‘Superman’ navigates digital environments

Man of Steel goes for wet and wild ride

Much of the attention given the vfx in “Superman Returns” has focused on Superman himself: the flying sequences and the digital double from Sony Imageworks, the bullet-in-the-eye shot from the Orphanage and the startling space shuttle/airliner rescue sequence.

Yet with Lois Lane and her son trapped on Lex Luthor’s yacht, Superman himself nearly drowning and then having to push Luthor’s man-made island into outer space, the film’s look depends quite a bit on digital water.

“We didn’t stay with true scientific simulation of (the water). We took some liberties,” says Derek Spears of Rhythm & Hues, which split most of the digital water work with CFC Framestore in London.

“Reality might be real, but oftentimes it’s not interesting.”

Using a full fluid simulator for all the droplets and splashes would have been extremely time-consuming and expensive.

Instead, says Spears, R&H used a program called Felt, not specifically for creating water, to do a “poor man’s fluid simulator.”

“It allows us to create much higher levels of detail, because we push all the detail farther back in the pipeline,” he says.

Spears also points to the bubbles around the island and the sinking yacht.

“The green churn gave it depth and made it feel like it’s a real transparent fluid.”

The ocean scenes aren’t the only digital environments in the film.

When Superman flies, he moves through digital clouds and skies.

That’s a big change from the 1970s, when effects pros were busy designing airborne rigs to shoot real clouds.

You have to find the right place and time of day to shoot them,” says Stetson, “and some of the camera moves we did are nearly impossible, to get close to Superman’s face as he’s diving through clouds at hundreds of miles an hour.”

Even on the ground, where the Great Plains and Manhattan were once deemed pretty much sufficient for locations, most of the environments get at least digital tweaking.

When Superman is in Metropolis, the city is an altered version of Manhattan. When he runs through a cornfield, it’s computer cornstalks that bend in his wake.

Then there’s that digital double for the Man of Steel.

“It gave us the chance to improve and expand on Brandon’s performance and Superman’s capability,” says Mark Stetson, the vfx supervisor who oversaw the entire film.

“Whatever it takes for Superman to perform his feats of super strength and super powers, we do it.”

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