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Building sci-fi bots with NUKE and MARI in VIRTUS


Shifting gears from catchy commercial spots and fist-flying kung fu films to the sci-fi realm of cyber soldiers and giant mechs is an exciting move for the creative team at FATface Production. This small but diverse Hong Kong VFX house built a big buzz around its ambitious new robo-centric project, VIRTUS. 

Over the past decade, FATface has grown its creative reach in the international visual effects market through its award-winning post-production work on TV commercials, films and animation. The studio's commercial clients include Sony, Canon, Olympus and HSBC. It’s also known for its VFX work on films ranging from The Storm Warriors and The White Storm to the Tai Chi Hero series. 

VIRTUS represents a shift into thrilling new territory for VFX supervisor Alan Lam, a self-described "sci-fi-holic." The project started as a proof-of-concept short teaser featuring robots, cyber-suited warriors, and large mechs battling it out across a futuristic urban cityscape. Based on the success of the short, One Cool Film Production greenlit VIRTUS for a full-blown feature release.

The sci-fi genre, less mainstream in the Asian film market, explains Lam, means this is the first sci-fi project on which he’s worked at FATface. The studio is especially gracious to One Cool Film Production, which has allowed a great degree of creative freedom to propose and design throughout the project. While much of the specifics in terms of story and scope are still under wraps, the action-packed VIRTUS teaser shows an explosive and exciting direction. The creative energy and dedication poured into this project is evident in the meticulous detail showcased throughout the trailer.

Unlike many of its TV commercial clients, who provide ideas and concept art on which the FATface team builds, FATface got involved in the early pre-production stages, getting free reign to explore the possibilities as they unfold.

"We've got lots of freedom to input our ideas into it. Together with the director Ko Fai, we've developed most of the mech designs, environment concepts, and camera work development closely," says Lam. "The high complexity of each shot and huge data management of the final renders were really a tough challenge to our previous pipeline. This project has pushed our whole team to move forward to breakthrough." 

Restructuring several years ago gave the studio an opportunity to integrate The Foundry's products into its pipeline, with NUKE and MARI playing key roles both on this project and its plans for the future.



Digging deep with NUKE


As part of the studio's restructuring to boost efficiency and sustainability, FATface adopted NUKE for its node-based compositing workflow capabilities. The resulting increase in productivity and production quality spurred the team to make NUKE its main software of choice for all lighting and compositing needs, says Lam.

FATface composited all the VIRTUS shots in NUKE, and so far completed more than 30 shots. "The most complicated shots are the rain-fight scene, which includes over 40 deep and normal render layers, lots of live elements footages, cameras, lights, and geometries; in total over 500 GB data size for a shot," says Meiwa Chan, senior compositor at FATface.

Using NUKE helps make editing data applicable to every HDRI lighting texture, adds Lam, and the way NUKE handles this data steadily and efficiently gives the team more space to create.

"We have limited artists to handle this project, and thanks for the scriptable ability in NUKE, we have developed a NUKE template, which helps artists deploy every tiny modification in key shot scripts to other children shots easily. That saves us a lot of time," says Lam. "Furthermore, we have changed to use NUKEX as the core tracking system. As it works closely with other NUKE functions, it fulfills not only our normal CG animation needs, but also provides much more convenience and possibilities for compositing."

Deep compositing and camera tracking in NUKE have been a big help on this project, notes Chan. "We have used Camera Tracker to track live footage, with the help of user track, and some live shooting with serious motion-blur is finally tracked. And now, computers can share tracking work at the early stage of the production," she says. "With NUKE, we can be more systematic to organize the comp structure, handle channels and holdout, and share comps with teammates."

Initially, the team ran tests using the traditional holdout method to compile all of the intense volume and rain effects coming in from multiple renderers and materials from different departments, which created a lot of problems. To fix this, FATface switched to deep compositing workflows for VIRTUS.  "Although this is our first time deploying the technique in our studio, NUKE gives us many useful tools to practice processing that deep data," says Lam. "The result is amazing."

By their very nature, the robotic models in VIRTUS are a lot more intricate and detailed than much of the studio's past work, Chan says, which makes crafting each scene a much more involved process. This has pushed the team to focus on smart comp structure management, Chan explains, and using NUKE's tools, gizmos, and node-trees have helped keep comps more manageable and efficient throughout the project.


Mastering mech look dev with MARI


VIRTUS is the first project the team has used MARI on for extensive look development, and it's pleased with the results so far.

Also, FATface's team appreciates how The Foundry's creative tools pair together seamlessly out of the box. Integrating mechs into the plates with bright sunny lighting and hard shadows requires significant retouching, but the team has found that using a NUKE / MARI bridge saves time and makes the process much easier. 

Based on the tracking data, the team created some low-resolution CG background models and passed them to MARI for retouching, projection, and under-shadow texturing before passing it all back to NUKE. Lam says this seamless connectivity was a big time-saver for the compositing team.

"We found that MARI is a really powerful tool to do custom texturing. It sped up the whole process and saved us lots of time," says Lam. "Furthermore, for lighting, in order to get the best result to match the real world’s lighting, we developed a background model set mapped with high detail HDRI lighting data on it. Thanks to MARI's ability to handle high resolution HDR panorama images, we used it to project them on the background model to create this great light-set model mapped with all HDRI lighting data on it."

The value of having NUKE and MARI is they allow me to have a more evenly distributed workload within my compositing team. Tracking, 3D projection and surfacing can now shift from the CG team to us by having NUKEX and MARI. I can deploy two artists to focus on tracking, projection, and compositing in NUKEX, while I have one artist focus on surfacing in MARI. We also look forward to having NUKE Studio in our pipeline to help matching cuts, conforming and finishing works.
Meiwa Chan, senior compositor at FATface.

Value and service


Adding NUKE and MARI to its pipeline has saved a tremendous amount of time on this production, says Lam, which has allowed the team to save money and spend more focus on getting even more amazing visual results on VIRTUS.

"The value of having NUKE and MARI is they allow me to have a more evenly distributed workload within my compositing team," adds Chan. "Tracking, 3D projection and surfacing can now shift from the CG team to us by having NUKEX and MARI. I can deploy two artists to focus on tracking, projection, and compositing in NUKEX, while I have one artist focus on surfacing in MARI. We also look forward to having NUKE Studio in our pipeline to help matching cuts, conforming and finishing works."

Lam and his team also appreciate the fast support and ongoing development of NUKE, MARI, and other Foundry tools. "We definitely plan on continuing to build our pipeline and infrastructure utilizing most of The Foundry's products," he says. "The Foundry has put lots of resources to improve their products, and they have a great support team to assist their customers to get the jobs done."