Polygon Creates VFX in Chaw and Haeundae, Develops CG Water Pipeline

Whenever a movie comes along that attempts to create big visual effects on a relatively meager budget it is interesting to look at the techniques involved to try to accomplish this goal. When there are two such films that are both Korean-based productions ‘outsourcing’ their visual effects to the U.S., it becomes an even more intriguing tale. Over the past year or so Polygon Entertainment found itself in the rather odd position of creating high-end visual effects for two Korean films, Chaw and Haeundae, which are now number one and two in the Korean box office. “I don’t know how I suddenly ended up with two films at the top of the Korean box office at the same time,” quips Hans Uhlig, founder of Polygon Entertainment.

Uhlig, former CG supervisor at ILM, formed Polygon Entertainment in 2007, taking over the San Raphael, CA, facilities vacated by LucasArts. Polygon is a full service film studio with movie development and production divisions, sound stages and a model shop, with visual effects, camera, story and art departments. Some may call it a ‘little ILM’ in terms of the approach to producing content wherein it seeks to develop high-concept projects from script through post.

For Chaw and Haeundae, Polygon was brought in to oversee the ambitious visual effects. Chaw is a horror film about a village attacked by a man-eating boar and the visual effects involved creating a CG boar for the shots of it running. Haeundae is a disaster film about a tsunami hitting the popular Korean vacation resort.

We spoke with Uhlig about how Polygon was able to create the visual effects for these films at about a fifth of the cost of comparable effects and how it led to the creation of a CG water plug-in that the company plans on selling at some point in the future.

Watch the making-of Haeundae VFX video below and then read the Q&A.

What were things you did on Chaw in creating a CG boar to produce the effects on budget?
On Chaw, we did a breakdown and figured it would be cheaper to shoot it here rather than sending all the people to Korea.

There were two versions of the boar. One was an animatronic boar, complete with facial expressions and mechanics. It took about five operators to control it. Then we had the boar that looked identical but didn’t have motors or any of that technology built in it. It was lightweight and was used by a guy that would run through the forest. In either case it doesn’t have legs so whenever you see the full-frame Chaw we created that in a matching CG model. The model had fur and muscle simulation, both which were developed in-house. We created a full-scale, full-screen CG monster running through various scenes.

We shot in the San Francisco area with the Sony F23 and then went into post. We contracted Digitrove, a company based in San Francisco. They supplied the artists, the render farm and machines, moved into our building and we supervised and produced the shots.

We hired Miguel Fuertes, animation lead on Happy Feet, to lead the CG on it. We had about 80 shots that were CG boar shots with it running through a forest and a factory. We animated, composited and rendered all those scenes as well as created the CG eyes of the boar for the entire film. It was modeled in Maya, rendered with 3Delight and composited with Nuke. We also did the DI for the film.

What were you using to do the DI?
We used Magic Bullet Looks. It’s a pretty powerful tool and if you know the software inside and out then you can do final color correction on it. I could always call Stu [Maschwitz] if there was a problem or couldn’t figure something out.

Let’s talk about Haeundae. The visual effects in that film are extremely complex. What was your approach to that film?
We got the script and did the break down. The biggest challenge for that film was the opening sequence because it included actors out on a shipping vessel experiencing the tsunami. We built the center section of the shipping vessel, created a 60-foot wide, six-feet deep, water tank on our backlot with water makers and rain machines and then shot at night for five nights. I think we were able to make a really believable sequence. The live action stuff we shot for those effects was probably the most successful part of that project, besides some of the water CG.

There were a couple of other sequences as well, a yacht rescue sequence, which we rented a helicopter and shot the principal actors being rescued from a sinking yacht by helicopter. That was about 150 shots. Then there was the whole tsunami hitting land. We shot with the Korean crew in Korea. There was a lot of work to be done within that budget. We scheduled about 500 shots, which included 86 CG-water tsunami shots and about 160 helicopter rescue shots.

What was the approach to creating CG water?
Water is the hardest thing to do. The biggest problem in creating water is making the client understand how much work it is, how it is supposed to look and understanding the principles of scale. With water you have no reference to scale unless you put a boat in the scene or something where you can judge the size of the wave. To get the scale right is very difficult. The client’s expectations were to make it bigger and bigger. But if you make it bigger it becomes more comedy than menacing. I worked on Perfect Storm and we faced the same challenges: How do you find the right scale, not just the wave height, but also the wave frequency, the different types of waves, etc. There’s an infinite amount of possibilities.

So you created custom CG water software for this film?
In looking at the amount of shots we had to do we figured we had to create our own water pipeline. We spent about 5 months developing the pipeline, writing the code and creating a smart pipeline that allows you to create simulations very fast with all the sliders to dial in all the details. The development team operated the software too so they did the TD work and then used it on this film, so they knew exactly what to tweak, how to adjust and produce these shots very quickly. It is a very powerful tool that they developed and I am thinking of packaging it and selling it. It is a Maya plug-in though Maya is mainly just being used as a display.

Everything is procedural with infinite combinations. You have control over the wave height, frequency, direction, orientation, reflection, foam, underwater churn, grid resolution and then you have the shader which allows you to create and control capillaries on the surface of the water, along with wind pockets.

It seems unusual that a Korean made film would come to the U.S. to get their effects done.
It is. When I was at Electronic Arts I got connected with business in Korea. I outsourced work to Korean companies, which I found were hardworking and creative. I think based off their work in games it became affordable to make feature films that could go for quality visual effects and outsource to the United States.

Why did they comes to the U.S.?

They wanted Hollywood-style effects that were big effects. I worked on Perfect Storm, Deep Impact and Day After Tomorrow. I know the Hollywood budgets: about $30 million to $50 million just for the visual effects budgets. The entire budget for Chaw was around $9 million and Haeundae was around $15 million.

On Haeundae in particular, they asked for Hollywood effects but they had $5 million to create all the effects for the tsunami. About two-thirds of that budget went onto shooting, so there was not much left to do CG. We outsourced a lot of things to other vendors when needed. We are a small team but good at knowing what we need without wasting money.

How do you create these big effects for less cost?
It’s how we set up our company. My philosophy is I would rather hire the two best artists or programmers rather than 20 average ones. It’s paying more [salary] but getting more quality.

Developing the water pipeline for Haeundae we had three good programmers, shader writers and CG supervisors. Eric Krumrey, who was a software developer at ILM, wrote the software. [Helping develop the custom water pipeline were CG supervisor Jay Shin and shader developer/sequence supervisor Ken Wesley]. Because of my experience working for ILM I know all the talented guys. But it is a challenge creating low-budget, high-quality effects.