Look Effects Opens a Vancouver Office to Create Creature VFX and Further a Long-Term Plan

With production schedules squeezing the bejeezus out of visual effects studios, the last thing you’d think a conscientious facility like Look Effects would do is set up new studio in a different city and hire a new crew to create the effects for a feature film. Moreover, Warm Bodies called for a crowd of CG characters, and Look had not developed a character pipeline.

But, as we learned from Look President and Partner Mark Driscoll, it all fits into a longer-term strategy to keep the studio viable — a not-unusual concern these days.

As anyone who has seen Warm Bodies or read reviews of the rom-com zombie flick knows, it was a success. The quirky film produced and distributed by Summit Entertainment and directed by Jonathan Levine captured critics and ticket-buyers alike with its mix of love story, horror film, and comedy; it spiked a 78 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has earned $81 million at the box office so far, with some countries yet to see the release.

All told, Look artists created 310 visual effects shots for the film. Among them were 85 creature shots with the “Boneys,” including an army of the skeleton monsters who engage in a series of hand-to-hand battles.

Levine tracked the studio down after seeing Look’s work on Black Swan. “We got the call in March or April of 2011,” says visual effects supervisor Dan Schrecker, who worked on the film out of Look’s New York office. “We hit it off and from then on were part of the team going forward, prior to the full greenlight. It was a Canadian production, so we set the wheels in motion to open the office in Vancouver.”  

At the time, Look had studios in LA and New York. Now, there are four – LA, New York, Vancouver, and a new facility in Stuttgart, Germany, which opened in early March.

“Vancouver stems from seeing where the prevailing winds are blowing,” Driscoll says. “We considered it 10 years ago, incorporated a company there two and a half years ago, and designed the studio mentally. We had a framework in place, down to how many seats we wanted and who would run it. Then we waited until we had a project. We knew we could pull the trigger quickly.”

Like Vancouver, the Stuttgart studio opened when Look landed visual-effects work on a film — in this case, Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s next film. “And Germany is a place we know,” Driscoll says. “My business partner Henrik Fett is German, and we have relationships with visual effects artists and producers. We’re finding more and more projects in Germany. There is a strong film funding base that is not already saturated, a significant interest in attracting filmmaking, and incredible talent.”

These new studios are brick-and-mortar facilities, not pop-ups. Although they are designed so that the company could back out if needed, that isn’t the intention. The carefully selected locations further the larger strategy. “We don’t want to jet in, do something, and leave,” Driscoll says. “We want to create an artist infrastructure. We want to move into content creation, to put our own projects together or become co-producers. We want to have more control over our own destiny.”

Thus, when Look’s visual effects supervisor, Schrecker, began working with director Levine on Warm Bodies in the spring of 2011, he could be confident the new Vancouver facility would be up and running in time for post-production in the fall.

“The shoot started in Montreal in August,” he says. “We brought in Everett Burrell during shooting to help develop the “Boney” creatures and we had some key members of the team up in Vancouver. By the time we wrapped production around Thanksgiving, we were up and running.”

In August, Look digital effects supervisor Mat Krentz was working on Moonrise Kingdom in New York. He quickly switched jobs to lead the work on Warm Bodies, including setting up the new office. “I’m from Vancouver,” he says. “I wanted to go home. It worked out perfectly. We found office space, got machines, organized the software and hardware, set up the network, and moved forward.”

Creature technical directors were among the first people he hired. “We needed time to develop the toolsets for a creature pipeline,” Krentz says. “This was our first character show. We didn’t have a creature pipeline at all.”

To get a base workflow moving, Michael Oliver, Look’s director of technology and senior systems engineer, worked with a supplier in Vancouver to install 10 workstations and monitors immediately. “We have the same core components in all our facilities,” he says. “Machines with Intel chips and Nvidia graphics; they were able to come through with Quadro cards. We provisioned Isilon [storage] nodes to Vancouver as well and Digital Ordnance’s Flame Thrower [for playback].”

For software, Look works with large vendors, some of which have floating licenses and some don’t. “[Autodesk’s] Maya is our main 3D package, and we had to buy separate licenses for Maya in Vancouver,” Oliver says. For texturing, the studio settled on The Foundry’s Mari and Pixologic’s ZBrush; for tracking, Vicon’s Boujou; and for compositing, The Foundry’s Nuke.  

“Nuke’s the best out there, and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone to argue that,” Oliver says. “It has an open back end. Whenever I buy something that will be a core part of how we operate as a facility, it has to be open with a scriptable environment. It can’t stand alone.”

For rendering, the studio settled on Chaos Group's V-Ray. “We had experimented with V-Ray in LA, but Vancouver was the catalyst that propelled it into our main pipeline, and now we’re using it in all the studios,” Oliver says.

Tweak Software’s RV for playback and Shotgun’s database software completed the basic pipeline. “Shotgun has been instrumental in the growth of our business,” Oliver says. “We have our own server that we host and customize, but all three facilities use Shotgun as the main brain to get data for all our projects.”

