Mixing Noir and Heavy Metal

Filter Film Turns to LightWave to create "I am Colossus" Heavy Metal Music Video

Posted: Tue 04 Mar 2014

The heart-pumping music in Meshuggah’s heavy-metal song “I am Colossus” is difficult to ignore. But when accompanied by a symphony of noir imagery, created in LightWave 3D software, the resulting music video becomes an explosion for the senses.

At the heart of the music video, created and directed by Magnus Jonsson, are animations of evolving scenes that play out in a jittery fashion, as if run on an old film projector. The images are dark, moody, haunting. The central characters are elongated, skeletal, human-like figures with seemingly tortured (and tortuous) souls.
Over the years, Jonsson has been involved in a range of projects, from commercials and films to music videos. To date, he has worked on approximately 25 music videos in various roles and using various techniques. An independent artist with his company Filter Film, Jonsson sometimes is part of a team, working on specific shots and tasks, while other times he delivers complete productions, as he did for “Colossus,” which was the first fully animated music video he has directed himself.

For “Colossus,” Jonsson was contacted by the producer, who came up with some concepts he had developed with the band. Initially, the music video was to be a live-action production, shot against greenscreen and infused with visual effects. However, upon Jonsson’s suggestion and subsequent mock-ups, the video became a wholly CG project. “The first concepts and ideas were from the band and producer. I then developed the concept and story from there, keeping the main premise intact but still implementing my own ideas and adaptations,” he says. “It was also important that I develop a strong visual style that would really enhance the concept.”

According to Jonsson, the primary focus throughout all the practical stages of production was to always work toward imagery that would convey the right feelings – to always think about how something would affect the meaning and purpose of an image and composition. “A strong composition and interesting symbolism is something that can make even the most mundane subject interesting,” he explains.

Jonsson started by building all the environments in LightWave. For most of the characters, he created rough sketches and then dove in digitally by building base meshes in LightWave. “I first kept the base of the characters rather simple and added details with sculpting and a first texturing pass in [Pixologic’s] ZBrush,” he says. When the artist got the characters to an almost completed state, he began building the rigs in LightWave’s Layout, using a manual approach “to keep things simple,” while still implementing the controls he knew he would need later, such as employing IK/FK blending on the characters’ arms.

“I knew I wanted the characters to move in a jittery way, so I created an expression with a random parameter, creating ‘shakes’ on selected bones that could then be animated with an external controller,” Jonsson explains. He also animated the shadow auras surrounding the characters with bones from the main character rig, and then distorted them with nodal texturing. Controllers were added for offsets, distortion speed, and so forth.

Noir Scenes

The scenes are black-and-white noir-ish, and nearly all of them have the same lighting types and setups that reflect dark, nightmarish settings. A dome light provided ambient lighting, a number of area lights offered the smooth, main lighting, and a few spotlights helped highlight specific areas and gave the scenes a theatrical-like feel. The artist also lit some scenes with GI lighting.

“LightWave’s VPR was a vital tool when I was setting up the scenes and working with the lighting and textures, saving me a lot of time,” says Jonsson.
To keep rendering and compositing to a minimum, Jonsson tried to solve each shot directly in camera, aided by the VPR. So, when the renders came back from the renderfarm, most of the shots were close to being final, with depth of field, for instance, already in place.

Editing was done in parallel to the other processes, from the preproduction stage to the final cut. Jonsson bypassed the storyboarding and instead produced a simplistic breakdown of the song with markers on key segments and important events in the music to help him coordinate the animation to the song. “I wanted the music to really feel like it was in control of the flow of everything,” he says. The jump cuts used throughout the video also helped in this regard, resulting in a more powerful mood within the visuals.

Jonsson says he planned the black-and-white look from the get-go, and worked with that look in all the production stages: His rough sketches and textures were all grayscale. The lighting was also an important function in that aesthetic. “The last pass of the look treatment was in post, where I gave everything a rough treatment. I used a large set of textures that I animated to create damage and give the scenes a final coat of atmosphere.” In addition, he animated on a half-speed frame rate, which, combined with shallow DOF and no motion blur, resulted in a stop-motion look.

Smart and Effective

The biggest challenges of this project, maintains Jonsson, was finding smart ways to finish the rather large number of shots in the video – deciding where compromises were possible while maintaining the desired look. Scenes became heavy to work with, he says. Multiple characters and rigs with displacement slowed things down. So, he devised a workaround that entailed baking out MDD files with all the imagery assembled in master scenes.

Jonsson has seen LightWave evolve over the years since he began using Version 7.5 of the software; when Version 8 arrived, it became his main content creation tool. “It’s a really good generalist tool. I really like the renderer and the simple but expandable texturing possibilities it offers,” he says. “It is the backbone of my 3D pipeline and the software I know the best.”

For the music video, Jonsson employed LightWave 11.5. Among the many state-of-the-art features offered by LightWave (Genoma, Bullet, and more), the VPR is the one Jonsson (as well as a plethora of artists) finds especially valuable. He cites a number of reasons for this, including the ability to view quick updates as he changes light and textures. “It is a fantastic way to work,” he says. Before VPR, he to do test renders to see the final results. “It’s now a breeze to work in linear color space together with sRGB using the color-converter tools.”

In fact, the VPR provided Jonsson with useful visual feedback while working on “Colossus.” “MDD workflows also became rather important during this production. And, I got to use Bullet for a few shots with hard-body dynamics, combined with Fracture in the modeler. Nodal texturing and displacement made it really easy to set up some effects. The rigs were rather simple, but some of the newer additions really helped me work faster, like the IK/FK blending and position/rotation constraints.”

The artist has tested all the major DCC software packages available on the market, and while each has its own strengths and weaknesses, LightWave was the one he found to work the best for generalist projects and tasks. That said, Jonsson from time to time augments his work with other tools. For instance, he began using The Foundry’s Modo for some modeling chores, UVs, and a bit of texturing. He also employs ZBrush when he needs to sculpt and texture more detailed models. The LightWave GoZ interchange, introduced in Version 11.5, has made working in ZBrush a breeze.

Yet, there is much about LightWave that makes it indispensible. For instance, the basic functions of Layout feel logical while providing great results, says Jonsson. “3D can quickly get complicated and the technical parts can get in the way of creativity. For most of the time, LightWave lets me focus on the creative side of things,” he explains.
And for music videos – which tend to have bigger ideas and smaller budgets – this often means that Jonsson has to turn up the volume when it comes to creativity. “On the smaller teams and budgets that music videos often have, there is usually more hands-on work with fewer guidelines. The Meshuggah video gave me a lot of creative freedom, from story to the final edit,” he says.

In addition to creativity, music video budgets call for efficiency. To this end, Jonsson appreciates LightWave’s simple but powerful texturing. Having the ability to work with both nodal- and layered-based texturing, even combining the two, makes the tool ideal. “This is one of the reasons I always come back to LightWave,” Jonsson says. Furthermore, LightWave’s simple and effective instancing has saved the artist countless hours on recent products. And he has come to depend on the network rendering to get the job done.

“LightWave had a huge, positive impact in my ability to create quality 3D when I started out as a digital artist,” says Jonsson. “It made it possible to shift the focus from ‘How do I do it?’ to ‘What do I want it to look like?’” And, in that regard, not much has changed.