The Visual Effects of "X2"

An interesting article focusing upon the SFX of X2...
Like its predecessor, "X2" treads on miles of familiar superhero ground: good versus evil, saving the world from mass destruction, nifty jets, secret mansions and underground lairs. But the twists that it shares with "X-Men" -- that the 'superheros' are widely considered freaks, and that there are lots of them -- are enough to make it interesting.

Magneto in the
plastic prison
"X2" takes up right where "X-Men" left off, with Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his crew having restored peace to the world, and evil Magneto (Ian McKellen) in prison. But a new danger looms. Someone high up is trying make mutants look bad. Someone is bent on sparking a human-mutant war.

The film, directed by Bryan Singer, has garnered good reviews and positive audience responses. It also managed to take a whopping $85.5 million at the box office in its opening weekend. Having frequently intoned the mantra that visual effects should work in the service of a good story, visual effects supervisor Mike Fink seems to have found himself a winner. Again.

The supervisor also worked on "X-Men," which surprised audiences by being a cut above typical summer fare. It grossed more than $150 million in theaters domestically. Fink spoke to VFXPro about some of the highpoints of the sequel from the Los Angeles-area home where he was decompressing after a mad rush to meet the May 2 release deadline.

"I got a call from Ralph Winter last February," Fink said. Winter, one of 'X2's' producers, had worked with Fink on "X-Men," and wanted to know if he would return for the sequel. "Being the type of guy I am, I said 'Sure, I can’t wait to go 'X-Men' one better'." Cinesite, the VFX house where Fink worked at the time, agreed to loan the supervisor to the production.

"X2" was initially budgeted for 500 shots. Fink chose to work with Cinesite, Rhythm + Hues and Kleiser-Walczak for the bulk of the 3D. Because Kleiser-Walczak and Cinesite had worked on "X-Men," they had a head start on some of the research and development, but they also had the challenge of besting their own work. Peter Kuran's VCE picked up vital shots here and there -- animations added to shots of the miniature dam in the effects finale, matte painting extensions and sky replacements. Grant McCune made the miniatures for the film and John Stirber created the special effects for the miniatures.

Nightcrawler Bamfs
with help from Cinesite
"We did a huge number of animatics," Fink said. "We were still doing animatics five weeks before we were done." He started out with an in-house team laying out some of the sequences. When production began in Vancouver, Frantic Films set up a trailer for animatic-making outside of the production offices.

Among the sequences that Frantic pre-visualized were the Dogfight sequence (X-Jet chased by F16s through a forest of tornadoes), the Drake House sequence (Fire! Fire!), the Plastic Prison sequence (Magneto breaks out of jail) and a 'Danger Room' sequence, which was cut from the film early on. Animatics for Nightcrawler's White House attack were created by Rpin Suwanath, who also did extensive pre-vis work on Cerebro before those sequences were awarded to Cinesite. Vancouver's Image Engine did animatics involving Kitty Pride (girl who walks through walls) and Cerebro, and also handled the X-Jet rescue sequence, which included weighty water and dam shots.

All in all, Fink's extended team made animatics of every action sequence in the film but one: the Augmentation Room fight between Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). Brian Smrz, the second unit director and an experienced stunt coordinator, mapped out that acrobatic rumble with a DV camera and Final Cut Pro. "We call it a stunt-o-matic," Fink said. Smrz choreographed the sequence, then taped the rehearsals and edited them together. When he was done, Smrz showed the sequence to Singer, who wholeheartedly approved.

The film opens with a sequence designed by the director with Fink, Smrz and Suwanath: the White House attack. Alan Cumming, face beautifully blued and tattooed by special effects makeup artist Gordon Smith, plays Nightcrawler. Using his power to teleport, Nightcrawler makes it past a bevy of secret service men and into the president's office. The effect surrounding his de- and rematerialization -- called 'bamfing' in the comic book -- is one of Fink's favorites.

"If you read the comic book, when he disappears there is a big cloud of smoke," explained Fink. Fink felt that if the character dematerialized within an eighth of a second, there would be a vacuum, and air would rush to fill it. If Nightcrawler also created smoke when he disappeared, the rushing air would disturb the smoke. Hence, the neat-o sucking effect that occurs onscreen when Nightcrawler bamfs.

Sounds simple enough. But like so many things, what was simple to conceptualize was not easy to achieve on film. Cinesite did months of testing and tweaking with particle effects to get the effect just right.

The company did more work with particles for the Cerebro sequences. Cerebro, a device used by Xavier to plug into the world's consciousness, plays a major part in "X2," taking up nearly ten minutes on screen.

Cerebro by Cinesite
Cerebro is housed in a room that looks something like the inside of a giant golf ball. A peninsula of floor reaches into the center of the chamber, where Xavier tunes in. He puts on his Cerebro helmet, and the room is filled with ethereal red light falling in a form that roughly resembles a population density map. Only cooler.

The production crew did not build a complete set, because it would have been expensive to make and difficult to shoot in. Much of what the audience sees in the Cerebro sequences, therefore, was created by Cinesite.

For shots in which Cerebro was inactive, the team digitally extended the physical set. The ghostly images that Xavier sees when Cerebro is working are the product of proprietary code that Cinesite developed. "They developed code to do volumetric renders that solved much of the problem of large particle renders -- and it worked beautifully," Fink said.

Pyro at the
Drake House
Cinesite also handled the digital aspects of the Drake house sequence, and the careful integration of real elements with CG. Early in the film, Xers John Allerdyce/Pyro (Aaron Stanford), Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Logan/Wolverine seek temporary haven at the home of Drake's parents. They unexpectedly end up in a standoff with the police and Pyro, eager to show the cops qui es mas macho, begins hurling fireballs around the quiet suburban
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