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NUKE helps Framestore make history on Oscar winning Lincoln

A major departure from the action-packed extravagance of Steven Spielberg's previous films, Lincoln shows a very different side to the renowned director. This compelling exploration of the final stretch of the president's life digs heavily into his push to abolish slavery and end the Civil War. Working around the challenges and inherent limitations of such a distinct period piece, Framestore played to NUKE's strengths in order to pull off a broad range of impressive, largely invisible effects to enhance the film without tipping the balance.

After working on flashier blockbuster effects-driven productions like The Dark Knight, Where The Wild things Are, Avatar, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows parts I and II, Compositing Supervisor Christian Kaestner had to switch gears and take a much more subtle but no less effective approach to VFX for Lincoln.

Putting together 36 shots for the film on a relatively short schedule, Framestore utilized a dozen NUKE artists throughout production and worked closely with Spielberg to ensure all of the visual effects closely matched his vision for the film. "We had regular Cinesync sessions with Steven to present our progress and discuss individual shots," Kaestner explains. "It was a huge benefit to work directly with Steven and his creative team, as we could get first hand feedback on a weekly basis."

Where blockbuster films with lots of action often use visual effects to set their own bar for what viewers consider "reality," going too VFX-heavy on a more historically significant period piece could be disastrous, notes Kaestner.

"If your visual effects are only there to support reality and not to establish something that doesn't or didn't exist in the first place, your audience is much more likely to be taken out of the story if all of a sudden there is a visual effect that doesn't tie in with the rest of the visual details," he says. "Every little detail has to be matched exactly to the shots around it. Additionally, lens and film characteristics have to be just that extra bit more accurate to not take the viewer out of the movie."

Invisible yet impactful

Tidying up shots was just as important in Lincoln as providing some of the more elaborate effects sequences. Much of the paint work for the film was done by Framestore's compositing team, and working in NUKE allowed them to use the tracked cameras and projection setups to take full control of the period clean up work, says Kaestner. Features like NUKE's planar tracker and denoise functionality made removing any trace of modern conveniences like telephone poles and cables a fluid process.

Pulling off the film's bigger VFX tricks, however, was a bit more involved. Take the challenge of coming up with a period-accurate version of the White House, for example. The studio took hundreds of reference shots of the real Capitol building in Washington, DC, and used in-house programming tools to build an accurate 3D scan of the architecture before merging that with footage.

"The plates for the Capitol building where actually shot in Richmond, Virginia, as it had similar features and allowed us to keep some of the building," he says. "Obviously we had to do quite a bit of period research to do in order to be historically accurate to what the building would have looked like in 1864. We then tracked the plate, aligned the Capitol building to the existing building, rendered in Arnold, projected extra detailing, and composited in NUKE."

Lincoln's dream sequence, one of the more noticeably effects-heavy instances in the film, made great use of NUKE's high resolution texture maps to generate a star gate tunnel effect that could be readily adjusted for speed as-needed later in the compositing process.

In another scene where Petersburg is burning in the night, an entirely digital solution was required to deliver the needed impact without the messy business of dealing with actual fire. Working from reference plates and pictures to get the desired look, the team started by painting a detailed photo-realistic backdrop to lay the rest of the shot out against. Over many weeks, they then layered the river, burning buildings, fire and smoke into the scene.

"NUKE's ability to share tracked cameras and geometry back and forth with 3D packages such as Maya is a great advantage when it comes to putting together shots like the Capitol building or burning Petersburg," says Kaestner. "With shots like this, it is almost inevitable to have your matte painting projections live in your scripts as small changes can be addressed very quickly by the artist."

A collaborative process

Production on Lincoln required an extensive amount of tracking -- using both camera tracks and additional tracking work with NUKE 7's ever-evolving 2D tracker tool for certain shots. Shooting with an appropriate selection of carefully chosen lenses and film stock to match the film's dated period made ironing out the grain and other quirks during tracking a real challenge at times. Kaestner says they even had to track additional jitter to make the CG stick.

The team has been working closely with The Foundry to provide feedback and demonstrate some of the more difficult 2D tracking tasks they put the tool to use for in order to drive its ongoing improvement. The new 2D tracker has been a big help on this project, he says, and Framestore intends to eventually update the rest of its pipeline to utilise NUKE 7's 2D tracker, GPU accelerated nodes, and other features.

"We do try to keep up with the [newer] versions especially if such big improvements, like the new tracker, have been made to the release," he says of NUKE. "Most shows in the current production are still on version 6.8, but some are already using NUKE 7's tracker for 2D tracking tasks. All shows going forward will probably switch over to NUKE 7 as soon as we have embedded it properly into our pipeline."

In general, Framestore has been really happy with The Foundry's ongoing product support and quick response times, which Kaestner says have "been show savers at times."

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