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Immersed in Movies: Digital Domain Talks ‘Ender’s Game’ Zero-Gravity VFX

Immersed in Movies: Digital Domain Talks 'Ender's Game' Zero-Gravity VFX

As co-producer of “Ender’s Game,” the rebooted Digital Domain 3.0 has a lot more at stake than cool zero-g and simulated battles in space. One of LA’s few remaining VFX studios (now under the post-bankruptcy ownership of Sun Innovation and Reliance MediaWorks), DD is also experimenting with content creation as a new business model, and the rest of the industry is watching closely.

So far, so good, if not spectacular: “Ender’s Game” led the box office last weekend with an opening take of $27 million. And while former DD CEO Ed Ulbrich suggested at the recent Visual Effects Society Summit that content creation is a worthwhile concept, he cautioned that you obviously have to mitigate the risk to offset it.

As expected, the VFX is noteworthy and deserving of an Oscar nomination. Director Gavin Hood wanted an immersive, holographic-like depiction of the zero-g Battle Room, and DD (under the supervision of Matthew Butler) was an integral creative partner from the outset, designing with Hood as he wrote the script.

“We wanted to shoot as much as possible to get the performance of the kids, but we need to feel realistic in terms of the motion, so we had to develop tools to help us capture it photographically but then to augment that to make it realistic for zero-gravity,” explains Butler, who holds an M.A. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT.

“That required us to take imagery that we shot, reproject it onto animated geometry and reanimate the content to be correct for zero-g. Obviously we also needed to create the environment around the zero-g room, but the hardest part was emulating the right kind of dynamic physics.”

Production designers Sean Haworth and Ben Procter developed four different looks that DD realized: full-daylight for the opening sequence, soft-light/no-sun for Petra, and Ender’s one-on-one training session, a golden hour for the battle with the Salamander Army, and film noir for the final battle with the Dragon Army.

Like “Gravity,” though, DD needed to come up with its own integrated LED lighting system to match live-action and virtual environments (though set against more conventional green screen) to simulate the physics. 

Everything was wired through a computer system so it could be customized and could change the mood within that space. But they had 4,500 individual lights on set. They used an extensive LED lighting system, and the cinematographer’s team devised schematics for thousands of lights wired through a dimmer board and controlled by a computer system that could lower, raise or pulse the lights.

Because DD had developed CG versions of the actors’ flash suits and re-created the lighting environment digitally, they were able to keep the actors’ faces from the live-action shoot and replace nearly all of the body motions with digital doubles. In the end, the only real elements in the Battle Room are the actors’ faces and the gate where the Launchies enter.

Later on, content displayed in the sim cave is a volumetric holograph that allows Ender to control his POV of the game. As he moves through the grid, the graphics (created by G Creative and Goldtooth Creative) are entwined with his reality. The final battle is the source of the most compute-intensive, geometry-heavy effect sequence DD has ever created: more than 27 billion polygons in a single shot alone.

“The world that we create — the battle, the ships shooting at each other and colliding — is fairly realistic and you believe you’re there. But we had to immerse the kids into it as if they are in this giant hologram and Ender can control his point of view as he’s commanding this fleet.”

As Butler says, “Ender’s Game” is virtual production at its best: “A marriage of practical stunt work with post manipulation of computer graphics.”

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