Terminator Salvation    

"Vue gave us instant results, so it just seemed like the right tool!"
Joe Ceballos, Art Director and Concept Artist, Whiskytree.

Whiskytree, a San Rafael based CG studio, was commissioned to create several shots of Paramount Pictures' "Terminator Salvation".

We had the great pleasure to meet Joe Ceballos, Art Director and Concept Artist on "Terminator 4", who told us how they used Vue to devastate a fictional Los Angeles:

About Joe

E-on: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What's your background experience in the movie industry?

Joe Ceballos: I was born and raised in LA and did my studies there. In 2004, I started in the movie industry after graduating from the Pasadena Art Center. I moved to San Francisco to join the Digital Matte department at ILM, where I worked until May 2007. The first movie I worked on at ILM was "XXX", and I worked there until the first "Transformers". I then joined Whiskytree as part of "Batch # 1" (the first artists who joined in).

When did you see/use Vue for the first time?

JC: It was at ILM. I was working on "Pirates 2" when the team was starting to implement it for the Cannibal Island sequence. One of the shots I was working on was when Jack’s crew is inside the bone cage, at the point of the sequence when the cage falls. This was the first shot I used Vue in!

General Aspects

How many shots did Whiskytree have to do in total on this movie? And how many of those used Vue?

JC: We worked on several sequences where Marcus is walking in the desert. We had to establish his journey through a Lawrence of Arabia desert type of environment. We also worked on another shot from the point of view of LA observatory overlooking a destroyed LA.

Another sequence we had to do was when he jumps into a huge laboratory at the beginning of the movie after a fight sequence. There were 5 or 6 shots there.

We used Vue mainly on the LA shots.

For how long did you work on these shots, overall?

JC: Between 4 to 6 weeks I believe in total, with several guys on the job. The Vue work time was done in a matter of a couple of weeks, since we used Vue as the foundation for the paintings.

Move over the image to show shot after addition of Vue content

Generally speaking, how did you decide to use Vue for these shots?

JC: I think it’s just from seeing what we were able get out of it, and from our past experiences. Vue allows us to create a unique look with the material editor and to combine different materials and play with all sorts of things. It’s ideal when you’re in the process of developing the look of your shot. Vue gave us instant results, so it was a good solution for our explorations. It just seemed like the right tool!

Can you let us know what the typical workflow was?

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Some of the Cornucopia3D city models
before they were destroyed

JC: I flew down to LA and took a lot of photo references, just to get an accurate idea of the geography, the landscape and the skyline and the 2 mountains that are Mount Lee and Mount Hollywood.

I came back to Whiskytree and started to use Vue to mimic the shape of the mountains and the surrounding areas. The terrain editor was really helpful!

We mainly painted on the final render. You know the benefit from using something that is supposed to be blown up is that it’s just a lot of dirt and grime, and it’s less specific. And because we’d also gone down to LA, and taken a lot of photo references, we actually used photos of the actual buildings that you would see from that point of view, and layered that on and mixed that in the CG buildings.

With regards to re-creating the city, we realized that there were loads of great stuff at Cornucopia3D, and we decided to use Cornucopia3D models as a base. We then started destroying the geometry to create the kind of destroyed, blown up effect we were looking for.

The Cornucopia3D guys will be really glad to hear what you did to their models!

JC: Indeed, we took all their hard work and shredded it into pieces, which was actually a lot of fun!

We got the meshes as OBJs and loaded them in XSI where we started to delete parts and faces and mess things up a bit before bringing them back into Vue.

Move over the image to show shot after addition of Vue content

Did you have to stick to something that was looking like LA or did you make up the city completely?

JC: We were pretty true to the geography, but we indeed took a bit of liberty with the actual position of the buildings to give a little bit more of a dramatic look to the shot. We added a few more freeways in places I know there are none. And if you’ve ever been to LA and gone upon that hike, you’d know that what we did is not 100% accurate. But for the most part yes, I think we were pretty true to the environment. In the end we had a little bit more of an accurate portrayal of what you’d actually see on top of Mount Lee.

Can you give us more details on the Hollywood sign shot?

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Screengrab of the Vue interface

JC: The Hollywood sign itself was modeled in XSI, and we used Vue to recreate the landscape and mountain side around it. Part of the idea for this shot was that is should be a very barren, burnt, destroyed sort of landscape. A lot of the photography I took was really green and vegetated as obviously there hasn’t been any fire up there in several years! So there wasn’t much reference we could use from the photos other than the mountains. Vue came in pretty handy in creating the burnt, destroyed, grindy hillside, basically replacing the mountain to add a more dead and destroyed look to it.

Technical Aspects

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Since you were mixing XSI and Vue, did you use Vue in integrated mode (xStream) or as 2 separate applications?

JC: Back then, we were still only using Vue 6 which did not have full integration yet. Now we’re on 7.5, and I know others on our team have been using it a lot. They seem to be enjoying the new cloud simulations alongside rendering out of XSI really much!

