VFX making of
creating magic for the Last Witch Hunter
Image Engine adds finishing touches to The Last Witch Hunter
The Last Witch Hunter is a supernatural joyride through a hidden of world witches, concealed from the view of everyday life.
Image Engine was brought on to The Last Witch Hunter at the 11th hour, tasked with adding the finishing touches that would bring the last 5% of the project to life. This included extending practical sets and enhancing plate photography with magical, fiery embers.
The project allowed Image Engine to flex its generalist skillset, while pushing itself creatively on shots that were not originally intended to contain CG elements.
Interview with Image Engine
Image Engine Visual Effects Supervisor
What were the biggest challenges for your team during work on The Last Witch Hunter?
To accommodate a more flexible generalist span of work, we ended up using a different approach then we normally would at Image Engine. The challenge was with the exception of one or two scenes, many of our shots needed to have creative and unique designs. Most of the work consisted of making scenes look more magical and we were often given the freedom to come up with our own looks to the work. We constantly came up with various creative ideas and were able to make quick updates.
All projects are unique. What is the most memorable and impressive task the team worked on in The Last Witch Hunter?
One of the most memorable tasks was for a simple monitor burn in that ended up being a lot more fun then expected. We were asked to create a user interface design that mimicked an FBI database and scrolled through pictures of suspects. We ended up doing a mugshot photo shoot of Image Engine employees and picked out the most suited. It wasn't a very complicated effect, but it was a lot of fun for the team.
Did you work with another VFX companies during the project?
The majority of our shots were fully completed at Image Engine, however we did have a few items that were shared with other vendors. We received a couple of assets, including the witch queen heart and Kaulder's car (an Aston Martin) for our assets team to work with. These were items that had already been established in the film prior to our involvement, and were built at another facility. While we had a couple of shots that were shared with other vendors, production made the process very easy by receiving or sending comps to update backgrounds. During the show Image Engine merged with our now partner Cinesite, which also happened to be a vendor on the Last Witch Hunter. A funny moment happened the following day after our merger, production said we would be receiving an update to one of our plates from Cinesite and that we were now sharing a shot with ourselves!
There are some effects like floating smoke that morphs into the flowers, which create an atmosphere for the magic. How were was this unique effect style developed?
Many of the scenes that we worked on were meant to enhance the feeling of magic. Creating floating smoke, flower and bio-luminescent plankton were a very collaborative process. One of the effects of the magic hanging over the tables was designed based off from upside down chandeliers. We chose a number of different options and picked ones that felt would flow and rotate around nicely. To create the effects, we built the objects in 3d (flowers, chandeliers, etc..), animated and then ran various particle simulations through them. We used Side Effects Houdini and Mantra to create and render the particles and created the magic glowy look using Nuke.
What is the main difficulty in creating hidden effects, especially when the effects are not so obvious (i.e. invisible)?
When tackling hidden effects, the goal is for the audience to not realize that any VFX work was done in the scenes. The main difficulty is seeing the subtlety that most people wouldn't recognize unless it was pointed out, but they might feel something is off. Paying attention to the little details is what will help you trick the audience into believing. Of course this would be in addition to making sure that everything technical is correct, that the colours and black levels are matching, the tracking is locked and edges are working.
A lot of the shots in The Last Witch Hunter are in a real environment. Making changes or adding any effects into the shot needs great rotoscope work. Did you have a special approach for completing work in this regard?
All of our shots had a real plate to work with, which is incredibly useful for copying lighting and depth cues from. Integrating visual effects into live action plates will almost certain to require some sort of paint or roto. Before we start on any shots though, we try to plan out everything as much as possible to minimize any unnecessary work. LWH had plenty of roto for us and we didn't have a lot of time to complete it all in house, so we ended up outsourcing a portion of the work. A number of shots required making quick adjustments to locations, which meant fine finessing and constant updates of the roto. For these shots, we made sure to keep them with our team at Image Engine.
Sometimes directors refuse to use chromakey and make a lot of scenes with real decorations. What is the major advantage of real environment for getting a final shot and what is the biggest disadvantage?
There were a couple of sequences that we worked on that involved expanding the background of the witch council chamber. The goal was to make the environment feel larger and more grandiose. The sequences weren't originally shot with this intention and because of that there wasn't any green screen added on set. What was nice about getting the shots without greenscreen is that it provided us with great reference for the background in terms of colour values, luminosity levels and depth of field. Unfortunately, it also created a lot of issues when trying to blend in hair, defocused edges and transparency. Our compositing and roto team worked meticulously to blend everything in seamlessly.
What is your advice for VFX artists who have just started their way or want to start their career in the VFX industry?
Be okay with taking criticism and making changes. Getting your start in the industry can be very difficult with so many people trying for the same thing, but the tough part is to stand out once you're given an opportunity. Try to figure out what skillset you enjoy and focus on it. Training your eye and learning new techniques will eventually happen, but you need to be able to work in a team environment. Yes your art is important, but understand that your work is fitting into a larger story and you need to be okay with working towards a specific vision.