How VFX Arists Helped 'Independence Day: Resurgence' Rain Death
The massive teams that helped Roland Emmerich achieve his dreams
In films such as Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, Roland Emmerich has made massive (and often destructive) visuals his hallmark, and over a 20-year career in Hollywood, has created a raft of iconic cinematic sequences. The director took the same approach with his latest disaster flick, Independence Day: Resurgence, a return to the alien-invasion genre. To help craft the biggest shots in Resurgence, Emmerich turned to his frequent visual effects collaborators, visual effects supervisor Volker Engel and producer Marc Weigert from Uncharted Territory, which acted like a hub in co-ordinating effects from several studio vendors across the globe. Here’s a look at some of the biggest shots these vendors created.
Singapore gets smashed, and London loses its landmarks
When a new alien mothership hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it starts causing all sorts of havoc. To slow down, the ship fires anti-gravity engines and forms its own gravity, which causes the sucking and the lifting motion that devastates locations on Earth, including Singapore and then London. That chaos was orchestrated by one of the big names in visual effects destruction: Scanline.
In order to accurately depict what happens to Singapore, Scanline had a team go to the city and take thousands of reference photographs. Specific areas were also surveyed with industrial LIDAR scanners so that the studio could reconstruct buildings in CG, then destroy them. Artists built the CG elements from the surveys and photographs in ways that could enable them to be artfully shattered and torn apart.
A major challenge in depicting the destruction was reading all the fine detail. Scanline’s first attempt actually resulted in almost too much smoke and debris, something that caused the director to ask for it to be scaled back slightly. “Roland told us that he wanted to see a shot where there’s this big chunk of earth and a bunch of buildings still sitting on that chunk of earth,” Scanline visual effects supervisor Bryan Grill told Inverse. “We took from that a very graphic approach. Roland likes silhouettes so you can easily see the shape of something, you can easily recognize what you’re looking at.”
The result of the change in gravity that obliterates Singapore and other parts of Asia means that all that debris then comes back down, and so it’s London, and other cities, that bear the brunt of this. Scanline, again, was responsible for destroying several well-known landmarks in the England capital, including the London Eye and London Bridge, by acquiring reference photography there.
“It was pretty much the kitchen sink, every asset and landmark that we could potentially find we threw it in there,” admits Grill. “Roland wanted to see — and again it was very graphic — a lot of ships, a lot of container ships, a lot of cruise ships, a lot of airplanes, cars and boats. Anything we could do to graphically show this raining of pretty much Asia on to London.”
A tidal wave off Texas
Off the coast of Galveston, Texas, one of the characters from the first film, Julius (Judd Hirsch), witnesses an enormous landing toe of the mothership hit the water and bring with it an equally enormous tidal wave. Scanline, which has for years developed a proprietary water simulation system called Flowline, also took on this sequence.
The toe itself was built to be about 18 kilometers long. “It’s so big,” explains Scanline visual effects supervisor Mohsen Mousavi, “that when it hits the water, the amount of mass that actually pushes forward is so huge. There’s also fire and smoke from all the atmosphere. So we were not only dealing with the water simulation, which is huge, but in the very same shot you have this huge, enormous volume of fire and smoke which is all simulated. And then you have container ships and debris tumbling around too.”
Scanline’s Flowline software allows effects artists at the studio to see very fast renders with all the physically correct (although somewhat artistically directed) movements of the water, its translucency, and the resulting foam. “That’s what sets Scanline apart,” suggests Mousavi, in being able to iterate a lot and do a lot of different versions and having really quick turn-arounds.”
Independence Day: Resurgence opens with the arrival of a new weapon to the Earth Space Defense station on the moon. VFX studio MPC crafted the 300-meter high cannon, along with several lunar vehicles, a moon tug and the moon base – which is ultimately devastated by the alien mothership with an iconic green laser blast.
For scenes of the actors fleeing the chaos, live-action plates were shot against blue screen, with just partial sets and the actors on wires to simulate the moon’s gravity. “As soon as the explosions start we switch to CG digital doubles,” outlines MPC visual effects supervisor Sue Rowe. “During the shoot we scanned and photographed the actors in detail so we could replicate them in the CG suits.”
Destroying the moon base allowed MPC to utilize its custom-built CG destruction tool. This is called Kali and takes advantage of something called “finite element analysis” to produce realistic cracking, splintering and general mayhem. “It’s a really powerful tool,” says Rowe. Once set up, the attributes of the materials are defined and when the physics of the explosion are added it creates really great results.”
“We did a lot of research into the moon’s surface and how the many layers of lunar soils would crumble,” adds Rowe. “I studied geology in school so I geeked out on this and made sure we were visually correct. We have shots where lunar rocks and debris fly through the air and crumble in front of camera just as the moon tug zips past.”
