Into the CG Minds of "Iron Sky"

LightWave CG masters Samuli Torssonen and Kelly Myers discuss the production of the popular indie hit

Posted: Thu 25 Apr 2013

What does it take to make a movie about steampunkish Nazis who fled to the moon in 1945, only to return 60 years later from their lunar lair in space-worthy Zepplins? The answers are revealed in indie feature film Iron Sky, which premiered in theaters worldwide in April 2012 and released to DVD in early 2013. Created by Finnish film production company Blind Spot Pictures, Iron Sky demonstrates its creators have an active imagination, boundless creativity and unbelievable perseverance and flare for LightWave 3D generated CGI.

Iron Sky explores this alternate-reality view of the fate of post World War II Nazis and their re-emergence with hundreds of CGI shots. To pull off the massive undertaking, Energia Productions’s Samuli Torssonen, Iron Sky VFX producer, assembled a team of more than a dozen LightWave 3D artists, including award-winning LightWave 3D animator Kelly Myers, who served as the film’s CG supervisor. Together the two discuss the Iron Sky project, the animation hurdles they faced, and how LightWave 3D helped them overcome the challenges.

The Pitch

Samuli Torssonen: Iron Sky is a feature film about moon Nazis. It is produced by Blind Spot Pictures, a company from Finland. Iron Sky is a Finnish/German/Australian co-production. It had a budget of 7,5 million Euros, which makes it the biggest film made in Finland so far.

Rise of Iron Sky

Torssonen: Like many good ideas in Finland, in the sauna of course. We already had this idea based on various conspiracy theories. There are actually people who believe that there are Nazis on the moon. It's Incredible that nobody had created a film about it before.

The Crew

Torssonen: The director is Timo Vuorensola, who also directed our very first feature film called Star Wreck. The writers are Johanna Sinisalo and Michael Kalesniko, the production designers are Jussi Lehtiniemi and Ulrika von Vegesack and I am the VFX supervisor.

The Visual Concept

Torssonen: The Nazis have a very steampunkish look. It appears that they are stuck in  ‘50s technology that has been perfected. So everything the Nazis build is huge and massive.

The Challenges

Torssonen: The sheer amount of shots in this film was a challenge. We are talking of more than 800 shots, which means that about half of them have some CGI in it. We also set the quality standard really high.

Kelly Myers: From the viewpoint of the LightWave 3D team, the challenges have been the models themselves for the most part. While the concepts are awesome and very well detailed, the construction of the models in general has not been easy to deal with later on down the line.

Because of the nature of how the film was produced and financed, many things that should have been fixed or completely rebuilt to exacting specifications for speed, efficiency and final look on screen, regardless of whatever package would be used to animate or render it, simply could not take place for every asset in the show.

Some of them work great and have come in from LightWave, Max, Maya, Modo, 3D Coat and ZBrush. Others have been downright pesky from the get go and we spent some significant time cleaning them up and improving them in LightWave.

The Zeppelins are a prime example of this. Originally modeled in Maya, the Zeppelins had symmetry and UV problems before being sent to us. While they could be used and rendered just about anywhere, in any package out there, I wanted to have them look their best and match what the art director had in mind.

Luke Whitehorn, our VFX Technical Director on the show, jumped in immediately and gave the Zeppelin model itself a geometry facelift. This is where we found out why we were having difficulties with it. There was a ton of intersecting geometry all over the place and that had to be dealt with before we could address its texturing issues.

From there, I stepped in with resurfacing the ship to bring it more in line with the look of a Los Angeles Class or Typhon Class submarine while still working with the original texture maps. The original maps we were given were incredibly limited. Diffuse map with color painted into it, a specularity map, which was just the diffuse map turned grey scale and a bump map. That was it! These were massive maps, some of them being 10K in resolution. The reasons for it being this way were perplexing to say the least.

What made it worse is the ship itself had one UV map. While that might work in video games, it wasn’t going to cut it for a feature film. We couldn’t go back to the drawing board with the modeling and start from scratch, so we had to do with what we had and this is where LightWave came to the rescue.

Luke built the additional detailing into the model along with the re-texturing work, which was in the end largely procedural and nodal-based.

The elements out of mental ray via Maya were just not giving the Nuke Team what they needed to work with because of the issues with the textures on the Zeppelin and other ships.

From Maya to LightWave

Torssonen: I’ve personally been using LightWave since 1998. But when the production started I was not able to find any LightWave artists in Finland, so we decided to use Maya. Using mental ray after LightWave wasn’t a pleasure. I found the mental ray integration in Maya lacking and really frustrating. Things that I previously did in LightWave in a couple of minutes turned into hours in Maya.

I quickly understood that the only way to produce this amount of full CGI shots would be to find LightWave professionals who are used to rapid production schedules. Thank God we found really talented guys from the UK, Canada and U.S. I have to say that LightWave really saved our production.

Myers: LightWave was the preferred choice from the start. Samuli is a LightWave artist. One of the major issues for him early on, because he wanted to use LightWave, was that he felt there wasn’t enough experienced LightWave 3D talent in Finland that he could draw from. This forced him to look closer at Maya, something I know he wasn’t happy about.

Later on when it became clear that Maya wasn’t going to work with the available talent base in Finland either, he went back to LightWave as fast as possible and Samuli put the call out around the world to try to find people. In the end, it wasn’t all that hard for him, which I think came as a bit of a surprise really.

Iron Sky has attracted a lot of attention online and many of us have been keeping an eye on the project from the get go. That’s how Luke, Lee Stringer, Tuomas Kankola and I got here, although Tuomas wasn’t that far away. He was working in Helsinki at Undo Graphics doing advertising work. I had known him since 2007 and had kept in touch so when he heard I was heading over to Iron Sky from Vancouver he jumped in as well.

