A 'deep dive' into Ghost In The Shell’s meditative underwater scene

Rupert Sanders' Ghost in the Shell film released in the UK over the weekend. We asked VFX studio Framestore how it delivered a small but complicated (almost entirely) CG sequence that pays homage to the original 1995 anime when the Major dives underwater and enters a meditative state (as seen in this video).

Based on the Japanese manga by Masamune Shriow, the new film follows cyborg counter-cyberterrorist field commander the Major (Scarlett Johansson) as she fights against criminals, hackers and terrorists.

We’re taking a look into the extensive VFX work for the film by MPC, Territory and Framestore. We spoke to Territory about creating 3D holograms and advertisements for the cityscape of Niihama, and expect to see an interview with MPC VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron soon. For more Ghost in the Shell goodness, check out the original concept art for the 1995 anime film to be on show at London’s House of Illustration.

Ghost in the Shell's meditation sequence

In this sequence, The Major takes a quiet dive underwater to feel something ‘real', following the realisation that she doesn’t know who to trust anymore. She lies on her back while jellyfish float past. The scene is not sinister, but rather a rare peaceful moment in an otherwise intensely action-packed film.

To learn more about how the sequence was created, I spoke to Framestore VFX supervisor Ivan Moran about where the team sourced inspiration for the deep-sea dive, the challenge of creating particular bioluminescent jellyfish, and how closely they followed the 1995 anime.

Miriam Harris: Where did you draw inspiration for the underwater environment?

Ivan Moran: "I have done quite a lot of diving myself but I was particularly inspired by the recent Tales by Light National Geographic Channel series and specifically the episode by the Australian underwater photographer, Darren Jew. I love the Ocean Song photography series by Elena Kalis and this provided wonderfully stark yet poetic inspiration (see below).

Lastly, the short film Ocean Gravity by Julie Gautier (below) is truly mesmerising to watch and I wanted exactly the same audience feeling for our underwater sequence on Ghost in the Shell."

MH: Talk us through the creative process for this.

IM: "Framestore was commissioned towards the very end of the post schedule so we had a very tight timeframe to work with. I began by making mood boards of photography reference to discuss with VFX supervisors John Dykstra and Guillaume Rocheron on what would work for the sequence and also, importantly, what probably wouldn't. By collectively choosing particular reference images we liked, and dismissing others, it allowed me to quickly narrow down a look in my head of what we were aiming for which was crucial with such a tight delivery timeframe.

"Working with our in-house art department, I worked up a concept of one of the shots using the reference images we had settled on as inspiration, and this became a template for our departments in Framestore to use as a very specific style guide. Rupert Sanders had chosen a particular bioluminescent jellyfish image he liked and luckily we sourced this back to a short film called Endless Gravity by Alex Soloviev."

"This was an unexpected surprise as it provided us with perfect animation, CFX (creature FX) and lighting reference of the exact jellyfish species we would be building which greatly speeded up the asset phase. Whilst this was happening all the shots were blocked in animation in terms of composition and rough movement direction and speed for the Major and the jellyfish.

"The last step before final execution was rendering all elements (including the underwater environment complete with plankton, kelp and floating kelp) at 1k and compositing a moving concept of the same shot I had worked up with art department initially. Presenting this to John and Guillaume allowed us to discuss and agree on elements such as exposure, underwater lens effects and general colour palette, which would form a more finished template for the rest of the shots."     

MH: How much did you draw on Ghost In The Shell's previous incarnations? 

IM: "There are a few shots in the movie that pay homage to the iconic 1995 animated feature. In particular, our underwater sequence. At the end of the sequence we wanted to mimic the shot of the Major rising up to meet her reflection whilst being surrounded by the refraction of the city lights above the surface.

Above: a still from the underwater sequence that references the scene below from the 1995 anime version of Ghost In The Shell.

"This was a particularly challenging shot to art direct as we were using a physically plausible renderer as well as a lot of compositing tricks to get the desired composition and city readability.

"For the rest of the sequence, the brief was to creative a world populated with bioluminescent jellyfish that could echo the contemplative and meditative state the Major was in. It was a fine line between making the jellyfish aware of her presence whilst not appearing threatening or indeed threatened themselves. Similarly for the look of the environment and underwater visibility, as it was night-time it was a fine balance between making the sequence look peaceful and contemplative without it looking too dark and sinister."

MH: What was the most challenging part?

IM: "Definitely the jellyfish. It is the first time we have created that kind of creature to that level at Framestore before and I relished the challenge. I must admit it was the first time in my career the traditional model-rig-move-light-render-comp linear flow we are so used to was turned a little upside down for this creature. A jellyfish is almost entirely refraction of an incredibly intricate moving internal structure and this required very complicated refraction shading.  

"We raytraced every jellyfish against another along with the entire environment and the Major and we had to keep continually going back to adjust modelling to get the exactly the right look of the internal organs and structure we were after to match the reference. Equally the animation and CFX, how much of the jellyfish bell propulsion and tentacle movement is animation driven versus secondary motion? That aspect evolved a lot as well."

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