By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Even though video game adaptations have yet to dominate the box office like their comic book counterparts, one cannot fault British filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson, who is responsible for the Resident Evil franchise that encompasses six films and has grossed $1.2 billion worldwide. The partnership between Japanese video game developer and publisher Capcom and Anderson continues with Monster Hunter, which takes place in an alternative world filled not with post-apocalyptic zombies but hostile creatures the size of skyscrapers.
“I don’t know if there’s ever a formula for making movies, and if I knew it I certainly wouldn’t give it away!” laughs Anderson who before Resident Evil helmed Mortal Kombat. “You’re walking a fine line between pleasing hardcore fans who know everything about the intellectual property and reaching out to a broader audience who maybe don’t even play video games.”
Anderson has maintained his attitude towards visual effects despite having a growing need for them. “I was fortunate early on in my career to work with a great visual effects supervisor, Richard Yuricich, who had come up working on movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. He had this mantra that his favorite kind of visual effect had no visual effects in it. Richard always pushed us to do as much as possible real. My approach on this movie was if the creatures have to be CG, let’s shoot on real landscapes rather than in studio backlots against a greenscreen. Every time a creature’s foot goes down on the ground it displaces and showers our actors with real sand, and the lens flare from the sun will be real as well as the wind. It gives the animators an awful lot to match into as well as helps to tie the creatures into the reality of the existing location.”
Capcom was heavily involved in the design process and supplied assets from Monster Hunter: World. “One of the reasons why I wanted to adapt Monster Hunter was that I fell in love with the look of the creatures,” states Anderson. “I thought they were unique and original. I have worked with creatures in the past, but this was a whole new array of them. I could basically follow the designs that already existed and that gave us a great jumping-off point, but also there is a lot of fan satisfaction to see the monsters come to life exactly as you know them.”
“My approach on this movie was if the creatures have to be CG, let’s shoot on real landscapes rather than in studio backlots against a greenscreen. Every time a creature’s foot goes down on the ground it displaces and showers our actors with real sand, and the lens flare from the sun will be real as well as the wind. It gives the animators an awful lot to match into as well as helps to tie the creatures into the reality of the existing location.”
—Paul W.S. Anderson, Director
The cinematic versions of the monsters are not exact replicas. “With the monsters you’re building them at a different level of detail than a video game engine could ever handle,” says Anderson. “Dennis Berardi [The Shape of Water], our Visual Effects Supervisor and co-producer, and his team sat down and analyzed the way that the creatures moved in the game and compared that to creatures of a similar bulk in our world [such as elephants and rhinoceroses] and how they would move with gravity operating on them. A footfall of a creature weighing a certain amount must displace a certain amount of sand or whatever material it’s running on. Something of a certain size normally moves at certain speed.”
“One of the reasons I’ve stuck with Paul for a lot of years is because his process is fun,” states Berardi. “It is a real partnership. He is open to ideas right down the line, not just with me but with the artists.” Every key sequence was storyboarded and translated into 2D animatics to get a sense of timing. “In some cases the animatic was enough, but when technical shooting was involved we did full 3D previs,” adds Bernardi. “We were always trying to put in scale references for these creatures along with respecting what a cinematographer would do to photograph them.”
Anderson favors backlighting to get dramatic silhouettes. “We’re in the alien world here, so we were able to take some liberties with light sources,” explains Berardi. “We put in a light source up there as a moon and had another light source with another moon. We had these backlit clouds, which gave us a nice way to punch out the creatures [in the nighttime]; otherwise, you wouldn’t see anything.”
Production Designer Edward Thomas previously worked on Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and the YouTube series Origin with Anderson. “Paul and I have a mutual trust and a shared vision. There is no question that Paul makes me a better designer as he causes me to think and approach things differently.”
It was important to be able leverage the history of the franchise. “Monster Hunter was a lovely challenge because so much of the information is there in the games for us,” says Thomas. “What I did on Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and Monster Hunter was to find the best possible gamers wherever they are and ask them to take me around the game.
I’ll say to them, ‘Show me this or take me to a cave.’ I’ll ask questions and get feedback from them on what is important. Then I try to put as much of that into the film as possible because we’re making the movie for the fans as well as people who will become fans. Just doing that makes the game companies happy. When we made the weapons, we’d run everything by the Capcom team to make sure that the materials and paint finishing work for them. It is an enjoyable process because they are the creators and you want to do it justice.”
Sixty-five minutes of screen time consist of 1,300 visual effects shots created by MR. X facilities in Toronto, Montreal and Bangalore, as well as at South African-based BlackGinger. “We had one situation where Kaname Fujioka [the director of the Monster Hunter games] and the team at Capcom were like, ‘Diablos looks amazing, but her toenails are too sharp,’” recalls MR. X Visual Effects Supervisor Trey Harrell. “Diablos is an herbivore, so the feature should be more like a rhino or elephant with rounded tusks with no pointy sharp bits. The most interesting thing to me that I found over the course of this whole journey was there is a certain amount of hubris involved when you start on a property and go, ‘Now we’re making a movie version of this.’ But a lot of times you do that before you understand the design in the first place. Everything was there for a purpose.”
“Because I play the game and am quite familiar with the creatures, I was trying to include some of the big stars,” reveals Anderson. “Within the fan favorites, I was taking creatures that would offer me different aspects of combat. If I used nothing but flying creatures, the combat could become repetitive. Instead, we start with the Diablos, which burrows underground and suddenly bursts up; it has a feeling of a shark but of the land. It could be under the sand. You could hide it quite a lot and pop [it] up surprisingly. Those are all good aspects for a fight scene. The next creature that we used is the Nerscylla, which lives in underground lairs. Darkness brings a whole new mise en scène and look to the combat. We save the big flying creatures for the climax of the movie.”
