CafeFX created the fantasy world behind the award-winning feature Pan's Labyrinth. And, the team was helped out by a pair of stick insects called Cheech and Chong...
Telling the story of Ofelia, a young girl who falls out of a harsh world set during the Spanish Civil War, it charts her
adventures as she descends into a fantasy realm populated with fairies, fauns, monsters and giant frogs.
It scored a Golden Globe nomination, and won an International Press Academy Satellite Award for Best Animated or Mixed Media Motion Picture.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose previous credits include Hellboy and Blade II, it features around 300 CG and VFX shots created exclusively by CafeFX and involved the CafeFX team in four months of location work, and five months of post-production.
The story goes that Ofelia is taken from her comfortable home in the city to a Spanish hillside country village where Captain Vidal, a Francoist officer and Ofelia's new stepfather, is hunting a band of rebels.
Unhappy with her new surroundings and her stepfather's ill treatment of her, Ofelia retreats to an ancient stone labyrinth where she imagines adventures with a faun, fairies, magical creatures, and monsters.
It's not long before Ofelia's fantasies collide with harsh reality with catastrophic results. CafeFX, which previously worked with del Toro on Hellboy, was asked to help create Pan's highly imaginative, atmospheric world, reveals CafeFX VFX supervisor Everett Burrell.
"Guillermo approached us while we were working on Sin City, before the screenplay was even written," he says. "He gave us an outline and a list of the effects. The project seemed really special and, seeing Guillermo's enthusiasm and realizing the great opportunity we'd have to show off our character effect skills, we signed on."
Yet with everything readied, CafeFX faced an unexpected problem: Guillermo disappeared. For a year.
CafeFX was asked to create several creatures that exist only in Ofelia's imagination, including a healing mandrake root that acts like a newborn baby, and stick insects that transformed into fairies.
"We took our cue from Guillermo's script, storyboards and concept sketches," says Burrell. "We had a ton of insect reference for the stick bug and we looked at hummingbirds, capucchin monkeys and dragonflies for the fairies.
"We also had two live stick bugs we named Cheech and Chong that we kept in-house as reference. We watched a lot of Ray Harryhausen films for inspiration, as both Guillermo and I are big fans."
The team also worked on Pan, the earthly faun played by a costumed Doug Jones. Pan needed computer-animated eyes and legs and a goat-like body.
The eyeless ghoul, also known as the 'pale man', has an appetite for children and can only see through his computer - animated eyes which he places in the palms of his hands and raises to his forehead.
Other effects included the creation of a giant, grotesque toad that had started out as an animatronic puppet, says Burrell. "This was great looking, but a bit stiff as an actor so we inserted a completely CG toad, which allowed for much more movement and expression."
The team used a wide range of tools for the creation of the effects - all off-the-shelf packages. Softimage|XSI was used for character modelling - "it's a very flexible package when it comes to organic shapes," says Burrell - and NewTek LightWave was deployed for hard surface models.
The team also used Maxon BodyPaint for painting on object UVs, with Adobe Photoshop deployed for later touch-ups. Compositing work was handled by Eyeon's Digital Fusion.
"We decided the flight of the fairies should be based more in science than in magic, so we studied hummingbirds and made the fairies mimic their mechanics."
The team also faced some artistic concerns when it came to breathing life into the fairy characters. "In animating the fairies, we noticed something interesting," says CafeFX's animation lead Ron Friedman.
"Male artists tended to design fairies that were sloppier in their movements, sort of slovenly, with their legs spread. Female artists designed fairies that appeared more proper, always keeping their legs together and perfectly posed.
Ultimately, we selected the female version. And, while we gave each fairy a unique personality, one being more level-headed than the other two who are prone to argue, we kept them poised and pretty."
One fairy originates as a stick insect, who follows Ofelia to the Captain's home, before transforming into its true form.
"The stick bug is my favourite creature in the film," reveals VFX producer Irastorza. "It's as realistic as any creature we've done, yet still has character. Like the fairies, its movements were formed from studying an actual stick bug that we acquired. And, for its transformation, we blended one model into another."
"The transformation of the stick bug into the fairy was one of the most complex of all the character animation shots," explains CafeFX CG supervisor Akira Orikasa. "Because the director did not want to present the transformation as a simple overall morph from one target to the next, careful planning of the action and use of in-house software was utilized to allow the character to transform different parts of its body over different periods of time.
