With the Director’s Cut arriving on DVD & Blu-Ray for Hercules today in the UK, Trevor Hogg chats with Ryan Cook about the visual effects work contributed by Double Negative…
When it came to bringing the Lernan Hydra, Erymanthean Boar, Nemean Lion, Cerberus, Centaurs, and three half-starved, savage blood-caked wolves to life, the Herculean labour was given to Double Negative. “One of the interesting things I found about this story was playing the myth versus the reality,” states Double Negative Visual Effects Supervisor Ryan Cook when discussing Hercules (2014) directed by Brett Ratner (Rush Hour). “They recount the story of the feats of Hercules to intimidate their foes and to have them lay down their arms. Brett was quite insistent that all of the creatures had to be photo-real. It was trying to set a bar that was fantastical but plausible.” Amongst the 240 shots created was the Hydra Sequence. “The design of the Hydra stuck closely to the look they had developed through the concept art and original sculptures that Rob Bliss had done. Our team back here did some extra work to rebuild them so they had more anatomy, like putting in the spine to give them an extra reality.” The goal of the animation was not to limit the ability to have the seven heads cut off in various places. “They could have free reign in what the creatures were doing and what Hercules was doing on-set to have sword cut where it needed to.” Eel references were utilized along with several layers of effects. “As the heads get cut off you can see how the blood squirts all of the meat and sinew that’s inside.”
“It was shot on a small stage in Budapest which limited the set build so trying to take Hercules and have it feel natural and not too studio lit presented some compositing challenges,” remarks Ryan Cook. “There were a number of places in the sequence where we replaced Hercules not for any kind of action performance reason. When the Hydra would come up over top of him, drip water all over him and splash around, there were a few times when Hercules seems to dry and it didn’t seem like he was quite there.” Practical elements were incorporated into the imagery. “We had them limit the atmospheric stuff as much as we could and they stuck to a heavier dried ice smoke so that it stayed close to the water. A lot of the mist and effects like smoke was added in later and there were a handful of trees that they had on-set. They did some vines that surrounded the tank but we ended up replacing almost all of the water because of the interaction that we had and the usual reflections of the reds and lights. We did quite a bit of replacement of water and extended the trees back from the Art Department build.” Prosthetics and 3D printed heads of the Hydras were made. “Eye lines are important. It was one of the sequences that followed fairly closely to the previs that The Third Floor did. It was a good guide so at least the actors can see what they’re meant to be to be doing.”
Cooperation between the Art, Special Effects and Visual Effects Departments was critical in pulling off the Erymanthean Boar Sequence. “Neil Corbould, the Special Effects Supervisor, had built a tree and a special effects explosion that looked great,” recalls Ryan Cook. “It was a fantastic element but Brett wanted to slow that moment down as much as he could. The Alexas cameras we were shooting with could only go to 92 frames a second so it wasn’t usable in the end. We had to go fully CG on the tree so that shot is 100 per cent CG except for the foot of Hercules.” The work of the special effects team was an important part of the creative process. “By having the practical build and explosion for reference kept us honest. We always had something to refer back to try to make sure that we’re matching the reality.” Drool, stiff fur, heavy muscles and breath were added to the mythological creature. “It’s all that stuff that brings it to life. We had clumps of snow caught in the fur. Long fur is hard in its own right but then the guys built in a system to have fur that clumped together so you have these ice clumps which were nice. As the boar hits the tree you get some skin breaking off. There was a BBC documentary that came out this year which we were all looking at that our CG Supervisor Julian Foddy brought in one day and we studied it. They had a real boar and it was high frame rate photography so a lot of the reference of the little hairs and mucus around the nose came from looking at that. Whenever we can we try to get real world examples to match to.”
“Rob Bliss did some of the creature design with Brett Ratner and John Bruno [Visual Effects Supervisor] when they wanted it to be as real a lion as you could get but also the largest and most incredible,” explains Ryan Cook. “We started off with a sculpture we had from Rob Bliss and what Jules went out to capture [at the London Zoo] how they walk and how their muscles move. We did a bunch of work and ZBrush on top of the original model to come up with the final result. We concentrated on the bits that we really needed to interact with. There’s a shot where the lion jumps on top of Hercules and he’s holding on to the teeth with his hands so we knew we needed to interact with the teeth so we worked out the teeth model and made a stereography file of that which we could give to Special Effects; they 3D printed that so we had a practical set of blue jaws that had a lever which the stunt guys could hold on to. We always tried to have a representation of how big the head was or in the case of the teeth where he had to hold onto them we had a blue set of teeth so Dwayne Johnson [The Scorpion King] could hold on and wrestle with. That’s one of the things which is challenging about the interaction on-set is that it’s less about worrying about what exactly the CG characters are doing than what the actor is doing. The person who is in there is as much a part of the CG. You are making sure that all of Dwayne’s muscles are firing in the right way and it is believable that he has that weight of the lion leaning against him or with the wolves grabbing onto his arm.”
