Capturing 3D Data and Generating a Huge CG City for a Video Caught Between Two Worlds
Ghost Town Media collaborated with Linkin Park on an unconventional CG video that combines 3D scans of all of the band members with a massive CG cityscape. Cinema 4D maker Maxon and writer Meleah Maynard took us behind the scenes of the video to learn how its spooky digital world was produced. (Click on any image to see a higher-resolution version.)
Released last fall on MTV, Linkin Park’s music video “A Light That Never Comes” loosely tells the story of Judy, a young woman attempting to navigate her way through a CG landscape in which the Linkin Park band members, as well as collaborator DJ Steve Aoki, perform in their own, separate districts. Linkin Park’s DJ Joe Hahn served as video director for the nearly four-minute video, which was created by Los Angeles-based Ghost Town Media.
The project is one of many that Hahn and Brandon Parvini, Ghost Town’s creative director, have worked on together since 2009 when Hahn saw the video that Ghost Town made for Kanye West’s “Welcome to Heartbreak”. Using primarily Maxon Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects, the duo share a “self-taught approach” to VFX, Parvini says. “We like to find creative ways to get things done without getting mired in a big VFX process with a team of 30 people. With C4D, I was able to get a few guys in here who have really good taste and get them up and running really fast.”
Physical Meets Digital
Hahn and Parvini have long discussed how they might explore ways to have live images exist in digital space. For this video, they began by asking themselves: “What happens if you take something tangible from our world and inject it into a cyber world?” Parvini explains that they wanted to know how the conflict between physical and digital would play out, and what kinds of visual opportunities would arise.
Hahn and Parvini wanted the video to have a heavy sense of dichotomy. Development of the look was heavily focused on creating a tension between the elements used to create the world.
Eventually, they came up with an overall look that conveys the core concepts of a remix, Parvini says, in that “you’re taking something from somewhere else and repurposing it.”
For the production process, Parvini scanned all of the band members in various positions and at different angles for use as raw 3D assets. In addition to the static 3D scans, Parvini and Ghost Town devised a system to capture sequential 3D objects, allowing the band to perform and have the performances played back in post—similar to how you would normally play back video in a non-linear editor.
3D scans of the band were used to give the video its “remixed” look.
Early concepting consisted of finding images the band members responded to and weaving them together loosely to get an understanding of the look they wanted. Next, they created a map showing each separate district with Aoki’s district in the center. Ghost Town brought on director and 3D and VFX artist Noah Rappaport to lead the team in charge of planning and developing the city that serves as the main setting for the video.
Ghost Town Media used MoGraph to clone many of the buildings seen in the districts that make up the virtual world.
Managing what felt to Parvini like hundreds of different types of buildings, the team worked together to create districts with individual architectural influences and aesthetics. Each band member was given a district inside of the city planning development. For each member and Steve Aoki, a specific subset of architectural influence was selected. The goal was to create a post-modernistic mashup of styles and influences with looks ranging from neo-Tokyo to ancient Mayan and Egyptian to high gothic.
Ghost Town used ZBrush for the development of the scattered monuments and massive sculptures in the city layout.
After considering about 10 different options for creating the overall look, Parvini and Hahn decided to use a number of multi-passes in different ways than they normally would. “Doing retexturing in After Effects, we created dynamic alpha mattes that would allow us to slip between the full-fidelity Global Illumination renders and baseline wireframes,” Parvini explains. Shifting some of the final texture build into After Effects allowed him to more accurately time out the pacing and intensity of the scenes without becoming bogged down with long render times.
Wrangling a Monster
During the two months they worked on the video, the biggest challenge Ghost Town Media faced was the sheer expansiveness of the piece, Parvini says. Because CG is ubiquitous these days, it’s easy to take for granted what it takes to create an entire digital world. But for a small production house, the reality is “you’re wrangling a monster,” he explains.
The total city build was millions of polygons in size. In order to allow the artists to quickly navigate the project files, XRefs were utilized to lighten the overall load on the systems.
“We had to build the whole place brick by brick, and having to make everything, gather all of the assets and drop it all in scenes was really challenging. I think at one point we had about 70,000 buildings in our city setup, which is around the same as Manhattan.” (Watch the process video here.) It helped that they were able to use C4D’s MoGraph to clone many of the buildings they needed.
Combining stock models and custom-built building structures, Ghost Town used cloned instances in C4D to allow for quick population of buildings across specific segments of the city. Using the instance cloner system after the buildings were populated allowed Ghost Town to quickly adjust positions and final angles.
Boosting Render Times
Rendering was another major hurdle to overcome. Ghost Town used Dell Precision Workstations for the heavy rendering of the project, but even with their systems completely built out to handle the renders, GI rendering was simply too cumbersome and slow. After struggling with workflow for a few weeks, Parvini opted to upgrade from C4D R14 to R15 — even though he knew it was ill-advised to make that kind of change in the middle of a project.
The switch to R15’s new light cache system for GI rendering was essential for the timing and delivering of the desired look of the project, Parvini says.
Fortunately, the upgrade paid off. “Once we got our hands on R15’s new light-caching system, we saw dramatic improvements to the timeframes and render times, so we could use Global Illumination to get the look we wanted in a quarter of the time,” he says.
“Centralizing the render farm to the same machine that was designing the scenes allowed artists to work on many things at once without getting lost in copious amounts of data wrangling,” Parvini explains.
R15’s Team Render also came in handy, Parvini says, because it allowed designer and compositor Gabriel Perez to crank out shots, batch them into the render cue, and move on to the next shot. “It was great because with rendering going so much more smoothly, we were able to set up cameras and lighting without having to stop every few minutes to check on how renders were going. Good software gets out of your way.”
In addition to collaborating with Linkin Park on upcoming projects, Parvini and Ghost Town are currently working on serveral feature films.
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.
Brandon Parvini – CD/TD/Project Lead
Kevin Garcia – Zbrush Artist
Timothy Williams – Texture and Lighting
Richard Powell – Texture and Lighting
Thomas Moore – C4D Generalist
Noah Rappaport – 3D Supervisor Modeling and Assist TD
Jeff Lichtfuss – Edit and Composite
David Torno – Animation and Composite
Steve Drypolcher – Edit
Josh Elliott – Animation
Gabriel Perez – Design, Animation and Composite
Producer – Bill Boyd
Post Producer – Matthew Primm
Director – Joe Hahn