animation, rendering and all the effects coming together to give us a character that was convincing,” McDonald concurs. “Billy was on set. He was wearing a suit that had markers on it. The suit was also lit up by a couple thousand LED lights. So Billy was an interactive lighting source within the set. This was something worked out well in advance. This way instead of having to add in Manhattan’s blue glow, which in turn lights on people’s faces and stuff, the glow was naturally there.

“Then we had three cameras on the set. There was the main motion picture camera. Then we had two high definition video cameras. They would shoot Billy from different angles to give us more coverage. The hope had been we would shoot a lot of motion capture data from that. It turned out there was just not enough cameras. So what we did was use those for grid coverage, then use that to animate his body. We were also able to get motion capture data for his facial performance.

“What it really comes down to though is Billy’s performance, with a little bit of facial motion capture. That’s when we call in the animators. This data helped them with timing, texture. When it gets down to it, we had a really talented group of animators. They augmented Billy’s performance by hand. I would say that Dr. Manhattan is really 10% motion capture and 90% Billy and the animators.”

Actually, to get the full monty of Doc (as it were), McDonald also through in one of the oldest animation tricks in the book. It’s a technique first created by Max Fleischer and them seriously advanced at Disney.

“Anything Manhattan did with his body was animated based on the video reference,” McDonald said. “In other words, he was roto-mated. The facial performance was a layer underneath the animation to help the animators get started. That was 90% animation though.”

The important thing is even through all the animation, Crudup himself isn’t lost in a blue haze. “Billy was very complimentary about the character,” DesJardin notes. “He told me he could see himself in it.”

A more subtle use of animation came in with Rorschach’s mask, which DesJardin put a personal interest into.

“We wanted to make sure that Rorschach’s face was heroic material,” says DesJardin. “My first thought was I wanted to replace as little of the mask as possible. We had to be careful how we blended that scene. Like 90% of the time we ended up replacing his head. It was kind of a Benjamin Button trick.”

“The work on Benjamin Button was pretty amazing, too,” McDonald says. “In these two cases, it was a single character and a small crew of animators focusing on that single character, putting everything they had into that. Our crew consisted of 14-15 animators. On this level, we’ve figured out how to do it.”

“Jackie’s performance had so much to do with his body and how he moved around,” DesJardin adds. “: I didn’t have much to do with that. So we had to track that really accurately. We would keep the hat, the scarf and things like that. The rest became roto-objects for us to replace.

“Still, we made sure to put real material on Jackie’s face,” DesJardin continues. “The mask we put on him was actually the color and the material of Rorschach’s mask. What we did was put pretty big cut-outs for the eye holes. This way we could see what Jackie’s eyes were doing. I also added some green tracking markers, small ones about a centimeter in diameter, so we could constantly track his facial orientation. Still, while you might think there were a lot of swaps going down, there really were not that many. There are actually a couple of shots where all we did was fill out the eyes. There are also a couple of really, really long shots. I have to admit, the tracking was really arduous. It seemed the slower the mask moved, the harder it was to track it. Faster, bigger movements are actually easier to do. It seemed that when you were doing things slowly, and you didn’t get it exactly right, Jackie’s head would look like it bobbled.”

Still, the real eye candy comes when Manhattan and Silk Specter are on Mars in the Glass Palace. One gets the feeling it taxed the resources of those involved to their extreme limits.

“That was interesting because Alex McDowell, the production designer, had done a lot of paintings and CG renderings just for Mars,” says DesJardin. “Alex and I spent a lot of time in an area we called the War Room, just staring at the walls, where all the big paintings were, where I kept saying to him, ‘Well, how does it move?’ We talked for a long time about that.

“What I decided to do was, I did all my previews with a group called Frantic Films out of Vancouver. It was great because Zack [Snyder] was shooting up there anyway. One of the things that really concerned us was the Glass Palace movement. It wasn’t just how big was the scale of the thing, it was how the big pieces moved against the smaller ones. What is the clockworks quality of the Palace? There were problems of interceptions and various geometries crashing into each other. We knew that Manhattan could bend space and time, but we didn’t want it to be too magical.