Then, Oliver and his team put the pieces of the puzzle together. “Anyone can buy software,” Oliver says. “The real power comes from being able to automate things and communicate between software programs. When artists create new versions, the software we’ve developed publishes it, creates quicktimes, and emails people. Model updates propagate into all the scenes. The more you can eliminate chances for error, the smoother the workflow.”

Krentz describes how that worked in practice on Warm Bodies. “We wanted to minimize what the artists had to worry about,” he says. “An animator could load all the assigned shots, open up the camera, and save things out automatically. They could bring in what they needed through the shot tool – the cameras, the sets the tracking department created, all the versioning. And, if they needed to move the animation to the next department for lighting, instead of waiting to cache it out, which could take an hour or two, the system would set that up and render it on the farm for them.” 

Although the team considered rendering the shots on the farm in L.A., they decided the slight delay wouldn’t be worth it, so they set up an independent render farm in Vancouver.

In November, the first artists hired in the Vancouver office had begun working on post-production for Warm Bodies. By Christmas, the office was fully staffed and the biggest shipments of hardware and software had arrived. The film released in the US on February 1.

 “It wasn’t easy,’ Krentz says. “It was definitely a lot of work putting things together. And it was very busy in Vancouver, so even though the talent pool has grown since I first started in the business, it was hard to find talent. We were really specific about bringing in people who had great experience.” The facility hired around 40 people for the film and kept a core group of artists when the project scaled down.

To animate the Boneys, the team started with motion-capture data, but after viewing the data applied to the skeletal creatures, they decided to keyframe the creatures instead. “When we saw the motion-capture data applied to the CG models in the shots, the Boneys looked weak and not scary at all,” Krentz says.

As soon as the crew realized they wouldn’t use the motion-capture, they began blocking out the shots in animation. “We wanted to get approvals from Jonathan [Levine],” Krentz says. “Then we added more details. The animators had specific tools to do facial motion, breathing sliders to make the nose move back and forth. Our creature TD worked with the animators so they’d have the flexibility they needed.”

In addition to the creatures, the team created an establishing shot of the city for a fly-through, linking the CG city to plates filmed in Montreal. “We built a quick layout of Montreal that we used as a test bed,” Krentz says. “Then, we rearranged things. We populated the [CG] city with buildings, street signs that had fallen over, cars crashed together, and litter on the ground to make it feel old and post apocalyptic. Once we got the camera locked off and bought off by the director, we did hundreds of matte painting projections. We modeled in Maya, textured in Mari, painted in PhotoShop, and reprojected the paintings in Maya.”

The Look team also helped the star of the film, the zombie R (Nicholas Hoult), move from one world into another spatially and temporally. “When R eats Perry’s brain,” Schrecker says, “he flashes back to being Perry [Dave Franco], who is in love with the girl he’s in love with. That flashback moment was something Jonathan [Levine] wanted to explore, the euphoria that R experiences. We didn’t nail the look until we were in post. The idea was that it was supposed to be dreamy and, at the same time, a bit jarring and edgy. Trippy, for lack of a better word. We showed Jonathan 50 versions. He picked the ones he liked. And then we did another 20 versions. We have this kind of gold dust that falls through the frame.”

But the most exciting work for Shrecker was the creature work. “I had never done [creature work] on that scale and I think we pulled off something cool,” he says. “I’ve been building the team in New York for the past four years. That Mat was able to put together a team in Vancouver from nothing to accomplish something Look hadn’t had the opportunity to do before is awe-inspiring to me.”

And that circles us back to Look’s long-term strategy, one that stands out as people consider the problems in the visual effects industry.

“Being a vendor is a great business, but it’s a hard business,” Driscoll says. “Contrary to some sentiments out there, visual effects is not a commodity. It’s not a technician-based business. It takes highly-skilled, creative people do to visual effects. I think one of the biggest things people are missing is that visual effects is a value-based proposition. It’s the essential reason why many of these movies are successful.”

In other words, Driscoll believes the tone of the argument needs to include the value visual effects brings to films, particularly the blockbusters. “I don’t necessarily mean we should pay a company $20 million to do the visual effects instead of $10 million,” he says. “We need to be at the table much like the actors and directors are at the table. We need to assign a meaningful value to visual effects and turn the dialog away from anyone can buy Maya and do visual effects. We need to put some sort of value and worth on our contribution to these movies.”

But Driscoll, his partner Fett, and the management team at Look are realists not idealists, which is why the company is moving into content creation. And why Look has a foothold in Canada and Europe.

“Knowing that it’s almost impossible for studios to wrap their heads around the idea [that visual effects should be at the table], we decided why not start doing it ourselves,” he says. “We have incredible talent. Why can’t we apply that to our own projects and not someone else’s projects, and harness that creativity for the company and the people who work for us?”

“We have a director of development and an agent,” Driscoll says. “We’re plugged into a talent agency pipeline,” Driscoll says. “We’re out there. We’ll start on the smaller side, outside the studio model where people are willing to be creative, and see if it creates any long-term wave of change. We’re going to try to be significant players in our own world. Instead of only getting stuff pitched over the fence, we’ll be at the table.”

And given the success Look has had so far, that could mean feast rather than famine for this visual effects company.

Photos courtesy Look FX and Summit Entertainment