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Kevin Margo on the making of Grounded

What were the most challenging CG elements of the film?

The discipline to keep hammering on the quantity of VFX shots over the course of 5 months was the most challenging. Putting in 8-10 hour days at Blur, breaking for dinner, then heading right back to work on Grounded until 3am did take a toll on other aspects of life, but I don’t regret it one second.

Parachute chain breaking created with Max

Individually nothing was overly complicated from a technical standpoint. There were some new tools to learn. Matchmoving for instance but nothing difficult once I got the basics down. Maintaining consistency of quality across various tasks, some of which I could sleep walk through, others less familiar that required more training to reach a comfort level.

Tracking, cloth simulation, FumeFX and 2.5d matte paintings I hadn’t done much prior to Grounded. With those…taking a step back, simply walking through the process many times prior to approaching a shot specific VFX task proved beneficial. I hunted down online tutorials from multiple sources of the same skill/task I was learning. Often one person’s teaching style and insights might resonate with you more than somebody else’s so I sought multiple views/opinions to inform my learning. 3d modeling, lighting, rendering, compositing were all second nature as that’s the primary skill set developed at Blur over the years.

How was 3DS Max used?

3DS Max was used for all CG elements. I’d import a tracked camera/object file into Max and do whatever the shot demanded inside of Max. Zbrush was used for sculpting a few things such as the spaceship wreckage and parachute, but sparingly.

I had no issues with Max (any quirks I became accustomed to years ago). The demands on Max for this project were light…a few CG elements atop plates, light on ram/resources and quick render times. Some of the shots could’ve benefited from a stronger 3D scene foundation, but I was digging my matte painting leanings so stuck with that and enjoyed lightning fast render/comp times…

Which plugins did you use?

V-Ray was the only plugin/renderer I used. The rest was standard Max features, along with Blur’s Onion and Render Elements for scene management and rendering.

Which parts of the CG process did you enjoy especially?

This depended on my mood. Some nights I wanted to fall into a familiar zone of creation and not exhaust my brain…so modeling/lighting/matte painting I found enjoyable.

Editing was another thing I loved. As I hinted at above…the freedom and organic discovery that minutes of live action footage allowed for is not commonly experienced in all CG projects. Terrence Mallick’s (Tree of Life) approach is appealing…live action shoots are the gathering of paint, editing is the act of painting. There’s enormous latitude in editing to dictate the viewer’s read and emotional response to a scene. The 3 weeks of editing after live action shooting wrapped was the most fluid part of the process.

Putting together spaceship wreckage

Color grading was another enjoyable experience. Blur began testing AE/Magic Bullet on a few projects and Grounded was a great test run for me. The ability to grade multiple shots in a timeline allowed for broad stroke creative decisions, and exploring several completely different iterations quickly, with progressive refinements per shot as needed.

How did you handle the rolling shutter effect of the Canon 5D Mark II when doing camera tracking?

The only scene where I experienced noticeable rolling shutter was the astronaut free fall sequence from low altitude orbit. The extreme motion and camera shake exacerbated the issue. On those shots, I wound up using 2D tracking in Fusion as oppose to a full 3D camera track, so didn’t encounter solving issues were I to go that route. The nature of that scene was very 2 dimensional – character near camera, with clouds/planets in the far distance, so quite a bit of flexibility in the quality of tracking necessary for convincing results.

If you watch some of the making of videos…you’ll see that I never had stationary tracking marks since it was filmed against a clear blue sky (worked great for keying though!). Instead, I 2D tracked the most stationary location in the shots where the stunt harness anchored to the astronaut’s waist. That provided a 90% convincing track with the remaining motion additionally keyed by hand in Fusion.

Back to your initial rolling shutter question- after keying, adding clouds and additional camera shake in post eventually any appearance was masked by these elements. If that hadn’t resolved it I was prepared to investigate some of those rolling shutter fix plugins. The remaining scenes had very slow action/camera motion and 3D camera tracking worked flawlessly.

How did the film change during editing?

Some structural issues were resolved in editing. Initially the 3 scenes were more interwoven, playing out concurrently with some clever transitions/fades/music cues…but immediately it was apparent the difficult narrative demanded a rather straightforward delivery of the scenes. I think Grounded really found its identity once the visuals were paired with the first pass of scoring. The edit pacing and rhythm of shots settled nicely in response to the ebbs and flows of the music.

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