Invasion VFX Interview with Andrey Maximov, Dmitry Kuznetsov, Sergey Shuppo (VFX Supervisors) and Viktoria Balyan (VFX Producer) – Main Road Post
April 29, 2020 – Today, Andrey Maximov, Dmitry Kuznetsov, Sergey Shuppo (VFX Supervisors) and Viktoria Balyan (VFX Producer), Main Road Post talks to VFX Online about working on Invasion. Main Road Post, a visual eﬀects production studio, was set up in 2006. Studio produced visual eﬀects for The AdmiralT, Wanted, The Inhabited Island, The High Security Vacation, August Eighth, Metro, Stalingrad, Winter Olympic Sochi 2014 Opening, Night Guards, Duelist, Attraction and Invasion.
Invasion, also known as Attraction 2 is a 2019 Russian science fiction film directed and produced by Fyodor Bondarchuk’s company by Art Pictures Studio and Vodorod. The action of the film unfolds after the events described in Attraction (2017). Irina Starshenbaum, Rinal Mukhametov, Alexander Petrov, Yuriy Borisov and Oleg Menshikov star in the film.
// From Andrey Maximov, Dmitry Kuznetsov, Sergey Shuppo (VFX Supervisors) and Viktoria Balyan (VFX Producer), Main Road Post
How did you and Main Road Post get involved on this show?
We have been working with the producers and the director of Invasion for many years. We have created Dark Planet (2009) and Stalingrad (2013) together with Fyodor Bondarchuk and Ghost (2015) with Vodorod. And we worked together on Attraction two years ago. The producers and the director promote Invasion as a separate film with the same characters; however, there is a connection between Attraction and Invasion. We started working on the film right from the beginning, when it became evident that the first film was grossing and a follow-up was needed. There was the first draft of the script, but it already described all the key events. We used it to start visual development of the main scenes and build large assets. And when the first concepts were approved, the script was changed accordingly, because these elements were beginning to take shape. This was comprehensive development of all the elements of the story. We also worked closely with the visual development team lead by Indar Dzhendubayev and with WATT Studio, who did previs, as well as with script writer Andrey Zolotarev, and the director and producers of the film.
Let us know about the core team of Main Road Post who worked on Invasion?
This is a difficult question. The fact is that we do not have the core team; rather we have a team of supervisors and producers who worked on the project from the very beginning – from the script to the final scenes – and who know better than anyone else about the film. They worked with vendors too. Speaking about artists, the work was evenly distributed among several teams within our studio.
Dmitry Kuznetsov, Andrey Maximov, and Sergey Shuppo were Visual Effects Supervisors, Alexei Zaitsev was On-set Supervisor, Maxim Revin was Art Director, and Julia Huene and Viktoria Balyan were VFX Producers. At the final stage, however, the entire team of producers and supervisors joined the project – Dilik Rakhmanova, Bema Nuradinova, Anna Buleyko, Anna Mo, Alexander Lipilin.
How was this collaboration with the Director Fyodor Bondarchuk? What were their expectations and approach for the Visual Effects?
We have already completed several projects for Fyodor Bondarchuk. So, he has great confidence in us. He let us create and waited for our solutions. Sometimes he accepted our solutions ‘as is’, and we just improved them. Sometimes he made his comments and we adjusted our work accordingly. This was a comprehensive work from all points of view.
Can you tell us more about your collaboration with their Overall VFX supervisor?
As we were the VFX supervisors in Invasion, I believe that this question mostly relates to vendors and partners participating in the project.
Can you tell us more about the previs and postvis work?
Previs was done by Watt Studio which specializes in previsualization. This approach was taken to have a completed previs by the beginning of shooting. However, we took an active part in the previs development as an idea generator and co-operated with the director in finding solutions for various scenes. When finalizing the shots, we had to remake some scenes almost completely, because a lot of story lines were devised only at the editing stage, and various scenes, mostly allCG, had to be changed accordingly. This was true for the final scene of flooding the city and a fight of the exoskeleton with a helicopter.
We did not do previs development, and acted as consultants only. However, WATT Studio did a great job. We needed previs for post production: with all the shots being ready and the only required work being the refining of the animation and adjusting the cameras. We did not reach that point, however, due to the short post production period and a huge scope of work. But the guys did a great job: they completed the storyboarding and the film editor had enough material to edit the first draft of the film. And it was also enough for us to finalize the scenes and clean the shots.
