Canadian firms provide incredible special effects for hulking Hollywood flicks

Hired by Marvel Entertainment Inc. to help bring a 9-foot-tall gamma-powered superhero to life on the big screen in The Incredible Hulk, officials at the Soho VFX Inc. special effects facility needed massive amounts of storage to help its artists create digitally-rendered fight scenes for the film.

Soho VFX used a BlueArc Corp. Titan 2200 series server to generate approximately 150 digital camera frames – totaling 16TB – for the live-action movie, said Berj Bannayan, a co-founder and software engineer at Toronto-based Soho VFX.

During the peak period of production, the Fibre Channel storage device delivered content at 600-700MB/sec. to the workstations and Dell servers of artists who were building the special effects for the movie.

“Each of those [artist’s] machines is trying to load all of this data, and the BlueArc device has to keep up,” said Bannayan. “It’s almost like drinking from a fire hose; you have to have fast storage loaded and saved many, many times during the animation process.”

Because so many frames of the movie had to be repeatedly produced at the same time, the Titan 2200 box had to respond to split-second demands from artists for hundreds of gigabytes of data-intensive and 3-D files, he explained.

The Incredible Hulk tells the story of Bruce Banner, a scientist who uncontrollably transforms into a green-skinned goliath because of an accidental overdose of gamma radiation.

In the film, Banner, played by actor Ed Norton, is on the run from the U.S. government, which wants to capture and use the Hulk for its own purposes.

Near the end of the film, the Hulk battles the Abomination, a former British special forces agent — portrayed in human form by Tim Roth — who volunteers to be transformed into a super-villain monstrosity.

Bannayan said Soho VFX was responsible for creating many of the digital effects for two action scenes in the film – a battle between the Hulk and U.S. Army soldiers in a Brazil bottle factory, and a rooftop chase and long fight sequence between the Hulk and Abomination that includes a helicopter crash.

“You want absolute visual fidelity to make it look like it’s a real environment. There’s just a lot of information that goes into making a frame, even turning a digital model into a colored image alone can be many gigabytes of data,” he added.

Other scenes in the big-budget film created using BlueArc’s storage server include shots of the Abomination throwing cars and sequences that show the muscular transformation of Roth’s character from a “40-year-old guy to a Bruce Lee body” after he is injected with the Hulk serum.

“You can see the quality of his skin, he had tattoos and we had to match that – it was just as difficult as rendering the Hulk was,” said Bannayan.

The 12-shot sequence took 15 artists two to three months to complete, he said.

Soho VFX has created digital effects for other Marvel feature films, including The Fantastic Four, The Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and X-Men 3: The Last Stand. When working on a film with Marvel, the visual effects shop sends the studio updates of film scenes with added images almost daily in high-definition Apple Quicktime formats.

Bannayan said having fast storage capabilities in his IT infrastructure allows his company to more quickly finish animation and deliver images to Marvel to make desired changes in time to satisfy strict production deadlines.

Soho VFX has been using BlueArc’s Titan server since late 2006. The storage appliance offers approximately 38TB of capacity and serves as the company’s entire mainline storage backbone, holding everything from project data to administrative information and user home directories.

Hollywood is also frequenting another Canadian city – Vancouver – to create visual effects that earlier used to be done in L.A.

Two other Canadian firms, both Vancouver based, also created visual effects (VFX) for another movie expected to be box office hit.

The Embassy – a small, 20-employee studio – has produced 60 shots for Iron Man. And Image Engine, a 60-employee studio can take credit for completing 70 shots for The Incredible Hulk.

Neither of the two movies was filmed in Vancouver.

Iron Man, featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, was filmed in L.A., while The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton, Tim Roth and Liv Tyler was mainly shot in Toronto.

The Embassy used computer animation technology to create a digital suit of armour for Iron Man, the Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures blockbuster.

In one of the movie’s fast-paced sequences, Oscar Nominee Robert Downey Jr. uses this suit to escape a gang of ruthless kidnappers.
“Shot by shot, rivet by rivet, we’ve spent a year working at an incredibly high level of detail,” said Winston Helgason co-founder and president of The Embassy. Winston Helgason. “And it really shows.”

While The Embassy is not a novice when it comes to digital effects, its focus – before The Iron Man project – was the production of corporate commercials for companies such as Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Citroen and Nike.

Iron Man, based on the Marvel comic book, is The Embassy’s first feature film.

Hollywood’s chance tryst with the Vancouver firm happened when John Nelson, visual effects supervisor for Iron Man, saw The Embassy’s animation of a robot policeman.

In November, 2006, he contacted The Embassy about doing the shots for Iron Man.

The firm got to work on a digital version of the suit actor Downey Jr.wears when his character is held captive in a cave in Afghanistan.

Helgason witnessed the filming of the live sequences in L.A. last March, and took digital still photos of the physical suit built by Stan Winston and worn by Downey Jr.

His crew then spent close to five months building the digital suit, and another six months creating the shots.

With files from Joaquim P. Menezes

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