Behind the scenes on Prometheus' VFX

Ridley Scott's epic Alien-prequel Prometheus is currently in cinemas and while it may not explore its existential themes of what it means to be human and to have children as much as critics would have liked, it's stereoscopic CG VFX have blown viewers away. Working on the film were VFX houses including London-based MPC and Sydney's Fuel VFX.

MPC VFX Supervisors Richard Stammers and Charley Henley and VFX Producer Marianne Speight led the team, delivering 420 shots in native stereo. Stammers served as the production’s overall VFX supervisor, with Charley Henley leading the team at MPC who served as lead VFX vendor.

MPC’s main areas of work included creating the alien planet LV-223, space environments, the human crew and alien space-crafts, an explosive crash scene sequence, plus bringing to life the alien ‘Hammerpede’.

In order to previsualise the LV-223 planet, Ridley Scott’s team of artists created a number of concept images to illustrate how the planet would look from space and the planets surface. Richard Stammers and the production team then used these images as a basis to find a real shoot location which would fit Scott’s vision of an uninviting, barren and desolate landscape.

One location the director was particularly interested in, was an area of Jordan called Wadi Rum. MPC’s team built a digital representation of the area using a mixture of reference stills sourced from the internet and illustrations by Scott. The team worked heavily with satellite images from Google Earth, digital elevation files and tech scout photography to reconstruct the valley in Maya.

Once the information had been gathered and the digital environment created, the team then planned where the Prometheus would land, where the pyramid dome would be located and where the silo from which the alien ship would emerge. MPC’s CG Supervisor Matt Middleton worked with the layout team to resize the planet’s natural features relative to the alien structures.

Scott wanted the terrain of the planet to be uninviting and barren and chose the volcanic terrain of Hekla, Iceland with its rocky surface and strange lava pinnacles as the ideal reference for the planet surface. The team at MPC also created additional terrains on the planet including pinnacles and rocks, time lapse cloud formations as well the giant dust cloud which chases the crew's vehicles on the planet surface which were created using volumetric simulations in Flowline and rendered in Renderman and mental ray.

2D Supervisor Marian Mavrovic worked with the environment and compositing teams to blend the plates from Hekla along withfootage shot at Pinewood and further environment extensions. The actors and vehicles were then rotoscoped to the digital environments.

Based on Ridley Scott’s sketches, MPC’s artists modelled the Engineer’s dome like structure using Maya, and created additional textures for close-ups using Z Brush and matte painting.

MPC’s modeling team also created digital models of the human space craft Prometheus and the gigantic horseshoe-shaped Engineer’s spacecraft, which was described on set as the ‘Juggernaut’.

The animation team, led by animation aupervisor Ferran Domenech, produced the landing and flight movements of the ship, giving close attention to flight maneuverings and engine actions. We see the Prometheus throughout the movie flying through space, and landing and taking off from the planet environments.

MPC were also tasked with simulating a crash sequence with the Juggernaut emerging from an underground silo, parting the ground above.  The Prometheus then flies towards the giant ship, crashing into the side of it. Using MPC’s in-house proprietary destruction software tool Kali, the team rigged Prometheus to crush on impact. The art department plotted stages of the explosion, to which the FX team optimized to make Kali-compliant, rendered separately and combined them in the composite with 2D elements of fire and Flowline explosions.

As the ship comes crashing to the ground it rolls toward Shaw and Vickers before falling horizontally on the planets surface. The compositing team blended the giant ship plowing through the planet surface, kicking up dirt and debris with gusts of dust.

The snake like alien creature that attacks the crew was created using a mixture of CG and practical effects. MPC's teams created a CG ‘Hammerpede’ to mix with the practical shots and digitally removed wires from the puppeteered alien. For the decapitation scene of one of the Hammepede, the team digitally created a second head and animated its eerie unfolding moves. Additional work included creating animated acid burns to a victim’s face and suit.

The team also animated an alien creature that wriggles around in a crewmember’s eye. The team developed an animated spline, and added textures and highlights to create the impression of something coiling around in the eye and then bursting out.

Sydney’s Fuel VFX delivered more than 200 complex visual effects shots for Prometheus. Fuel's work included the design and delivery of key story components such as the ‘Orrery’, an interactive 3-dimensional map of the known universe; bringing life to the mysterious holographic 'Engineer' characters, the architects of the Orrey; and creating the 'Holotable' on the Prometheus's bridge.

Other visual effects work undertaken by Fuel includes the Orrery's control desk effects, the laser scanning probes, the holographic screens in Vickers's suite, and set extensions in the pilot's chamber.

Fuel’s VFX supervisor and lead designer, Paul Butterworth worked closely with Ridley Scott and MPC's Richard Stammers to help realize Ridley’s vision for these important elements in the story, and spent several months in the design and look development process to ensure the final version of the effects met with the director's vision.

Following Ridley’s approval of the concepts, a team of 80 artists and technicians spent approximately seven months in production at Fuel to further develop the suite of environments, characters and effects, and integrate these into the live action 3D stereoscopic footage.

Complex, detailed and dense, the Orrery alone contains 80-100 million polygons, took several weeks to render a complete shot, and required the development of a custom 'deep image' toolset to successfully deliver. The deep image tools allowed artists to adjust and manipulate specific areas of the Orrery in isolation. This negated the need to redo expensive complete renders when minor changes were requested, and was invaluable to ensure shots could be delivered on time.

Prometheus is in cinemas worldwide currently. If you've not seen it yet, we'd recommend seeing it secretly.

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