Project Spotlight: Creating a "Category 5"

Platinum Platypus turns to LightWave to create over 100 visual effects shots for the STARZ Original Movie "Category 5"

Posted: Tue 13 May 2014

NORTHPORT, N.Y.: When cameras rolled for the STARZ Original storm disaster movie Category 5, it was a lovely summer day in Gulfport, MS. While beautiful weather is usually a plus for location shooting, it wasn’t advantageous for Category 5, which—as the name implies—involves catastrophic winds, rains and other destructive forces of nature.

By the time the movie was finished, the sunny blue skies and puffy white clouds had all been replaced by dark, menacing clouds, torrential rains and trees wildly swaying in powerful winds. A heavy wooden beam fell from the ceiling onto a boy, a van swerved to avoid hitting a downed telephone pole, and a man was knocked down when a tree branch smashed through the window as storm gusts overturned and destroyed the furniture.

These are some of the more than 100 visual effects shots that Platinum Platypus (Plat/Plat) created for the STARZ Original Category 5, a 90-minute film directed by Rob King and produced by AltaVista Entertainment in association with Blacklion Entertainment.

While Category 5 starts out as a family friendly feel-good movie—starring C. Thomas Howell (as Charlie DuPuis), Burt Reynolds (as Pops), Lisa Sheridan (as Ellie DuPuis) and Chelsea Kane (as Victoria)—it quickly becomes a test of survival in the face of catastrophic weather events

Weathering Production

“The biggest challenge we faced on this project was making beautiful, hot summer days look ominous and stormy within a very tight timeframe and budget. These visual effects had to be credible because they were crucial to conveying the severity of the storm and the premise of the plot,” said Pete Sussi, president of Platinum Platypus, in Northport, Long Island. In addition to a growing number of visual effects movie projects, Plat/Plat also does visual effects, character animation and motion graphics for broadcast design and commercials.

For this movie, Plat/Plat ramped up from three to nine visual effects artists to handle the movie’s intensive CG workload demands. Sussi, who served as the movie’s visual effects supervisor, was on location whenever visual effects scenes were shot. When the 1080/60p HD production (shot with Arri Alexis digital cinema cameras) was complete, he brought most of the over 100 hi-res back-plate files to his NY studio on G-RAID drives. A few pick-up shots subsequently arrived via FTP.

“When people watch a movie, they don’t care what kind of budget or schedule you had to deal with,” Sussi said, “They judge it by how it puts them into the right frame of mind to enjoy the story and if it gets them excited. You have to put them in that world; that’s the bottom line.”

“For us, the key to making the visual effects shots look credible—and to building a very cost-efficient workflow—is LightWave 3D,” Sussi said. LightWave is an end-to-end 3D animation system that integrates powerful CG modeling, animation, and lighting, as well as fast, accurate rendering tools. Sussi said, “For the most complex shots, LightWave tools saved us a great deal of time with visually stunning results.”

Flock of Birds

One of the first warning signs that a menacing storm is about to hit the picturesque rural town is the sudden appearance of a large flock of migrating birds flying around overhead. With close to 6,000 birds in the flock, their presence is enough to darken the skies. While the client thought Plat/Plat might alter a stock shot of birds, Sussi said, “They were pleasantly surprised to see that we created and animated the entire flock of birds sequence on a really massive scale from scratch in CG. The effect turned out to be one of the big cinematic moments in the film.”

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

But he’s quick to point out that it couldn’t have been done within the Category 5 budget and timeframe without the help of several unique tools in LightWave 11.5 or later builds, including Instancing and Flocking. Using online images of birds as references, Sussi’s visual effects team used LightWave’s 3D modeler to model a few CG birds, surfaced with appropriate coloring and textures.

They then animated the birds to flap their wings a few times, coast for a few seconds, and then start flapping their wings a few more times. Using LightWave’s Instancing, they essentially cloned this handful of birds into a flock of about 6,000 birds and offset them to vary their behaviors slightly. Then using LightWave’s Flocking tool, they choreographed a flight path for them to fly into the frame and then swarm back and forth practically filling the skies.

“In the shot, each bird is only a few pixels wide, but when they’re all flying together, the effect is very natural and organic looking. With Flocking, we were able to play around with a couple of different patterns and angles quickly just to see how it would look. It didn’t take long to simulate or render out,” said Sussi. “This spectacle of birds is something that could never happen on cue in real life, so luckily LightWave’s feature-rich, controlled environment gave us tools to dramatize the effect without having to spend tons of time creating it.”

Trash, Trees and Telephone Poles

In several scenes where the main characters are driving a white van along stormy roadways in the midst of the hurricane, they swerved to avoid obstructions in the road. In one instance, a metal garbage can with a lid comes flying out in front of their vehicle and it’s tossed and turned by the wind until it flies off to the other side.

