Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Framestore, Skyfall, and a Masterclass in Motion Graphics

Framestore is one of London's leading visual effects houses, bringing unique characters and creatures to life.  In recent years they have established themselves as global pioneers of VFX techniques, producing a wide range of animation including title sequences.

Framestore animated the title sequence for Skyfall, and at a recent VFX forum Diarmid Harrison Murray explained how he and his team managed to pull off the animated titles for the most recent installment in the world's most successful film franchise.  Here is how they did it.

The Brief
The client brief for the Skyfall title sequence was "an homage to the past but with a modern twist".

In other words, Framestore would have to produce a title sequence that was in keeping with traditional Bond titles, but was also modern and sophisticated.

Look Development
The team at Framestore settled on a look that was "dark and sinister, a single camera POV experience", reflecting the very personal nature of the Skyfall story. The client wanted it to feel "as if Bond's life was flashing before his eyes".

The budget for the title sequence was, as often seems to be the case in VFX work, "not really enough to do the job properly". Framestore had to make do with a small team, who had to do a ton of work.  The core team was just six artists, and they only had three months - not much time to produce something that needed to be seriously impressive.

Adele - top secret. Photo: Wikipedia
The Pipeline
On top of that, the title sequence was designed as one long shot, very hard to break down into sections.  As every digital artist knows, long shots are the toughest, and the render times become incredibly unwieldy.

The song
Additional complications included constant changes to the client's master edit. The song, sung by Adele, was such a big secret that the Framestore team were not even permitted to hear it!  It was only one month before delivery was due that they could actually hear the song - and so time the animation to fit to the music.

So how did they get started?  The team began with mood boards, sketches and visual ideas to "get the creative juices flowing". Once the client had signed off on the overall look, they did a story board animatic. Then they shot the live action scenes with Daniel Craig. These were all filmed at Pinewood Studios over three days. They filmed in the famous underwater tank and also filmed green screen footage.
Pinewood Studios

Getting approvals
One of the team's persistent problems was that the director was reluctant to commit to final approvals, leaving the overall look of the project in some doubt until near the deadline.

The CG animation was all based around the idea of a beating heart, pumping (through digital simulations) blood around the body.

The team did many early tests to get him "buy off" on the visual style - but approvals were slow in coming (not uncommon in VFX work - Ed).

The deadline
When the final deadline loomed, work became so frantic that some people on the team "did not go home for 3 days, they just slept in the offices". Or they simply got no sleep at all.  Diarmid himself did an all-nighter at the very end, which he described as "Day – night – day – pub."

At the end of Diarmid's talk he was asked what was the biggest lesson he had learned on the project?

He replied: "Working with clients, they routinely mess up your beautiful work. Being able to do this and not scream into a pillow is vital. And that goes for all client work".

Amen to that.

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