DENISE DEVEAU | FINANCIAL POST | MARCH 18, 2013 | Original Article
In the past 18 years, Image Engine has grown from a boutique firm doing sound production and visual effects for television to the largest independent visual effects (VFX) studio in Vancouver’s thriving post-production community. Greg Holmes, chief executive of the company, says the secret to its success was in having the vision to see where research and development could take it and making timely investments in talent and technology even before any major projects were on the table. When the call came to take a lead role for District 9, they were ready to lead a project that ultimately garnered an Academy Award nomination, and the attention of big name studios. Mr. Holmes told Denise Deveau how Image Engine has broken through the barriers in an industry where success is always measured by the next big thing. Following is an edited version of their conversation.
How did Image Engine get started?
Before starting the company, I was in the wireless paging and cellular industry. Very early on, I realized I was better suited to being on the risk-taking side of the desk versus advising people. Image Engine ended up being one of those entrepreneurial risks that gave me the opportunity to step back and fall into what I enjoy doing most; grass roots development of a very small business. It was all quite accidental. My wife and I were attending an opening for a sound design studio and were introduced to the concept of digital sound editing. We saw this chance to provide some investment and financial experience to an entrepreneur in the field. So Christopher Mossman, Robin Hackl and myself founded Image Engine in 1995. The credit really goes to the vision of these two individuals. My role was simply to consider and support the notion they had, qualify it and put some energy behind it. I didn’t know if there was a future in it or not, but once I understood how strongly they believed in it, I was impressed by their desire and passion.
How and when did you make the move to visual effects?
From 2000 to 2005, we worked primarily on visual effects for television and had about 20 to 30 employees. Around 2006, we made a strategic decision to expand into feature film. Since Vancouver had no pool of talent with film experience, we had to recruit from abroad to demonstrate credibility in this area. Shawn Walsh and Peter Muyzers were key hires who were instrumental in the creative and technical vision for visual effects in film. They were Vancouverites who had worked internationally and were ready to come back to their Canadian roots. It was a good fit. Shawn provides the inspirational drive behind visual effects and its role in film making. Peter really knows how to deliver on what clients are looking for. Peter felt that the right path was to focus on R&D even though we didn’t have the work to support it. At the time, no one really looked for those types of services in Vancouver, so there was a bit of blind faith involved.
What was the tipping point for Image Engine?
In 2009, District 9 came to our doorstep. The director Neill Blomkamp had Peter Jackson’s full support for the project. However, Avatar had completely absorbed Jackson’s studio resources. Neill had worked and gone to school in Vancouver so wanted the VFX work to be done here. He called us, told us he had a certain budget, and asked if we were interested. It was really as simple as that. Since we had already done some technical development ahead of time we were confident we could take it on. When we were nominated for an Academy Award for our work on the film, we gained credibility with many of the larger studios, which led to several high profile film projects and stimulated exponential growth.
Global BC News Hour - B.C. VFX studio has Oscar connection
Thu, Feb 21 - A Vancouver visual effects studio, already nominated for an Academy Award in 2010, has done pivotal work for one of this year's best picture front-runners. Elaine Yong reports.
VINCENT FREI | ART OF VFX | FEB 19, 2013 | Original Article
How did Image Engine get involved on this show?
Early last year (February I believe) the Executive Producer on ZERO DARK THIRTY (ZDT), Colin Wilson got in touch with us about the show. We sent them some of the vehicle and environment work we had done on THE THING. That lead to me heading over to meet with Colin, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal on location in India during the first week of shooting… we were on the show a week later.
How was the collaboration with Director Kathryn Bigelow?
Let me start off with saying it was a true honor to work with her, she is an amazing filmmaker and it was pretty awesome to get a look into how she approaches her movies. Second I must stress how much of an appropriate word “collaboration” was. She let you do your job trusting you to do it and to become part of the overall creative process. If she ever calls on me again to help with one of her films I wouldn’t have to think about it for a second, not just because of who she is in the industry but because I had a great time on it and really enjoyed working with her.
What was her approach to visual effects?
Words she would use when describing what she wanted were “authentic”, “gritty”, and “honest”. And I will say that she has a much better eye towards visual effects than she gives herself credit for.
What have you done on this movie?
I was the production Visual Effects Supervisor and Image Engine the primary visual effects facility. We were involved heavily during production, supervising, designing and shooting for visual effects. And during post, handled a large variety of work from matte paintings to augmenting a number of different environments from military bases, to the Bin Laden Compound, to the CIA headquarters, wire and rig removal from complicated physical effects set-ups, augmentation of practical effects, explosions, lots of crowd/environmental clean-up in order to make things as authentic and true to the locations they were intended to portray, gore enhancement… and of course the numerous Stealth Helicopter shots. There was also a lot of plate grading and sky replacements to help set a tone and consistency for the raid.
