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Final composite

Lead CG artist Brandon Davis on “Coronado”

by Pablo Hadis

Coronado is an independent adventure film produced by Uncharted Territories, a company co-founded by Volker Engel (VFX Supervisor on movies such as “Godzilla” and “Independence Day”) and Marc Weigert (CEO of Dreamscape imagery). The film, directed by Claudio Faeh, was captured on High Definition 24p and contains over 600 visual effects shots. Max was used for all of the 3D elements in the film, which were created by a small team of artists – the total visual effects production team consisting of less than 10 people. We had the pleasure of interviewing the Lead CG artist of the movie, Brandon Davis, well known to Max users for his particle-effects expertise. Brandon gives us a detailed insight into the VFX production of the movie.

How was that beautiful shot of the aircraft coming out of the waterfall achieved? Which CG elements were involved?

The waterfall is a highly modified plate of a real waterfall in Mexico. The original was actually more sparse, so Ben Grossmann (Supervising Compositor) stitched together pieces of it and I added some volume particles to make it look more “full.” The Osprey was rendered with RPF z-buffer data so Ben could reveal it through the Waterfall layer.There are about 10 different particle layers that go into this shot, mostly interactive water and mist. I used PArray to emit particles from proxy objects I built around the Osprey, like the front portions of the engines and leading edges of the wings. There’s water dripping that was achieved by emitting from distinct points on the sides and bottom of the mesh. There’s also lots of splashing done with a PArray trick where you birth particles randomly over the mesh for a life of one frame. Then you set it to spawn 15-30 particles on death. So this gives you splashes of particles every frame, the frequency of which is controlled by the amount of particles emitted per frame. There’s also lots of volume particle stuff in there done with Afterburn. The most obvious is the big splashes that come from the nose and engines as the Osprey bursts through the waterfall. The point of using volumetrics here is that you can get a shaded look that gives the impression of zillions of tiny particles. There’s also particles washing up from the base of the waterfall and swirling around. This didn’t work so well with volumetrics as it didn’t wisp and curl well, so I rendered a massive amount of very tiny facing particles and then gave them to Ben to layer over and over each other, slightly blurred and faded each time. This is a really good trick for making mist. 

“Waterfall” concept sketch by Michael Meier

Those Mayan-looking statue things on the sides of the waterfall are models about a meter high the we just photographed outside and dropped into the comp. I roughly matched noisy cylinders to them and used that particle spawn splashing trick to make the mist rolling off of them.

There’s a tremendous amount of tweaking that went on in the comp, so much so that if you saw the original elements you wouldn’t recognize them. In all, Ben and I worked on that shot on and off for about a week.

In which cases was the use of miniatures privileged over 3D? In which other ways was CG used to enhance these scenes?

That was all Volker. He’s an old fashioned miniature effects guy with a keen eye and a good understanding of what can be done in CG. This was the first film I worked on where the VFX Supervisor made wise choices about going practical vs CG.

Most of the environments are models, for example the interiors of the rebel cave are models about 2 meters square. A lot of the vehicles on the ground are miniatures as well, like the truck, the tank, etc.  But all of the aircraft are CG, which makes sense because of how they would be moving. There definitely are times when a practical model just makes sense. For example, there’s an entire sequence that takes place on a dilapidated bridge over a canyon (the environment for which is totally virtual).  The bridge is a model at times, either a 24th scale full bridge (I think), 1/4 scale section or a live action bridge top. The live action portion of which was shot with the top of the bridge with the actors and truck matted with bluescreen. But there were shots that were highly modified in the comp and we realized that the footage we had of the truck wasn’t right. So instead of using a CG truck (that we used as background props in the caves) we just took the model truck outside, shot a still and dropped it into the comp. It was a huge time saver and it worked well.

Any improvements in Max that you think could’ve made your work easier?

Max at work

Boy, I guess I would have liked to have a more open pipeline. We used XRefs quite a bit, but the .max format still can be a bit problematic. Ideally I would liked to have had a text file that described the scene (like a LW .lws or RIB) where we could parse and hack it easily to make changes and swap objects out. There are a bunch of crowd shots in the end of the film that I wish we could have R&Dd. I would have liked to use Crowd on them, but there were some problems I had experienced with it when I worked at Blur, and felt that it wasn’t ready for what we really needed to do. So in the end, we put it off until later – a big mistake. The final crowd shots were done in a few days with just standard particles and instanced geometry. It’s not elegant, but it works.

With all the problems that show up whenever you push tools to the limit, Max still performed better than anyone expected, something evident by the fact that we didn’t do a whole lot of customization on the project. While I wrote some scripts to address specific issues, we didn’t use a lot of commercial plugins – in fact only two: Afterburn and Texture Layers. Everything else is just Max out of the box.

Any comments on your experience as Lead CG in this movie and/or things you especially enjoyed about your work?

I actually came into the production at a middle point where they had been retooling from their pre-viz team and struggling to complete shots for the teaser. My initial role was to realize the waterfall sequence, but that changed over time and I became the lead I guess because I had more experience. Still, that doesn’t mean I did all the work. Everyone put everything they had into this project. I just got the title perhaps because I got handed a larger piece of the pie and the roughest shots. But I have to say, none of this stuff would look nearly as good without the great compositing team. I worked closest with Ben Grossmann and Paul Graf, two guys that just made my stuff look so much better than I ever expected. It was very much a group effort.

The thing that I really enjoyed on this project was the subject matter of the shots (helicopters, missiles, explosions, etc), the collaborative effort and the fact that it felt like we were doing something very unique.  It really was like the company name – uncharted territory. I mean we were just making so much of it up as we went along – pulling this from that, sitting together rethinking shots. Everyone played a part in how it looked.

I really enjoyed working with Marc and Volker too. Those guys are driven and they really know how to push you to do your best work. There were these great moments where Volker and I would sit there with MAX running in ActiveShade mode, and we would tweak lighting and shadows. At the start I would never see what he’s trying to do, but little by little it all started to make sense. I learned a tremendous amount from both him and Marc.

Thanks for sharing, Brandon, and congrats on the awesome work!

Thanks Pablo. It was a great experience and all of us are very proud to
have been a part of it.

For more information on Coronado and the cast and crew behind the movie visit:
Brandon Davis’s personal website and particle repository:

Document date: 28 August, 2002.
Images courtesy of Uncharted Territories.
(c) 2002 MaxUnderground