We started our work with previs and postvis. But sometimes the plot changed after previs, and even shooting, was completed. While editing, the film editor and the director – Fyodor Bondarchuk – realized that some moments needed to be expanded and improved. So we had to complete some previs and refine the story.
We have a fun story about this. As the final scene was not yet defined and there were some issues about action to be settled, we offered our option of the scene and, all of a sudden, it was approved. It required considerable changing in editing. We dared to devise the scene and it was approved. This moved us to a new level of co-operation with the client.
What kind of references and indications did you received for that?
The only indications we received at the previs stage was that the story had to be clear and the shots entertaining and striking.
We took a lot of indications from the first film for which the aesthetics of the alien world was devised. We then solved a task of finding the visual style of the alien ship and artifacts.
The references included the images of contemporary architecture and arts which defined the style. They did not give specific solutions, but provided some design elements. We used the found solutions in the second film.
Water was the hardest task. It is impossible to find such references in nature, because the water behavior in the film is unusual. This is why we tried to find a compromise between realism and the realization of the director’s idea. Unlike the usual process of finding references among real life images (the more natural they are, the better), we searched similar scenes in other sci-fi films for references to be used in this scene.
Artists use references to create any complex scene. References are our mechanics; they are usually not asked for. In some events, however, we have to agree these with the director to be sure that we are on the right track. Sometimes we need to understand the details of an effect: for example, how a wall of water may look like. A waterfall may serve as a reference in this case. But in some cases it is difficult or even impossible to find references for other elements.
There are specific whirlpools, vortexes, in Norway. While collecting and perusing the images and video of this phenomenon, we have learnt a lot about water behavior.
Can you tell us more about the Building and Environment Creation?
From project to project, we develop the infrastructure for creating cities in Houdini – from a single building to the entire city. The infrastructure consists of many elements: from a generator of separate RDB-friendly buildings to the interpreter and processor of OSM maps for very large areas.
Buildings are one of the most critical elements. Our generator does not create abstract buildings; it uses elements or even whole floors of real life buildings. This is why the result is very realistic and recognizable for every city we create. Each building turns out to be almost unique thanks to a combination of elements and procedural shading.
The environment generator uses a road map and the arrangement of buildings to create a street layout with required elements.
We focus on optimization of our scenes, since our studio is not large and our resources are always limited. Houdini Mantra provides quite a wide range of tools, which allow us to minimize the use of the memory during shading and speed up rendering with no compromise on quality. We also try to use the optimum polygon count in models.
During this project, our procedural building generator became its fifth reincarnation: we use it constantly from project to project. It builds all structures as if these were Lego blocks. Our aim was to generate the center of Moscow which would significantly differ from the architecture of the city in the first film. We used buildings located at the center of Moscow to create elements for compositing.
How did you approach the Artworks and Matte Paintings for this show?
At the initial phase, our concept artists generated a huge amount of concepts searching for the appearance of proposed epic scenes in the film and devised in great detail a lot of objects, including a new enormous alien ship Ra, Hackon’s tiny transport module, the appearance of many unusual water effects, and the like. However, we did not apply much of matte painting in the final version of the film, because we strived to reconstruct landscapes, the sky and cities completely in 3D in our pipeline. During the work on final shots and scenes, concept artists made a lot of overpainting to help in searching for different visual solutions, mostly related to lighting.
But generally we tend to use old and fair 3D, as it gives optimum models for rendering clouds, the sky and the skyline. It allows us to make a lot of shots using the same models by just moving cameras to different places. It is difficult to compose various shots of a scene from matte paints, and it is not necessarily the case that they would fit each other. In monetary terms, it is also more expensive than investing in 3D, creating everything correct from the first time and adjusting it if required. All that is needed later is to set cameras and film the shots. The result is obtained quicker and its quality is higher. In this event shading and lighting as well as all assets are physically correct.
As for matte painting, we would, for example, get two amazing images, which have absolutely different vibes, atmosphere, and the like, and do not fit each other, especially if created by different artists.
How did you approach the 3D Modeling Entire City for this show?
The key aspect in creating a city is its recognisability. The feeling of the city is created not by architecture of individual buildings, but rather by the pattern of streets, the height and overall proportions of buildings as well as by historic buildings in each district of a city.