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IAN FAILES | FXGUIDE | JAN 23, 2013 | Original Article
When U.S. Navy SEALs raided a Pakistan compound on May 2nd, 2011 and killed Osama bin Laden, it was an almost moonless night. So when director Kathryn Bigelow sought to re-create the raid in Zero Dark Thirty, she and DOP Greig Fraser had a very clear mandate to film the scene in almost pitch darkness. The result is an authentic re-telling of the hunt for the Al Qaeda leader, but also one that posed a significant challenge for the visual effects crew from Image Engine, called upon to create photorealistic stealth helicopters used in the daring raid, as well as several other key effects in the Oscar-nominated film.
The helicopters – avoiding the game look
Two full-sized stealth helicopters were built in London for the film. Initially, these were designed to be filmed on large gimbals for shots of the SEALs traveling to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and for exterior views, where rotors and environments would be added. Ultimately, due to changes in the action and lighting issues (discussed below), most of the helicopter exteriors were achieved as Image Engine creations.
However, the stealth helicopter props were invaluable in providing reference for Image Engine in designing and modeling CG versions. “They were all CNC milled so we got the original 3D data for them which was a huge jumping off point,” says visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey. “Then it was a process of taking them and making them look real, with dents, divots, scratches, grooves and bolts. We’d work on the lookdev until you couldn’t tell the difference.”
One of the hardest aspects of the chopper design was that, by design, they looked like game models. “They’re a few flat polygons with sharp edges,” notes Harvey. “So they kind of look CG anyway – even the real ones. Actually even Kathryn kind of called them ‘gamey’. They were really sensitive to reflection angles. When the helicopter moved, it’d be bright and the next time it’d be black. So we had to do some funky curve reflections and some animated reflection cards that we’d track on, just so they wouldn’t pop on with weird reflections.”
The dust effect
For scenes of the stealth helicopters taking off, landing, and later for a crash sequence, Image Engine had another major challenge – dust. But Harvey took the bold step of recommending to production that they shoot real helicopters – Black Hawks – that would later be replaced with the stealth versions. “Well, they straight away said, ‘What about the dust?’ I basically said it was better to get real interaction with the environment and we’ll replace what we have to replace.”
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VANCOUVER, BC – January 14, 2013 - Image Engine today announced it has provided over 300 shots for the critically acclaimed feature film Zero Dark Thirty, which is now playing in theaters nationwide, and has been nominated for a 2013 Visual Effects Society Award for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Feature Motion Picture. This included creating the computer generated Stealth Hawk helicopters (top-secret military vehicles used during the operations), as well as augmenting the bustling military encampments with computer-generated environments, digital soldiers, vehicles and FX.
“Zero Dark Thirty really required the crew to push reality to the limit,” said Geoff Anderson, Visual Effects Producer at Image Engine. “It was of critical importance to the filmmakers that the CG elements were as true to real events as possible, so we had to pay attention to every detail with rigorous scrutiny.”
Much of the action takes place in almost pitch-black conditions, which was one of the greatest challenges for the visual effects crew. “This zone had the thinnest light margins I’d ever seen,” said Chris Harvey, Visual Effects Supervisor for the production. “It was a very important detail, to keep the film true to real events, but it also made it much more difficult to produce a convincing performance from the computer-generated elements. The crew did a tremendous job of getting things to be interesting, clear, and technically sound in such a narrow band of light. This was achieved through highly nuanced look development and taking a creative approach to lighting each individual shot.”
The digital environments involved a large team over two months to recreate the feel of bustling military encampments, which were finished to a very high level of detail. This involved the addition of upwards of 400 digital soldiers, extensive background matte paintings, ground vehicles, planes and computer generated desert dust simulations. The dust clouds generated by the CG helicopters included detailed debris such as bottles, plastic bags, cardboard pieces and clothing, which all had to behave differently.
“High-end ‘invisible’ effects such as digital environments and hard surface animation have become increasingly important core competencies at Image Engine,” said Steve Garrad, Visual Effects Executive Producer. “A film like Zero Dark Thirty relies upon Image Engine for highly nuanced, photorealistic effects, and I think the results speak for themselves.”
For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty reunites the Oscar® winning team of Director-Producer Kathryn Bigelow and Writer-Producer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) for the story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man.