Double Negative created a matte-painted metropolis that’s menacing, chaotic, and dominated by religion, on a shoestring budget, for the new UK feature film Franklyn.
Described as an urban fantasy-cum-futuristic thriller, new UK film Franklyn is the story of four strangers whose lives are intertwined by fate, romance and tragedy.
Written and directed by first-time director Gerald McMorrow, the film is set in parallel worlds – contemporary London and a dark, totalitarian metropolis called Meanwhile City, where religion rules.
In the film, masked vigilante Preest searches the streets of Meanwhile City for ‘The Individual’ – a mysterious figure responsible for the death of a young girl.
Meanwhile, in present-day London, the story follows Emilia, an art student whose suicidal art projects are becoming increasingly complex and deadly; Milo, a heartbroken young man rejected by his first love; and Esser, a broken man searching for his son among London’s homeless.
Despite a seasoned cast that includes Ryan Phillippe and Eva Green and an ambitious storyline, the film cost just £6m to make, and had only a modest budget for visual effects.
Yet UK visual-effects studio Double Negative was able to conjure up the world of Meanwhile City to budget with clever use of 2.5D projected matte painting.
“Working with a much lower than normal budget does provide a new set of challenges,” says Ryan Cook, Double Negative’s visual-effects supervisor on the film.
“It doesn’t have to curb creativity in any way – you just have to be more pragmatic and spend more time pre-planning to make sure you’re going in the right direction from the start.”
Key to the project’s success, says Cook, was a close working partnership with writer and director Gerald McMorrow. Known previously for his music videos and ads, Franklyn is McMorrow’s feature debut.
“One of the most amazing things about working on smaller projects like Franklyn is that you have much more contact with the director and can feel more a part of the creative team,” says Cook.
“Gerald was extremely passionate about the project, and despite how busy he was with all aspects of the film, he spent quite a bit of time working closely with our team,” he adds.
McMorrow had a clear vision of what he wanted for the film’s futuristic location, yet was open to ideas from Double Negative’s concept artists and matte painters.
The creative concept for Meanwhile City was an insane megalopolis where the labyrinthian architecture is sourced from a jumble of styles and competing religions.
“Gerald’s idea was for a city that had been built up over thousands of years where things were just constantly being built on top of each other,” explains Cook. “As things decayed, they’d be propped up and taken over by competing religions and factions.”
“He also specified that there shouldn’t be any sign of life within the city and no parkland to be found – it needed to be completely built-up, and as dense as possible,” he adds.
A river runs through it
The one exception to this lack of life is a river that winds its way through the centre of Meanwhile City. To help the Double Negative team get to grips with conceptualizing the sprawling metropolis, McMorrow drew a map to define where the major landmarks should be.
The most prominent of these is the Ministry of Religion, which dominates the landscape and serves as a prison when Preest is arrested.
Other key buildings included the Ministry Hospital, and the Faith Registration Centre, where all citizens are required to register their faith. While he was keen to convey a sense of the overwhelming power of religion and state, McMorrow wanted to avoid any references to real religions and worked closely with the Double Negative team to achieve this.
The team began by walking around London photographing hundreds of buildings and statues, as well as scouring the Internet and the studio’s own asset library for as wide a selection of religious icnonography and architectural imagery as possible.
Then matte painters Christoph Unger and Tania Richard worked their ideas into rough concepts for the director to approve. “We researched statues, religious monuments, and thousands of religious icons – the more random and eccentric the better,” says Tania Richard.
“And in terms of building styles, we referenced everything from Gothic cathedrals, Burmese temples, Mayan ruins, Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia, the Grand Palais in Paris, to industrial wastelands and landmarks such as Battersea Power Station.”
The jumbled, overlapping nature of the architecture gave the matte painters a certain freedom and meant they could work at a rapid pace. “We didn’t have to be overly pedantic about rationalizing structures and their architectural believability,” explains Richard.
“Could the buildings function in a realistic setting? Probably not, but our main task was to present a mood and atmosphere that was both chaotic and romantic – a stage for Franklyn’s cast of complex and intertwined characters.”
With McMorrow on hand for immediate feedback, the tone and style of Meanwhile City was quickly established and the initial concepts were ready to be worked into finished environments.