Therefore we always scrutinize the city we are to create and the districts where actions will take place. At present, we have three main components of city buildings: distant, foreground and historic buildings. Buildings for distant shots are created automatically based on OSM maps. For these buildings we create manually only sets of unique textures and props for each city. We develop buildings for foreground shots using Building Generator assets. Such buildings are generated using elements of real-life buildings with strict observance of their proportions, which makes them photorealistic. Historic buildings are usually created manually, however overall shading was done to ensure consistency.
All groups of buildings contain a lot of geometry, so, in addition to creation, we put great efforts to optimize all scenes so that we can open and render them as quickly as possible.
Can you explain in detail about the Building Explosions?
We did not have explosions in this film. Buildings were destructed when a wall of water emerged, but nothing extraordinary, just standard RBD dynamics. This is not the most challenging task in this project.
Can you explain in detail about their design and creation of the alien ship?
This is a long story. Designing the alien ship for Invasion originally started during our work on Attraction. The design of Ra was inherited from the design of Sol, a small ship. According to instructions, the ship had to look like a molecule. We searched for the shape, texture, and details, and created Sol. This new ship had to be from the same universe and had to be similar to Sol in shape and texture. However, it had to be more powerful. While Sol is an explorer ship, Ra is a warship which computes protocols of changes for civilizations. After that, concept artists lead by Art Director Max Revin started working on various options. They kept the orb shape, for example, but made it visually more impressive, more powerful, and formidable. They created tens of options. As for texture, it was clear that it should be like Sol, only black – graphite.
Here is another fun story. We selected the shape of the ship and Fyodor Bondarchuk approved it. We started creating it, but then Love, Death and Robots was released, where a similar ship was shown in one of the episodes. Just a couple of scenes, but we realized that we had to change the shape of the ship; otherwise we could be accused of copying it. Thus we had to search for new shapes quickly. As a result, we came to what you can see in the film. We prepared two options, and it was hard for the director to choose one. But in the end, he made his decision. We also wanted to enhance the story of this object, because this is our principle. Although, probably everyone who creates visual effects tries to add a story to their objects. We wanted the audience to see that the ship took part in battles. This can be seen from damages, scuffs, scratches and texture. We added pits from meteorites to the casing of the ship. The pits are not quite noticeable, but you can see them if you look carefully. So, the ship took part in battles long before it appeared on screen.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the various helicopters?
We have a great experience in creating military machinery, especially helicopters and airplanes. Especially for Invasion, we created KA-52 and KA-226 helicopters, a TU-160 airplane, and several civil river vessels and boats for medium close and distant shots. Besides, we refined machinery created for Attraction: a Tigr armored car and a SU-35 airplane with a pilot.
We had a photo shooting of KA-52 and KA-226 helicopters and photographed all the details necessary for photogrammetry, high poly modeling, texturing and shading. We used procedural shading based on manually drawn masks. We used masks created by an artist, rather than procedural masks, in order to preserve the logic of appearance of certain textures on the object. For example, grease stains must be located at certain spots on the helicopter body, while overall dirt accumulation depends on the flight vector and the shape of the object. Such nuances make objects look more realistic.
Invasion many sequence is full of explosions and destruction. How did you approach that?
There are not so many scenes with destructions in this film, except for one big scene. This is the most breathtaking shot in the film. When creating previs and making a storyboard, there was a scene where a character of Alexander Petrov, wearing an exoskeleton, attacks a helicopter and rescues the lead characters. This was a large episode, and its initial version comprised 15-20 shots. During one of the previs meetings, producer Alexander Andrushenko suggested shooting this scene in one take without cutting. This would probably make animation more demanding technically, but it was a challenging task. We did previs: a long shot for 15 seconds, about 400 frames. When we started creating the scene, it turned out that a lot of small stories needed to be told in one shot, a lot of bits of information needed to be given to the audience. We had to tell the audience that the helicopter was going to shoot; a rocket was about to be fired, but Petrov had to stop it from shooting or the helicopter had to miss, and this should be clear. Furthermore, it had to be a fight between Petrov and the pilot, rather than between Petrov and the helicopter. They should interact within the shot. Petrov broke a window, and the idea about a gun shot came to us when we found out that military pilots always had a gun with them. We used this fact. Then we had to break the helicopter. When falling down, it should not crush or explode; it should fall down so that people inside were alive. It should be clear to the audience that Petrov’s intention was not to kill people; he only wanted to knock out the helicopter. If he killed the people, he would become a negative character again, while had had just became a good guy. And this was important. This shot had to end the plot with the exoskeleton, which had to be destroyed. And all these components should be included in one shot. As a result, the shot was made of 1,111 frames and lasted for 46 seconds.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the various FX elements?
