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Visual Effects: F/X Lighting Goes to 11

Several finalists for a vfx Oscar nom blur the lines between “practical” and “digital” effects.

One of the challenges in f/x has long been to match the lighting of the special effect, be it a model, a miniature, or a digital element, to the live-action “plates” for the same scene.

This year several of the finalists for the visual-effects Oscar nomination are pushing the boundaries of f/x lighting, blurring the lines between “practical” and “digital” effects, and along the way, using that lighting to integrate actors with vfx in ways that could only have been dreamed of before.

“When it comes to lighting, you basically have three scenarios,” says Lindy De Quattro, co-vfx supervisor on “Pacific Rim.” “You have putting a CG character in a live-action environment, putting a live-action character in a CG environment, and then putting a CG character in a CG environment.” “Gravity” and “Oblivion” pushed the envelope on the second scenario, while “Pacific Rim” used all three situations.

In “Gravity’s” spacewalk shots, everything on the screen is digital except Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s faces, which are lit by the “light box” invented for the picture. But “Oblivion” had its own giant equivalent of the light box, used to light stars Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko. Meanwhile “Pacific Rim” took digital lighting to “operatic” and “romantic” heights.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki conceived the Cube of Light for “Gravity” after seeing Marc Brickman’s design for a Peter Gabriel concert, which incorporated LED video screens. Those screens were folded into a box to surround the stars, then moving images on the inside of the box lit Bullock and Clooney’s faces in concert with the digital backgrounds for their scenes, right down to the reflections in their eyes.

PHOTOS: Creating a Shot for ‘Gravity’

Lubezki also worked directly with the digital lighting supervisors — he calls them his gaffers — at Framestore in London. “I would wake up at 4 a.m., turn on my computer, and we’d use this new technology similar to Skype. I’d say good morning to my gaffer and start working on a scene. And I would say ‘Move the sun 60,000 kilometers to the north.’ And that way I could put the lighting anywhere I wanted. Or make the surface of the spacecraft more reflective so I can bounce light on Sandra’s face.”

For “Oblivion,” the airborne apartment shared by Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Riseborough) is surrounded by dramatic, gorgeous skyscapes. Those scenes weren’t shot in front of a greenscreen. Instead, the vfx team shot skyscapes at dawn from atop the Haleakala volcano in Maui, then projected them behind the set on a 500-ft.-wide, 45-ft.-tall screen using an array of 21 digital projectors. The projections helped light the scene.

“We’re borrowing from the past. With digital projection it works and it works all day,” says vfx supervisor Eric Barba, noting that because the images are digital, they don’t get scratched.

Much of “Pacific Rim” is digital, since the giant robots and giant monsters don’t exist. The vfx team did shoot images of the real Hong Kong for reference. But for helmer Guillermo del Toro, says De Quattro, “The real Hong Kong wasn’t Hong Kong enough. He loved the look of it but he wanted everything ‘more’” says De Quattro. “He wanted the lights to be more saturated, he wanted more of them, he wanted there to be more atmosphere. He wanted to take the real look of Hong Kong and kind of turn it up to 20.”

De Quattro says for the ILM team, which is used to striving for realism, that was an adjustment. “Guillermo kept telling us ‘You need to find your inner Mexican.’ By the time we got to our next show, we were thinking ‘Wow, that looks really washed out.’”

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