 

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

 platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

And in another instance a telephone pole is hit by lightning and cracks near its base causing the upper two-thirds of the pole to fall over blocking the roadway just as the van approaches. LightWave’s Fracture tool caused the pole to crack and break, and then LightWave’s Bullet feature caused the large broken wooden pole to fall over with its power lines. This 3D telephone pole effect was composited into the back-plate making it appear that the white van hit it, flipped over and slid a short distance on its side.

In practical photography, a small ramp was placed in the middle of the road (where the CG pole would fall) and when the driver’s side wheels rode over that ramp, it caused the van to flip onto its side and slide as far as the guide wires would allow. Wire removal was a big part of the post process. In another scene where a heavy wooden beam falls from the ceiling onto a boy, wires were used to suspend it just over the boy, making it look like it had pinned him to the ground. Those wires were also removed in post.

Both the garbage can and the telephone pole were created using LightWave, and those 3D objects were composited into the live plates using After Effects. Plat/Plat used the After Effects’ built in 3D tracker, and occasionally supplemented it with a 3D camera tracker from The Foundery. Both software products offer a seamless (plug-in) interface for exchanging CG elements with LightWave.

After Effects’ tracker was instrumental in compositing a line of CG trees, 3D modeled in LightWave (along with VUE 3D environmental software) to appear to be violently swaying in the wind. Sussi said, “We created the line of swaying trees that we could use as looping sections. We rendered those out in 3D along with their alpha channel so they could be positioned almost like cards one after the other to populate the roadsides.” After Effects was also used to transform the back-plate’s sunny blue skies into ominous, gray, stormy skies throughout the movie as well as creating particle effects like rain.

“Our goal was to maximize the budget for the biggest bang for the buck,” Sussi said. “LightWave helped us get the job done with the kind of blockbuster effects today’s movie viewers expect to see.”

Sacking the Rib Shack

One of the principal locations for much of the drama in Category 5 is a roadside rib shack, which is a small fast food-style restaurant. In one scene, the storm reaches a fever pitch outside and is now causing destruction to the building. While the restaurant owner is shouting for everyone to take cover in the kitchen, the category-5 winds cause a giant tree branch to come crashing through the window, breaking the glass and causing part of the ceiling to fall in.

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

As the hurricane winds blow in, tables and chairs slide and flip over, knocking the owner to the ground. It all happens in an instant. For safety reasons, a decision was made to use a visual effects composite instead of shooting it. The first step was to shoot a clean back plate of the restaurant with all the furniture moved out of the shot. Next, the actor was shot in front of a green-screen while a stagehand shoves him very hard so that he appears to fall down with some force.

Next, Sussi and his crew took photographs, and measured the tables, chairs, and all the items that were on the tables such as napkin holders and barbeque sauce jars. They modeled exact replicas of these props in the CG environment complete with the same textures and surfaces.

To create the chaotic effect, the clean back-plate was composited into the green-screen, the giant 3D branch comes thrusting into the CG window causing destruction to the ceiling and interior. As the CG furniture slides and flips over, (the stage hand is removed) and the green screen actor appears to have been knocked to the ground by the destruction.

“We carefully recreated the scene in CG just to destroy it all,” Sussi said. “We used LightWave’s Fracture to break CG objects apart and LightWave’s Bullet to do all the dynamics. So Fracture would break the window and Bullet would cause all the pieces to scatter. We used Fracture and Bullet together extensively throughout all the visual effects shots, anywhere we needed to destroy something. You can play with the number and size of the particles of the objects and see all your creative adjustments in near real-time.”

Where the giant 3D branch comes in the window, Sussi said they put a box or circle on the lower right hand corner of the window. When it fractures, he said, “It will concentrate the destruction from that marked off area outwards, which gives you a very natural look. So you can designate the genesis of the impact and then have it ripple out from there.”

Sussi and his crew paid meticulous attention to every detail so that the CG objects would match the real props in any practical shots done at that location. This included accurately replicating the quality and ambience of the lighting for greater credibility. To do this, Sussi said they used a light probe to create a relationship between the CG objects and the way their physical counterparts were lit in the real world.

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

platinum platypus, lightwave 3d, visual effects, flocking, starz, behind the scenes, Category 5, vfx, 3d modeling, animation

“To do the light probe, we took a chrome ball, and we also took different lighting exposures of the ball on the set. That ball then became an HRI object—essentially a source of light—that casts the same lighting and hues onto objects in the CG environment as we had at the physical location,” Sussi said. “When coupled with radiosity, where CG lighting bounces off of 3D objects and surfaces, it looks incredibly realistic. The most interesting fact about this is that I didn’t have to go crazy with it.”

He says that before he found LightWave’s advanced lighting, radiosity and rendering capabilities, it was very difficult to approximate lighting looks without a lot of time-consuming cheats and workarounds. “Now it’s so quick and easy, it’s become pretty mundane and the results look gorgeous,” he said.

Considering today’s movie effects budgets, time is definitely money. Sussi said, “You can’t be on a learning curve. You need to know the ins and outs of your 3D animation software. And the 3D program has to have all the tools you need readily available.” But he adds that whether the budget is large or small, it means the world to that client.