Caught in the foliage
In the first Independence Day, the aliens were practically creature puppets. This time around, digital versions, capable of much more movement, were realized. Alien colonists and soldiers were CG creations by Image Engine, which spent months crafting the scary creatures, complete with a special dynamics system for animating their thrashing tentacles.
In one particular sequence, a group of fighter pilots crash land on a murky and atmospheric environment while attacking the alien mothership. They have to wade through waist-high water amidst towering alien plant life. That was full-CG,” says Image Engine visual effects supervisor Martyn Culpitt. “And the foliage had over 500,000 plants of varying scale and size. These were also simulated in pools of water, surrounded by fog, and were enveloped in volumetric lights with insects flying around. The actors had to move through all of this, while also interacting with CG alien soldiers.
To bring the aliens to life, Image Engine animators had their own motion capture suits at their studio that they could quickly get into and use to block out the movement. Despite the aliens not really having eyes (but just eye sockets), facial animation was a really important part of the final look, according to Culpitt. “One of the most important things when dealing with characters is the face: one of the first things you look at when approaching another human or animal is the face. It’s instinct. There’s one great shot where we get extremely close to an alien Colonists face. You see the nostrils flaring and breathing shapes in the face and it’s really quite scary, because it just feels so alive.”
Attack at Area 51
A massive battle at Area 51 between the alien and human forces, on the ground and in the sky, required a myriad of visual effects from Cinesite. This include alien fighters, weapons, CG crowds, and environments.
For instance, the Area 51 environment was assembled from 120 separate assets which were then instanced to actually create around 125,000 objects. As the battle rages on, Cinesite had to make changes to these objects. “It was necessary to create four progressively damaged versions of the buildings, along with explosions, smoke plumes and scorch marks, as it is destroyed by the surrounding battle,” explains Cinesite visual effects supervisor, Holger Voss.
The alien queen’s ship featured in the battle is a 5 kilometer-wide asset that Cinesite also built. Just the low resolution model of the ship was four-million polygons, which the studio scaled up with detailed areas, shot by shot. “The main challenge for the ship was the illusion of scale,” says Voss, “so we designed an intricate series of geometric reticulations and arabesques all over the carapace of the ship based on reference material of the City Destroyers in the first movie. This really gave the ship a convincing feel of enormity.
Taking on the aliens by air
Human and alien fighters swarm in a massive dogfight that takes place over the alien mothership, itself spanning the Atlantic Ocean. Digital Domain tackled the shots, gaining inspiration from the famous dogfights showcased in the first Independence Day. “Although this film features a brand new uber-mothership,” says Digital Domain CG supervisor Hanzhi Tang, “it still has the same stylistic elements such as pinpricks of green light and crop circle inspired surface patterns.”
Aside from the revamped alien and human fighters in the dogfight, the major asset and environment challenge was the mothership, which serves as a backdrop to all the action. Each shot was detailed up depending on how close the action was to the kilometers-long ship.
Having produced several dogfight sequences on Ender’s Game, Digital Domain was well-poised to approach the complex sequence by carefully choreographing the action. Notes Tang: “Effects such as the human and alien laser fire had to have distinct and recognizable looks in order to discern the action in an otherwise chaotic scene. Their color and appearance was guided by the original movie.”
Alien Queen gets mean
The film’s climactic battle finds Earth’s defenders taking on the Alien Queen among the salt flats and the Area 51 base. These shots were handled by Weta Digital, which actually had to make two creatures: the huge 4-limbed 140-foot tall Queen we first meet inside the mothership, and the even bigger 220-foot tall creature she becomes when she climbs into her bio-mechanical exosuit.
One of the most challenging aspects of the Queen, apart from her partial bioluminescent appearance and complex tentacles, was simply her sheer size. “Every footstep on the salt flats desert was the equivalent of a mortar blast going off,” explained Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken. “These ground interaction sims had to be tweaked away from physically correct settings to find the correct balance between selling her scale while still being dynamic.”
The Queen is nothing if not determined, and that was also part of Wetas approach to animation, making her calculating and cruel. “Her facial animation was kept to a minimum,” recalls animation supervisor Dave Clayton, “so therefore her body language was the only way to tell the story of each shot. Her design allowed us to get her into some really dynamic and interesting poses. Then we could use her many tentacles to enhance her silhouette and also indicate her mood, like a cat’s tail.”
In one of the most dynamic Alien Queen shots, she is chasing a school bus. Although a helicopter shot of the bus was filmed for real, Weta Digital ended up creating the shot entirely with CG, complete with digital doubles for inside the vehicle and several effects simulations for ground destruction and the Queen’s shield. “The shot was complex and was in production at Weta Digital from our early days on the project through until about a week before we finished on the show,” notes Aitken.