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NUKE and MODO make a big impact in the war-torn WWII vistas of The Monuments Men


© Columbia Pictures 2014. Images courtesy of Cinesite.

Retelling the dramatic tale of one of history's largest and most dangerous treasure hunts is a grand undertaking that requires a deft touch.

Based on a true story, The Monuments Men captures the journey of a small group of art historians-turned-soldiers in World War II tasked with trekking deep into Germany behind enemy lines and recovering renowned works of art before they're destroyed by the Nazi regime. Utilizing subtle but impactful invisible VFX, Cinesite relied on MODO and NUKE extensively to drive home the truly immense scope of the devastation in cities and scenes across the World War II-torn Germany for this thrilling production.

A leading VFX studio with a long line of credits on major productions, Cinesite had previously worked with The Monuments Men's VFX Supervisor Angus Bickerton on multiple projects including Band of Brothers, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Inkheart. Given the positive history there, and the fact the studio was already in discussion with Sony from the pre-production stage, it seemed a perfect new project to take on. The team also really loved the script too.

Preliminary tests began shortly before the start of filming in March 2013, and Cinesite completed 42 shots in time for a November delivery. At the time, the studio was also working on the Tom Cruise sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow, and the dual projects provided some unique contrast.

"Although our work also included environments for this film, the subject matter was entirely different as well as the size and scope," says Cinesite Environments Supervisor Thomas Dyg of their work on The Monuments Men. "There is nothing like the scale and level of destruction of Siegen, where you can see for miles with a high degree of detail and parallax.”

Given the historical nature and serious tone in The Monuments Men, the big focus for this project was on creating invisible photorealistic effects and environment enhancements to help set the right atmosphere without tipping the scale too far. MODO and NUKE were instrumental tools for pulling this off.


"The main thing I like about MODO is its interactive rendering and replicator tools.. In fact, it meant we could sit down with the client and have interactive sessions, which was a very efficient and creative way of working."


Scenic destruction with MODO

As the film's protagonists push closer to the front lines, the level of destruction they encounter increases dramatically. Capturing the huge scope of devastation in the cities of Siegen and Aachen was a real challenge that required careful enhancements to the live footage taken on-site. Creating large-scale environments that were practically flattened, unrecognizable ruins was something the team hadn't tackled before, and the shots also involved big camera moves that panned across extreme levels of destruction as far as the eye could see.

"The benefit of MODO, particularly in shots like the Siegen destruction, was its ability to lay out a huge environment with broken buildings, piles of rubble, burned out trees, etc," says Dyg. "The three Siegen shots form an important scene establisher in the film, showing the destruction the Allies have caused in the area to a town which has been almost entirely obliterated. One of the shots includes a sweeping camera move high up to low down, over a low horizon, so we see way into the distance."

Another sequence set at Shrivenham Airfield, which features Stokes (George Clooney) and Granger (Matt Damon) arriving in Britain for the first time, also used MODO to add in CG planes, trucks, and cars into the background to flesh out the environment to recreate a more authentic WWII-era airfield setting.

"The main thing I like about MODO is its interactive rendering and replicator tools.  For us, it meant that we were able to adjust the layout very fluidly, setting up renders that we could see almost in real time," says Dyg. "In fact, it meant we could sit down with the client and have interactive sessions, which was a very efficient and creative way of working."


"MODO definitely fits with our creative approach to environments. It certainly makes it easier for us to create alternate iterations in a controlled fashion. In connection with NUKE, it forms a potent toolset and workflow."


Nailing the look with NUKE

In working on look dev for all of the environmental shots, the team relied heavily on NUKE to fine-tune things with numerous passes in the pre-comp stage. It was a creative process that went beyond simply adjusting passes, he says. Instead, it more was about intuitively tinkering and adding the right look and feel to make the scenes pop. From there, a set of new passes were given to the compositors for final integration with the plate footage.

Some of the pre-compositing renderings done up in MODO were initially pretty rough, he says, though working with them in NUKE gave the team the ability to see everything in context and adjusting various passes to get them to match the plate. This made a huge difference.

NUKE was critical in shots like the underground salt mine, where the protagonists uncover a vast room filled with Nazi loot. This particular shot required the lights to turn on gradually, flickering as they reveal the massive extent of the art and treasure haul inside the cavern, Dyg explains.

"The lights needed to flicker in a random sequence," he says. "To leave us with the best flexibility, we rendered out each individual light in the mine as a pass from 3D, then in NUKE we were able to interactively determine the sequence and timing of the lights turning on and off."

Tools of the future

Dyg says MODO and NUKE are essential tools for the studio's environments team, both for layouts and for the final rendered images. "They are very artist-friendly and straightforward for us to use," he adds. "MODO definitely fits with our creative approach to environments. It certainly makes it easier for us to create alternate iterations in a controlled fashion. In connection with NUKE, it forms a potent toolset and workflow."

Among other tools, the texture team also uses MARI extensively for 3D texture painting. While it wasn't used on The Monuments Men, it's used on almost every production Cinesite works on, he says. 

Earlier this year, Cinesite delivered Into the Storm, 300: Rise of an Empire, and Edge of Tomorrow, and it's plowing ahead with lots of other big and exciting film projects that make use of The Foundry's software. 

"We are now working on X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," he says, "using MODO and NUKE extensively on both of these shows, as well as some extensive and very challenging environments for Hercules."

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