"Ultimately, we animated the two characters using a 'shrinkwrap' process to blend in a percentage of the fairy on top of the stick bug in 3D. Unlike a morph, where you have to have two identical sets of point geometry, the 'shrinkwrap' process allows you to take two separate objects of similar proportions and blend them seamlessly without worrying about point order."
Creating the mandrake root for Pan's Labyrinth was a significant challenge since its relevance to the story had to be told in a few shots of film.
The connection between Ofelia's mother and the mandrake root needed to be established clearly through the character's actions and attitude. The scene where the mandrake root comes to life in a bowl was originally shot with Ofelia holding a puppet, which was bent from head to toe.
A root cause
"When the mandrake root burns in the fire, the challenge was not only to express the pain that the character is experiencing as a result of being burned, but also to show that it is slowly becoming less alive and returning to its state of being an inanimate object."
Besides creating fantastical effects, CafeFX was called on to forge some subtle effects that receated civil war Spain - and these came about due to physical limitations during filming. "It was a dry season in Madrid," explains Burrell. "We weren't allowed to fire any weapons or rig any squibs, and we definitely weren't allowed to blow anything up due to the risk of fire. In every muzzle flash, all the blood sprays from bullet hits, and all but one explosion was computer generated.
"We fired Luger pistols to get a muzzle flash reference and then added it to a scene where the actors would normally fire blanks, but in this case the guns were empty."
The butler did it
"He's a great collaborator in that he has a bottomless imagination and knows exactly what he wants but also understands that sometimes budget restrictions can require a compromise. And, rather than lamenting what he can't get on the screen, he concentrates on what he can.'
Burrell says character animation was the biggest challenge. "It was such a big part of the film that we really spent a lot of time getting it just right," he says. "We hired a dancer to act out all the fairy moves to get every little detail. The CG characters were such a big part of the story, that it all had to be believable."
Looking back, the project was a proving ground for CafeFX's character work - and even helped the company spread its wings into new ventures, including the creation of a feature film production company, Sententia Entertainment.
"Sententia was started so CafeFX could produce their own content. Films that we want to see and also do the effects for. There is an old saying in Hollywood: 'Once a butler, always a butler'. We want to be our own butler.
As a central character in the film, Pan came to life through both live action and CG effects. In addition to animating Pan's eye blinks, his legs were the sole creation of CafeFX.
In order to make Pan's faun legs appear long and crooked, the actor's legs passed through the knees of his full body foam latex suit, and his feet were locked in shoes floating several inches above the creature's feet (above).
The actor's legs and feet, as well as the welded metal frame and shoe, were all covered in green screen material. Removing the actor's legs and replacing the lost background behind them proved to be a tremendous challenge. "The compositing department developed a mostly 2D approach," said compositing supervisor Tom Williamson. "The actor's legs were removed with an animated polygon mask.
"Still photos from multiple angles were shot of the costume legs with the shoe brackets removed, and small pieces of these stills were used to fill in the missing legs and feet by tracking parts of the legs and locking sections of the stills to the tracks. Extensive paint work followed to blend all the pieces together seamlessly."
Concept art for the throne room set was conceived and developed with the help of both del Toro and artistic consultant Robert Stromberg, and then modelled, textured, lit and rendered entirely in LightWave.
Special emphasis was placed on surface texture to achieve the director s vision, says Bozulich. Once rendered, the various elements were used to construct the throne room composite using the concept artwork as a guide. Additional layers of particle dust and light beams were layered on to add atmosphere. The composites consisted of over 30 elements to build a complete throne room shot.
CafeFX then developed a master shot of the throne room to achieve continuity for the entire sequence. Gold and wood textures were layered into the models to evoke a grand scale and luxurious feeling. Once the models and textures were approved, the set was lit with a combination of spot and area light.
Global illumination was selectively used to fill shadows and enhance detail, adding grand realism to the scene. The set was then split into various elements including the background arena and rosary, mid-ground buildings and towers, foreground structures, the three thrones and floor, and the CG king and queen.
The crowd was created by shooting the production company's staff in costume and generating over 20 plates that were mapped onto 3D cards and match moved into the scene.
Glows, flares, and light beams were added to increase the grandness of the room, as well as provide atmosphere. The final element was the tiny 3D fairies that fly back and forth between Pan and Ofelia.