building a world beyond with cineSync
Imagine a clandestine society existing beyond the veil of our own reality; a society where the boundless imagination we enjoyed as children is brought to life in the form of a shimmering, futuristic cityscape; a society where citizens cut through the skies on jetpacks and advanced automatons service our every need.
That’s the fantastical basis for director Brad Bird’s latest sci-fi action-adventure movie, Tomorrowland. The titular city forms the star attraction at the heart of this George Clooney blockbuster: a hidden, parallel dimension where the most progressive and pioneering minds of our time collaborate for the advancement of all mankind. Tomorrowland is the crucible by which humanity’s greatest achievements have been forged.
But while in the film this gleaming cityscape is formed of metal and glass, in reality it’s held together by pixels. The real minds responsible for bringing this alternate utopia to life can be found at Industrial Light & Magic and the California-based computer graphics facility Whiskytree, whose joint effort brought Tomorrowland’s retro-futuristic skyline to life.
Whiskytree and ILM created a breathtaking world beyond imagination, and how cineSync allowed them to bridge even the short physical distance that separates them.
It’s a small world
Situated in San Rafael, California, Whiskytree is based just a short drive north from ILM’s San Francisco headquarters. Their relatively close physical proximity mirrors the figurative closeness of their working relationship, with the two companies having worked on previous collaborations such as The Lone Ranger, and transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Transformers: Age of Extinction.
When it came to working together once again on Tomorrowland, Whiskytree proved a convenient in-between location for ILM’s associate VFX supervisor, Barry Williams, who would travel between ILM and the Lucasfilm sound studio situated at Skywalker Ranch in Marin.
“It’s very fortunate ILM lies just across the Bay,” begins Whiskytree technical director Steven Caron. “There are no time delay issues and it means that Barry could drop by the studio in person, relating information directly from Brad Bird if we needed it.”
Whiskytree was initially brought on board to create the exterior shots of the magnificent, gleaming Tomorrowland, as well as an enchanting sequence that takes place beneath a copse of trees. However, as the production progressed Whiskytree found its workload start to expand, encompassing a greater variety of shots. With fast, iterative design a priority, efficient
communication was as much an imperative as ever.
Whiskytree’s solution was, once again, cineSync. The studio may have been a stone’s throw from the ILM headquarters, but when working on a project as complex and artistically challenging as Tomorrowland, only the most instant, synchronised communicative effort was going to result in the necessary results.
“The Skywalker Ranch is just north of here, and they would have reviews in their theatre with Brad Bird and the rest of the team,” explains Caron. “One time, following a review, Barry dropped by at Whiskytree for an in-person meeting to talk about what had been discussed. We ended up calling the Visual Effects Supervisor at ILM to further discuss ongoing shots and Barry continued the session over cineSync: even with such tight proximity cineSync was making things more streamlined.”
cineSync has been indispensable for both regular and on-the-fly feedback sessions, establishing a robust, shared creative vision between ILM and Whiskytree.
“cineSync is really our main form of communication with clients,” says Brian Meanley, also technical director at Whiskytree. “It’s just about efficiency. cineSync really is the standard in the industry, so everybody is using the same tool. And it’s easy to use too: you get the ‘Here’s a session key’ when you start a project, and everyone knows what that means. Just knowing that we are customers of cineSync and our clients are customers of cineSync, we can hop on it in five minutes and be having a discussion.
“Whenever we’re reviewing shots, it’s the critical piece of software,” says Meanley. “Speed is always an issue when you’re trying to share and communicate with a studio and cineSync is fast and easy to use.”
Drawing up the blueprints
Every post-production house relishes the opportunity to give their work that personal touch. Whether it’s a minute animation flourish or some incidental detail lingering in the background of a shot, it’s these subtle identifiers that make a project feel a studio’s own.
On Tomorrowland, Whiskytree, working in collaboration with ILM, was given huge scope to put its own creative stamp on the project. For the exterior shots of the impressive, towering Tomorrowland – a cityscape of gleaming spires, coruscating waters and sleek, slender pathways – Whiskytree wasn’t given a pre-approved asset and told to drop it into a plate. The
studio was integral in defining the very look of the futuristic utopia from the design stages onwards.
As Brian Meanley explains, it was a huge creative opportunity: “When ILM first presented the shot to us, the concept art for the city itself wasn’t fleshed out and finished,” he remembers. “Brad Bird hadn’t yet fallen in love with the concept. It came down to us to get a little creative.”
ILM initially came to Whiskytree with a half-designed concept, but one that did not yet make complete sense from a physical standpoint. “ILM originally provided us with some CG geometry and layouts they were using for interior shots of the city, but when we rebuilt and reconstructed that city and rendered it from a distance it didn’t look like the concept art – obviously because they were never intending it to look like that,” says Meanley. “We took a step back and took their assets, modified them, and came up with designs that matched as closely as possible with the concept art we were initially given.”