We had a lot of water and water effects in this film. The water behavior in the film is unusual: it floods the city from two sides. The most difficult effects were where the top and bottom layers merge. Two teams were working on this effect. This was a long shot. These effects were not similar to anything in real life. While the water moves unnaturally, it should still look realistic, because it is water. We had been working hard on this for several months.
We used several technologies to create water. The first one is simulation.
To create a vertical wall for wide shots, our technical director, Mikhail Lesin developed a solver for Houdini which simulated the behavior of so-called shallow water. He contacted scientists from the Academy of Science who were studying this phenomenon for scientific purposes. For some time, they studied this issue together. This was not easy to do. When the scientists came to us, they expected to see a simple task for filmmakers. However, they found out that our technical director had already done several levels using a book of differential equations. They thought we had only school-level knowledge, but were impressed to see how we were solving similar tasks at quite a serious scientific level using strange programs. They were also surprised at how quickly the solver was working, because simulations usually took quite a long time.
It helped a lot when one of the scientists visualized his studies in Houdini. This bridged the gap between the scientists and the artists. We had to create a huge wall of water covering half the city of Moscow. We could not perform this task using simulation, because we would not meet the deadline and did not have enough computer resources. So, we had to think of various methods to create realistic water without expensive simulation. The same was true for supercell, water mist and other effects.
This shot contained a lot of elements. It was impossible to compose the scene simply by pushing a button and sending it to render, because the shot was too heavy and long. This is why we had to make it by pieces and then compose all the pieces in one long shot.
When working on this shot, we had to deviate from our paradigm stating that a beauty pass should be as close to the end as possible. The shot was enormous; it consisted of a huge amount of elements, and we did serious compositing work. The compositing script was so complex, that we were afraid it would have a life on its one. This was the biggest compositing script we had ever had in our company.
This was the first shot we started creating and the last one we completed. In the end, almost the half of our people worked on this shot. We delivered it at the last moment. It required a lot of work on the details: to add realistic details to the image, we divided the shot in portions by timing and distributed them among various compositing artists. The entire studio was compositing simultaneously, in shifts, day and night. One artist left home, another one took his place. This work continued for several days.
Can you tell us more about the shading and texturing work?
Mikhail Lesin, our technical director, has created and uploaded publicly accessible shading models which we are using now in our work. These models were almost identical to standard Houdini models, but they compute albedo of materials correctly and in some cases decrease noises considerably. Albedo is a measure of how much light that hits a surface is reflected without being absorbed; tables with albedo values for various real-life materials are in public domain in the Internet.
Our shading models can be downloaded here https://github.com/MainRoadPost/houdini_configs
In shading, we try to stick to a procedural approach as far as possible. For example, we use little manually drawn textures in shaders of buildings, except for black and white dirt maps. This approach, of course, cannot be applied to working on characters, where all the details are drawn manually to make the characters look realistic. This is why we drew a lot of various textures for the exoskeleton, including color masks, scratches, dirt, etc.
Can you elaborate about the storm creation during the sequence?
Our task was to depict Moscow in a very unusual, apocalyptic setting. This project is not the first of our projects where a lot of water pours as rain and the like. We have created an easy-to-render and physically correct model of the water shader, which helps us a lot in rendering rain and other water elements. Since this is a kind of simplified model, Houdini Mantra does not have to count a lot of bounces; it works following a simplified scheme, but the result looks even more realistic, which saves our time for rendering. This render model is used as a basis for all water elements.
How was the collaboration between other VFX Studios for this show?