“Normally what we would like to do is to have a real wolf that we’re matching to and use it in some of the shots,” explains Ryan Cook. “But we couldn’t find the right type of wolf that was angry and aggressive looking enough so we designed one. There were quite a few shots where the wolves were so close to camera that we had to have some hero full frame shots. It was trying to get some good reference of real wolves and showing stuff to Brett Ratner and John Bruno, and finding out what they were happy with. They had to be really emaciated and had been beaten up so lots of blood and dirt were clumped into the fur. There were lots of challenges in grooming the fur. One of the things that was great working with Dwayne and his team is that their muscle memory. It’s quite challenging trying to imagine what’s happening and they gave us some great footage to work with like the reactions of Hercules fighting with the stunt guys gave us a good starting point for the animators led by Nathan McConnel.” The Cerebus presented the biggest design challenge. “A three headed dog that is as wide as a pool table. The animators spent a lot of time trying to figure out how he would run. Does he run like a wolf or like a steam train? They ended up doing a transverse gate. It was figuring out how the feet would go to give him a sense of size and scale but still feel like a wolf. It ended up being more similar to the boar in the way he ran.” The mythical creature travels over a pile of corpses. “They had quite a few extras and dummies on-set that they dressed in but we didn’t want them to try to do any kind of interaction because we thought it would limit the animation too much. There are CG bodies all along the path so when he runs through them they’re all bouncing around and getting kicked up.”
“There are quite a few CG Hercules shots like when he jumps up and clobbers the boar,” reveals Ryan Cook. “Then we used CG Hercules in a lot of the wolf battle shots and also in the Hydra Sequence when we needed to tweak the animation or when the wolves are biting into his arm and ripping the flesh because we didn’t want to do that to Dwayne!” Rather then use cyber scanning Double Negative decided to utilize a proprietary software program called Photo Booth. “It’s a huge array of cameras that we use to capture. The advantage of that is it gives you a high resolution. Because it’s instantaneous as all of the cameras fire simultaneously at the same instance you’re capturing the texture and model information. It saves time in having to texture paint. The cyber scanning method tends to take longer as people move around and you don’t get as accurate a result as you could with more modern photogrammetric methods.” The digital double came in handy during a cool cinematic battle scene. “The fire spear was created by using our in-house dynamic tools which allowed us to simulate the fire. We ended up doing a full CG arm on the grab. The problem with the elements where Dwayne reaches out was that it didn’t feel like there was enough momentum hitting his hand and grasping it. Since our CG Hercules was holding up so well we did a quick test which everybody liked it so we went with that.”
“The Centaurs were quite challenging because the two shots that we did came to us right at the last minute,” reveals Ryan Cook. “We had two and half weeks left in the project and they asked us to do some CG Centaurs for a Memory Sequence. We were quite happy with that. We managed to put together a fully CG Centaur and turn it around, light and render it in two weeks.” The half man half horse creatures rampage through a village. “We went through the plates and found a good background to start from and had the effects guys put together some apocalyptic smoke lit by flames. The director and editor wanted a nice heavy look applied to it so it felt like a dream sequence.” A 360º extension of Cotys’ Citadel courtyard set had to be produced featuring the Temple and Statue of Hera, a refugee camp, and CG crowds of refugees and palace residents. “I went out to Croatia and did an aerial shoot to get some background plates for the high wide shots. We knew that we going to have to do some high angles so we ended up building it all in 3D. There was a back and forth on the design of it so we went through a bunch of iterations. We built up a collection of buildings that we then could populate and then worked out the layout. They’re simpler the further away they get from camera and the closer you get to where the majority of the shots were staged we had a lot more detail. We had a big build up in front and when it came time to have the shots they turned over quickly.” Cook observes, “It’s rare and a pleasure to work on something with so many varied creatures. Quite a few of our crew love working on creature shows, and to have lots of unique creatures and challenges made Hercules interesting and fun to work on.”
Hercules images © 2014 Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Double Negative and The Third Floor.
Many thanks to Ryan Cook for taking the time for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.