There are no lingering shots to assist in conveying the weight of the creatures as editor Doobie White (Polar) opted for a quick cutting style. “Early on we knew that this was going to happen, so we developed a lot of tests of different actions,” remarks MR. X Animation Supervisor Tom Nagy. “It’s not often that we’ve worked on this scale of creature, so it took a while to get used to it. What it came down to was capturing just the right detail or pose that is appropriate for that shot.”
“The challenge was that you’re putting these creatures against a real-life person, like Milla Jovovich, and have to be at the same level of acting or emoting. Even though the emotional range of Rathalos is more limited, we still didn’t want him to be angry all the time or be in that emotive ‘kill, kill, kill’ mode. There was always some other motivation, such as being wounded. He is drawing on past experiences to drive his current action.”
—Tom Nagy, Animation Supervisor, MR. X
Outside of the Meowscular Chef, a talking Palico cat, none of the creatures have lines of dialogue. “The challenge,” outlines Nagy, “ was that you’re putting these creatures against a real-life person, like Milla Jovovich, and have to be at the same level of acting or emoting. Even though the emotional range of Rathalos is more limited, we still didn’t want him to be angry all the time or be in that emotive ‘kill, kill, kill’ mode. There was always some other motivation, such as being wounded. He is drawing on past experiences to drive his current action.”
Principal photography took place in remote settings in South Africa, Namibia, and at Cape Town Film Studios. “We did go to some extreme lengths to capture the feel of the exotic worlds in the video game,” remarks Anderson. “Most of the places that we shot were a good 200 miles away from the nearest habitation of any kind – 350 people living in tents with us putting in water and electricity when we could. We were without cellphones and Internet. It was a great way to build a real camaraderie between the cast and crew. You had to take everything with you and be self-contained. It’s more like guerrilla-style filmmaking, which I found to be immersive and exciting.”
The fantasy adventure was shot with large-format cameras. “We used the ARRI ALEXA LF,” says Anderson, “which is like two chips put together, so you’re getting twice the information than you would with a normal camera. It’s fantastic in capturing big landscapes that could contain the creatures.”
Another technical tool came in handy when giving visual cues to the actors. “What we did was to carry a drone with us all of the time,” adds Anderson. “We got a fast one so we could chase the actors at an appropriate height for the creature, so everyone has something to look at, and then those shots could function either as a point of view or over the shoulder shot of the creature.”
Anderson cites virtual reality as an important part of the design process. “What I like to do with all of the sets is to get them into VR as quickly as possible,” he says, “because that’s a surefire way of focusing the attention of the director, cinematographer and actors. It’s difficult sometimes for performers to turn up on set and be told that there’s a 400-foot monster about to chase them. But as soon as you put on a headset in VR, that 400-foot monster is right in front of you. The Nerscylla lair is one of my favorite sets in the movie – it’s a dark, dank place made from Nerscylla bones and the bones of eaten prey. We created that in VR and invited Milla Jovovich to have a look around. She put the mask on, and I swear she literally screamed, took the mask off and left the room. Milla was absolutely terrified by it. The VR helped Milla because when stepping onto the small part of the built set she knew what was going to be its final scale in the movie.”
Massive sand simulations made Microsoft Azure cloud rendering essential in being able to complete shots. “Our cumulative effects file server at the end of the show was about 670 terabytes, and then all of the other storage for the show peaked at 1.3 petabytes,” reveals MR. X Digital Effects Supervisor Ayo Burgess. “At the peak [of post-production] we were using about 80% of our Isilon storage for Monster Hunter. It was a crazy ride of constantly balancing things out.”
An enormous storm consisting of sand and lightning was created for the beginning of movie. “Our Montreal team would simulate smaller chunks, lay them out, and replicate them to increase the apparent detail,” says Burgess. “Simulating kilometers of storm was not feasible. The efficiency of replicating the smaller caches helped us iterate, to tell a story and make a movie. Once we knew what we needed to do, we could go back in, up-resolution things and refine them without shooting in the dark.”
A hallmark for Monster Hunter is the oversized weapons. “That works within the world of the game because you’re playing a character who doesn’t have to obey the laws of gravity,” notes Anderson. “But when you build these oversized weapons for real and are asking human beings to wield them and do complicated fight choreography, it’s not so easy. That’s why I’m glad we had people of the caliber of Tony Jaa, who had to carry a lot of the big weapons and use them. Of the individuals I’ve met, he is the closest to being superhuman. Tony managed to master these giant weapons, which was not easy. When you’re asking the actors not to just wield the weapons but to do it in sand as well, that adds a whole new layer of complexity. Sometimes we made it easier by doing CG replacements of blades so that they would only be holding the hilt. But in a lot of the movie, they’re actually using the full-size weapon.”
“The biggest challenge was representing the creatures so they respected the video game design while also being cinematic,” notes Berardi. “The rest of it was environment work, set extensions and effects simulations, which are things that we’ve done before. But we haven’t run this many creatures into one movie with fans who are religious about them. They’re basically in full daylight except for the Nerscyllas, which are in the underground.”
Anderson is proud of the seamless blending of practical and digital elements. “When people [actually] go to inhospitable places in movies, they’re usually not visual effects films. Visual effects films tend to create the exotic places in the computer, so there’s always a synthetic feel to them. This combination of real tough location photography with cutting-edge visual effects is quite fresh and new, and is something I’m excited for people to see.”