While exploring their new vision for this city, Whiskytree would send work-in-progress renders to ILM, holding cineSync sessions a few times a week to ensure progress remained in sync with expectation. The solution played a key role in the process, allowing the team to create a horizon of futuristic buildings that felt truly iconic.
“The collaboration over cineSync worked great – it was vital in bringing that city to life,” enthuses Meanley. “The key point was getting the silhouette right from a distance, and during our cineSync sessions, at any point, Barry could just draw on the screen different versions of that silhouette, or they would give our renders to the concept team internally at ILM. They would chop it up, work on it, and make some variations that Brad could look at and pick pieces from here and there. He’d then pull favourites and form new concept art based on our renders.”
After the director signed off on the final concept, Whiskytree built new assets from the final concept art and proceeded to render out the final vision for the shot. “It’s nice to be creative sometimes with the more fantastical visuals,” adds Meanley. “On this occasion it was about making sure the final image felt really iconic, and we definitely succeeded with that.”
Trees of life
The world of Tomorrowland isn’t all robots, jetpacks and shimmering skyscrapers. One of the film’s most memorable sequences takes place during a moment of respite, as the film’s leads rest beneath the glow of a small group of luminous crystal trees.
An integral emotional beat nestled among the film’s more adventurous sequences, the shot grew to be a challenging one for Whiskytree. The team wasn’t just tasked with amplifying the lighting in the scene – it also needed to add to the sense of emotional weight.
“The trees actually were one of the more creatively tricky elements of the project,” says Caron. “We had to get that aesthetic right and make it feel emotionally correct in the sequence where it appears in the movie. There weren’t really any technical issues that weren’t surmountable: it’s all about getting to that final look and emotional resonance that everyone was happy with.”
The solution was simple: iterate, and then iterate again. Working closely with ILM’s Barry Williams, Whiskytree explored several looks for the bioluminescent trees, searching for a look that matched the scene’s narrative intent. Again, cineSync played a big part when feeling out this final look.
“During a cineSync session Barry made use of some of the colour adjusting and grading capabilities to show the direction that he wanted us to push the shot in,” says Caron. “That was interesting for us; it’s a tool that came in really handy and helped to achieve the right look and feel for the scene.”
Exploring new worlds
As mentioned, Whiskytree’s work on Tomorrowland originally comprised two scenes, but as the production rolled on, the VFX house found itself working on some of the most impressive shots witnessed across the entire film, including the impressive Paris shuttle launch sequence.
Here, the Eiffel Tower itself splits in two, revealing a hidden rocket that will transport the film’s intrepid heroes to Tomorrowland’s alternate reality.
“That sequence involved some techniques that we hadn’t really experimented with before,” remembers Meanley. “For the shot of the shuttle taking off, for example, we had to recreate the overhead views of Paris as accurately as possible. We used a lot of open-source map data and constructed geometry based on vector map data of Paris. We really stepped out of our normal workflow for that, but it worked really well.”
More time-consuming work involved implementing variable retimes and speed ramps on a large number of shots, while elsewhere invisible effects – including set extensions and modifications to the plate – were treated with equal importance to the major shots.
“We expected this project was going to evolve over time, but it was a fun process, because it enabled us to be really creative, and that’s not always the case” says Meanley. “For example, there was the time lapse shot – that was executed perfectly. It looked just like footage that was actually shot as a time lapse, but in reality it was completely digital!
“We would get new sequences like that from ILM forwarded to us, and it was great to have that variety,” he continues. “It was always an iterative process, and cineSync ensured that there were no surprises; it was a collaboration through and through. Sometimes a version of a shot would change dramatically from one version to the next; sometimes it was small tweaks here and there. We knew that going into it that there would be no bumps in the road thanks to cineSync: it was a seamless process.”
A better tomorrow(land)
Tomorrowland was an exciting project for Whiskytree, transporting the studio to alternate futurist realities and back again. But the studio nevertheless feels grounded and secure in the knowledge that it has the right tools to get the job done, whatever might be thrown its way. Even if they were just bridging the relatively short gap of the San Francisco Bay, cineSync nevertheless provided increased efficiency when it came to quick-and-easy communication.
“We’ve even started trying to push cineSync to more of our clients,” laughs Caron. “So many times in the past we’d say, ‘If we could draw on that frame now this would be really easy.’ It’s not particularly convenient when you have to open up Photoshop and draw on the frame before sending it back over email. cineSync allows us to make those easy sketches, though, getting the message across instantly without the need for back-and-forth email chains.”
For Meanley, it’s the annotation capabilities that really make cineSync such an invaluable tool: “It’s just something that’s useful for us,” he explains. “Often we’ll get written notes, but we also get saved frames of the annotations that were made throughout the review session. It’s a feature that we really rely on to stay in sync.
“cineSync will be used on every film project we work on from here on out,” concludes Meanley. “It’s a no-brainer.”