In X-Men: Days of Future Past, the X-Men send Wolverine, our favorite superhero mutant, time-traveling from an awful future to a recent past to change human history—and that future. With an all-star cast, a built-in fan base, and a director, Bryan Singer, who had written, produced, or directed four previous X-Men blockbusters, it seemed this one couldn’t help but succeed, and succeed, it did.
Like the other four movies nominated for the visual effects Oscar, X-Men: Days of Future Past achieved the magic combination of high critical acclaim and worldwide box office revenues in the $700 million range. More precisely, the Twentieth Century Fox film attained a 91 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned $723 million world-wide.
The Oscar nominees are overall VFX supervisor Richard Stammers, VFX supervisor Lou Pecora of Digital Domain, VFX Supervisor Tim Crosbie of Rising Sun Pictures, and special effects supervisor Cameron Waldbauer. Stammers, Crosbie, and Waldbauer also received BAFTA nominations along with Anders Langlands, visual effects supervisor at the Moving Picture Company. All told, 12 visual effects studios worked on the film. The Moving Picture Company largely handled the future, Digital Domain took on the 1973 present, and Rising Sun crafted the showstopper sequence in the Pentagon kitchen. That sequence is less than two minutes long, but like “Bullet-time” in The Matrix, it’s what everyone, and every film critic talked about.
Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens describes the scene: “In the movie’s best comic action set piece, Quicksilver speeds up in order to change the outcome of a gunfight in, of all places, the kitchen of the Pentagon. As Jim Croce’s 'Time in a Bottle' plays on the soundtrack, Quicksilver bounds casually around the room, adjusting the angle of bullets in midflight and setting up pranks (e.g., a cop’s fist is poised to strike his own face). It’s a thoroughly silly but immensely satisfying burst of visual and conceptual whimsy, not to mention a whiz-bang piece of special-effects staging—a scene that, at the screening I attended, earned a spontaneous round of applause for its sheer virtuosity.”
The scene won two Visual Effects Society Awards earlier this month in the category of Photoreal/Live Action Motion Media Project, one for outstanding virtual cinematography and the other for outstanding effects simulations.
We talked with Oscar nominee Tim Crosbie about that sequence. Crosbie is credited with working on 29 films during his career. He was a compositor at DFilm on Dark City, What Dreams May Come, and The Matrix and a digital artist at Weta Digital on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. He joined Rising Sun’s Sydney, Australia office in 2002 where he was a digital effects supervisor on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and became a visual effects supervisor on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Since then, he has supervised visual effects at Rising Sun for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Superman Returns, Prometheus, and The Great Gatsby. The Oscar and BAFTA nominations are his first.
Studio Daily: How did you happen to work on the Quicksilver kitchen sequence?
Tim Crosbie: I had worked with Richard Stammers on Prometheus—he got a nod from the Academy for that one, too. We had done a storm sequence for Ridley [Scott, director], and I guess Richard liked our work. He said he had a lovely little sequence with highly detailed work. We asked what it was and he sent the previs from The Third Floor. [Director] Bryan Singer has an amazing mind and he knew what he wanted. It had “Time in a Bottle” already. I was sitting there with Richard Stammers and I got tingles. I knew it would be special. I couldn’t wait to get started.
How did you start?
We did the pre-bidding and started the planning when we got the previs. By the time we had plates, we had a set of plans for each shot. It would have been nice to be on set, but there was no need. It was such a small setup, so self-contained in that kitchen. We jumped on the shots pretty much just after the shoot. The first thing we did was a camera track for each plate—roughly 30 shots.
You see the same sections of the kitchen at least twice, so we went through all the plates and worked out the continuity between every shot. We rebuilt the kitchen from HDRI and Lidar scans to build the lighting maps, and then re-projected the HDR images onto the Lidar geometry. We called that the "geometry light setup." It meant we could quickly throw CG elements into the live-action plate and it looked right.
What was in the plates?
Everything you see that’s tied to the ground. All the [counter and stove] tops, the guards, Quicksilver, the three heroes in the doorway to the lift as they enter. Richard [Stammers] and the team had six or seven pots and pans pre-made by the sets and props department and a few had pre-made soup or whatever frozen in time—sculpted into the pots and judiciously placed in the shots so people could see what stuff would be in the air.
What was CG?
We built 100 discrete assets—carrots, peppers, potatoes, onions, snow peas, cutlery, cheese graters, knives, several types of knives—a long list. Soup, as well. We laid out the kitchen with raindrops, thrown cutlery, newspaper, pots and pans in the right place. We started with a global generic layout and then went shot by shot and adjusted it to make the picture look nice. Then we did the simulation of Quicksilver running through. As he runs through raindrops, they splash and vaporize, leaving a tunnel of vaporized water drops in negative space. He has a bow wave in front and a level of turbulence behind because he’s so fast. In some shots, when he jumps off one wall onto the second wall, which is kind of in front of him—he’s by the lift—he grabs a plate and throws it behind and toward the policeman. As he drops down the wall, a gun has fired and we see a muzzle flash. His movement smears the muzzle flash out of the way. Little details like that. Imagine, when we built the setup, everything was static and then, like what happens when you pour milk into a cup of tea, everything moves around. Something moves through something else.