Unusually for a feature-film project of this nature, the 3D input on the visual-effects shots was low – it was used almost exclusively to provide geometry for the matte paintings to be projected onto, along with some foreground elements to give more depth and parallax to the final result.
While the team’s decision to create the world of Meanwhile City using 2D and 2.5D solutions was partly financial, Double Negative’s CG supervisor Guy Williams feels that much of the atmosphere would have been lost if the film had included more 3D effects work.
“The use of 2D mattes actually compliment the otherworldly, ethereal feel of Meanwhile City, and as we weren’t required to lay out a consistent city as we have in films like The Dark Knight, we could take licence,” he says. “Even if there had been a bigger budget, I think it would have been done in the same way.”
Enter the Stig
Double Negative’s existing environment pipeline, Stig, and its extensive library of assets from previous projects was a huge help on Franklyn, says Cook.
“The prep and build on the cityscape could have taken months, but we were able to very quickly do a layout and add in buildings that made the shot much more believable,” he says.
Stig stores full-resolution HDRI images along with the information needed to remove lens distortion and stitch them together, so the team could quickly render out any view with maximum resolution, explains Cook.
All of the 3D elements were built in Maya – the studio’s 3D tool of choice. Some proprietary tools were used to simulate and render fluid dynamics for smoke and atmospheric effects.
“The 3D side of Franklyn’s visual-effects work in most cases became a case of asset management: organizing multi-layered matte paintings so that a 3D match-moved camera could move through the environment in way that created the illusion of parallax and perspective,” explains Williams.
“The creation of the shot design nearly always occurred at the matte painting stage, so we could just take those painted layers with transparency mattes, map them on to simple polygons, and position them at the correct world space depth.”
He continues: “For the matte-painted elements that came closest to a moving camera, more complex geometry was modelled to match, and the images were projected onto those simple objects allowing enough internal parallax to create the illusion of surface depth.”
For the one or two shots that required greater flexibility in the perspective, a full 3D asset was built, textured and lit. This was completed using the standard studio pipeline for creating realistic environments; shooting high-res stitched-tile photography from multiple angles and aligning these images in 3D space using in-house tool dnPhotofit.
This let the artist model the asset accurately and then project the photography as textures, explains Williams. “The only difference in technique for Franklyn was that the environments were isolated from one another, so that a 3D asset only needed to be designed and built with one shot in mind, the quality was the same as any other show but the asset need not go through a full look development cycle,” he explains.
For some shots that involved adapting a plate with a moving camera, matching elements such as rain and adding the CG environment, more control for the layout was achieved in 3D.
Rather than have the composition bound to the matte-painted image, numerous individual cards could contain painted elements for layout in 3D, explains Williams.
Using proprietary tool dnPlaneIt, the cards could be exported to Shake as 2D tracks and the matte-painted elements comped directly in 2D without the need to render out a sequence from Maya.
“By not having to go back and forth into Maya to re-project the matte paintings, it cut down our turnaround time tremendously,” adds Cook. Cook admits that it would have been good to have built more of the hero environments as 3D buildings in order to give more perspective and depth to the metropolis, but he is nonetheless pleased with the final results and what the team achieved on limited resources.
Like the rest of the team, he shares the view that Franklyn was a rare project, one in which a low budget encouraged a highly creative process.
A matter of faith
The interior of the Faith Registration Building, with it large arched glass ceiling, was designed by Tania Richard, who referenced the Grand Palais in Paris.
Before and after
Double Negative’s previous environment-creation projects – including The Dark Knight – were handy when working on Franklyn. Its large library of architectural assets meant its artists could quickly extend layouts by adding in ready-made buildings to extend the scene.
As a large number of shots was required in a short timeframe, some of the rotoscoping and compositing was outsourced to a company called Cube in Hungary. Despite the distance involved, the process was helped greatly by the close collaboration between the compositors and matte painters at all stages of the project.
“Meanwhile City was a mixture of a lot of different cities’ architecture, “ explains Kristopher Wright, Double Negative’s visual-effects producer. “The idea was cities built upon cities, with the Ministry of Religion sitting at the very top.”
Studio: Double Negative, www.dneg.com
Software: Apple Shake, Autodesk Maya