By Ian Failes
Fractals, mocap with an XBox and designing costumes ‐ that’s all in a day’s (or months and months) work for the visual effects team on David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. It may have had a mixed reaction from critics and fans, but the film required some extensive VFX work. Visual effects supervisor Mark Breakspear from Imageworks, just one of the studios involved, discusses the making of Enchantress, Incubus and El Diablo for some of the film’s biggest scenes.
The biggest challenge for Enchantress was…her wardrobe
Visual effects artists are certainly used to designing sets, vehicles and creatures ‐ and often making changes right up to the last minute. For Enchantress, that extended to her elaborate and flowing costume design since on set a number of incarnations were explored for Delevingne’s wardrobe but not finalized.
An Enchantress featurette.
Eventually they said, ‘Well look, we’re gonna shoot her in essentially a gold bikini, exposing all the skin parts that we want to see, and then we’re gonna add her costume onto her body afterwards,” relates Breakspear.
“And that in itself is an incredibly complex thing because you know you’re shooting with these cameras and you have to track every single motion of a dancing person on
set, and then add on flowing fabric and cloth.”
Imageworks would ultimately replace most of Delevingne’s skin with a CG body after it was deemed the tattoos (which were applied as make-up) needed to be more integrated with the character.
“From those tattoos they wanted it to sort of leak smoke and some sort of like aura from her body that was flowing behind her and creating this machine in the air,” adds Breakspear.
The aura of Enchantress
Out of those tattoos stream a smoky aura that connects to several creatures almost swimming beneath a membrane of another aura around Enchantress. Off of that membrane Imageworks crafted what it called a ‘fractal fire’.
Explains Breakspear: “It was a fire in a sense that it moved like a normal fire, but instead of being made of flames it was made of obsidian chunks of various sizes, and those chunks would go up into the air and form by connecting to each other bigger pieces, and those bigger pieces would connect to other pieces, and it would sort of form giant sort of fractal gear pieces.”
That fractal nature made the fire effect particularly complex to pull off, partly because it was intended to replicate science, rather than magic. “David Ayer was very insistent that the magic that she had was almost like a science from the future,” says Breakspear.
“So even though it wasn’t technology, it would look like magic but there was a technology in it somewhere, there was a mechanism that we didn’t understand but maybe in twenty five thousand years we’d all say, ‘Oh that’s just a magic app you can download for your iPhone 72.”
The birth of Incubus
Earlier, after turning on her former friends, Enchantress also summons her brother, Incubus by transforming a business man subway rider into the creature. “Incubus is made up of different people and the overall shape of his body just comes from the initial first person,” notes Breakspear. “So we scanned Alain Alain Chanoine, who was the actor that played the business man, we scanned his body and used that and that became the overall shape of Incubus.”
Imageworks then had to blend various textures together as Incubus grabs different people to become his final form. “You’ve got fluorescent and yellow plastic blending in with cloth, blue denim,” explains Breakspear. “That doesn’t sound too complicated, but it’s not just that. For it to look realistic it’s got to mix together and just look like liquid paint. So there’s this whole kinda super crazy computation going on to work out how these textures mix together.”
Fractal fun (and not so much fun)
Incubus demonstrates his power almost immediately by firing out strands of ‘fractal mandelbulbs’ in the subway. Breakspear says the R&D that went into these fractals was intensive.
“Just go to YouTube and type ‘fractal mandelbulb’ and just start watching some of those videos, but definitely call a friend so that they watch you watch it because you could end up going completely insane getting into this stuff. It is pretty terrifying in a good way.”
A three-dimensional mandelbulb fractal demo video.
The strands hit a train and make the train ‘unravel’. “It was unraveling along lines that were not part of this dimension,” states Breakspear. “So instead of it breaking apart by panel, David wanted it to sort of break apart as though inside every living thing or every object you could break it apart by itself in a different pattern than it is constructed by, and so we had this sort of fractal rip apart almost like it was unraveling or opening up like a blooming like a flower.”
Imageworks’ FX supervisor Charles-Felix Chabert led the research into the fractal mandelbulb work. “He would send me white papers,” says Breakspear, “that explained the conversion of a three dimensional 3D Mandelbrot fractal into a fourth dimensional mandelbulb, and I would read the title and I would start bleeding out of my eyes and just be like I can’t read this anymore, it’s just too complicated.”
“Yet he had the task of getting his head around that because you can create in mandelbulbs [in the 3D software Houdini] fairly easily, but to create a surface that has the same qualities as a mandelbulb is incredibly hard. You’ve all seen fractals before, but a fourth dimensional, or three dimensional, if you like, version of a fractal, which is a mandelbulb, allows you to travel in on that surface. And the differences in terrain, you literally find different universes in this thing. It’s truly amazing. And trying to take that surface quality, which is very unique and very amazing, and put that onto surfaces that you can render and still manipulate and turn into shapes you want it to be, that was a really huge challenge.”
Fire and fury: El Diablo vs Incubus
During the film, Chato Santana / El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) occasionally demonstrates his power to summon flames. But in the film’s stunning climax he transforms into a giant flaming god-like creature ‐ a CG Imageworks creation.
El Diablo featurette.
To come up with the appropriate look, Imageworks referenced pre-Columbian, Inca and Mayan gods and art, shaping that into a flaming ten foot tall skeleton. “It was a
lot of back and forth to move fire around and to get it to wrap around his body in the right way,” notes Breakspear.
“Ultimately you do want to see his face, especially if he’s saying something or emoting a feeling which is very tough to do if your face is made up of just a skull. You haven’t got any eyebrows to really move around. So we added a little bit of a warp and stretch on the skeleton, and he does have eyeballs made of swirling balls of molten something.”
For scenes of Diablo finally taking on Incubus, Imageworks would create the complex characters and much of the environment they fought in. Interestingly, the studio turned to a decidedly low-key approach to capturing the right motion. “Basically what we did is we used the Kinects from an Xbox,” says Breakspear.
“On set what we shot were just plates. We shot stunt guys acting out the fight so we could get the approximate plate and movement, and then we would do a clean plate. They would edit the stunt guys together to get the fight sequence they wanted. We would then cut together the clean plates to get the right lengths and the right approximate positions.”
“Then we would use one of our lead animators, Richard Smith, who would act in front of one of the Kinects and it would generate a very low-res sort of mesh version of his body. And we would then use that, put it in the scene. So he could do, we could do twenty versions of a hit and show them all to David, and he could pick one and then we would then run that back through and match it with Incubus or match it with ‘Mega’ Diablo and have them fight. So we could really prototype complex ideas quickly.”
It was challenging work, but also work that Breakspear relishes, especially because of the new found knowledge in fractals and other effects solutions. “It is a privileged job, and people don’t realize I think just how lucky we are. I mean literally every job you have to find, you have to become a pseudo expert. I don’t think I am for one second in many things, but you have to found out about something completely different.”