Pixomondo's VFX supervisor Nhat Phong Tran is a multiple Emmy nominee for visual effects. He has a background in compositing, traditional film, color / DI, computer graphics programming, and programming. That year he was nominated for his work on Westworld, where he worked directly with the show's entire VFX supervisor, Jay Worth. He was also considered for his work in Euphoria. We sat down with Tran to discuss his work and that of the team at Pixomondo in LA.
Trans work is often very technical, he has a background in the artistic side of the craft and also in programming. His work is both visually strong and often very ambitious. For Euphoria in episode 1 of Sam Levinson’s (based on the Israeli miniseries by Ron Leshem)-created teen drama television series, recovering teen drug addict Rue Bennett, played by Zendaya, literally climbs up the walls at a friend’s party.
The script told Rue to walk down the corridor, up the walls, step over other partygoers, the camera following her closely. As the audience moves with the rue, other people seem to be going about their business, clearly defying gravity. The solution was to have a rotating set with just a few wired stunt people who would reverse themselves with the rotating set. Zendaya could therefore easily move past and over them. But to sell the illusion, other people on the set had to run and move around. To add those extra people, motion controls were used for a second matching set
The set with the main action was filmed with a normal super techno crane / non-motion control camera rig. After the director was satisfied with the performance and manual movement of the camera, the Pixomondo team created detailed camera work in 3Dequalizer. Once this was resolved, it was resolved into a series of movements for a motion control arm that were correct for a completely separate but matching series. The trick was not only to solve that the camera moves alone, but that Trans Team simulates the rolling of the set and compensates for this effect in the MoCap. Instead of rotating the second set, the MoCap camera head spun. In theory, both corridors would line up. The first with a more stable manual camera and rotating set and on the second day with a stable MoCap camera. While the theory held up pretty well, the complex effects meant that a number of small problems had to be solved.
The second MoCap set. Note the markings for things and spaces that should be avoided in the main clause
The first problem was that, for safety reasons, the second lens on the MoCap rig was a bit wider than the original lens. "We decided to go a little further, in case we should slip, we would have additional real estate on the edge of the secondary element plate," explained Tran. To help, each lens has been profiled for chromatic aberration and curvature. Therefore, the two 6K-Arri plates had to be carefully aligned by hand when they were assembled.
A slightly bigger problem was the MoCap rig's acceleration profile. While a motion control rig can adapt perfectly, it has its own acceleration and deceleration profiles when it is running at speed. If this had been a model shoot, the camera could match frame-by-frame, but not perfectly with the inertia profile of a techno-crane rig. It would successfully hit all of the correctly aligned keyframes, but it would speed up and slow down slightly differently between each keyframe. This would make people seem to float in and out of alignment easily.
Finally, it was important to adjust the lighting. While the sets fit closely together, a set has slightly different lighting as the actors move through the shot. "There was a difference in atmosphere (smoke) between the two sets," explained Tran. Since it is almost impossible to get the fog levels on two different sets, especially with a rotating one, "for this reason we decided to shoot the extras on the second day without smoke and then adapt them to the hero Zendaya". This was mainly achieved through careful color correction and diffusion during the composite process.
Zendaya in starting position in a bathroom set. As soon as she steps through the door, the set splits into two parts and the MoCap rig follows her to the rotating set. Note that the set was so large it had to be laid diagonally across the stage to fit.
In the end, Pixomondo's Nuke Compositing team aligned the two plates perfectly. Aided by some important visual tricks like cigarette smoke, the result is fluid and fascinating.
Pixomondo did a lot of environmental work and external visual effects for Westworld season 3. The Pixomondo shot 395.
The real world of Westworld was a mix of multiple cities with a strong mix of LA and Singapore in particular. The city skyline has been designed to be more harmonious and environmentally friendly than LA, with a lot of inspiration and reference from Bjarke Ingels, a Danish architect and founder of the Bjarke Ingels Group. Ingels Architektur has an optimistic future vision in which art, architecture, urbanism and nature are more balanced.
"The production arts department had many references from buildings around the world," explained Tran. The team really wanted to make sure none of the skylines appeared to be repeating themselves. So a procedural approach was used to “generate buildings with CityEngine which is just great,” he added.
Pixomondo worked on a series of more traditional VFX recordings that combined live action and CGI. The pipeline consisted of animation in Maya and rendering in Arnold. (There were some mantra renders for the above CG building). The show was filmed on 35mm film (logarithmic space) and delivered in a resolution of 1920 × 1080. Most of the work came from Pixomondo's LA office.
This season, LED walls have been used on Westworld to capture various camera effects. This approach reduced the green screen and helped shoot like the actors in the flying air capsules. On set there was a small set piece that the actors could sit in and that was surrounded by a digitally rendered moving city scene. The flying sequences used pre-rendered footage to get realistic reflections on the gimble rig and to cast proper contact lighting over the actors. Since the creative team wanted the camerawork to look like it was being captured by a camera attached to the vehicle, the background didn't need to be parallax as the cameras were very close to the actors (see below).
Rain and raindrops were added, but the outside world took advantage of virtual production
For many of the window shots in the show, such as views from the offices, UE4 was used to create an accurate real-time look. These real-time assets were not provided to Westworld by Pixomondo. These office scenes with Charlotte Hale were filmed with Fuse LED screens in combination with profiles for on-set logistics and CG environments in UE4 by El Ranchito.