On Invasion, we collaborated with ten studios. This was a continuing collaborative process of undertaking tasks in this large-scale and challenging project. The maximum involvement was required from everyone to complete the tasks. And this was felt in teams in all the studios. To be fully connected, we had regular telephone calls, once or twice a week, with some studios and discussed thoroughly the forthcoming work on shots. We limited our comments to proposals, since the teams working on shots might have their own cool ideas of how to accomplish various tasks. We highly value the opportunity to collaborate not in a directive position, but rather as creators and solution seekers. We also called vendors during preview and discussed in real time the shots they were working on. This practice turned out to enhance understanding and helped us see deeper the context of challenges faced by vendors. This also gave vendors an opportunity to ask questions directly as they arose. We also were able to visit vendors regularly and discuss their plans on shots.
As a whole, everyone in the project had one common goal – to make a beautiful film. We believe we succeeded.
How did you maintain the quality of the work that you produced for Invasion?
Every film is a step forward. We have our internal standards and we cannot produce work below these standards. However, these standards are not ultimate, but rather a foundation to build on. We are obsessed with quality and try to reach the level in each project that would satisfy us. We would like all shots reach our internal standards. Unfortunately, not every shot meets our expectations. Quality is quite an issue, because every project has its budget and deadline, which affect the project quality directly. We always strive to do a better job, but it is not always possible due to various circumstances.
And we had much work to do to keep vendor’s teams on the same page – there were hours of discussions on how to improve the imagery and to make the shots in the best possible way.
What was the most challenging shot or sequence that you did and why?
Most likely, there is no simple answer to this question. Working on shots, our teams solved so many tasks beyond the framework of each specific shot. For example, they developed effects which would apply to the entire scene or episode. Judging by overall efforts, however, we can single out two shots which required most of the efforts: a rising wall of water separating the city and the fight between the exoskeleton and the helicopter.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
There was a concern about non-linear delivery of shots to the client: everything was based on the same assets, and the largest load accrued by the end of the project. First we prepared assets, and then delivered shots; so we delivered the largest amount of shots during the last several weeks. And the last week was the most active.
Most shots were contained in two reels, and we agreed to deliver these last. Thanks to the film producers, they gave us this opportunity. We delivered most of the shots within the last 7-10 days.
What type of software did you use for Invasion?
We mostly work in Houdini and Nuke. These are used in all phases of a project, excluding modeling and texturing, which are done in Maya, Blender, Substance Painter, and Mari.
How long did you work on the show, what was the overall shot count, and what was the size of the team?
We started visual development at the end of 2017. The shooting took place in summer and spring of 2018 in Moscow, Hungary and the Kamchatka Peninsula. The main VFX period lasted from May to December 2019. In various phases, the size of the project team varied from several people at the beginning of the project to practically a hundred, i.e. almost the entire MainRoad Post studio, at the end of the project.
Altogether, about 470 people are mentioned in the VFX credits.
The film consists of about 700 shots; about half of the shots with compositing and simple 3D were performed by Online VFX lead by Dima Shirokov, who was also a VFX producer from Vodorod. At MainRoad Post, we created 136 most difficult shots relating to the flooding of the city, the water dome, and the final battle in the air and under water. The remaining shots were divided among ten studios of Mainroad Post’s vendors and partners: Online VFX, Digic Pictures, Green Light, Trehmer film, Green FX, Postmodern Digital, Ateam VFX, Snowdog FX, Kinopost, The Agency of Wargaming, Deep Blue, Frame Bakery, Gecko VFX, Saigam, and Abrakadabra.
Trehmer film, Green Light and Digic Pictures made a great contribution to production. Trehmer undertook to create a large and dynamic sequence of the Russian military chasing the alien capsule. Green Light created a small, but technically challenging portion of the Moscow flooding scene with a large amount of simulation. They succeeded in creating a very realistic image. Digic developed a short, but amazing full cg scene of a fight between two alien ships in the orbit of the Earth.
What’s your favourite memory of working on this show?
Working with Fyodor Bondarchuk and Vodorod is always the exchange of ideas and generation of a better outcome than expected. This means an incredible energy and interconnection of intellects. Every time at the end of a project, we start missing it in a couple of weeks. We spend months of work with a surge of excitement, and feel sad when a project is completed.
Any upcoming projects of Main Road Post?
We are still working on the Cosmoball and a sci-fi horror Sputnik, and start working on another sci-fi feature for the same producers. And we have completed our job for a Hongkong film Warriors of Future scheduled to release in 2020.
If you would like to know more about Main Road Post, go to www.mrpost.ru