Creating the Visual Effects of Conan

One of Conan Movie Blog’s most tireless agents, Stampfer, sent this to us months ago, but due to unforeseen circumstances (read: gremlins) we’re only now just getting around to posting it here. A year late. That has to be some kind of ignominious record. However, since some of the information ties in pretty neatly with the new trailer, what better timing could there be?

Back in June 2010, Kevin Tod Haug (left) and Ron Frankel (right) did a presentation on the new role of visualization in VFX production  at FMX:

Drawing from their current work on the feature film “Conan,” Ron Frankel and Kevin Tod Haug examine new fundamental shifts in visual effects design and production, where long-held divisions between prep, production and post are crumbling. Central to their argument is the expanded role of visualization and how a combination of existing and new technologies can be used to drive design and story from the earliest moments of development through production and into post.

Once again, I’ll be providing a transcript, as well as pictures of some of the more interesting shots of the presentation.

The first video lays the groundwork of the technical details for much of the rest of the presentation, and though Conan the Barbarian (here still using the previous title Conan, what with it being in 2010 and all) isn’t mentioned until the 8:25 mark, if you’re interested in that side of filmmaking, it’s an interesting listen:

FRANKEL: I think what Kevin and I are experimenting with right now with our work on Conan is this idea of, essentially, bringing all of this information onto the set, so that it can still remain a somewhat fluid, not necessarily open ended, but you get access to all of this information on set.

The second video doesn’t discuss Conan specifically, but goes into more detail about the process.

The third video, however, goes into much more detail, and includes pictures of the set and effects!

HAUG: Now Conan, we basically stole time from production to come here: it’s being shot in Sofia, right now, and it’s sort of adventures in “Extreme Low Budget Land.” So, you’d have to wonder why something like this would actually fit this paradigm at all, but again, it’s about being able to be efficient: it’s about being able to make things happen quickly and efficently.

So you have a director who really cannot abide looking at green screen – Marcus Nispel’s directing it – and if you put a green screen on set, he’ll just find a way to look off of it, and he’ll just sort of direct the action round there. He’ll sort of run, he’ll put the green screen behind him, and then he’ll move back to where he was before, and you just give up!

So this was a way of being able to show him an environment that he simply couldn’t shoot in. There were two environments, we’ve got examples here; one just doesn’t exist, so you can’t shoot there cause… it doesn’t exist; and the other one’s an environment that’s just so difficult to imagine shooting in – the production did everything in their power to talk him out of it, especially on the kind of schedule we were on, the idea of going into this cave in Bulgaria – it just wasn’t something anyone would want to consider.

HAUG: So here it is, it’s difficult to tell, but it’s gigantic. In English, it’s called the “God’s Eye Cave.”  We had at least one – yes, that is a person! Whole cities could fit inside this thing, and yet the floor is incredibly uneven, water runs on it, and it’s hundreds of yards from the local… anything. Getting power down in there, everything else is crazy: can you imagine putting stunt rigs in? Anyway, it’s horrible.

That looks almost certainly like it could be the “giant limestone cave” that “they flew planes through them during World War II” Jason Momoa was referring to in a recent interview.

HAUG: So from this, we had to find another way to do it. We have some video here… so this is the pre-vision system on set…

FRANKEL: The fundamental idea was, since the Karlukova set’s cave was essentially an impossible-to-shoot-in location, the idea was to find a way to bring that cave onto the stage. As Kevin was saying, the director doesn’t really like looking at greenscreen, that’s not his style, so the idea was essentially to replace it, to bring the cave to him and to put him in the cave, and immerse him in a way that would essentially make it a creative experience for him rather than a trying, troublesome, tedious one.

From then, Frankel talks about the technical points which I’m physically and intellectually incapable of transcribing, but certainly go onto the site and view it for yourself. That said, there are some other highlights: , and if you squint, you can get a look at a facsimile of the environment on the monitor, which seems to depict the Karlukova cave in question, Prohodna (you can go on a virtual tour here.) Frankel also says that the “metal ring” will be a set piece in the film environment, and that this allows more of the production to become enthusiastic and involved in the green screen process:

FRANKEL: Suddenly, what we have is a metal ring that will be a key set piece inside the real environment. And so, suddenly there’s this whole discussion of where is it in the cave, why is it in the cave, what are the views from the entrance of the cave, how do they approach it, how do they exit it – it becomes a creative dialogue. We’re not just looking at a technical tool anymore, we’re actually looking at a tool that has been creating an opportunity for creative discussion.

Now, where have we seen a ten-foot ring shaped object before…

Are we looking at the creation of the climactic act of the film?

The fourth video deals with one of the most striking images from the recent trailer, which Haug calls the “bridge to nowhere.” Here’s a large-resolution image of it, and now we can see how it was done:

HAUG: This is an entirely synthetic environment, and this is a really good example of why this is useful for a director who wants to be on set, but wants to do things in a virtual environment.

FRANKEL: This started off as being a matte painting in a practical location, but the matte painting quickly developed into something that was way beyond what the initial location was. The director fell in love with it, and basically said “this is what I want, this is what I want to shoot, this is what I want my environment to be.”

FRANKEL: Here’s just a little demo that shows how we basically took that matte painting – no rocket science here – we essentially built it into a 3D environment; used some of the matte painting as projected textures, just to keep it as true to the initial matte painting as possible; and now, just working in our small office – this is literally a tiny office – we have our own producers there just so we can test everything out before going out on set.

We’re starting to look at virtual camera loops, virtual set exploration, this is using the same system, just a different application. Not as a camera tool, but essentially as a set exploration and shot design tool, just another way to get director and DP, production designer kind of involved and engaged.

The fifth and final video ends on a somewhat perplexing rant on how Avatar “cheated,”  that it’s an “animated film with some live action elements,” and that it apparently “doesn’t have anything to do with real filmmaking” (I am not touching that with a ten cubit Stygian barge pole on account of it being done to death), with a tangential reference to their work on Conan, but overall, it’s an insight into two established visual effects artists in the film industry.

Hopefully this sort of stuff will be on the Conan the Barbarian (2011) Blu-ray when it comes out.