LightWave: The Help

Torssonen: In a team of 15 guys, everybody needs to be able to deliver shots. We just can’t afford to have guys to write scripts. LightWave is simple and fast to use. Yes, it might have some limitations, but there are also fewer things that can break down. Usually the brute force way is better than overly clever scripting and less risky.

Myers: I could fill up an entire magazine about how LightWave helped the production. Where to start? Well for one, LightWave allows us to bring everything together before handing off the renders to the compositing team. That’s our job. Our biggest advantage in a production like this is that we are using LightWave. We can previs shots using models from just about anywhere while working towards finals. If we get an approval for a shot in previs, we can immediately start the work and get to a final shot quickly. We don’t have to completely rip apart what we have done in order to accommodate changes from the director, the art director or Samuli.
We can send models back to other packages for tweaks, for fixes or do them ourselves. We can mix stuff rendered out or animated in another package with what we have done via FBX and other forms of I/O. Camera moves can easily be pulled from something done in Maya months ago, fixed up in LightWave and then exported to Nuke or Fusion for 3D compositing.

This has been essential because a lot of money and time was spent in other packages and being able to reuse that work as much as possible helps a lot. We have effectively picked up where the Maya team left off, going as far as they could and carried on with LightWave. A few of the Maya guys are now learning LightWave, which is very encouraging.

LightWave Essentials

Torssonen: The internal renderer was essential to our production. You don’t need to think and worry if this node works with this renderer or not. One really important thing is that because everything is loaded into RAM, when you open a scene it also loads to the renderer. So, rendering starts instantly when you hit render. For example, in Maya or any other package that has an external renderer, like Mental Ray, it takes time to send the geometry data into the renderer.

Virtual Preview Renderer (VPR) is a huge time-saver for shading and lighting the scenes. How can you live without it? I can just play around with the lighting and tweak the materials while the director is seeing the results in real time.

And of course one very big thing is that the render nodes do not cost anything. We have 50 computers here rendering. We could never afford Mental Ray or RenderMan on all nodes. I’d rather spend that money on artists.

Myers: One of the things that I know some people will be tired of hearing about is VPR, but people need to understand just how critical it is to workflow. First off, it’s a major advantage for us, compared to other artists working in other applications.

We are able to work in VPR as artists. Maya or Max artists here work in OpenGL wireframes or bounding box modes as “technicians.” They really don’t have anything like VPR that is truly integrated, and that slows them down big time.

They can’t light the way we do, they can’t texture the way we do and they certainly can’t translate on screen to a director what is going on like we can, with VPR and a rendered preview.

Sure, we can work as technicians as well, but we do it a lot of the time with VPR running. From Particles to Morphs to Motions and final tweaks, it’s there with us all the way through the process. What is more important, though, is that our director “gets it” when we show him stuff and he’s able to comment without guessing about what he sees. It was so effective that we stopped doing openGL previews almost completely in the summer and did VPR preview renders instead and sent those off to editorial or to Timo for review. It also made the editorial team happy because what they were seeing “clicked” when we provided renders done in VPR vs. OpenGL or wireframes. Our turnaround was almost immediate. To us, it’s not just a Viewport Preview Renderer. It’s helping us bridge a visual communications gap with other departments and creatives on the film.

Beyond VPR of course and most importantly to me and the others here, is the LightWave interface. When you have to spend a lot of hours looking at a program, it makes a huge difference. Beyond the aesthetic stuff, the interface also saves time. I don’t find myself fishing around for menu options or buried tools like other artists do using other apps. LightWave’s interface is incredibly straightforward and that is a huge benefit.

The Pipeline

Torssonen: Animation was mostly done in LightWave. Some of the more complex dynamic and rigging work was done in Maya and then sent to LightWave for rendering. Generally, the models and baked animation move very nicely back and forth using the FBX transfer. Compositing was done in Nuke. Our pipeline was quite straightforward. We found a balance in our production, combining key elements and talents. In the end, the space shots were Lightwave based and interior shots done with Maya.

Production Schedule

Torssonen: We shot the film in January 2011 and started the post production right away. All the visual effects were completed in a year. We had 15 artists working. So, we needed to pull off miracles every day. But, more important, what makes Iron Sky special is the active collaboration between us and the online community. The Iron Sky team was and still is in direct contact with over 200.000 fans on a weekly basis. This is the first fan-made movie of such a scale.

The Release

Torssonen: The film premiered in Berlin on February 11, 2012, at the Berlinale. The official release date was April 4th 2012 in Finland. A big event for the cast and crew was  here in Tampere on 26th of March. Our goal was to release the film in theaters worldwide during the spring. Other releases were also planned: Norway April 4th, Germany April 5th, Sweden April 18th, UK April 20th and Poland April 27th. We expect the film to be distributed in other countries as well. We also presented Iron Sky in international movie festivals, like the South by Southwest Film Festival as part of the Midnight program in Austin Texas.

The Premiere

Torssonen: I think the Premiere in Berlin could not have been any better. It was the place to show the film for the first time. The German public and even most of the German critics loved it. In my opinion people have taken the film very well. The visual effects are also one of the stars of the film. We have proven that high quality visual effects are no longer a priviledge for 100 million dollars Hollywood productions.

Iron Sky touched millions of people during the production process, it is a fan-made film. The audience cheered and liked the film. Some of the critics loved it and some didn't. I have to say that this film is truly made for audiences and fans. As a filmmaker, that was for me the most important feedback of all.

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