District 9 Case Study
Image Engine has completed 311 visual effects shots for District 9, the feature film debut from director Neill Blomkamp.
Image Engine’s workload focused the studio’s efforts on creating 100% digital aliens that populate an area of Soweto, South Africa known as “District 9”. In addition, Image Engine developed the alien mother ship, digital helicopters and digital Casspir troop carriers, as well as delivering miscellaneous shots with computer-generated gore and compositing tasks.
Blomkamp approached Image Engine to take on the alien work based on the studio’s strong film visual effects pipeline, highly regarded R&D department and reputation for handling complex creature work for such past projects as “Slither” and “Kingdom Hospital”.
“We are simply ecstatic about helping Neill achieve his wildly creative vision on this project,” says Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer. “Neill’s truly original take on the alien myth is guaranteed to leave audiences astounded.”
Image Engine’s creatures were based on a conceptual design provided by Weta Workshop, who worked with Blomkamp during pre-production based in Wellington, New Zealand. Image Engine produced three main characters in the film, as well as a general population of aliens all with specific characteristics related to their back-story in keeping with the film’s documentary shooting style.
Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Kaufman oversaw shots in-house during postproduction while Stefanie Boose produced the project at Image Engine. “Managing the crew at Image Engine to achieve Neill’s vision was an immense challenge, but tremendously rewarding,” said Boose. Supporting Visual Effects Sequence Supervisors were Jon Cowley, Gerard ‘Ben’ Pierre and Jesper Kjolsrud.
Location photography was shot in Kliptown, Soweto and Johannesburg, South Africa. Peter Muyzers, Image Engine’s COO, served as on-set Visual Effects Supervisor and as Digital Production Supervisor during post-production. Previously, Peter Muyzers’ computer graphics supervision at The Moving Picture Company delivered such well-known computer-generated characters as the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series of feature films.
Pre-production at Image Engine featured further advancements in Image Engine’s feature film visual effects pipeline directed by Research and Development Lead John Haddon. In concert with Muyzers, Haddon developed an in-house HDRI pipeline driven by the 3D environment provided by The Foundry’s NUKE compositing software.
Work began with the alien creature build at Image Engine’s Vancouver facility in May 2008. Creature Supervisor James Stewart helmed creature development and Animation Supervisor Steve Nichols directed animation. Image Engine’s crew size grew to 110 to facilitate the work.
“District 9,” says Stewart, “is a cumulative result of Image Engine’s investment in a film pipeline and the efforts of the supervisors on the crew, many of whom are Canadians that have longstanding international experience, returning to work in Canada on a high-end feature.” Ultimately, the creature build grew to feature some 50 or more discrete aliens.
Animation of the alien characters was accomplished using a combination of key-frame, motion capture and roto-mation techniques. Motion capture services were provided by Vancouver based Animatrik Film Design and Motion Capture Supervisor Brett Ineson.
“District 9 was an incredible experience for me as an animation supervisor,” says Nichols. “I found the team at Image Engine to be an amazingly talented group of resourceful wizards. Under the manic, genius leadership of an understanding and passionate director, the team realized – both professionally and personally – the exceptional opportunity this film presented.”
Asset Lead Nigel Denton-Howes developed hard surface computer-generated assets. This included complex high-resolution builds for the alien mother ship and various other vehicles. Denton-Howes also wrote a sophisticated proprietary asset management system dubbed “Jabuka” to handle the entire scope of computer-generated 3D elements created at Image Engine.
Rendering at Image Engine was accomplished using DNA Research’s 3Delight.
Vancouver-based The Embassy Visual Effects also contributed visual effects shots to the film. “We had a close working relationship with The Embassy Visual Effects throughout production and post-production,” said Muyzers. “They have done some stunning work of late!” 2008 saw The Embassy delivering 60 shots to Marvel Enterprises’ Ironman while Image Engine contributed 80 shots to The Incredible Hulk.
“This film has been essential to our growth and maturity as a high-end visual effects facility,” says Walsh. “Neill deserves great accolades for his faith in us and we thank our tremendously talented crew who worked extremely hard and with such passion to achieve these results.”
“I want to sincerely thank and praise everyone at Image Engine for what you created,” said Blomkamp. “From a management and scheduling perspective Image Engine dealt with all the hurdles District 9 threw at us brilliantly. In terms of the aliens in particular I think Image Engine has done absolutely top tier brilliant work that far exceeded my expectations! Please thank the artists and everyone involved for slaving over my film and coming through in such a huge way.”
District 9, produced under Peter Jackson’s WingNut Films, is released by Sony Pictures Entertainment.