For the first time, Sony Pictures Imageworks, which is moving its headquarters from Culver City to Vancouver to stay competitive, embraced gritty, CG photorealism for Doug Liman’s smart and trippy “Edge of Tomorrow.” Truly “War of the Worlds” meets “Groundhog Day,” with Tom Cruise caught in a nightmarish loop, the aliens he’s up against were a strange, tough animation challenge for Imageworks.
In fact, Liman discovered a video called “Resonance/Deus Ex Machina” (see below), which perfectly conveys the look he was after with this simple geometric cube that grows and evolves violently.
“I think Doug was attracted to the power and unpredictability of the video, the fact that it didn’t have a preservation of volume… and it just felt kind of terrifying,” recalls Dan Kramer, the VFX supervisor from Imageworks (“Hotel Transylvania”). “He just wanted it to be really scary and thought, if that thing could just move in front of you, could grow tentacles and shape shift, that could be really be powerful and interesting.”
When Kramer arrived, Framestore and MPC art departments were already working on ideas along with the internal production art department. There was even a clay maquette that was solely made of tentacles that looked like a bag of spaghetti. It provided inspiration for shape shifting and spawning tentacles and retracting them.
“It was a very amorphous and challenging character to animate,” Kramer continues. “The first few versions didn’t have a head. The idea was that if it were running along, instead of changing direction and turning around, it might just invert its body and suck its head in one side and pop it out the other. There was no linear movement. The rule was that it could be anything.”
There are three types of Mimics: the quick-moving Grunts (which are like spidery blenders) that twirl and attack out of nowhere in the thousands; the Alphas, which are bigger and slower and more sentient, acting as the central nervous system in charge of the battles; and the elusive Omega, the brain which Framestore animated.
“The difficult part for us was figuring out how to build that rig because we weren’t dealing with a fixed model,” Kramer explains. “We wound up building a Maya plug-in that would take a center curve from which they could grow and twist tentacles around it. And so we gave the animators high-level controls to add or remove tentacles, and the plug-in would add all the inter-penetrations between all the tentacles within that bundle.
“So when the Alpha grow a limb out, you’ll see all these extra tentacles wrap and twist around and the inside tentacles will push the outside ones away. And the animator had control of the overall profile, how much drape there was, how many tentacles there were, how tightly they were bound together, whether they could grow into a foot or not. We added all the controls on top, but what we didn’t want to do is get bogged down with animators animating every single tentacle, so it was quite cool in that way we were able to add noise into the animation system to allow them to writhe against each other.”
The actual tentacles are made of segments because Liman didn’t want them to be very organic. It was almost like crystal or stone. As Sony saw concept artwork, the Mimics got darker and darker and it occurred to Kramer that the material they were leaning toward was obsidian.
“We built all these sharp, angular segments and shaded them to look like obsidian; we also mixed in the color amber toward the body to make it look softer and less dangerous. The ends of the limbs were slashing weapons. There’s no deforming of geometry going on in the limbs: it’s deforming spine with rigidly placed segments of obsidian down the line, so it’s almost like a rope of crystal segments bound together. In that way, it could use them as weapons.”
Using the video as a guide, they were also able to figure out a way of replicating the movement, which conveyed a sense of pulsing, turning, and exploding. “We came up with that windmill idea where it could just dispatch 10 different troops by just flipping around at great speed and kicking up lots of dirt.
“The biggest worry we had was, because Doug wanted the Mimics too move so fast and in a jittery way, it wouldn’t be believable. It would look very CG. But we found that if we paired that motion with all kinds of smoke and sand simulations, that it would seem grounded. We even burst some smoke and sand off the Mimic itself. It was always whirling around and there was this sense of chaos.”
For this surreal, D-Day-like battle from hell, Imageworks found just the right Mimics, thinking outside the box like Liman and Cruise’s beleaguered protagonist.