So it was pure Vue 6 Infinite?

JC: Yes, mainly. I was rendering out single frames and combining that with some Photoshop painting and camera-mapping this inside of XSI for final render.

Did you animate the shots inside of Vue or only in XSI?

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Details of the destroyed LA

JC: Actually both. We were using still images for the mountain side but one of the other elements we wanted in the shot was to add animated grass and wind blowing dust. We were able to render out grass blowing in the wind out of Vue. We locked up the camera and rendered a couple hundred frames. We then mapped those frames onto cards and placed them into our 3D scene and rendered out using the XSI camera.

This workflow worked great, it‘s really neat. A lot of times before, we had to go out and shoot our own elements, but then it required a cumbersome process just for the extraction. It’s a lot easier now to render with the alpha and place that exactly wherever you want in the 3D space.

Since everything was shot on blue screen, how did you manage to match the lighting with the studio footage?

JC: Basically in Vue we were able to move our key light wherever we wanted, and we rendered out multi passes. This allowed us to fine tune and adjust each layer within Photoshop to match the plate or other rendered elements we had created. So it was pretty easy to keep the lighting consistent that way. It’s a good tool, really helpful.

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Hollywood sign

How would you have done these shots without Vue?

JC: Without Vue?! I imagine it would have taken a lot longer! Probably a lot more trial and error and a lot more experimenting with textures. We would have had to search for a location where there may have been a recent fire or even set a fire ourselves which would have probably gotten me into trouble!! ;-)

So you say Vue saved you a lot of time then?

JC: Big time! Definitely!

What was the resolution at which you’ve rendered the frames?

JC: We rendered the still images at a little over 4K, using the highest settings just to get a clean image and enabling multi pass to get even more control for each channel in Photoshop.

What I did was to set everything up and launch the render on one machine, just before I left for the night, so that when I came back the next day it was all done.

And how were the render times like?

JC: It was pretty straightforward, rarely over a night. There was one shot where I came in the next day and it was still rendering maybe for another hour or so, but generally speaking, all went well.

About Vue

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What did Vue bring to the team?

JC: I think the animation feature was a big help to add a little more life to the matte paintings. The ability to combine different materials to create a unique look was definitely very beneficial as well. For me these were the 2 strong points in using Vue!

What do you think could be improved?

JC:Since we were using Vue 6, I would have said that being able to interact with other software like XSI would have been pretty awesome - but you've already done it!

What was your biggest headache with Vue?

JC: The biggest headache? Let’s see… The software hardly ever crashed, so I guess it was probably the render times because I knew I had to plan my day to set the renders at night just before I left in order to get the frames the next day. So maybe if there were ways to get faster renders out...

Are there any features you wouldn’t be without?

JC: The Terrain editor is pretty cool, because like I said I went to town, took a couple of pictures of the terrain I needed to re-create, and based on those photos I was able to simply sculpt out a similar looking mountain fairly easily using the terrain editor. So that’s pretty awesome!


What are the next projects where we’ll be able to spot some Vue stuff?

JC: I’m not sure I’m allowed to say anything yet! But yeah I think we’ll be looking at creating some flythrough clouds with Vue pretty soon.

On a personal side, we saw you were also doing a lot of oil painting so do you sometimes use Vue to help you for your own artwork?

"LA2" Oil painting by Joe Ceballos

JC: You know a lot of the personal paintings I do are from life, going out and studying nature first hand. But I definitely could move on to mixing and matching techniques that I use at work into my personal art. So potentially, I could see a crossover that way. I mean Vue is so helpful in creating works from nothing, just from scratch… I guess the main difference with my personal work is that I’m painting things that are in front of me, whereas what I do at work is all made up. So once I start painting things that are made up in my personal art, I definitely would use tools like Vue to help achieve that. It’s a long winded answer, hope it makes sense. :)

Finally, do you you have any expectations for Vue 8?

JC: What do I expect from Vue 8? Maybe something like a "Make Animated Matte Painting" button?! That would be pretty cool! If I could just press that and go home it would be great!

Seriously, I think that just improving render times and integration with other software like XSI would be the 2 main things.

About Whiskytree

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Whiskytree is a team of award winning artists who offer concept art and design, art direction, digital environment creation, matte painting, and effects supervision.

About Joe Ceballos

Joe Ceballos was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. He joined Whiskytree in May of 2007 as the company's Art Director.

Prior to beginning his formal art education, he worked as a freelance illustrator and drawing and painting instructor. Joe graduated Cum Laude from Art Center College of Design, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration. Shortly after graduating from Art Center, he moved to San Francisco to work as a digital matte artist at Industrial Light & Magic.

His film credits include "XXX State of the Union", "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix", "The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift", "Mission Impossible 3", "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest", "Transformers", "Iron Man", "You Don't Mess with the Zohan", "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor", "Bedtime Stories" and "Terminator Salvation".

Joe's fine art has been showcased in various gallery exhibitions in California, and he continues to maintain his skills through privately commissioned work.


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