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How Sony Imageworks Embraced Challenging Animation, Gritty Realism and Alien Mimics for 'Edge of Tomorrow' (VIDEO)

by Bill Desowitz
June 6, 2014 4:27 PM
1 Comment
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Blunt battles creature in 'Edge of Tomorrow'
Blunt battles creature in 'Edge of Tomorrow'

For the first time, Sony Pictures Imageworks, which is moving its headquarters from Culver City to Vancouver to stay competitive, embraced gritty, CG photorealism for Doug Liman's smart and trippy "Edge of Tomorrow." Truly "War of the Worlds" meets "Groundhog Day," with Tom Cruise caught in a nightmarish loop, the aliens he's up against were a strange, tough animation challenge for Imageworks.

'Edge of Tomorrow'
'Edge of Tomorrow'

In fact, Liman discovered a video called "Resonance/Deus Ex Machina" (see below), which perfectly conveys the look he was after with this simple geometric cube that grows and evolves violently.

"I think Doug was attracted to the power and unpredictability of the video, the fact that it didn't have a preservation of volume... and it just felt kind of terrifying," recalls Dan Kramer, the VFX supervisor from Imageworks ("Hotel Transylvania"). "He just wanted it to be really scary and thought, if that thing could just move in front of you, could grow tentacles and shape shift, that could be really be powerful and interesting."

When Kramer arrived, Framestore and MPC art departments were already working on ideas along with the internal production art department. There was even a clay maquette that was solely made of tentacles that looked like a bag of spaghetti. It provided inspiration for shape shifting and spawning tentacles and retracting them. 

Blunt and Cruise fight skittery aliens in 'Edge of Tomorrow'
Blunt and Cruise fight skittery aliens in 'Edge of Tomorrow'

"It was a very amorphous and challenging character to animate," Kramer continues. "The first few versions didn't have a head. The idea was that if it were running along, instead of changing direction and turning around, it might just invert its body and suck its head in one side and pop it out the other. There was no linear movement. The rule was that it could be anything."

There are three types of Mimics: the quick-moving Grunts (which are like spidery blenders) that twirl and attack out of nowhere in the thousands; the Alphas, which are bigger and slower and more sentient, acting as the central nervous system in charge of the battles; and the elusive Omega, the brain which Framestore animated.

"The difficult part for us was figuring out how to build that rig because we weren't dealing with a fixed model," Kramer explains. "We wound up building a Maya plug-in that would take a center curve from which they could grow and twist tentacles around it. And so we gave the animators high-level controls to add or remove tentacles, and the plug-in would add all the inter-penetrations between all the tentacles within that bundle.

1 Comment

  • Cody Childress | June 18, 2014 4:53 PMReply

    I've gone through this article and pointed out how every wonderful feature of this "Maya plugin" that is being praised is actually just the basic functionality of Paint FX, which ships with Maya by default. FYI, Duncan Brinsmead wrote the whole Paint FX system for Maya by himself, is a complete badass, and deserves all the credit. Obviously this doesn't mean Sony didn't do some magic, but it seems to me a little unfair to just give them all the credit.
    From the article:
    We wound up building a Maya plug-in that would take a center curve from which they could grow and twist tentacles around it(Paint Effects, maxClip to grow, Twist to twist). And so we gave the animators high-level controls to add or remove tentacles(Tubes Per Step), and the plug-in would add all the inter-penetrations between all the tentacles within that bundle. (Occupy Branch Termination)
    So when the Alpha grow a limb out, you'll see all these extra tentacles wrap and twist around(known as Branches and Twigs in PaintFX) and the inside tentacles will push the outside ones away(Tricky, but basically Occupy Branch Termination w/ maxClip animated). And the animator had control of the overall profile(define profile with graph under Width Scale), how much drape there was(Forces>Gravity), how many tentacles there were(again, Tubes Per Step), how tightly they were bound together(Attract Radius Offset), whether they could grow into a foot or not(User MEL Scripts>Creation Script? not sure). We added all the controls on top, but what we didn't want to do is get bogged down with animators animating every single tentacle, so it was quite cool in that way we were able to add noise into the animation system to allow them to writhe against each other(Behavoir> Noise/Wiggle/Curl).

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