“So one day, while at Frantic, I was working on the general motions of the Palace. After a few days of playing with the various weird things, Alex and I said ‘when a segment approaches another segment coming from a different direction, why don’t we have them sort of move out each others’ way a little bit?’ They actually leave their axis of travel, shift out of each others way, and then shift back to their original path. It’s really subtle. The only way you can tell is you have these laborious, slow movements suddenly interrupted by these fluttering movements in back of them.”

Then there was the matter of incorporating Doc and Spectre into this incredible setting.

“A lot of that was procedural,” says McDonald. “We actually had an effects animator who spent most of his time working out the mechanics of the palace motion. From there it was handed to us and we would clock it into Billy and Malin.”

“We shot Billy and Malin on a green screen stage,” DesJardin recalls. “The only time they really move is when they were entering the Glass Palace. For that I had the art department make these big green steps that had mirror plex material on them. This way the green screen reflected into the steps all the way up to the balcony/platform they stand on. Their reflection would also be in it. Also, Billy with his lights, would cause all kind of reflections off of Malin. It’s an old trick, but it worked really well there. From there, we would sometimes shrink it and insert into the Glass Palace. Other times all we had to do was remove any glare, soften the edges and make it all look like one thing.

“Zack was also very helpful on this. No matter what, he wanted the Glass Palace to look like it was grounded in reality. He always made sure, even when we later went to Antarctica, that you knew where the light was coming from. He made sure the sky always tapered off into the dark. Still, the Glass Palace does have a very dreamy quality to it.”

As for final opinion, DesJardin has been in the business long enough that he knows he’s not going to satisfy everyone.

“I’ll let the fanboys do their slagging,” he laughed, “and they will. You know, I was able to finally watch this in a theater from beginning to end for the first time the other night. Now I’m like a lot of creators. When I first look at something I did, I can’t get into it right away. I keep on thinking about what I could have done that would have made it better. You analyze it too much.

“This time, after the title sequence, and as the fans started giving real good reaction to the film, I started to relax. I could just watch it. I saw that the color correction, which we spent weeks on, was as good as it was going to be. I also heard that the sound guys had done a really amazing job. By the time it was over, I felt pretty proud of this.

“To top it, the reason I now feel really proud is twofold. First, the people around me were so good and felt as much about the movie as I did. So working with them, they never pulled me away from the logical path this film was ultimately produced in. That way I could put together some really good effects. The film followed naturally to its final fruition. Believe me when I say I’ve worked on some projects where you don’t get that chance. You know in your heart you could have made a better film if you didn’t have to deal with things like that. It was a true labor of love from everyone’s point of view.”

And the second reason DesJardin is proud of this movie? You can almost hear the geekboy in him when he owns up to it.

“I got to sit next to Len Wein,” he crows, “the original editor of the series and a fine comic writer in his own right. He created Wolverine for God’s sake! So he was sitting next to me and my coordinator, Trisha. When he introduced himself, I was in total awe of that. Then when he reacted really positively to the film, that was all I needed to hear. For a brief moment I got to think that one of my personal heroes liked something I did. It’s a nice sense of self-satisfaction.”

McDonald will also own up to a great sense of gratification on this project. Then again, he’s also well on his way into his next project, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, where he’s just sitting back as an advisor/animator.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s a nice break and very funny,” he says. “The next step is to try to do it with Beowulf, and do an entire film populated with these characters. The difficulty is the scale is just huge. It would take a small army of animators to maintain that level of quality. That would include the EFX work and the rendering, all the texture and displacement maps. It’s all the little details that make it work.”

At the same time, with people like DesJardin and McDonald at the helm, you get the feeling that day will come very soon, very soon indeed.


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