Animal Logic: Will Reichelt talks about Walking With Dinosaurs

Trevor Hogg chats with Will Reichelt about the visual effects needed to bring extinct species back to life…

Will Reichelt

“We were approached by the BBC and Evergreen Films in 2010 to partner with them on a test for a narrative feature film based on the original Walking With Dinosaurs documentary series,” states Animal Logic VFX Supervisor Will Reichelt (Knowing) who had to reconstruct the Cretaceous Period which occurred 70 million years ago.  “We created a short test, a few shots in 3D showing a family of Pachyrhinosaurs in a forest clearing, which gave everyone confidence in the visual direction the film should take. Full production on the film began soon after.”  The big screen version had to conform to the established franchise.   “The BBC knew they wanted to feature certain specific species of dinosaur, and that part of the appeal of the film was in designing them to be as realistic as possible rather than anthropomorphised and cartoony.  There were a solid set of guidelines we were working to, but there was a great deal of creative freedom in terms of how we got from the initial skeleton and muscle reconstructions we were provided by the BBC to the final look of the characters. One of the things the palaeontologists don’t really have much information on is the pigmentation and colouring of the dinosaurs, so we were free to experiment with that quite a bit.”

“There were two main parts to my responsibilities on Walking With Dinosaurs,” explains Reichelt.  “The first was to work with the Directors [Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale], Cinematographer [John Brooks] and on-set filming crew in Alaska and New Zealand to make sure that we were capturing background plates that would be conducive to integrating the dinosaurs into later. It was important to pay attention to the size and speed of the dinosaurs for any given shot so that the camera would be doing the right thing. This was achieved through a combination of pre-visualisation, where we designed basic versions of the shots and sequences, and then on-set using simple life-size practical models of the dinosaurs to replicate what we had done in previs to make sure it was going to work for real.  The second phase was back in the studio, making sure that the dinosaurs looked as realistic as possible and integrating them back into the live-action environments. There are also three sequences in the movie that are full-CG, so another large part of the process was making the environments for those sequences feel as detailed and real as the live-action so that everything felt consistent.”
“Besides the skeleton and muscle reconstructions that we used to create all the species and characters, we did a lot of research into modern-day real-world animals in order to find analogous elements that we could incorporate into our creatures,” remarks Will Reichelt.  “The theory was that if an audience can relate what they’re seeing to animals they already know, then they will buy the strange creature they’re looking at as being realistic. This was especially important for the look of the outer skin, scales, feathers and fur. For the Pachyrhinosaurs we looked at rhinoceroses and elephants, and many different types of large lizards such as komodo dragons for the Gorgosaurs.”  Reichelt states, “The main surfacing and rendering challenge we faced was the sheer amount of scales and feathers we were trying to render on the characters at any given time. The Troodon has vastly more feathers on it than any character we rendered for our animated film Legend of the Guardians [2010].”

“We had three new streams of development on this movie that were implemented to get the dinosaurs to look as realistic as possible,” notes Will Reichelt.  “The first was a procedural system for creating millions of scales across a surface, called RepTile. It enabled us to automatically populate the skin of the dinosaurs with scales rather than having to do it by hand and having those scales remain rigid while the skin underneath flexed, stretched and compressed. The second was a new muscle system, which we dubbed Steroid. This gave us an automated deformation of the outer skin taking the internal bones, muscles and fat into account, leaving the animators to focus on the character performance rather than having to worry about the technicalities of having to layer in jiggle, inertia and muscle movement by hand. The third was the implementation of physically-plausible shading and lighting, using HDR images shot on set as the basis for the lighting integration of the characters into the shots. The system gave us a pretty realistic looking dinosaur relatively quickly, so that the lighters could spend more time on creative ‘beauty’ lighting.”

“In the Forest Fire Sequence, all of the fire is either shot in-camera or is a separately-shot practical live-action element; we didn’t create any CG fire,” states Will Reichelt.  “Because of the scale of the fire, and the fact that we were shooting in amongst real trees, I felt that it would look better if we could have as much of a practical base to the shots as possible. We created most of the other ground interaction effects digitally, using Houdini or proprietary particle systems. We used a fair amount of blue screen [blue as opposed to green, as we were outside in naturally green environments] to capture small elements to put over the dinosaurs feet, or to separate foreground from background elements such as larger rocks, or the ridge of a hill.”  Reichelt reveals, “One of the biggest challenges was getting the CG environments featured in the frozen lake and subsequent sequences where Patchi fights Scowler and is trapped in a ditch during the night to look as realistic as the detail-rich live-action environments that had been shot for the rest of the movie.  The key to it is layering in passes of detail until the impression of ‘messiness’ is equivalent.”

The Fusion Camera System developed James Cameron (Avatar) and Vince Pace (Aliens of the Deep) was utilized.   “We worked closely with John Brooks, a long-standing and experienced Cameron Pace Group cinematographer to design the 3D for the movie,” states Will Reichelt. “Working with the directors, he worked out the look of the 3D as we were shooting the background plates, and then advised us on the implementation of it in the post-process. We then applied the same methodology to the full-CG sequences to give the whole movie a consistent feel. As well as the technical aspects of 3D, there is also a large creative component to getting it to feel immersive, and to complement the other elements that you’re putting into a shot, so it was very valuable to have John and CPG’s input.”  Reichelt adds, “3D needs to be considered at all stages of the process, it should never be something that just happens at the end of the line. It influences everything from basic staging and layout through to final lighting and integration and can have a strong effect on the emotion of a scene. It does take longer to do 3D well, but it’s another useful creative tool in the filmmaker’s kit.”

“The sequence that went through the biggest visual transformation was the aurora, where Patchi and Juniper re-join the herd down in the valley,” states Will Reichelt. “That sequence was shot day-for-night, with just a small patch of fake snow in the foreground. We spent a lot of time adding more snow onto the mountains in the background, adding in the night skies, auroras and dynamic shifting light from the aurora down into the environment and then grading a ‘frosty’ look into the real trees and grass. The final result looks so different so where it began, and I think it’s quite successful.”  Reflecting on the prehistoric adventure tale, Reichelt observes, “Walking With Dinosaurs was a long journey – three and a half years – and a very rewarding project in many ways. There is so much detail in the creatures that maybe audiences won’t notice specifically as they watch the movie, but hopefully it all adds up to a visually-rich experience that will make audiences feel like they’re looking at real animals that could have existed. We had a lot of fun making it!”

Many thanks to Will Reichelt and Emmanuel Blasset for taking the time to be interviewed.

Make sure to visit the official websites for Walking With Dinosaurs and Animal Logic.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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