Every time we ran through the sequence, there was another thing we needed to do. Every footfall Quicksilver takes as he runs up the wall shatters tiles because he’s going so fast. Little details like that didn’t occur to us initially. But people in my industry, visual effects, love detail, a challenge, and artistry. We couldn’t have asked for a more ideal scenario for a bunch of extremely talented guys to get their teeth into.
How did you do the simulations?
We used a combination of everything, every trick in the book that we have. We made decisions on a per-shot basis. In 100 percent of the cases, we used effects to do an initial simulation, but for maybe 10 percent we did hand animation as well. Sometimes we used hand animation to do a baseline movement that looked nice in the frame as a base for the simulations. For quite a few of the setups, we’d do a base simulation to get an initial shape, bake that out, and do a simulation on top of that. It took a highly complex simulation to get the initial shape. Doing that through the whole duration would have taken forever, so we used that shape to drive a poly mesh on top.
Everything had a different level of simulation and sometimes we used only animation. The knives floating in the air needed to be set up with animation to point in the right direction. The pots of soup used a big initial simulation with a deformer set up on that.
[For] the raindrops falling down from the sprinklers, simulating one raindrop falling to the ground would take a long time and we had tens of thousands, maybe millions. It would have taken a few years. So we did a point-cloud emission from the sprinkler and then simulated 200 different types of raindrops and used them as sprites. We scattered and attached them to each point of the point cloud to get the snapshot we wanted.
They shot the plates in stereo, so you can imagine all the water droplets in there were like a registration point cloud for the live action. If the tracking were off by even the tiniest amount, you’d see the raindrops shimmering against the background.
The guards had to hold as still as they could, and they were quite still. But heartbeats move your body a little bit. Because we had done the tracking so accurately we could see the guards moving against those water drops. We could see the heartbeats, their arms moving. We had to stabilize them. So we chopped up everyone and put them back into the plate.
It’s funny—the more I’m talking about this, the more I’m remembering all the stuff we went through. We didn’t have to stay up until 2 in the morning, but there were times when we just couldn’t go home. It took about seven months to do this work with 45 artists on the show—a core team of about 70 people in all. We could have a three- or four-hour interview and still gloss over the surface. I’m so proud of what we did.
This sequence is a stand-out, but what are some other reasons your peers voted for this film to receive an Oscar nomination?
It definitely does stand out. It’s one of those things. The stars aligned—perfect music, perfect visualization, perfect stunts, lighting, everything. We put the polish on something that was already beautifully polished. I think the level of details—the CG carrots, cutlery, pots and pans, the effects of bullets splashing through water drops—we used visual effects for what it’s supposed to be used for. Without visual effects, it couldn’t have been done.
But look at the other work. The stuff Digital Domain did, with the sentinels lifting up the stadium to stop the police going to the White House. DD did the '70s sentinels and Mystique. They had to set up a new rigging paradigm to control the ripples on the scales. MPC did the portals for the future stuff, the future sentinels, and the finale.
I was chatting with Anders [Langlands, VFX supervisor at MPC]. Five of us were with the producer having a good old natter. The work they did with the portals was interesting and tricky, and there are a few that are almost like Easter eggs in the movie. As you progress through the movie, they get complex. Escher-esque. Anders was saying that after a week and a half of getting their heads around the geometry they realized that a portal should have been around the other way.
What did you learn from creating the kitchen sequence?
I think that, as a group, we all learned one valuable thing: How good we are. That sounds arrogant, but we stretched the boundary of what we hoped and thought we could achieve and we came out the other side slapping each other on the back and saying, “Wow, we did something beautiful.” I can’t tell you how life affirming that is.
On the effects and potentially production side, it’s having a better understanding of how the tools work, and how to not cut corners. A lot of times in this industry there are cheats you can do—adding motion blur, camera shake, lens flares—things to help the image look nice and also to avoid doing microscopic detail, because you don’t need it. But on this sequence, everything moved so slowly we couldn’t hide anything. No cheats. So we learned how to do stuff perfectly.
Do you think the sequence will have a broader impact?
I hope it underscores for other teams and companies and shows directors that visual effects is a tool like any other—like sound, camera, makeup, sets and props. But when it’s used really well, it can lift a scene to a level you wouldn’t have any other way.
This is your first nomination. It must feel amazing.
Overwhelming. It’s been a whirlwind. Fantastic. I didn’t expect to be nominated. I was driving to work the next morning and I got a phone call from Ian Cope [at Rising Sun] and he said, “You might want to put a nice shirt on. You have interviews starting at 10 a.m.” So I had to get a haircut and a shirt. It’s been a merry-go-round since. At the Oscar nominee lunch, I shook hands with Robert Duvall. This is such a huge honor. Very exciting.
Did you enjoy this article? Sign up to receive the StudioDaily Fix eletter containing the latest stories, including news, videos, interviews, reviews and more.